In Puerto Rico, Rare Vote for 'Presidente'

By Miguel Perez

May 12, 2008 5 min read

They serve valiantly in our armed forces, yet they don't have the right to vote for the president, who is their commander in chief during war. They are American citizens, yet they don't have a single voting representative in Congress. They are our 4 million fellow Americans who live on the island of Puerto Rico — a people about to get a rare say on who gets to live in the White House.

Although Puerto Rico residents are forbidden from participating in the general election, they do vote in very late and usually insignificant Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

But the Democratic primary isn't insignificant this year in Puerto Rico! Given the rare longevity of the race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Puerto Rican Democrats may get an opportunity to be very influential in determining their party's nominee, and they already are savoring every moment.

If Clinton stays in the race until the June 1 Puerto Rico primary — in spite of growing calls for her to drop out — the islanders and their issues will get rare attention from Clinton and Obama. After all, in Puerto Rico, 55 Democratic delegates and eight superdelegates are up for grabs.

If they both still are running June 1, you know they and their surrogates will be flying to San Juan quite often, especially during the 12 days between the May 20 primaries in Kentucky and Oregon and the June 1 contest in Puerto Rico.

But if one of them drops out, because Puerto Ricans can't vote in the general election, the other is likely to forget all about campaigning on the island. In fact, if the race is over before June 1, we can expect the winner to go to Puerto Rico, but mostly for a much-needed vacation — and maybe a little lip service.

Yet Puerto Ricans have issues they want to hear the candidates discuss, from their failing schools and their stagnant economy to the island's commonwealth relationship with the United States, which is the prevailing issue that affects all other issues there.

As long as Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, a status that was meant to be temporary, islanders will seek occasional plebiscites to determine whether Puerto Rico remains a commonwealth, becomes an independent nation or joins the union as the 51st state.

In three plebiscites (1967, 1993 and 1998), Puerto Ricans have chosen to remain a commonwealth slightly over becoming a state, with independence finishing a distant third. There's a new bill in Congress that would create a new plebiscite, and Puerto Ricans are eager to hear how Clinton and Obama feel about their right to self-determination.

Of course, Clinton, Obama and Sen. John McCain, who already won the Puerto Rico Republican primary in February, have expressed support for Puerto Ricans to have the right to choose their political status. But they have to go much further than that!

Thus far, every plebiscite in Puerto Rico has been nonbinding, meaning that Congress has not been bound to abide by the will of the Puerto Rican people. If Puerto Rico chooses to become a state, many doubt that it could become a reality, especially because other political factors would come into play.

With eight Electoral College votes, would Puerto Rico become a blue or red state? And once that is clearly determined by the polls, would the party on the losing side then oppose Puerto Rican statehood? Would some in Congress oppose a Spanish-speaking state? Is anyone scared by the idea that if it were a state, Puerto Rico would send two senators and six representatives, all likely to be Hispanic, to Capitol Hill? Would there be some in Congress who would argue that Puerto Rico has a history of terrorism by those who seek independence and for that reason the island is not ready to become a state?

Those are just some of the questions the Puerto Rican people want to hear the presidential candidates answer about the possibility of statehood for the island. The answers to those questions and many others about a better commonwealth arrangement or a transition toward independence are what may determine whether Clinton goes on to the general election or concedes to Obama.

This means that instead of treading lightly around the island's political status, Clinton and Obama really will have to deal with this issue. They will have to speak about the different options, including the commonwealth arrangement that prevents the Puerto Rican people from voting for either of them in November.

To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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