“Puerto Rico: statehood or not…”

Latina Magazine DRAFT

“Puerto Rico: statehood or not, at least let them vote for U.S. President!”

December 16th 2008

My Puerto Rican people are different from every other Hispanic culture around the world in one very unique way. Whether born here in the states or on the island of Puerto Rico they are automatically citizens of the United States – often to the envy of our Latino brothers and sisters. However, that envy usually only lasts a short while until the observer is reminded that many Boricuas living on the island of Puerto Rico have lived for 110 years now – since 1898 – as second-class citizens many would say, while under colonial American rule as an unincorporated territory of the United States. As a Newyorican girl whose parents were born in Puerto Rico and as a student of several political leadership programs with some clout, I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of how the merry-go-round of politics works and I can’t for the life of me understand how the U.S. Congress thinks their current relationship with the island of Puerto Rico illuminates a shinning example of constitutional equality and democracy.

While being subject to a military draft by their government, my Puerto Rican islanders continue to be banned from voting for their own Commander-in-Chief in presidential elections as a condition of their status as a territory of the United States. The very same U.S. Congress that symbolizes the most powerful government on earth goes to sleep every night with lofty dreams of promoting democracy all over the world, while voluntarily disenfranchising the 2.9 million eligible voters every waking day who are living on the island of Puerto Rico. Imagine the impact those very same voters would have on the American Hispanic electorate in presidential elections. And, think about how Puerto Rico becoming a state would then add two U.S. Senators and at least six U.S. Representatives to the congressional mix. If our American form of government is really all about multicultural inclusion and democracy for it’s citizens, then how can they sleep another night knowing they are excluding a part of our country nearly the size and population of Connecticut?

According to the standard talking point of the U.S government in response to this injustice, the retort is usually that this arrangement is acceptable because – after all -residents of Puerto Rico don’t have to pay federal taxes. Yes, but what they don’t explain is that even mainland-born Puerto Ricans choosing to live on the island are also excluded from voting for president once they declare residency there – apparently in exchange for their presidential vote. Thus the choice must be made to forego paying federal taxes or forfeiting your presidential vote. Sounds like a quid-pro-quo (a bribe) to me.

The United States’ involvement in this quagmire of politics related to Puerto Rico began when they “acquired” (or seized some would say) the tiny island from the Spaniards at the conclusion of the Spanish American War in 1898. The U.S. and Puerto Rico then began their long-standing relationship (some would call it “colonial rule”) which included keeping the island under military rule. In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship and, therefore, immediately eligible for the United States draft which sent many Puerto Ricans into World War I and all subsequent conflicts with U.S. participation. In 1947, the U.S. granted Puerto Rico the right to democratically elect their own governor and the elders in my family describe their initial belief that surely statehood and full constitutional equality would follow. More than 60 years later, they are still waiting.

My 79 year old cousin, Wilfredo Hernandez, a retired engineering professor at the University of Puerto Rico, is understandably growing impatient with the situation. “All we want is the same equality as any other citizens within the United States. This situation has caused us great pain,” he says. Perhaps my fellow Latina cousin, Anabel Franceschini Rosa said it best when she said “Puerto Rico continues to be the Latina mistress of the United States government. For a person like me that has lived half her life in PR and half in the US, and while we have benefited from this relationship in many ways, we’ve also been hurt in the process. We are still an undefined people. We have no clear center and no sense of political direction.”

As I see it, empowering the residents of Puerto Rico to work with Congress to resolve this issue needs to be a top priority if our government’s new presidential administration really wants to improve America’s democratic standing all around the world. Our nation’s rebranding of its leadership on civil rights, human rights and the American principle of “liberty and justice for all” really must begin right here in our own backyard if we are to be taken seriously around the globe.

At the same time, I’d like to see Puerto Rico’s own political leaders doing a better job aligning their political parties (more based on one’s positions with regards to the statehood issue) with the mainland’s traditional two-party system represented here in the states as Democrats and Republicans (who get elected based on agendas related to each party). Presently, the current political system in Puerto Rico is so complicated that most Americans would need a playbook to keep up with the political structure.

There were four different political parties represented in Puerto Rico’s last election – the New Progressive Party (NPP) representing a pro-statehood position and fielding gubernatorial candidate, Luis Fortuno, the former non-voting congressional representative who was just elected Puerto Rico’s current governor. The other three political parties are the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) who represent Commonwealth status, led by former Governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila, the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico advocating (?)

In the mean time, I’m also wondering why the voice of my fellow Puerto Ricans living here on the mainland isn’t louder and why our national Hispanic advocacy organizations aren’t doing more to help resolve this issue. My fellow Boricua amigo, Juan Conde, a member of the media, offered an interesting reflection on why mainland Puerto Ricans aren’t more involved when he said “I’m ambivalent (about getting involved) because I am the best and the worst part of what happens when you come to the states. I am very successfully assimilated and my assimilation here reduces my concern for what happens there (on the island of Puerto Rico).”

With regards to my Latino brothers and sisters represented by our national Hispanic advocacy organizations, it seems obvious to me that we’re not going to be able to solve the national illegal immigration crisis in this country if we can’t even find the will or the desire to resolve a century-old issue that is the status question for my beloved Puerto Rico.

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