What I Learned (and Didn’t Learn) From Tonight’s Debate on Puerto Rico’s Status

Originally Published at JulioRVarela.com

Tonight, Puerto Rico's Noticias 24/7 broadcast a debate to discuss the island's upcoming November 6 political status plebiscite. The moderated forum featured pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuño, pro-independence candidate for governor Juan Dalmau, and  Luis Delgado, who supports a freely associated sovereign state.

I could get into the details and try to encapsulate decades of political status history into this post, but that would only complicate matters. All you need to know is this: Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth (some would say "colony") of the United States since 1952 and a US territory (some would say "colony) since American troops landed (some would say "invaded") on the island in 1898. In 1917, Puerto Ricans became (some would say "forced to become") US citizens. On the island, Puerto Ricans do not have the same political rights as American citizens who live on the mainland. To some, this only proves how colonial Puerto Rico is. To others, this confirms that Puerto Ricans on the island are just second-class American citizens stuck in status limbo. Add to the fact that Puerto Ricans on the island fight for the United States, receive federal benefits and entitlements from the US, but then represent Puerto Rico in the Olympics, cry when Miss Puerto Rico is named Miss Universe, have immense pride in their boricua-nessand are still a people with a strong national identity, and you can see how complicated this issue really is.

In addition, let's mention that some Americans would rather cut off Puerto Rico from the federal rolls even though generations of Puerto Ricans have defended Americans' rights and freedoms, and it gets really complicated. Wait a minute, there is a Spanish-speaking island that is part of the United States? When did that happen and why are we allowing it to happen? You get the idea. (For more on this anti-Puerto Rican sentiment in the United States, you can read a column I wrote over a year ago.)

Finally, since the plebiscite is non-binding, and in essence nothing could ever happen until the US Congress decides to reopen the status process for Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans are literally voting for an issue they have no control over. Congress owns you, Puerto Rico. At least for now.

The whole status question is… complicated. Like really complicated.

At tonight's debate it got even more complicated because not everyone's position was represented. You see, the first part of the two-question plebiscite asks Puerto Ricans if they would like to maintain the current territorial relationship with the United States. The three debate participants who accepted Noticias 24/7's invitation all agreed that NO is the only option for Puerto Ricans. The one person favoring a YES vote, the Popular Party's Alejandro García Padilla, Fortuño's main challenger in the gubernatorial election (also on November 6), didn't even show up at the debate. You would think that García Padilla knew about a poll where 51% of Puerto Ricans actually favor a YES vote to the first question, and you would also think that if this were his position, he would have had the political courage to get up in front of a televised debate and defend his position. Especially when the guy you want to defeat in a few weeks is also debating. García Padilla didn't, and it was a costly mistake. I actually think Fortuño will win the governor's race now.

And I also think that García Padilla's absence hurt the entire YES position as well. While Fortuño, Dalmau, and Delgado could all agree on a NO vote even though they would disagree on the second part of the plebiscite—which asks voters to choose either statehood, independence or freely associated sovereign state—tonight's debate proved to me that a NO vote is now the only option for Puerto Ricans. Why? Because in the end, even though Congress doesn't have to do anything, a public vote that would reject the island's current status will get attention. Voting NO gives Puerto Ricans a chance that Congress would maybe revisit the status question. Voting YES would keep the status quo and last time I checked, this commonwealth ride needs to end. Fortuño, Dalmau, and Delgado would concur. Puerto Rico really hasn't improved at all and the "colonially entitled society" is still reality. Now I could have been convinced that a YES vote would actually still be possible, but the guy who supports the YES vote wasn't at the debate. Fail.

As for Delgado and his position on a "freely associated sovereign state?" Let's just start with the term. It's way too long. However, in theory, this status option is the best of both worlds: it allows for Puerto Rico to have a more flexible arrangement with the United States without having Puerto Ricans lose their US citizenship (at least that is what Delgado and others hope). Less dependence on the US economy could occur, since it would give Puerto Rico the ability to negotiate with the US on issues pertaining to the island. For example, Puerto Rican ports could be open to ships from others countries, allowing for more economic opportunities. This arrangement would also maintain many of the things that make Puerto Rico unique, both linguistically and culturally. 

Now there is theory and then there is the selling of that theory. I thought that Delgado didn't do a great job selling this option to Puerto Ricans. It felt muddied and too complex. I can't recall if Delgado really presented a concrete example or an explanation that basically tried to answer the question that always hounds this option: how is this different from the current setup? Delgado was correct in saying that a NO vote is the way to go for the first part of the plebiscite, but in his push to promote his option, his biggest point was that Puerto Rico would work with the United States to determine its destiny. Couldn't we just do that now? What is to stop us from just determining our own destiny and then letting the US know our intentions? We really need a vote for that?

