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PUERTO RICO REPORT
In Puerto Rico, Local Politics Always Come First
by Lance Oliver
August 6, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - Imagine the governor of Tennessee or California
suggesting that maybe Fidel Castro could help out with a dispute
between his state and Washington.
No wonder some people were taken by surprise when Gov. Pedro
Rosselló suggested that maybe overtures could be made to
Cuba in order to help get Puerto Rico back on the United Nations'
list of nonself-governing territories. By suggesting he would
welcome the Castro regime's help, Rosselló was going where
no governor of the 50 states would ever go.
The explanation is simple, but it's one that's easier seen
in San Juan than from the vantage point of Washington, or anywhere
else in the states. It's one of the basic truisms of Puerto Rico
politics: local politics trumps U.S. national politics every time.
Combined with another truism, that status forms the basis for
Puerto Rico politics, that means that Rosselló will ponder
overtures even to a so-called enemy of the state such as Castro.
No stateside politician would dare raise Castro's name, except
perhaps to criticize him. There's little or nothing to be gained
and, potentially, votes to be lost by appearing soft on Cuba.
But Rosselló's eye is on statehood, and anyone or anything
that can advance that cause is worthy of consideration, in his
The fact that local politics always outweighs national politics
is often overlooked or not understood by those outside Puerto
Rico, especially U.S. politicians who only swing through the island
once every few years to raise money. The reference points they
use elsewhere do not apply in Puerto Rico. Republican and Democrat
are terms of weak affiliation or no meaning at all, for most people
on the island, and liberal and conservative tags don't translate
One of the healthy effects of the U.S. House of Representatives
vote on the Young bill on March 4, 1998 was that it revealed the
true nature of the relationships between the political parties
in the United States and those in Puerto Rico.
For 40 years the Republican Party has officially supported
statehood in its national campaign platforms. But when the Young
bill (sponsored by a Republican, supported by a Republican speaker)
was introduced in 1998 and came to a vote in the House, Republicans
lined up to vote against it in overwhelming numbers.
At the same time, commonwealth supporters got a reality check
that was equally difficult to swallow. Some of the most passionate
arguments in favor of statehood came from Democrats. We thought
the Kennedys were on our side, they lamented as Rep. Patrick Kennedy,
a Rhode Island Democrat, pounded the table for statehood.
The Popular Democratic Party made a public show of announcing
its intentions to conduct a reappraisal of its support for the
Democratic Party. When it came to choosing between supporting
commonwealth or maintaining friendly ties with the Democrats,
it was no contest.
One more example of local politics overriding national politics
cropped up in last year's close U.S. Senate race in New York.
Rosselló is an avowed Democrat who has paid his dues with
the party by campaigning for candidates and holding offices such
as president of the Democratic Governors Association, but former
Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato was friendly to the statehood
cause. In a bitter and expensive race that was perhaps more important
to the two political parties than any other in the country last
year, Rosselló had kind words to say about D'Amato and
did nothing for his fellow Democrats.
So on one hand we have Castro, who is about as far left as
you can get among heads of state in this hemisphere. And on the
other hand we have D'Amato, and nobody has ever had trouble determining
that he belongs firmly wedged on the right side of the U.S. political
If you'll collaborate with those two in order to advance your
cause, it's clear you're not a prisoner to political ideology,
much less the Democratic or Republican parties.
It should no longer be any surprise to U.S. politicians when
a statehooder (or a commonwealth or independence supporter either,
for that matter) places allegiance to stateside political parties
behind the status concerns that are the true motivating factors
in Puerto Rican politics. After all, the status question deals
with the future of the Puerto Rican people. Compared to that,
this Democrat-Republican stuff looks like just a high-stakes game
to see who wins the spoils of power for the next four years.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email