Saturday, March 1, 2008

the potentially pivotal role of Puerto Rico in the Democratic presidental primaries

Excerpts from Christina Burnett's essay in this weekend's WSJ...

Burnett describes the distinction between the votes of American territories in primaries (vs. the general election) and provides a brief discussion of Puerto Rico's future relationship to the U.S. (state, territory, or independence-- to be determined by us &/or them)...

He's not a household name, but Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo-Vilá has become an important man in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Barack Obama recently courted the governor with a letter announcing his support for Puerto Rican "self-determination" -- an indication that the senator from Illinois favors putting the decision of whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state into the hands of Puerto Rican voters. Hillary Clinton is sounding similar notes.

Why would candidates in a fight for their party's presidential nomination weigh in on the status of Puerto Rico?

Because the island will send 63 delegates to the Democratic National Convention this summer. That's more delegates than 25 of the 50 states. (The island will also send delegates to the Republican convention.) In a tight race, a planeload of folks from San Juan could determine who the Democrats nominate. And with Puerto Rico's caucus scheduled for June 1, the candidates are trying to lock up support on the island now.

But how is it that Puerto Rico -- a U.S. territory home to four million U.S. citizens -- can send delegates to the parties' conventions, but can't participate when it comes time to electing a president in November?

It is perverse, but constitutional: The Constitution gives presidential electors to the states (and, via the 23rd Amendment, the District of Columbia), but not to U.S. territories. Yet it does not prohibit political parties from allocating delegates however they choose.

The Democratic and Republican parties have long allowed Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and (until it was returned to Panama) the Canal Zone to send delegates to their respective conventions. But in 1974 Democrats revised their party's charter and in the process a savvy group of Puerto Ricans slipped in a provision stating that the island would thereafter be treated "as a state" at the party's conventions. Presto. Puerto Rico's delegation ballooned in size and importance.

Ever since, presidential hopefuls have weighed in on whether Puerto Rico should be a state, remain a "commonwealth," or become an independent nation. But as soon as the party's nomination is clinched, Puerto Rico's concerns have receded into the background. That is because no one in Washington (except for a nonvoting "resident commissioner") answers to Puerto Rican voters....

As to the internal debate in Puerto Rico about its own future, relative to the U.S.

As the nominating contest drags on, it is becoming increasingly likely that both candidates will make time for a Caribbean tour in the late spring. If they do, they'll find, upon arrival, a bitter debate over Puerto Rico's status. Bitter because a people divided over something as fundamental as political identity and destiny will be divided on nearly everything else as well. To make matters worse, political uncertainty has hobbled economic development on the island. No matter where the candidates go on the island, they'll be confronted by the realities of Puerto Rico's political status....

Puerto Rico's suddenly prominent role in the nominating contest offers a unique opportunity for the island. A president who owes his or her nomination to Puerto Rico's delegates is less likely to forget about commitments made during the campaign.

So it's up to Puerto Ricans to force the Democratic candidates vying for support to say, boldly and clearly, what steps they intend to take to solve the island's defining political problem. And the question isn't, "Do you support self-determination?" We all know the answer to that question. The question is, "What exactly do you plan to do about it?"

A true commitment to the future of Puerto Rico requires action after the election, not just hopeful talk before it. If the next president takes concrete steps to solve Puerto Rico's status, that will be change Puerto Ricans can believe in.


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