Puerto Rico prepares for historic poll

By Nick Davis
BBC News, San Juan

image captionCrowds greeted Mitt Romney on his visit to San Juan

The US territory of Puerto Rico is to vote on Tuesday on whether to become a state of the US. So how are people feeling ahead of the poll?

Driving around the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the mainland United States.

Puerto Rico looks American, from the yellow school buses to a huge Macy's department store. Even the design of the road signs is the same - except that the directions are in Spanish.

However, it feels Hispanic; its culture and traditions have much more in common with Latin America than with the US and with some 85% of the population admitting to speaking very little English, it sounds it.

The people are proud of their heritage, supporting their Olympic athletes, cheering on their Miss Universe contestants.

It has got a strong sense of national pride, despite not being an independent country.

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, a territory of the US, but on 6 November it will hold a two-question referendum on its future.

The first asks voters whether they want to keep the island's current status.

The second asks whether they would prefer independence, US statehood, or an option known as "sovereign free association" with the US that would grant the island more autonomy.

This will be the fourth such vote in 45 years. The others failed.

But this time, the economic situation on the island could be a deciding factor. The recession has been long and hard in Puerto Rico; last year it had a debt of $68bn (£42bn) and unemployment is more than 13%.

In Plaza de Colon, a statue of Christopher Columbus looks down upon an artisan market.

"I'm not sure how we'd survive," says Pascal Espinal, a potter based in the square.

"A country maintains itself but if we were independent, I'm not sure how we'd do that as a nation," says his wife, Maria.

image captionPresident Obama visited in 2011

Nearby, at Castillo de San Cristobal, a 16th Century fort built to protect San Juan, the red, white and blue of the US and Puerto Rican flags fly alongside the old Spanish naval flag on top of the battlements.

Inside, US park rangers show visitors around. It's a world heritage site and a symbol of Puerto Rico's time as a colony, a period that some say exists to this day.

On the outskirts of San Juan, at the headquarters of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), supporters are trying on T-shirts for size ahead of a rally.

Fernando Martin, the party's executive president, says that the fact Puerto Rico belongs to the US is an accident of history.

He believes that Puerto Rico is in a similar situation to that of Scotland and Catalonia.

"What we have in common is that we are nations without a state. The difference is that they are integral parts of the larger countries they belong to; they aren't colonies," he said.

"In our case, the government of another country makes decisions every day without the participation of Puerto Ricans."

Puerto Rico is self-governing but its autonomy is at a local level.

The power, including what happens after the vote, is in Washington DC. The referendum is non-binding, so even if the overall vote is in favour of statehood the decision lies with the US Congress.

But for many the issue is not about if they would be better off financially; it is about being a second-class citizen.

image captionThe Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) is in buoyant mood

"This is more of a human rights problem than an economic one; we just don't have the right to vote or have a say in our future," says Carlos Colon de Armas, a business professor at the University of Puerto Rico.

He wants full citizenship because he believes it's unfair that in order to vote in a presidential election, Puerto Ricans have to leave the island and live in the US.

Puerto Rico's population is nearly four million and there are an estimated 4.7m Hispanics of Puerto Rican descent living in the US.

The territory's status has not changed since 1952 and the current Republican Governor Luis Fortuno, who is also up for re-election, wants it to be a US state.

He is backed by Mitt Romney, who has said he will help push the case for Puerto Rico if he wins, something which could help his campaign in the swing state of Florida, where about 300,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to in the past decade.

Marcos Rodriguez Ema, campaign manager of Governor Fortuno's New Progressive Party (PNP), said the two men are good friends.

"I'm sure he'd want to help Governor Fortuno if he wins the re-election to get our goal," he said.

image captionPascal Espinal fears cutting the US link

"It's a positive message to those Puerto Ricans living in Florida who believe in statehood."

A recent poll found that Governor Fortuno was in a statistical tie with his main rival Alejandro Garcia Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) who wants to retain the current relationship with the US.

There have been protests against Mr Fortuno's deep austerity measures but all the parties have been getting their supporters out on the streets.

The atmosphere is not as lively as in previous elections, making some question the outcome.

"It's as if people don't care. It's so quiet for an election," says one man.

"I'll vote for the United States because [otherwise] we're going be like a republic or something and that's not good, we'll be poor," says another.

"I believe the country should become a 51st State because the US has influenced our country completely and we are 100% Americanised," says a young woman.

Traditionally, voter turnout in Puerto Rico is one of the highest in the world. In 2000 some 80% of registered voters turned out.

The PIP held a "Caravana" at the weekend, in which supporters take to their cars, jump in the back of trucks with flags waving and loud music to encourage people out.

And in Tuesday's vote, Boricuas - as Puerto Ricans call themselves - are likely to be out in force.

The BBC will be providing full online live results of the US presidential election on 6 November. More details here