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Who Gains From Puerto Rican Nationalism?

by Lance Oliver

June 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Let’s start with the premise that feelings of nationalism are on the rise in Puerto Rico.

The evidence for this is mostly anecdotal but consistent and impressively varied. From the rejection of statehood in the last two status votes to the sentiments stirred up by the Puerto Rico Telephone Company strike (which went far beyond a labor dispute) to public opinion over the Navy’s use of Vieques to the popularity of the song "Preciosa," there are a thousand small indicators that nationalistic feelings have been rising.

The trend even made an analyst’s report on the business climate in Puerto Rico, though it rightly stated that nationalistic feelings are far from being an immediate threat.

Gov. Pedro Rosselló argues that it is not nationalism that’s on the rise, but simply pride in being Puerto Rican. Separating those two threads is like trying to untangle a wadded ball of string. But any increase in Puerto Rican pride invariably brings about an increase in nationalistic feelings, because Puerto Ricans definitely recognize themselves as different from and distinct from the general population of the 50 states.

So taking pride in being Puerto Rican means taking pride in differences that separate Puerto Rico from the United States.

Without devoting a full column to supporting the case that nationalism has been rising over the past decade, let’s assume it has been and then ask the first question that political operatives will ask under that assumption: who stands to benefit?

Clearly not the pro-statehood party. Supporting statehood means submerging Puerto Rico’s separate identity within the national framework of the United States. The more Puerto Ricans feel separate and different and like a nation, the less likely they are to support statehood.

That leaves the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which might seem to be the obvious beneficiary, and the Popular Democratic Party, which appears to have actually received the benefit of nationalistic feelings in recent years.

The PIP certainly needs to benefit. If it continues its steady downward trend at the polls, it risks losing its electoral franchise. If the PIP loses electoral funds, a spot on the ballot and the at-large seats it picks up in the Legislature, the island would be left without a large-scale organization devoted to the independence movement. Independentistas would continue to exist, but would have to begin again to build a framework to pursue their cause.?

Looking at the 1998 status vote results, it appears the PDP gained most from nationalistic feelings stirred up in that tumultuous year, which saw Puerto Rico hit by two hurricanes: the PRTC strike and Georges. In rejecting statehood, voters rallied around the conveniently malleable "none of the above" option instead of embracing independence.

The 2000 general election is different from the 1998 status vote, however. For one thing, this year’s agenda has been dominated by Vieques, the most important issue yet in stirring nationalistic feelings. A poll published this week in El Nuevo Día suggests the PIP is benefiting, not only because support for the top two candidates, Rubén Berríos for governor and Manuel Rodríguez Orellana for resident commissioner, stood at a relatively high 7 percent, but also because of voters’ views of the party in regards to Vieques.

In terms of handling various issues, those polled generally named the New Progressive Party as best suited to handle them, with the PIP a distant third. But as for which party was best suited to handle the Vieques issue, the PIP finished with 24% support, close behind the NPP’s 26% and ahead of the PDP’s 18%.

If those poll results are reflected in election day results (no certainty, since much can change), then the PIP come back from the brink of extinction. But popular wisdom suggests fair-weather independentistas may make another last-minute shift from Berríos to Sila Calderón, rationalizing that a vote for Berríos is merely symbolic but a vote for Calderón could help prevent Carlos Pesquera from winning and keeping statehooders in control.

There are two common (and perhaps a little offensive) stereotypes in the Puerto Rican vernacular. One is that everyone is an independentista after a few drinks and that many independentistas are really melones, or watermelons. They’re green on the outside (appear to be pro-independence) but are red on the inside (support the PDP).

The harsh truth for the PIP is that such popular sayings develop from a nugget of truth and that people, in the privacy of the voting booth, are almost always sober and generally vote their gut feelings.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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