Obama’s Love Letter to Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had most of the island’s 63 delegates on her side for weeks.

Then, on Feb. 12, Barack Obama wrote a Valentine’s Day letter to the territory’s governor that was filled with promises unheard of since the establishment in 1952 of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Democrats in Puerto Rico will hold a primary on June 7 and with his letter, Obama has a much better chance of gaining a big share of the delegates, which could be a decisive factor in the campaign for convention delegates.

Until recently, this primary was an obligatory afterthought in an island that was ceded to the U.S. after the 1898 Spanish American War. Puerto Rico has a representative in Congress, but with no vote outside committees. Island Puerto Ricans can’t vote for president, although, as delegates, they can support party nominees for president. The island’s borders and foreign affairs are dictated by the U.S. These are among the myriad reasons that the political status of Puerto Rico has been debated on the island for decades.

But now, with the surprisingly close Democratic primary nearing the finish line, Puerto Rico has emerged as a player.

Obama had already been to Puerto Rico in January for a controversial fundraiser in which a handful of the island’s wealthy raised over $100,000. His hit-and-run visit offended many, and no amount of exalting the island’s beauty would do to repair the damage. It did not help that Puerto Rican officials had to remind Obama’s handlers that proper protocol trumps ambition, convincing them that the candidate had to at least stop by and say “hola” to Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.

Today, the national delegate count is so close that both Clinton and Obama can rightly claim to represent a large swath of the electorate.

With victory in the balance, both campaigns have had to retool their strategies. It may be that the current that had been carrying Clinton in Puerto Rico has been diverted toward Obama.

Clinton has long enjoyed support from the Democratic Party in Puerto Rico. As a senator for New York, where most of the 4 million stateside Puerto Ricans reside, Clinton has successfully engaged Puerto Ricans with her pro-working class and education policies as well as her call for the U.S. to cease military bombing exercises on Puerto Rico’s island of Vieques.

Most stateside Puerto Ricans are in constant contact with their islander relatives and friends, so that whatever politicians say here resonates there. No politician can speak out of both sides of his mouth without the contradictions being heard everywhere.

When U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, signed on to a congressional proposal that would have islanders repeatedly vote between statehood and independence until one won over the other, he was roundly criticized for ignoring the third option—the island’s longstanding status as a commonwealth. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, on the other hand, was clearly better informed and backed another bill in which islanders could decide among the commonwealth, independence and statehood options.

Now comes Obama with his letter that makes those proposals almost irrelevant.

His letter is informed, detailed, and astounding in its commitment to Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans have waited a long time to hear that kind of respect for the island’s democratic processes. Other politicians have manipulated previous status referendums on the island.

Obama’s letter is poetic, pragmatic and committed, and it promises that money won’t sway his White House.

In the 1990s, then-Gov. Pedro Rosselló mired the island in corruption unseen in its democratic history. He oversaw an administration that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from federal housing, AIDS and education programs. About 40 of his administration’s thieves are in federal and state prisons today.

But because Rosselló funneled untold millions of dollars into the Democratic Party, then-President Bill Clinton danced to Rossello’s pro-statehood drum beat and appointed a pro-statehood mannequin to lead a task force on the island’s status. Rosselló even joined the parade of Clinton supporters who slept in the Lincoln bedroom.

While Obama clearly needs Puerto Rican Democrats on his side, his letter doesn’t have a ring of false flattery to it.

“Puerto Rico’s status must be based on the principle of self-determination,” he wrote. “As President I will work closely with the Puerto Rican government, its civil society and with Congress to create a genuinely transparent process for self-determination that will be true to the best traditions of democracy. As President I will actively engage Congress and the Puerto Rican people in promoting this deliberative, open and unbiased process, that may include a constitutional convention, or a plebiscite, and my Administration will adhere to a policy of strict neutrality on Puerto Rican status matters. My Administration will recognize all valid options to resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s status, including commonwealth, statehood, and independence.”

The letter could seal his victory in the delegate count.

This column originally appeared on Feb. 28, 2008 Valley Advocate