Status Symbol

With Puerto Rico playing such a pivotal role in the presidential primaries this year, will the island garner the same attention in Washington next year with a new president and a new Congress?

While most observers say the attention the island got was largely a positive thing, it’s not likely to translate into any significant change in the way Washington politicos treat their fellow citizens on the Caribbean island.

“The candidates made promises to Puerto Ricans on the island, but they make promises to everyone when they’re running for office,” said a senior congressional aide who works on island issues. “And I don’t think the campaigns understand that Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico are not the same Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland. Obviously Puerto Ricans living here care about what goes on there, and vice versa, but the issues are different, and there really wasn’t even campaigning going on among Puerto Ricans here, who can actually vote in the presidential elections.”

The Barack Obama campaign, for instance, did not use one of its earliest supporters when it campaigned in Puerto Rico, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Chicago, who himself is Puerto Rican. They opted instead to send New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Mexican American and largely unknown on the island, to stump for Obama.

Rebeca Logan, executive producer of Epicentro and other Washington-based programs under the Hispanic Communications Network that examine Puerto Rico and other Latino issues, adds that the primary brought national awareness to the status issue that remains unresolved, but “specific legislation is not likely.” Every interest has its own constituency in Washington, she adds, and Puerto Rico is not among the top issues. “Legislators interested in island issues will certainly push, but I doubt it’s going to be among the key issues [next year].”

Puerto Rico’s relationship as a territory of the United States means its residents are born U.S. citizens, with their own governor, legislature and constitution, but they cannot vote in presidential elections. The island’s participation in U.S. presidential primaries was long established after complaints from island politicians that they were being ignored by their counterparts on the mainland. For many years, however, by the time Puerto Rico participated, the decisions on the nominees had pretty much already been decided, and the island’s participation was never a factor. Until this year, which former island governor Carlos Romero Barceló said was pivotal.

“The primary not only increased the nation’s awareness of this relationship but also added to Puerto Ricans’ awareness of how important it is to participate in presidential elections and elect our representatives to the House and the Senate of the nation in which we are citizens,” the pro-statehooder wrote in Caribbean Business.

But not so fast, says a member of Congress.

“The problem up here [on Capitol Hill] is that there is such an incredible amount of ignorance among my own colleagues when it comes to Puerto Rico,” said a member of Congress who asked for anonymity to not “embarrass” fellow legislators. “When I mentioned to one of them I was going down there for a visit, they asked me to bring back ‘native money’ for their coin collection,” not realizing the island uses the U.S. dollar.

That wouldn’t surprise Juan Manuel García Passalaqua, a well-known lawyer, writer and political analyst in Puerto Rico.

“During the primaries I saw hundreds of e-mails that displayed a total ignorance of the island by the American people,” he said. “Puerto Rico is not an issue that is part of their daily lives,” Passalaqua adds, though “it really doesn’t matter what U.S. residents think. It matters what happens in Congress.”

Nonetheless, observers say given the lack of basic knowledge about Puerto Rico even among legislators, the chances of island issues becoming more prominent in Washington in the next legislative session are not good.

H.R. 900, the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007, is an example of legislation that languished in this last Congress. It offers a constitutional convention wherein residents of Puerto Rico would elect delegates in order to propose to Washington three options that would define the island’s relationship with the United States: the current commonwealth (with an enhanced role for the island), statehood and independence. Another try was H.R. 1230, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2007, providing for a referendum to take place no later than December 2009 to decide the island’s political status with Washington. Neither bill progressed much last year, and the last time a political status referendum took place on the island, “none of the above” won.

“The issues of the war in Iraq and the economy are going to be front and center with the new president and the new congressional session,” adds Logan. “That is going to overshadow everything else.”

By Patricia Guadalupe