Final results gave 50.2 percent of votes to the "none of the above" option adopted by the commonwealth party, while statehood had 46.5 percent. In a similar non-binding referendum in 1993, commonwealth status beat out statehood by 49 percent to 46 percent.
President Clinton has asked Congress to abide by the result of the referendum, but it was unclear what kind of message the "none of the above" victory would send to Congress. Most likely, there will be a bitter and prolonged argument over interpreting the result.
The commonwealth party had urged a "none of the above" vote because it objected to the ballot's commonwealth description, which was written by the statehood party and suggested Congress could revoke Puerto Ricans' U.S. citizenship.
Regardless of the numbers, pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello insisted his cause had won, arguing that almost all people who voted for an actual status definition supported statehood. He said he would use that interpretation to petition Congress to make Puerto Rico a state.
"Today, the people spoke and they said statehood is the future of Puerto Rico. The people spoke, and I will obey," Rossello told thousands of cheering supporters at a victory-type rally while fireworks lit the sky above his party's headquarters.
Pro-commonwealth Sen. Eudaldo Baez Galib countered, "If they go to Washington with a petition for statehood ... they would be violating the right to vote of the majority."
Under commonwealth status, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory with local autonomy. Its 3.8 million residents can't vote for president or Congress, which alone can change Puerto Rico's political status.
Voters trying to resolve the century-long debate on whether that status ought to be changed also had the choices of independence or a "free association" form of independence with U.S. treaty ties. Those options and a commonwealth as defined on the ballot garnered less than 4 percent of the vote.
Seventy-one percent of 2.2 million registered voters participated, the elections commission said.
"We will be protecting the future of our children," said Ernesto Cabrera, 72, who said he marked statehood on his ballot soon after voting stations opened.
At a polling station in southern Ponce city, an election volunteer confronted the 95-year-old founder of the statehood party, Luis A. Ferre. "I know my people, and Americans don't want Puerto Rico to be a state," said Payton Lewis, a 51-year-old engineer from Gastonia, N.C., who has married and settled on the island.
In San Juan, thousands of voters gathered at political parties' headquarters, dancing, eating and drinking at huge street parties. On the highways, people drove ars with U.S. and Puerto Rican flags and campaign banners flapping from windows.
"We have seen over the years a decrease in support for commonwealth status," pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello said when he voted.
Rossello called Sunday's referendum in hopes of persuading Congress to end a colonial relationship that dates from the 1898 U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.
The U.S. Senate this year failed to act on legislation that called for a binding series of votes designed to resolve the contentious status debate.
Rossello, whose New Progressive Party controls the local legislature, sought to present Congress with a mandate to pursue statehood and eliminate what he calls Puerto Ricans' second-class U.S. citizenship.
Noting that Congress has begun to question spending $10 billion a year in a territory that pays no federal taxes, he insisted that statehood would raise the island's standard of living and allow it to pay its fair share. Puerto Rico's per capita income of $8,000 a year is half that of the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi.
Commonwealth advocates countered that statehood would destroy Puerto Rico's culture and that English would supplant the Spanish language. They argued that Puerto Ricans already have the best of both worlds: U.S. citizenship and a fierce cultural independence.
Some in Congress have warned that commonwealth status, adopted in 1952, must eventually give way to either statehood or independence.
Written by James Anderson