SAN JUAN, June 11 (Reuters) - Puerto Ricans headed to the polls on Sunday to decide whether or not they want their economically struggling U.S. territory to become the 51st U.S. state, although a vote in favor would likely face an uphill battle in Congress.
The island has $70 billion in debt, a 45-percent poverty rate, woefully underperforming schools, and near-insolvent pension and health systems.
Puerto Rico's hazy political status, dating back to its 1898 acquisition by the United States from Spain, has contributed to the economic crisis that pushed it last month into the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
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"I'm not voting. The government has spent millions of dollars on this campaign hoping that statehood wins, but even if it does, the U.S. Congress won't want to do anything about it," said Felix Salasarar, 54.
Many Puerto Ricans who turned out to vote on Sunday morning were retirees hoping that eventual statehood would finally put the island on equal standing with the 50 U.S. states, giving them more access to federal funds and the right to vote for the U.S. President.
"I voted for statehood," Armando Abreu, a 74-year-old retiree, said after voting at the Escuela Gabriela Mistral. "Even if it's still a long way off in the distance, it's our only hope."
Voting took place at deteriorating public schools in makeshift cardboard polling booths draped with brown plastic for privacy.
On the quaint and narrow streets of old San Juan people were divided over the three options they will face on Sunday's ballot: becoming a U.S. state; remaining a territory; or becoming an independent nation, with or without some continuing political association with the United States.
Under the current system, Puerto Rico's 3.5 million American citizens do not pay federal taxes, vote for U.S. presidents or receive proportionate federal funding on programs like Medicaid, though the U.S. government oversees policy and financial areas such as infrastructure, defense and trade.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello campaigned last year on holding a referendum.
Rossello's New Progressive Party (PNP) party, which controls Puerto Rico's government, is premised on a pro-statehood stance, while the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PPD) supports versions of the current territory status and a third party, the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), supports independence.
Puerto Rico's two other main political parties have called for a boycott, raising concerns about a low voter turnout.
A spokesman for the governor told Reuters he will push Congress to respect a result in favor of statehood, but Puerto Rico is seen as a low priority in Washington.
The status referendum is Puerto Rico's fifth since 1967. Statehood won in the last referendum in 2012, though PPD leaders instructed constituents to leave blank hundreds of thousands of ballots, calling the result into question.
"Statehood isn't going to happen and the status quo is a trap," said 23-year-old engineering and economics student Daniel Montalvo. "At this point, I think gradual independence is the best option."
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; editing by Dave Gregorio and Grant McCool)