The Press Gets Puerto Rico Wrong
Last Monday, the Democratic National Committee approved Puerto Rico’s plan to change from a June 7 caucus to a June 1 primary. After North Carolina and Indiana vote on May 6, Puerto Rico’s 55 delegates will be the largest prize left. News accounts and early analysis claim that Hillary Clinton is favored in Puerto Rico even though there has been no polling on the island so far. Clinton certainly does better in primary states than in caucus states, so the change to a primary will help her. More importantly, the press notes how strongly Clinton has run among Latinos in other contests and assumes the same will hold in Puerto Rico. This ignores one big fact: Puerto Ricans are not like other Latinos. For starters, Puerto Ricans are citizens so battling immigration laws has not been a constant challenge. Indeed, the back-and-forth between the island and the states gave the great migration from Puerto Rico in the 1950s a different flavor from other immigrant experiences. They were coming to a country for which their brothers and cousins had already fought in wars. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants, Puerto Ricans arrived at the same time as affordable air travel, so "coming to America" was not as final an event as it had been for earlier arrivals. Once here, Puerto Ricans certainly began to encounter the same kind of hostility that earlier immigrants had faced, and which still greets Mexican and Central American immigrants. Puerto Rican identity became centered on their language and when the concept "people of color" emerged in the 1970s, they did not know what to make of it. Unlike most Mexicans and Central Americans whose ancestry mixed Hispanic and native Indian cultures, in Puerto Rico, the mix was black and Hispanics. Only a small minority of Puerto Ricans are not, like Barack Obama, mixed race. In fact, Puerto Rico is the post-racial society Obama represents. It is not difficult to imagine how he could take parts of his speech in Philadelphia about race, add some history and demography about Puerto Rico, and give a speech in San Juan that rightly acknowledges that on this great issue of bridging America’s racial divide, Puerto Ricans have a lot to teach America. Such a speech would not only be attractive to Puerto Ricans, it would be true. The other reason to think Clinton has a tougher challenge in Puerto Rico than is assumed by the press is that none of the political machines on the island are in her corner. As mentioned at the time, Clinton supporter Pedro Rosello lost the gubernatorial primary for the Statehood Party in early March to Luis Fortuna, who backs John McCain. The Commonwealth Party is led by incumbent governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila, and he backs Obama. So, the two political organizations on the island will be using the June 1 primary as a test of their field organization, and neither of them is signed on with Clinton. As the Senator from New York, Clinton has many connections with the Puerto Rican population centered in her state, and some of those may prove helpful. She did become involved in the negotiations over the U.S. Navy’s departure from Vieques, a small island off the Puerto Rican coast which the Navy used as a proving ground. While in the White House, her husband did very little on the issue, and it was George W. Bush who got the Navy to leave. So, assuming Clinton is favored is a stretch. If the race is still going in June, Puerto Rico could be a caballo-race. Michael Sean Winters
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
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