GOP Ploy to Curry Latino Favor Via Puerto Rican Statehood Is Misguided

The recent GOP intelligentsia strategy to curry favor for Latino votes via support for Puerto Rican Statehood while opposing immigration reform is misguided, misinformed, and probably disingenuous.

Such propaganda-in cahoots with Puerto Rico's Governor Luis Fortuño-looks to this very Republican politician to solve a very Republican problem: the spreading perception among U.S. Latinos as a whole that the Republican Party is dominated by an opposition to immigration reform so virulent that it could only be interpreted as racist and xenophobic.

That nearly 45 percent of the Latino vote is required to win a presidential election has some Republicans rightly quaking in their boots, especially with mid-term elections coming up and Latinos widely mobilized by the draconian immigrant profiling law in Arizona.

Apparently Gov. Fortuño, a new Republican Party darling with Palin-esque ambitions, has been selling the GOP on supporting Statehood for Puerto Rico to compensate for the party's refusal to back immigration reform --an attempt to curry favor with the 30 million plus Mexican-Americans for whom this is the most important issue. To sweeten the deal for the GOP, Fortuño has professed that he can deliver the Puerto Rico electorate--larger than that of 24 other states--to the Republican Party in the event that Puerto Rico become a 51st state.

Such a ploy reveals the Republican Party's ignorance about the political culture in Puerto Rico, as well as a disconnect with Latino voters of all stripes, homogenizing them around an issue that they may not know or care much about. It also reveals just how desperate some Republican leaders are to bank on a governor presiding over the biggest economic debacle on the island, possibly since the 1930s.

"Fortuño may appear to be young and with a future, but Republicans are taking a big risk," said Angelo Falcón, President of the National Institute for Latino Policy, a New York-based, non-partisan, non-profit policy center focusing on Latino issues. "The party doesn't know what kind of problems Fortuño could have; Puerto Rico may become explosive, as tensions there now can be cut with a knife," he added, referring to a melee at the Capitol building there June 30, in which police attacked and tear-gassed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, injuring dozens. "Of course this didn't start with Fortuño, but his policies are clearly making it worse."

Those policies demonstrate an agenda that is more than fiscal, aimed at perceived sectors of opposition, including drastic austerity measures against the working and middle classes with massive layoffs from the public sector, as well as crippling budget cuts to government agencies charged with social services, arts and culture.

The administration has also stacked the courts, tried to dismantle the bar association, passed repressive laws, and periodically barred the public from the legislative process. Cuts to the University of Puerto Rico, the country's premier institution of public higher education with nearly 65,000 students, have been so severe as to prompt a two-month student strike in April, amid widespread fears that the University will be dismantled and taken over by private interests.

No wonder Newt Gingrich and Fox News are now fawning over Fortuño. Yet making Fortuño their lap dog may hardly register with most Puerto Ricans on the island who have little knowledge of the Republican Party, or of Fortuño's affiliation with it. Far from being a Republican endorsement, Fortuño's dramatic electoral victory last November, giving the right-wing flank of the Pro-Statehood party decisive control of Puerto Rico's House and Senate, was no more than voters punishing the previous party in power during an economic crisis.

Local news polls have already indicated Fortuño's support has drastically deteriorated, including among those who voted for him, and some members of his party are already publicly distancing themselves.

"It's all about local politics," said Edwin Meléndez, an economist from Puerto Rico and Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. "One cannot count on a vote for Fortuño as a vote for Statehood, much less for the Republican Party," he said, adding that the previous administration was perceived badly, and so they got booted out of office.

In fact Fortuño's running mate, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress, is a Democrat who supported President Obama. And the two previous right wing Pro-Statehood governors in Puerto Rico, Pedro Rosselló and Carlos Romero Barceló, are also Democrats.

Another hard sell suggests that the majority of Puerto Ricans on the island, being social conservatives and devout Christians, could be moved to vote Republican by such hot-button issues as abortion and same-sex marriage in the event of Statehood.

Yet the correlation between harboring such views, and acting on them through voting, or even in personal practice due to other influencing factors, has never been made conclusive, agreed Jon O'Brien, President of Catholics for Choice, a leading pro-choice organization from a standpoint of culture, faith and morality, in Washington, D.C.

While the Republican Party has made some inroads into the Latino electorate with socially conservative issues, these gains could be overridden by a bigger issue such as immigration reform, and erosion has already occurred to that end, according to Nativo V. López, National President of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), the oldest political organization of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in the United States, based in Los Angeles.

The Latino demand for immigration reform has gained so much traction that evangelical Christian leaders this week publicly allied themselves with President Obama on the issue, including a path to legalization for the nearly 12 million undocumented workers in the country.

Moved by increasingly diverse constituents, white evangelical leaders may otherwise face dwindling support among their growing flocks of Latino parishioners, though pressure is also being exerted by Latino church leaders.

"There is a movement within these denominations," said the Rev. Samuel Cruz, a professor at Union Theological Seminary and the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where he leads a culturally-mixed congregation of second and third generation Norwegians and diverse Latinos, who he explains are socially conservative in lifestyle but progressive on immigrant, gay and women's rights. "White evangelical leaders are being pressured by Latino leaders within the church who are saying we will no longer support you on gay marriage if you don't support us on immigration."

Coalition building between Latino groups is intensifying around immigration reform, but not around Puerto Rican Statehood. While increasingly diverse organizations historically affiliated with Puerto Ricans, such as Hispanic Federation in New York and Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, have placed immigration reform high on their agendas, the reverse does not hold regarding Puerto Rican Statehood for Mexican-American organizations and individuals, who on the whole do not know much about Puerto Rico, Cuba or the Dominican Republic, noted MAPA's López.

"Appealing to Mexican-Americans via support for Puerto Rican Statehood only demonstrates ignorance about the diversity of Latino groups, not just between them but within them, such as generational shifts," said López, adding that Democratic Party leadership is also guilty of this.

All key Puerto Rican civil rights groups have forcefully opposed the Arizona profiling law as part of broad Latino coalitions, said Clarissa Martínez De Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Latino civil rights organization in the U.S., now pan-Hispanic. Puerto Rican Statehood, however, is seen as an issue that must be deferred to the Puerto Rican community to decide, she added.

While economy, jobs, education remain primary, the tone of the debate over immigration "touches a nerve, because it's about respect," she said, and all Latinos, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, bear the brunt of civil rights violations when the rhetoric gets ugly. The history of harassment due to immigration affects Puerto Ricans, even though Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 (in time to draft them into World War I).

It doesn't help that mass media, including Spanish-language television, neglects to adequately cover Puerto Rico, despite the fact that as the second largest Latino group, Puerto Ricans number more than 4 million, with 800,000 in New York and growing numbers in Central Florida, making up nine percent of the U.S. Latino population (not counting the additional 4 million in Puerto Rico). Mexican-Americans comprise 66 percent, by far the largest group.

It is doubtful a majority of Puerto Ricans will approve Statehood anyway, as they opted not to in three plebiscites from 1967 to 1998, and are fiercely attached to their international sports teams and beauty pageant contestants, as well as to Spanish.

Though Republican-Democrat is not an operative paradigm there, political scientists perceive Puerto Rico as more Democrat-friendly in part because of economic hardship, with unemployment at 17 percent and about 49 percent living below the poverty line. Finally, broad core Republican support for Statehood is as unlikely as their backing immigration reform, commented Meléndez, "because it's the same Spanish speaking, brown faces."

The very idea of Puerto Rican Statehood being touted as appealing only insofar as it can temporarily boost Latino support for Republicans certainly indicates how incompatible that may be as a solution to finally ending U.S. colonialism there.