The Candy Store

Puerto Rico went from being an afterthought to nearly the last frontier for both the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates.

Through tenacious campaigning, Sen. Hillary Clinton has again dashed Sen. Barack Obama’s hope of a coronation. Hubris took over before the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries in which millions were waiting to vote throughout 20 states, when in a radio interview Obama said he going to “sew up” the nomination and looked forward to dining in the White House with his family.

Then Clinton triumphed in every big decisive state that matters in the November elections, forcing him to ponder his storied string of victories that includes Alaska (where 400 voted), Hawaii (33,000), and other small states.

That is why, two days before Valentine’s Day, Obama rediscovered Puerto Rico and fell in love, wiser than before. He had been there in January for a six-figure fund-raiser attended by a handful of the island’s wealthy, but his attempt to pick up the cash and go without following protocol and saying hello to the governor put off many Puerto Ricans. That his entourage blocked out the press also played badly in the headlines.

So he sent a letter to Puerto Rico Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá in which he promised that, as president, he would actively seek to engage islanders to vote for their political preference: independence, free associated state status, or statehood.

The letter was received like the biggest box of chocolates you ever saw. At last, islanders said, someone is paying attention to us.

But last week, just as the swooning was getting out of hand, Clinton stepped in with her own bouquet and an even bigger box of chocolates. She not only promised islanders the same support as Obama, but also the kitchen sink: hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid for the poor, who account for more than 65 percent of the residents; her health care plan for everyone; and, to remind people that she has been a consistent ally in the Vieques debacle, in which the U.S. military used Puerto Rico for target practice for 60 years, she promised to clean up the contaminated mess left by presidents dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The June 1 primary turned from being about Clinton and Obama to being about Puerto Rico.

The 25-mile-wide by 100-mile-long island was Spain’s colony for more than 400 years. At the conclusion of the 1898 Spanish American War, the U.S. seized the island, and for five decades treated it like a whore. Sugar cane was its biggest crop, a resource that made drunken men out of already oppressive hacienda owners. The island was a plantation and its people, a hybrid forged from the blood of Africans, the indigenous and Spanish, died by the thousands every year because of disease and violence.

Over 50 years ago, Puerto Ricans won the right to choose all their representatives and voted for a new form of political alliance, the free associated state. It grants the island more autonomy than the 50 states enjoy, but most importantly, this political status enables Puerto Ricans to retain rich cultural traditions and identity, including the speaking of español. There are many who favor statehood and others who clamor for independence. The three political options have been a source of contention for decades.

Most islanders are deeply knowledgeable about day-to-day political developments, and close to 80 percent of them vote. Clinton and Obama do well to lay themselves out for the long-disrespected islanders. Their promises are sweeping island residents off their feet.

But Obama’s cynical play on NAFTA, where he said one thing publicly while a top aide said another to Canadian officials, showed that to him, words matter only in relation to whomever he is speaking with.

And Clinton’s longstanding previous support for a much-reviled bill that would force islanders to choose between statehood and independence until one or the other status wins continues to cause many islanders to recoil from her.

Still, the competition for the nomination has made this small, over-populated Spanish-speaking island, mired in an economic haze, poverty and a high crime rate, matter in presidential politics. It has become a candy store for both camps.

This column appeared originally in The Valley Advocate on April 3, 2008