Obama, Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans

The President, you see, must win Florida to remain president after January 2013 and that's why he was in San Juan.
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Few political columnists in the United States are Puerto Rican. Few political columnists in the United States follow the twists and turns in the debates over the island's status closely, if at all.

Yet, as the President boarded Air Force One for a five-hour visit to La Isla del Encanto you saw and heard it again and again; in newspaper columns, in cable TV commentaries, on radio and the web...the President's visit wasn't really about the almost four million American citizens living in the Associated Free State but really about the five or so million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, many eligible to vote in 2012's general elections. Hey, on second thought, it wasn't even about all those Boricuas, only a minority of them. The ones in New York, Chicago, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, I was told with great confidence, are loyal Democratic Party voters in heavily Democratic states, so the President didn't need to make the sale. No, in fact, the Mr. Obama dragged the First Lady down to the heat of a Puerto Rican June to strut his 2012 stuff in front of the voters of Central Florida...who now include hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who may, just may, dilute the Republican voting strength of the Miami-Dade Cubans. The President, you see, must win Florida to remain president after January 2013 and that's why he was in San Juan.


Please excuse my skepticism. At a time of heavy unemployment, home foreclosure, soaring public and private college tuition, painfully high gas prices, a 10-year war in Afghanistan, not to mention severe economic distress in Puerto Rico including a jobless rate almost twice that of the Mainland, Florida Puerto Ricans were going to make their choice based on an airport rally accompanied by Puerto Rico's Republican governor.

When he was campaigning for president, and running in Puerto Rico's Democratic Presidential Primary, then-Senator Obama promised to visit the island as president, and to respect the stated wishes of islanders about their future status. If they chose the status quo of Commonwealth, statehood, or national independence, the candidate promised to take that seriously enough to urge the Congress to act. It was, in fact, an assurance little different from that made by American presidents for decades. Now President, Barack Obama repeated that assurance during his trip.

For those of you who don't follow this issue, the status question is never as simple as it looks. Following a close second behind having the material necessities of daily life, the future status of Puerto Rico has shaped island politics since Uncle Sam first allowed the elections of a representative government and a native chief executive. The debate over status has distorted Puerto Rican politics in a fundamental way, by creating parties that take one side or another in the status debates rather than different political philosophies. The Populares, the party of the first Puerto Rican governor, Luis Munoz Marin, has defended Commonwealth since it helped invent it more than a half-century ago. The Progresistas are the party of statehood. The Independentistas want to end the 113-year old relationship that began with victory over Spain and annexation, and create a future for Puerto Rico as an independent nation.

The current governor, Luis Fortuno, is a leader of the PNP, the New Progressives, and a member of the Republican Party. When he was Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner, a non-voting member of Congress, he caucused with the House Republicans. Every bit as much an estadista, and every bit as much a penepe, the current Resident Commissioner, Pedro Pierluisi, is a registered Democrat and caucuses with that party on Capitol Hill.

We had a terrific conversation last week on Destination Casa Blanca covering the politics and policy of the President's visit, and giving a thorough airing to the debates over Puerto Rico's future. (You can watch excerpts at www.hitn.tv/dcb) If you are living on the Mainland, island-born, or Puerto Rican by heritage, what impact does the President's visit have on how you will choose in 2012? Does it have any impact at all? After his assurances that he'll respect Puerto Ricans' wishes after an upcoming vote, are you any more optimistic that the status question can be settled in some durable way?

I wonder if the debate will ever be settled, or can ever be settled once and for all. After the last several plebiscites, and in repeated public opinion polls since, no preference gets much more than 50%. The pattern over the last 25 years has been sub-50% totals for both continued association with the United States and for statehood, with independence polling in single digits.

The idea that a let's say, 54% vote for statehood would trigger a rush to put a 51st star on the US flag is a stretch. The idea that a pro-status quo margin of 51%-44%-5% would end the pro-statehood campaign because "the people have spoken" is also a little hard to believe. And while we're at it, are we all so sure that the Congress would rush to embrace a Spanish-speaking territory of 4 million people with a per capita income much smaller than the poorest of the 50 states? Would Puerto Ricans be ready to bargain on the primacy of Spanish in the daily life of their homeland?

Before we get to those difficult questions, there's the matter of organizing a vote. The Puerto Ricans living elsewhere in the world do want to be heard on the future status of their ancestral home. But how? Should an architect in central Florida, a schoolteacher in the Bronx, and a bodega owner in Chicago get the same say on the future of Puerto Rico as a taxpayer and homeowner in Rio Piedras, Cabo Rojo or Humacao? When an American born and raised in Boston leaves for the warmer winters of California, can ties of culture, sentiment, loyalty, or passion convince the registrars of Massachusetts to let that Californian continue to vote in Boston? In the final analysis, is there something different about being Puerto Rican than being from Oklahoma or Texas? And can you make that argument at the same time as half of you are insisting that being from Puerto Rico is just like being from Oklahoma or Texas?

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