For the first time in their history, a majority of Puerto Ricans expressed support for U.S. statehood in a non-binding referendum on the future of the island's relationship with Washington.
The result of the plebiscite, held on Tuesday to coincide with the general election, breaks decades of local support for the island's current commonwealth status.
Just over 61 percent of voters favored seeking to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, while 33.31 percent supported an enhanced commonwealth arrangement and just 5.53 percent were in favor of full independence.
Statehood would require the approval of the U.S. Congress.
The opposition Popular Democratic Party, whose candidate Alejandro Garcia Padilla won the gubernatorial contest, favors maintaining commonwealth status.
The referendum was the initiative of now-outgoing Gov. Luis Fortuño, whose New Progressive Party advocates statehood.
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.
Tuesday was the fourth time in 45 years that Puerto Ricans have been asked to express themselves 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."
On this week's ballot, voters were first asked whether or not they favored maintaining the island's current status.
This was the first time in history that the question had been phrased in that way, and 53.99 percent said that they were against the commonwealth.
Then, they were asked, independently of how they might have answered the previous question, to select among statehood, independence and the not clearly defined concept of Sovereign Free Associated State.
After his victory, Gov.-elect Garcia Padilla said he will tackle the matter, without giving any additional details how he would do that.
The flow of millions of dollars in social aid each year from the United States to an island where per capital income is half that of the poorest of the 50 states and the right to carry a U.S. passport have kept Puerto Ricans generally satisfied for decades.
In March 2010, President Barack Obama's Working Group was the first U.S. delegation to come to Puerto Rico to study ways to resolve the question of the island's sovereignty. EFE