By Juan A. Hernandez
Centro de Periodismo Investigativo de Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico will be the last of the US territories to vote in this year’s primary to determine who will be the Republican presidential candidate. Like the rest of the territories, this is the closest Puerto Rico’s residents get to voting for the president of the United States, under the current rule of law.
While Puerto Ricans are American citizens since 1917, they cannot vote for the president due to the “unincorporated territory” status bestowed on the island by Congress. Interestingly enough, should Puerto Ricans decide to reside anywhere else in the United States, they would be able to vote for the president and elect the congressional representation allotted to their state of residence at the moment.
Yet, after almost 100 years of being American citizens, the presidential primary is still a relatively new experience for Puerto Ricans, since they have been participating in them only since 1980. The 1980 Republican primary drew around 400,000 votes, their most successful primary in island history. But participation dwindled rapidly with only 93,000 voters showing up for the 2000 Bush-McCain primary. In 2008 island Republicans opted for a caucus to elect their delegates to the Republican convention.
This weekend Puerto Rico is the only US jurisdiction holding a primary and, while Republican hopefuls have not necessarily flocked down south –only three (Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Fred Karger) of the six candidates appearing in the ballot have visited the island this week– there seems to be an interest not as much on the outcome of the election, but on what the front runners (Romney and Santorum) have to say about the future of the island, should any of them become President of the United States.
Very few people in Puerto Rico know anything specific about US mainland politics or any of the presidential hopefuls, including the leaders of the pack, Romney and Santorum. And among those who know, most can only recite what their political party leaders have told them, which is their commitment to Puerto Rico’s economic development and welfare. Puerto Ricans are so disconnected from national politics that, while just about any child can say Gov. Luis Fortuño and Sen. Alejandro Garcia Padilla are the leaders of the opposing New Progressive (NPP) and Popular Democratic (PDP) parties, respectively, before last week very few voters outside party militancy could identify by name who the front runners of the primary are.
Contrary to the US mainland, voters in Puerto Rico are not divided as conservatives or liberals, reformers or old guard. Puerto Rican voters’ ideology is based on political status. They are pro-statehood, pro-commonwealth or pro-independence, and along those lines is the primary divided. Therefore, while Puerto Rico is mainly a Catholic society, neither Santorum’s fervent anti-abortion stance nor Romney’s opposition to gay marriage will sway the vote in favor of one or the other. What Puerto Rican voters want to hear is how much federal funding are they willing to commit for the island’s economic development, which suffers from a staggering 15.1 percent unemployment rate, and whether they support statehood or not, and the conditions for that support.
Earlier this week, Santorum blundered on the statehood issue during his visit to the island after he pointed out that in order for Puerto Rico to become a state “English has to be the principal language.”
But, after more than 100 years of American influence, Puerto Ricans are far from being bilingual, even after attempts to institutionalize English as the teaching language during the first half of the 20th century.
Santorum was quick to rectify that he had not meant to say “only English should be spoken here,” but not quick enough to avoid Romney from capitalizing on his faux pas.
Romney, who arrived to the island Friday, reportedly sent a message that made headlines on local media saying he doesn’t consider English a requisite for statehood. Nevertheless, Romney’s record on the English issue speaks differently. Last January, during the CNN-sponsored debate in Florida, his state supporters used the occasion to reiterate the presidential hopeful’s support for English immersion programs in schools. Furthermore, in his recent book, “No apology: the case for American greatness,” Romney states that children do not learn as well in bilingual education classes.
On the votes needed to petition statehood, Romney and Santorum also differed. While for Santorum a clear and unequivocal majority would be needed to petition statehood, for Romney, ever the crowd pleasing candidate, the transition to statehood could be initiated with a simple majority vote.
But, by the eve of the primary event none of them had yet committed on political status or economic development for the island beyond general campaign trail remarks. It seems all boils down to who supports whom.
Pro-statehood and pro-commonwealth advocates’ participation in the primary is also divided along mainland party lines. But while pro-commonwealth advocates –represented by the PDP– are clearly aligned with the Democratic Party, statehooders –represented by the NPP– operate on the two fronts, with its electorate claiming adherence to both the Republican and Democratic national parties.
Fortuño is the highest ranking Republican leader in the NPP and has been supporting Romney, while part of the party’s legislative leadership supports Santorum. Fortuño’s second in command, and reelection running mate, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluissi stands as the Democratic wing leader.
With no Democratic primary this year, Pierluisi, considered by some “a mere spectator watching the game from the sidelines,” (he cannot vote in Congress) has been showing some signs of life. Instead of sitting idly while NPP Republican leadership urges its electorate, regardless of its national party affiliation to vote in Sunday’s primary, he has questioned Romney’s record.
Three weeks ago Pierluisi lambasted Romney during a Democratic National Committee (DNC) conference call for attacking Santorum on his 1998 confirmation vote for Puerto Rican Sonia Sotomayor as judge for US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. President Obama later appointed Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court as the first Hispanic Associate Justice.
While it might seem strange to see two elected officials from the same party going at each other over what presidential candidate serves Puerto Rico’s interests best, for NPP militancy there seems to be no contradiction. For them, it is but a matter of how much funds is the White House willing to commit and whether this small Spanish-speaking Caribbean island can expect to become the 51st state in the long run.