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Puerto Rico votes to ask US congress to make it the 51st state

  • Plebiscite held on Sunday to consider statehood.
  • Only 23% of eligible voters participated.
A person carries a Puerto Rican national flag during a protest against the government's austerity measures as Puerto Rico faces a deadline on Monday to restructure its $70 billion debt load or open itself up to lawsuits from creditors, in San Juan, Puerto Rico May 1, 2017.
Alvin Baez | Reuters
A person carries a Puerto Rican national flag during a protest against the government's austerity measures as Puerto Rico faces a deadline on Monday to restructure its $70 billion debt load or open itself up to lawsuits from creditors, in San Juan, Puerto Rico May 1, 2017.

Puerto Rico voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to apply to Congress to become the 51st
state, election officials said, although less than a quarter of eligible voters cast ballots in the plebiscite.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said voters in the economically troubled U.S. island territory were sending a strong message to Congress. But Puerto Rico is seen as a low
priority in Washington.

In early May, Puerto Rico officially requested to enter into a bankruptcy-like proceeding to restructure its massive debt load after talks with its creditors failed.

Rossello had requested that the federally appointed oversight board trigger Title III of the Promesa Act, a court-supervised debt restructuring similar to bankruptcy, in order to guarantee the best interests of the Puerto Rican people.

The restructuring of Puerto Rico's roughly $70 billion in outstanding debt would be the largest in the history of the U.S. municipal bond market and will set the stage for a lengthy legal battle between the island and its creditors, which include multiple hedge funds and mutual funds, as they face off in court where a federally appointed judge could force creditors to accept unfavorable repayment terms.

Some see statehood as the best way to pull Puerto Rico out of its economic crisis, others blame the U.S. for the malaise and would rather seek independence after five centuries of what they call colonial rule.

The sovereignty view is and has been a minority in Puerto Rico. Statehood was prominent during Puerto Rico's election in November when two pro-statehood candidates won: Rossello, a Democrat, became governor and Jenniffer Gonzalez, a Republican, was elected resident commissioner — Puerto Rico's sole representative in U.S. Congress who can write and submit legislation, but doesn't have the authority to vote.

Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since a law made them so in 1917. However, their benefits relative to mainland citizens have been limited. One issue prevalent among many residents is that they pay in full for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but can only collect on a restricted amount of these benefits relative to mainland citizens. Thousands of Puerto Ricans serve in the U.S. military but cannot vote for their commander in chief.