Fortuño, quite frankly, gave the most coherent argument, even though it was an argument that, at times, felt like a politician overpromising the world. Fortuño—who is facing a very tough re-election campaign (we will see after tonight's gaffe by García Padilla) and a Puerto Rican economy that is still stuck—basically used the promise of statehood as the cure-all for Puerto Rico's problems. Need jobs? Let's become a state. Want more federal money? Let's become a state. Let's lower the crime rate? Statehood is the only option.

I thought Fortuño did give the best line of the night when he shared his thoughts about the status quo: "I believe Puerto Ricans will reject what holds us back." I believe that, too. Most Puerto Ricans I know feel that change must indeed happen, and with García Padilla not attending the debate, his absence only solidified that need for change.

The governor's strongest argument for statehood should have been the only one he should have used: equal rights and political representation. In essence, that is the biggest prize—Puerto Rico could get six-seven members of the House of Representatives, two Senators, and also the right to vote for President. No one can question that, even though Fortuño won't let Puerto Ricans know that many Americans aren't really gung-ho about a predominantly Spanish-speaking state of the Union.

Furthermore, Fortuño was savvy enough to know that many Puerto Ricans living on the mainland (particularly those in Florida) were watching the debate, so he made it a point to remind people (twice) that Mitt Romney has already promised that if Puerto Ricans vote NO on part 1 and STATEHOOD on part 2 and if Romney got elected President, a new President Romney would begin the statehood process. That sure are a lot of "ifs."

And Fortuño really stretched the statehood hard sell by saying that not only will Puerto Ricans get more federal aid (more than 2 billion dollars), they won't really need to pay federal taxes, since most Puerto Ricans don't earn enough to pay federal taxes. Yes, this is coming from a Republican governor, and the last time I checked, Republicans in general don't like the fact that 47% of Americans aren't paying taxes right now. Weird, huh? Welcome to Puerto Rico, where down is up and up is down.

Which brings me to Dalmau, the standard-bearer for Puerto Rico's Independence Party. Dalmau is sharp and I have to say that his points about Puerto Rico's highly dependent economic relationship with the United States and how Puerto Rico is seen by many as just another playground of US corporations are good ones. Has Puerto Rico's progress been snuffed because we are still a US colony? Many would agree, and it would be hard to argue against that. In addition, Dalmau's distinction between citizenship and nationalism and how they are not the same also resonated. He was also quick to point out the island's long and vibrant history, as well as the legacy many of its independence leaders have formed.

Yet Dalmau missed one very important point: how will Puerto Rico succeed once it becomes independent? Why didn't he talk more about that? In the end, Dalmau didn't give many specifics and that is the one issue that still troubles many when it comes to independence. It still feels like unchartered territory.

 

Finally, Dalmau's critique of Puerto Rico being the world's "last colony" will always speak to the hearts of many Puerto Ricans. But how effective is this call to elevate the colony to a new status when in the end Dalmau is just as passive as everybody else? Has the repression of the independence movement in Puerto Rico really succeeded? It appears so, since Dalmau would rather participate in a plebiscite that is still dependent on the United States instead of taking control of the plebiscite and demanding that the will of Puerto Ricans be heard.

And that is the biggest problem with tonight's debate. All three speakers (and the guy who wasn't there) were never active with their comments and remarks. It was all about pushing for a non-binding vote that may or may not send a message to the United States. The debate and the politics surrounding it still assume that the United States is the Big Daddy and Puerto Ricans are just kids asking for the car keys. What if Daddy gets angry? What do we do then?

True political courage and leadership occur when people step away from the same talking points that got them to where they are and begin to literally alter the discourse. I would have had more respect for all the speakers tonight if they stood there and announced that the plebiscite would be binding and it would lead to real self-determination. I would have had more respect if the speakers told people that they should have their family members living on the mainland begin to pressure elected officials in Congress and called for a binding vote. I would have had more respect if the speakers tonight took control of their destiny. Now. Like right now. What would have been more powerful—a televised debate that didn't reveal anything new or a rally among all of the island's political parties live streaming into Washington DC saying that Puerto Ricans' voices must be heard?

Instead, the island of Puerto Rico is still playing games and the biggest charade is the question of political status. No one is truly taking this seriously because it is all part of a system that has been central to the island's politics for decades. Just dangle illusions of status and maybe just maybe the United States will listen to us.

Tonight, the people of Puerto Rico could have screamed in unison: ¡BASTA YA! Our destiny is in our hands and no one else's. However, all I heard were the same old tired whimpers. I am done listening to the arguments of the past. Are you? And if so, what are you going to do about it?

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Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77 on Twitter) founded LatinoRebels.com (part of Latino Rebels, LLC) in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He will pen a weekly column on LR each week. Recently, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS' Face the NationNPR, and The New York Times.

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