Obama, Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans


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-Sen. 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 Popolares, 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 Indipendentistas 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, 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?

Questions! Questions! They’re not easy ones, all continuing challenges for Puerto Ricans wherever they are, and all raised once again by the President’s quick flight to San Juan. Watch the excerpts, read listener comments, then add your own! See you next week.


  1. Maria P Fas says:

    The answer for “why the economy is so bad” in PR”: you can find it in history. The Commonwealth that started in 1952 had an economic model that the political party that wants statehood(PNP) achieved to eliminate it. Together with the Republicans, the 936 law was vanished. That was an incentive program responsible for our manufacture prosperity and also it attracted pharmaceuticals. Suddenly, the companies that offered jobs were gone, especially in the time when all the countries around the world were suffering and economic depression. PR is always looking to the USA without doing anything to participate in the global economy. In PR, the legislature and executive branch are always talking about the “status”. They manipulate the people saying that we cant achieve anything because we are not a state. It is a dangerous game that every 4 years brings a different governor to power: the one that wants statehood and one that wants to stay as a commonwealth. The stability is not good and the federal funds is keeping persons in welfare, earning almost the same staying at home that going out and finding a job. The educated people like physicians, lawyers, engineers, are leaving to the states because the job offer and cost of living is better. Therefore, the island has less people that wants to invest. If you add, that our competitiveness is very bad, to local businesses as well to foreign companies. Our electricity cost is insane due to the 100 percent use of petroleum….I can make a list why is better not to do business in PR, and thats why we are in a very bad situation. Furthermore, our politicians are confortable in their seats and salaries and they dont really care if we have jobs or not. We rely on federal funds to operate the agencies, so everything is ok, and we can survive. In conclusion, is a complex situaction that involves reality and perception.

  2. Phanny614Triple555 says:

    Once again, another opportunity squandered. Why was it that politicians rather than the most respected PR scholars were not given the opportunity to participate in this televised ( 6/28/11 )program when it counted? It was simply a repeat of the same themes, the same “throwing the hands up in the air” ( and not really having anything relevant to say ) attitude as has ALWAYS been expoused by both the interviewer and guests. Pretty damn disgusting. Maybe if you had brought on some scholars whom might have been apt to place the real focus on the issue, would new and or more relevant ground been covered.

    There seemed to be a consensus that the “status” question needs to be resolved. Duhh. But, no one bothered to talk about what has happened during that 113 yr ( forced ) relationship, that has led to where things are in 2011 on the island. No one talks about how the U.S. took over a nation of people whom had been working very hard over a period of decades to liberate themselves from Spain, to become an independent and sovereign nation. The U.S. was well aware of this, but denied it to the people that had been striving to create their own democracy and to control their destiny, just as the U.S. does theirs. So why did the U.S. deny to PR what it professes worldwide to what it’s own values dictate? Because the U.S. indeed placed on the island what amounted to a military dictatorship for decades after the invasion. This implemented under the guise that island PR’s were heathens and required “tutelage”. Tutelage to the very people whom through their valiant, deliberate, educated and persistent manner achieved what the U.S. did when they were 13 colonies. I guess the island PR’s all of the sudden became “stupid” after the 1898 invasion. They became stupid because the U.S. had other plans for them ( a ton of strategic military bases/unbridled corporate exploitation of its citizenry ), that they weren’t letting on to. And, I’ll bet the U.S made sure that most island PR’s were not given a similar fair shake to the population when it came to educational opportunities. Say, like in Sacramento, Denver, or Seattle. And, nothing’s really changed. You people are fooling your selves for even thinking otherwise. It’s so obvious.

    Another major point that bugged me ( besides the aforementioned ) was that the panel agreed that the people of the island are “educated.” But, they aren’t. Not by U.S. standards. Ok. If they’ve been so educated why is it that they’re in the same situation that they’ve found themselves since 1898? Anyone can tell you, most of the islanders wanted independence during that time. So why did that sentiment change over time? It’s called oppression and instilling fear in the people of a tiny island nation, that a superpower could wield its force down on them at any given moment. Over time, ( generations in this case ) that takes its toll on your ( a nations ) mind, regardless of how “educated” they are. Self-esteem and education are two entirely different concerns. But, the two equate with hearts and minds. When the U.S. forcibly takes your land, implements segregation between Puerto Ricans ( on what used to be their own f—-ing land ) and North Americans, and involuntarily sterilizes as many child bearing women as it can, up through the 1970′s…. What message do you think is being conveyed from the U.S. to the PR’s over time? That the U.S. loves them? What happened to the Native American in this country? Do you think that these kinds of repressive acts just disappear from memory? The FBI/CIA are all over the island. Why do you think that is? I don’t think their primary mission is to protect the PR peoples interests…. Now, you’ve got a tertiary exodus from the island… the so called “brain trust.” If that’s so, then that’s going to make the PR status issue much more difficult to resolve. It’s essentially playing even more into the corporations/congress’ hands. But, no one cares to see/deal w/that elephant.

    The independence minded guy, was something…How can he postulate that ALL PR’s from ALL over the world have a say in its so-called final destination? Dude, you’re making us PR’s look bad. One has to live in that district, state, or even colony in this instance, for a period of time and be there for the vote. Ridiculous. I’m for independence, but you, Mr., should not be leading the discussion.

    For some others that have commented in favoring an enhanced colonial status… I’m speechless. You want to have it both ways. I think that type of thinking is reflective of the damage that has been wrought upon a nation’s psyche over a 100yrs. It’s ridiculous. But, the U.S. Congress loves that kind of thinking.

    The only manner in which this issue will be resolved by the island PR people, is by taking a stand ( whether for independence/statehood ). Regardless of what the U.S. has to say about it. They ( the PR’s ) have to force the issue. Hey, the U.S. did it on them. For a hundred plus years, and counting. ( The manner in which the rules are laid out; it’s check-mate for the island PR’s. The game’s rigged by the congress. How long did it take for the 13 colonies to get fed up with England’s B.S.? ) And, then, let the world court decide. Not the congress. The congress broke it (a good thing in the making ) 113yrs ago, and they have never shown any signs of wanting to fix it in an appropriate manner. PR is never part of the discussion on the mainland by non-PR’s because the U.S. educational system does NOT want to teach them about it in any significant manner. For very selfish and self serving reasons. That’s part of the reason you’ve got just a handful of hits on any of the video tapes made of the 6/28 discussion. It’s THE reason why the status issue hasn’t been resolved. Had the U.S. public been made aware of what the essential history between the U.S and PR was and is, the outrage would have put the issue front and center long ago. It’s really tragic.

    All of you panelists ( inc. the moderator: Suarez ) “skipped” over everything that needed to be discussed ( and that requires resolution ) prior to talking about the status issue. Are you afraid of offending someone if you do? If so, then you’re not my kind of PR

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