The Campaign Effect On Status

by John Marino

May 14, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. If one thing is clear about the 2004 gubernatorial elections, it’s that political status has taken a back seat to discussion about crime, public corruption, education and the economy.

There are basically two reasons for this.

One is that the Puerto Rican electorate, born and bred in an intensely political environment, is pretty sophisticated when it comes to casting ballots. They know that in November, they are voting to pick leaders to govern the island, not picking a party to forge the future political destiny of the island – even though the main parties are all formed around a particular status ideology.

There has been enough experience in participating in local electoral contests about political status to drive that point home – with plebiscites taking place in 1998, 1993 and 1967. And those issues other than status really take a priority in the lives of everyday Puerto Ricans because they generally believe there is not as pressing a need to try to resolve the eternal political status dilemma as there is to take prompt, decisive action to fight crime, spur the economy and improve the island education and healthcare systems.

The other reason why status is being downplayed is the thirst for power of those running for office, and the fact that candidates will have to find support beyond their political parties to gain that inch of disputed electoral turf that basically decides Puerto Rican elections. The New Progressive and Popular Democratic parties -- give or take a few percentage points -- basically have equal shares of support among island voters. The Puerto Rican Independence Party has a small, but dedicated core of support, and there is that rare, but ever so important, independent-minded voter that casts ballots according to candidates, rather than party symbol. This small portion of voters basically decides who wins and who loses gubernatorial elections.

The candidates know all this. And they know they risk alienating those elusive independent voters by spending too much time on the status issue. That’s why NPP candidate Pedro Rosselló is spending a lot of time discussing the huge infrastructure projects and government reforms that were undertaken during his eight years of governing and his plans to launch more if reelected. And it’s why the PDP candidate Aníbal Acevedo Vilá is discussing his anti-crime and education plans, and harping on the corruption that took place among former NPP and Rosselló administration officials. Both candidates will talk status; they will have to in order to woo strong support from party diehards on Election Day. But it will be given in moderation, as much moderation as possible, in order not to offend the all-important independent voter.

A group of statehood activists this week, passing around a pamphlet titled, "Statehood Manifest from the People of Puerto Rico," see the whole campaign political culture as a debilitating factor in pushing the political status solution forward. They argue the drive to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status debate must be taken outside traditional political party structures to regain momentum.

They are just the latest example of political activists making similar calls, from both within and outside the statehood party, to take the status issue beyond the confines of party politics. Pro-independence, and some commonwealth supporters, are saying the same thing. They all take a long-term view of the effect of campaign politics on the struggle to resolve the island’s status, some 500 years in the making. And they see the every four-year status denouement during elections hazardous to the drive to resolve the situation. A profound education campaign, both on the island and within the United States, has to be launched, they add.

The document, a call to Congress to admit Puerto Rico into the union as a state, is a careful recounting of the political and legal developments in the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship over the last century, which they say paint a picture of increasing integration of Puerto Rico into the United States. They say the developments have made Puerto Rico a "virtual state," at the 10-yard line to admission to the union, a circumstance they say contradicts a picture of a highly nationalized island population being propagated by independence and commonwealth supporters.

The legal and historical case they lay out, as much for statehood as it is an argument as to why commonwealth as defined by the PDP is unconstitutional, makes for convincing reading. As does their prediction that a majority of Puerto Ricans would choose statehood in a vote if their US citizenship depended on it. A question, they say, that Congress could ask and act upon whenever it chooses. Equally activist independence supporters believe much of the same, except perhaps the outcome of the vote, but they maintain the United States will balk at letting Puerto Rico enter the union even if islanders ask for it.

The problem with their case, however, is that the Congress is highly unlikely to overturn the current political relationship, which though informal is nonetheless enduring. Even as Hispanic issues will be prominent in the U.S. campaign, it is unlikely the candidates will take a strong stand to resolve the status issue. That’s precisely because although important, it is one of the few issues that are sure to divide Puerto Rican support. Why would a candidate jump on a divisive issue – sure to alienate as many Puerto Rican voters as it satisfies -- when there are so many issues – education, healthcare and public safety – that can more safely unify support among this important demographic.

The statehood activists know that given these political realities the Congress has to be pushed to take action on Puerto Rico’s status. Now if Puerto Ricans could only agree on how to push Congress to act and in what direction. It’s one reason why status is likely to persist as an important issue in Puerto Rican politics for years to come, precisely because a solution remains so elusive.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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