The governor of Puerto Rico announced Tuesday that he will present local legislators with a plan for a two-part referendum next year to decide the political future of the U.S. territory once and for all.
In a surprise televised address, Gov. Luis Fortuno said "the moment has come" to decide Puerto Rico's final status.
The announcement comes just days after U.S. President Barack Obama was criticized for saying the island would remain a commonwealth if there was not a clear, overwhelming majority leaning toward a different option.
Critics noted that Obama had earlier said he would support any outcome decided by Puerto Rican voters.
In the 20-minute message, Fortuno said he would push ahead unilaterally with his decision.
"Let's be clear: neither Congress nor the president, nor any other power on earth can stop Puerto Rico from expressing itself freely and democratically about its preference regarding its political status," Fortuno said. "Congress did not act, but we will act."
Fortuno, whose New Progressive Party supports statehood, said he will present legislation on Wednesday that would allow islanders to vote on Aug. 12, 2012 whether they want a change in status. If they want a change, voters would choose one of three options in a second referendum to be held during the November 2012 general elections.
The three options would be statehood, independence, or a sovereign free association, which differs from the current commonwealth status.
Puerto Rico's House of Representatives and Senate will have to debate the proposed legislation.
Puerto Ricans have previously voted on the status issue in referendums issued in 1967, 1993 and 1998, no clear majority emerged and the status quo has remained.
Members of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the status quo, blasted Fortuno's proposal.
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia said it would do nothing except divide an island that is fighting a near-record number of killings and the highest unemployment rate compared with any U.S. state.
"This will be a struggle between tribes," Bhatia said in a phone interview, referring to political parties. "This is not what Puerto Rico needs at the moment."
He said his party would be preparing several rebuttals to Fortuno's proposal.
The party issued its own statement saying that a similar proposal had previously been rejected by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, the leader of the island's minority independence movement embraced Fortuno's announcement, saying he and others had sought a similar referendum since 2005.
"This represents a triumph not only for the Independence Party, but for the citizens of Puerto Rico," Fernando Martin, the party's executive president, said in a phone interview. "We know that in Puerto Rico there is a large majority that disagrees with the colonial character of the current status."
Commonwealth status grants Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship but bars them from voting for president, and their congressional representative cannot vote either.
In March, a federal task force charged with analyzing the island's status supported creation of a different referendum that would first ask voters if they wanted to be part of the U.S. or become independent. If they chose ties with the U.S., they would be given statehood or the current commonwealth as options. If they opted for independence, they would choose between free association and independence.
The Aug. 12 vote also would coincide with a constitutional amendment proposal to shrink the size of Puerto Rico's legislature by more than 25 percent.