Puerto Ricans Vote For Their Country To Become America's 51st State

Turnout was low at some polling places, but that was not a problem 1,600 miles to the north, where tens of thousands turned out in New York City to celebrate Puerto Rico by dancing to salsa music and waving - or wearing - Puerto Rican flags.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said voters in the economically troubled USA island territory were sending a strong message to Congress.

Groups that back the current commonwealth status, like the Popular Democratic Party, PPD, have called for a boycott of the plebiscite. Numerous voters who came out to vote Sunday morning are over 50 and retired, and, like Abreu, hope to see their island become economically competitive through joining the other 50 USA states.

In 2012, around 1.8 million people voted - a turnout of 77.5% - but State Electoral Commission figures show that just 518,000 people (or 23% of eligible voters) voted in Sunday's referendum.

Among those hoping Puerto Rico will become the 51st state is Ana Maria Garcia, a 52-year-old business administrator who arrived with her family on bicycle to vote early Sunday. Puerto Ricans are getting the chance to tell U.S. Congress on Sunday which political status they believe best benefits the U.S. territory as it remains mired in a deep economic crisis that has triggered an exodus of islanders to the U.S mainland.

The mainly Spanish speaking island has $70 billion in debt, a 45 percent poverty rate, woefully underperforming schools and near-insolvent pension and health systems.

The final decision is also not in their hands but up to Congress. This was a democratic process and statehood got a historic 97% of the vote.

Puerto Rican independence hero Oscar Lopez Rivera has also reignited the debate over the country's colonial status.

As soon as these results were announced, the president of the island's main opposition PPD party, Hector Ferrer, said the results were far from a big victory for statehood and - in fact - constitute a defeat for Gov. Ricardo Rossello, who had supported the statehood option and declared that it would win. The parade came on the same day when Puerto Rico held a controversial referendum on political status. In 1917, the islanders were granted U.S. citizenship, but they continue to labour under a political half-life in which they can elect their own local government and governor but cannot vote in federal elections. Many Puerto Rican opposition parties called for a boycott of the vote.

The question of status is "fundamental" to breaking free from economic turmoil, said Christian Sobrino, chief economic advisor to the government.

"According to pro-statehood supporters, Puerto Rico becoming a state will increase investment and stabilize the economy, but as far as I know there is no research to support this and actually this will increase the tax burden for Puerto Ricans and increase the amount of resources that the USA will have to send to Puerto Rico", Cruz-Martinez said.

"I would like to see Puerto Rico become a state, " said Sonia Vargas, 51, a Brooklyn-born bookkeeper who now lives in Ohio.

As American citizens, often proudly so, Puerto Ricans can freely enter the U.S., live and work.

On the other hand, Puerto Ricans on the island would have to start paying full federal income taxes.

Beaten down by that loss in revenues and the global financial crisis, the island plunged into recession.

"We're bankrupt and 85 percent of us don't speak English".

Rossello has launched a drastic austerity regime to restore finances, but Washington still has the last word, via its oversight board. It has its own governor and legislative body and it became a USA commonwealth territory with its own constitution in 1952.