ECLECTIC RANT: Puerto Rico: The GOP Primary, Latino Vote and Statehood

By Ralph E. Stone
Friday March 30, 2012 - 03:56:00 PM

My wife and I just returned from a visit to Puerto Rico. The temperatures were in the high 80s with very little humidity and no rain. We spent most of our time in old San Juan, but did take a 2-hour road trip across the island to Ponce, named after Juan Ponce de León y Loayza, the great-grandson of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León.

During our visit, the GOP hopefuls, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum personally campaigned for Puerto Rico's 20 delegates. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich did not personally campaign there. The vote was held on Sunday -- with no alcohol sales during voting -- and as has been reported, Romney won all 20 delegates to the national convention at stake.

Why would Romney and Santorum spend so much time for 20 delegates when the Illinois primary with 69 delegates at stake was just a few days away? Probably because to win the White House, the GOP candidate will have to win about 45 percent of the Hispanic vote. Obama won about 67 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008.  

There are about 21.5 million Hispanic voters now eligible to vote in the November 2012 presidential election, with about 60 percent registered to vote compared to 70 percent Black and 74 percent White. If registration drives are successful between now and the election, the number of eligible Hispanic voters will increase. Hispanic voters have a chance to influence the outcome for president in at least 24 states.  

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but are not eligible to vote in the presidential election. However, Puerto Ricans are the second largest Hispanic group in the U.S., including those who migrated from Puerto Rico and those born outside of Puerto Rico. That's why both Romney and Santorum felt it necessary to make appearances in the Puerto Rican primary to court the Hispanic vote for the general election. 

Statehood is a hot issue for Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rico is a bilingual island, although Spanish is really the main language spoken with English a second language. When asked, Romney said he would support statehood for Puerto Rico as a bilingual state.  

Santorum on the other hand raised the ire of local voters by stating he would favor statehood only if English was universally spoken. Later he backtracked a bit saying he advocates English as a "language of opportunity," a position held by the Pro English, U.S. English, and Tea Party movements. 

At this point a very brief look at Puerto Rican history is useful to clarify the Puerto Rican statehood issue. On November 19, 1493, Christopher Columbus landed on what is now called Puerto Rico. The first settlement, Caparra, was founded on August 8, 1508 by Juan Ponce de León, a lieutenant under Columbus, who later became the first governor of the island. Spain fortified Puerto Rico because it was the first major island with water, shelter, and supplies that sailing ships came to en route to the Americas from Europe via Africa's west coast. Spain built a massive, complex system of fortifications to protect ships carrying gold, silver, gems, spices, and furs from Mexico and Central and South America. Castillo San Felipe del Morro (“El Morro”), built in 1539, was the major fortification. Spain built nine other fortifications in the Caribbean to provide safe harbors and protection to its ships. El Morro is now part of the National Park Service and well worth a visit. 

In 1898, the Spanish-American war commenced. A U.S. squadron of 12 ships under the command of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson took control of Puerto Rico. One of the U.S.' principal objectives was to take control of the Spanish possessions of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Philippines, and Guam. On December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed in which Spain renounced all claim to Cuba, ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S., and transferred sovereignty over the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million. 

On July 4, 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed Public Act 600, establishing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, allowing Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution. The residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens and they are represented in Congress by a Resident Commissioner with a voice but no vote. Residents of Puerto Rico generally do not pay federal income taxes but do pay Social Security, Medicare and Unemployment taxes, and use the U.S. dollar as their currency..  

There have been plebiscites on the issue of statehood in 1967, 1993, and 1998, all favoring keeping Puerto Rico a Commonwealth. Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño -- a Republican and Romney supporter -- favors statehood for Puerto Rico.  

A two-part status refernendums will be held on November 6, 2012. The first referendum will ask voters whether they want to maintain the current commonwealth status under the territorial clause of the U.S. Constitution or whether they prefer a nonterritorial option. If more voters check the nonterritorial option, a second vote would be held giving people three status options: statehood, independence or free association. (Under international law, a freely associated state is a sovereign nation in a joint governing arrangement with another nation that either nation can unilaterally end.)  

Even with Governor Fortuño’s support, it is uncertain whether Puerto Ricans will vote this time for statehood. No matter what the voters decide, statehood would still have to be approved by Congress. Last year, President Barack Obama said he believes the island will remain a U.S. Commonwealth unless there is a “solid indication” of support for statehood. That probably means a simple majority would not be enough. 

Puerto Rico is known as the Land of Enchantment, which we can certainly attest to. But underneath, the elements of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship have been, and continue to be, matters of debate.