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Why is Puerto Rico important?

May 31st, 2008

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Wikimedia Commons

    What role will Puerto Rico play in 2008 and in the future?

With respect to the electoral battle being waged by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, no-one could have imagined back in January that the Puerto Rico primary would be anything other than the chance for the people of this Caribbean island to feel involved in the process of selecting the Democratic nominee.

Whilst the nomination is substantially decided, the sheer size of the Puerto Rican electorate could still influence which candidate gets to claim a victory in the popular vote. To put Puerto Rico’s size in context, if it became a full State, its population of around 4m (between Kentucky and Oregon) would make it larger than 24 current states and the Federal District, and would apportion it approximately 8 Electoral College votes.

Puerto Ricans are able to vote in the General Election if they are resident in a US state, but the strange relationship between the island and the USA means that unincorporated territories and possessions do not have voting representation in either the US Congress or the Electoral College. The island describes itself in English as a ‘Commonwealth’ (a rather confusing translation of the Spanish ‘Estado Libre Asociado’ – literally ‘Associated Free State’) which is reliant on the US for certain areas of government (defense for example) and US Federal Law applies, although it has autonomy in many other areas, including a certain degree of fiscal autonomy. If forced to suggest a British equivalent, I think I would have to say the Isle of Man’s relationship with the United Kingdom would be the most appropriate comparison I could draw.

There have been historic ties between Puerto Rico and New York/New Jersey, given that these states have been the destinations for most Puerto Rican migrants to the US (immortalized by Leonard Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’). For that reason in particular, a Clinton victory by a significant margin is to be expected. A recent poll had Clinton leading 50% to 37%, and seems to accord with her support amongst Hispanic voters and Catholics nationally. Endorsements have gone in Clinton’s favour as well, likely to take 5 or 6 of the 8 Superdelegates, though the Governor has expressed his support for Barack Obama. He was originally the Obama campaign’s co-chair in Puerto Rico until corruption charges led to him being replaced by William Miranda Marin, the mayor of Caguas.

Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, based in the capital San Juan, is a real political character. He suffered the first ever Gubernatorial veto override in PR, as well as governmental shut-down when the Speaker refused to send him a bill to sign because they had ‘accidentally’ voted for the Governor’s preferred level of Sales Tax. The Puerto Rican Supreme Court had to order the Speaker to hand over the bill, and he threatened to refuse before relenting. The Governor, who was co-chair of PR’s Obama campaign, has now been embroiled in scandals about party finances and breaking federal election law (including the admission that he spent $40,000 of his party’s money on new suits, equivalent in value to approximately 100 of John Edwards’ haircuts).

As we rarely get a chance to discuss Puerto Rico, and with less at stake than many of the previous primary contests, I thought I would just offer a little bit of interesting information which might explain the climate in which this vote is taking place.

Puerto Rico’s status is the main political issue on the island. The three traditional parties represent the three main options for Puerto Rico’s future – the Popular Democratic Party (PDP, or PPD in Spanish) are a Social Democratic party nominally aligned to the Democrats, and believe in the continuation of the status quo: an unincorporated territory of the USA, though with ever greater autonomy. The Governor, who is the leader of the PDP, surprised many by talking about his aspiration that Puerto Rico should become ‘sovereign’ (a term usually used by advocates of Statehood) and he has sought to have Puerto Rico represented independently at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The New Progressive Party (NPP, or PNP in Spanish) campaigns for full Statehood and representation in the US Congress, and controls both the Puerto Rican legislature and currently send their leader, Luis Fortuno, to Washington DC as the non-voting At-Large delegate to the US House of Representatives. They are affiliated with both the US Democratic and Republican parties. The far-left Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) support full independence. The other registered party is the Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico Party (PRPRP), who seem to express no clear view on constitutional status, and are best described as being similar to the Green Party. Recent referenda have seen about 40% support Statehood and less than 5% support full independence, with the remainder either supporting the continuation of the status quo or expressing that they are not sure.

The US party platforms from previous Presidential elections give us an indication of how the US government would respond to any expression for change in Puerto Rico. The Republican party has committed to accepting Puerto Rico as a full state when they decide to join by plebiscite, with a continuation of current status until that point. They would, I think we can infer, oppose Independence, and their platform re-iterates the authority of the US Congress to make the final determination. The Democratic platform changed a little between 2000 and 2004, with the Democrats’ previous position (under Al Gore) of supporting any result of a referendum being moderated to accepting only ‘realistic’ outcomes when John Kerry was the nominee.

Double Carpet and I were discussing the primary season today, and we got onto wondering why both parties allow Territories such as Puerto Rico to vote in their party primaries when those same territories have no vote in the Electoral College – unlike for example France where nearby DOM-TOM such as Guadeloupe and Martinique get to vote in the presidential election.

I think it must be partially in deference to the large numbers of Puerto Ricans who live in the US whom neither party wishes to antagonize. Secondly, both parties will be aware that Puerto Rico will likely one day choose to vote for full Statehood, and should that be accepted by Congress then Puerto Rico would become a valuable asset in the electoral college, worth more than half the other states in the Electoral College. Neither party would want to have the reputation for having ignored Puerto Rico when it was still a territory.

So if it gave Hillary Clinton a large enough majority in the Democratic primary tomorrow, there is a chance that Puerto Rico might still be decisive in determining which candidate wins the overall popular vote. Though this is very unlikely to have much of an impact on the identity of the eventual winner, it will maybe fuel debates about the legitimacy of the winner, and could affect internal party debates about the attractiveness of a National Presidential Primary for the Democratic Party. However, the real impact of this small island on US politics is likely yet to be felt. Should it attain Statehood, it could dramatically shift the balance of power between the parties vying for control of the United States government.

Morus






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