Puerto Rico for Conservatives 101: Part Two

Editor’s Note: Latino Rebels published Samuel’s first piece yesterday

Full Disclosure: I am personally in favor of Statehood for Puerto Rico.

This is Part Two of my piece to provide conservatives at least a general back story on Puerto Rico, its relationship with the United States, and why the status issue matters for conservatives and the GOP going forward.

What Happened on November 6 and What Happens Next

Even though Puerto Ricans could not vote for President on November 6, they still had every reason to go to the polls. In addition to elections for Governor and Resident Commissioner, another plebiscite was held to get a clearer picture of what Puerto Ricans wanted regarding their relationship with the United States.

The intent of the plebiscite was to (hopefully) eliminate any ambiguity about the desires of the island that previous plebiscites and referenda had created. The plebiscite had two layers of questioning (to paraphrase):

  1. Do you wish to keep the current status of Puerto Rico? Yes or No
  2. If No to Question 1, what status do you wish Puerto Rico to have?
  • Independence
  • Statehood
  • Sovereign Free Association

“‘No” on Question 1 received 54% of the vote. Of those who voted against the status quo, “Statehood” received over 61% of the vote. The message was clear that, at a minimum, Puerto Ricans are not satisfied with the status quo and desired a change in relationship with the United States.

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So what happens now? Unfortunately for those on the island, it is not up to them anymore. At the end of the day, Puerto Rico is beholden to Congress as far as effectuating any policy change regarding the island’s status. A bill must be drafted, negotiated, and passed to grant Puerto Rico statehood. While the Obama White House has expressed a passing interest in addressing the issue, that will not be enough to build any sort of political momentum in Congress.

The status issue in Puerto Rico is by no means a left and right issue. The most public example is the relationship between former Governor Fortuño and Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi. Both are members of the New Progressive Party, but Fortuño is a Reagan Republican while Pierluisi is on the left, endorsed Obama, and caucuses with the Democrats in Congress. Yet, both campaigned together on the island in 2012. You had members of the PNP at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 2012, and you have politically conservative Puerto Ricans on the mainland who are opposed to Statehood, and liberal Democratic Puerto Rican members of the House who are what I like to call “Independentistas.” That being said, the Republican Party in Puerto Rico is an open advocate of Statehood, while the Democratic Party is more in favor of Commonwealth/Status Quo. The status issue creates very strange bedfellows both on the island and in the United States.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D–Illinois)

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D–Illinois)

The biggest problem for Puerto Ricans (who are in favor of statehood) is actually Congress, where they have very few allies, even among the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC). This is where politics comes into play. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) has long been the standard-bearer for Hispanic Democrats in Congress. He has been at the forefront of comprehensive immigration reform for years, and is the leader of the CHC. However, he is anti-statehood and has not been afraid to say it. The reason for this is because Rep. Gutierrez has long been in favor of Independence. The same goes for Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), representing Spanish Harlem. They are the “Independentistas,” as I referred to earlier.

The GOP can take advantage of the opportunity of a divided Democrat caucus on statehood. While immigration reform is going to be the primary “Hispanic-centric” issue addressed in the foreseeable future, the GOP can take the initiative by endorsing statehood, or at the very least bring the issue to light in American media. Now, I am not naïve. I know there will be hostility from conservatives on the idea of statehood such as its costs and possible voter allegiance. But this is another issue the GOP can at least address that affects a core segment of the Hispanic vote within the United States.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R–Idaho)

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R–Idaho)

Congressman Raúl Labrador (R-ID), a Puerto Rican-born, Tea Party-backed conservative, can and should be at the forefront of addressing status and force Gutieerrez and the other supposed “spokespersons” for Puerto Ricans in Congress to explain why he does not want to move forward with the desires of many of his representatives. To borrow a line from my colleague Brittney Morrett (@bmorrett), how great of a sound bite is it for a GOP politician to rhetorically ask Rep. Gutiérrez, “Why do you want to immediately grant federal voting rights to illegal immigrants, but not to 4 million US citizens?”

Conclusion

Puerto Rico’s history with the United States has been a complex one: imperialism, terrorism, sovereignty, and self-determination are the prevailing themes. This guide is meant to be informative for many conservatives who (rightly) have not given much thought about the Caribbean island until now, either as to its historical relationship with the United States, or how the politics could play out if the status issue hits American media. I don’t claim to be a certified expert on everything Puerto Rico, but the status issue has become a personal passion of mine. Hopefully, this piece can give conservatives a foundation to build upon when Puerto Rico eventually gets its day in the sun.

Samuel A. Rosado, Esq. is an attorney from New Jersey. He served as Executive Director of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of New Jersey in 2010, and has been a freelance contributor and writer on Hispanic issues and engagement for Politic365, The Daily Grito, and Misfit Politics. Follow him on twitter at @SARosado.

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