Puerto Rico's main opposition Popular Democratic Party is blasting Gov. Luis Fortuño's plan for an August 2012 referendum on the island's status.

Fortuño took to the airwaves Tuesday night to announce a plebiscite next year on the nature of Puerto Rico's relationship to the United States, saying that he decided to convene the referendum in the absence of action by the U.S. Congress to resolve the island's colonial status.

The governor, whose New Progressive Party wants Puerto Rico to become the 51st state, said voters will be asked whether or not they wish to preserve the island's current status as a Free Associated State, or commonwealth.

If Puerto Ricans vote in favor of a change in status, they will get the chance in a second plebiscite - coinciding with the November 2012 gubernatorial ballot - to choose among the alternatives of statehood, independence or something described as Sovereign Free Association.

The chairman of the Popular Democratic Party said Wednesday that Fortuño's announcement of a referendum was an attempt to distract the public from Puerto Rico's current ills.

The governor's proposal shows how divorced he is from the reality of Puerto Ricans struggling to cope with a surge in violent crime, 16 percent unemployment and a crisis in the public health system, Alejandro Garcia Padilla said.

He declined to comment on the concept of Sovereign Free Association, which appears to be closest to his party's traditional stance in favor of enhanced commonwealth status.

Puerto Ricans have gone to the polls three times over the past 44 years to weigh in on the status question.

The first referendum, in 1967, produced a majority of just over 60 percent in favor of remaining a U.S. commonwealth. In 1993, support for commonwealth status had shrunk to a 48.6 percent plurality.

Five years later, 50.3 percent of Puerto Ricans casting ballots rejected all three options - statehood, independence and commonwealth - and checked the box marked "none of the above."

Puerto Rico came under Washington's sway in 1898 and island residents were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, yet they cannot vote in presidential elections, though Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States can.

Since 1952, the island has been a self-governing, unincorporated territory of the United States with broad internal autonomy, but without the right to conduct its own foreign policy.

The White House Task Force on Puerto Rico's status said in a report issued earlier this year that the island's residents should be given a vote on the matter prior to the end of 2012.

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