US to Puerto Rico: Add another option to status referendum

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Ricans who want their island to remain a U.S. territory got a boost on Thursday from the administration of President Donald Trump.

The federal Department of Justice said in a letter addressed to Gov. Ricardo Rossello that an upcoming referendum to decide the future of Puerto Rico's political status should include the current status as an option.

Rossello had submitted a draft of the ballot that only included two options: statehood or independence/free association. If a majority chose the latter, a second referendum would be held in October and would ask voters to choose between the two.

The Department of Justice said that kind of ballot would raise questions about the vote's legitimacy.

"(The ballot) is not drafted in a way that ensures that its result will accurately reflect the current popular will of the people of Puerto Rico," the letter stated.

The Justice Department also said the draft contains ambiguous and potentially misleading statements, and that it cannot provide $2.5 million in federal funds to hold the referendum as proposed.

The announcement is considered a blow to Rossello's pro-statehood party.

"This has a monumental impact on the plebiscite," Hector Ferrer, president of the main opposition party that supports the status quo, said in a phone interview. "

Rossello recently campaigned on a pledge to secure statehood and said late Thursday that he still plans to hold the referendum on June 11. He said it would be a binding one that would include three options: independence, territoriality or statehood. Legislators expect to vote on the amended ballot next week.

"Although it's an insult to offer Puerto Ricans the option of colonialism to resolve the serious problems we face, the opportunity to hold a plebiscite endorsed by the federal government is worth taking this step forward for the benefit of the people of Puerto Rico," he said.

The island has held four previous referendums that resulted in no action from U.S. Congress, which has final say on any changes in the island's political status. No clear majority emerged in the first three referendums. In the last one, held in 2012, 54 percent said they wanted a change in status. Sixty-one percent who answered a second question said they favored statehood, but nearly 500,000 left that question blank, leading many to question the results.

The Department of Justice said Rossello's administration should not be guided by the results of the 2012 referendum.

"Nearly five years have elapsed since that plebiscite, during which significant political, economic and demographic changes have occurred in Puerto Rico and the United States," it said. "As a result, it is uncertain that it is the present will of the people to reject Puerto Rico's current status."

The island is struggling to emerge from a decade-long recession, and the ongoing economic crisis has sparked an exodus of half a million Puerto Ricans since 2005.