Friday, May 23, 2008

Rum Goings On in Puerto Rico

So I was in Puerto Rico, talking about rum and tourism, and engaging in a bit of both,
but took time out to check on the politics.

Here is my Guardian Comment is Free piece from 22 May 2008


On June 1 people in Puerto Rico will go to the polls to vote for who should be the Democratic candidate for the US presidency. Michelle Obama was making a high profile visit as putative first lady, and most of the advertising in San Juan that I could see was for Obama, while the governor Anibal Acevedo-Vila has endorsed him.

However, since Acevedo-Vila is under Federal indictment on campaign finance charges, the embattled governor may not be able to deliver the votes for his endorsee and it is highly likely that Puerto Rico will return a majority for Hilary Clinton - who will cite it as supporting evidence for her claim that she alone can pull out the popular vote.

There is just one small point. While Puerto Ricans are US citizens, unless they move to the mainland, they cannot vote in the actual general election in November - even though they can in the Democratic primaries.

The average white melanin-sensitive working class voter, whose support Hillary is so dangerously courting, could probably not distinguish between most Puerto Ricans and African Americans. However, many Puerto Ricans can and do. No matter what their appearance, few self-identify as black.

Puerto Rico is a standing reminder that Iraq is just the latest in a long line of US interventions and manufactured excuses. The explosion on the battleship Maine, onto the Tonkin Gulf incident and then WMDs in Iraq, all display a continuity in enforcing liberation on other people whether they want it or not.

As a Spanish colony, Puerto Rico had more autonomy than as a "liberated" US territory.
In English, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth; in Spanish, it is an "Estado Libre Asociado," with shades of the Free State of Ireland.

On her husband's behalf, Michelle Obama promised self-determination for the island without committing to any of the options, but the problem is that the islanders have generally been deadlocked on the options: statehood, status quo, independence or enhanced commonwealth status.

Puerto Ricans are proud of their heritage and their language, and deep in their hearts would probably like to be independent - but like their Caribbean neighbours in the French departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, the material benefits of association with the metropolis outweigh the spiritual allure. Puerto Ricans have the St Augustine dilemma, who in his debauched youth allegedly said: "Give me chastity and continence, but not just yet".

Hence Puerto Rico's indeterminate status. Full statehood would end colonial status, and allow Puerto Ricans to vote for president and have a voice in the Federal laws that apply to the island, superseding local legislation. It would also be a big boost for the Democrats in congressional and presidential races, which is why Republicans may not be so ecstatic about the prospect. They would not make it easier by, for example, allowing more autonomy or an opt-out clause

The commonwealth status allows a hope of future independence, if (for example) they discovered oil under the island. It also allows for more autonomy for local politicians and interest groups than statehood - but it is understandably seen as a continuation of colonial servitude by the vociferous minority. In the meantime, Washington can be - like Cavafy's barbarians - "some kind of solution" to local wrangling.

The indeterminacy has lasted over a century, which does not augur well for American nation-building exercises elsewhere. But if the Puerto Ricans wanted to make sacrifices for humanity, they should really opt for statehood, and tilt the electoral balance in Washington, whatever mistake they may make on June 1.

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