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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.

Unthinkable, right?

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 view.

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 well, either.

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 spectrum.

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 at:

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