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The Puerto Rico Democratic Primary is on March 29, and the debate over whether Puerto Ricans (meaning, here and throughout, those of us on the Island) should participate in the contest is in full swing. It goes without saying that the fact that there’s a Puerto Rico primary at all, when we can’t vote in the general election, is one of the many absurd features of our colonial status. For many, that alone is argument enough against voting in a presidential primary, which they see as a tacit endorsement of a fundamentally undemocratic relationship. I sympathize with that view. In fact, I’ve held it before and might hold it still with any other candidate. But I believe there’s a strong argument in favor of independentistas and other Puerto Ricans who reject colonialism to vote for Bernie Sanders.
That argument is premised on two fundamental ideas about politics. First: that sometimes good —or at least useful— opportunities arise from unjust or even nefarious circumstances. Second: that without abandoning our core beliefs or our efforts to forge new political realities, we need to think and act strategically, not because we like it or accept it, but because by definition it’s the battlefield in which we must fight to change it.
The question then becomes whether Sanders or any presidential candidate would advance change that some of us, at least, are interested in the most: sovereignty for Puerto Rico. A common argument against Puerto Ricans voting in the primary is that no candidate is truly interested in addressing Puerto Rico’s status, much less have a substantive plan for doing so. This is painfully true. But it’s also understandable within the context of American politics, and to my mind, it’s the wrong question. What we should ask is whether any candidate rises above the rest in terms of policies and attitudes that, even if only little by little, would create an environment more conducive to Puerto Rican independence in the long term.
Each of us should analyze the conditions that prop up Puerto Rico’s colonial status. In Puerto Rico, we have much work to do on this front. My own analysis includes two fundamental issues. First: the greed of American corporations, from mega stores to Wall St. vulture funds, who benefit to the tune of billions of dollars from the territorial status quo. Second: a general sense among Democrats that the United States could be (especially compared to the GOP and Trump) a benevolent master that treats Puerto Rico fairly, values Puerto Ricans as “people of color,” and gives us that best-of-both-worlds version of the Estado Libre Asociado that some delusional colonialists on the Island still dream of.
On both fronts, Bernie Sanders is not only the best presidential candidate, but a peerless one. Perhaps on the first point Elizabeth Warren, who also promised progressive policies toward corporations and billionaires, came close. But while she describes herself as “a capitalist to [her] bones,” Sanders proudly calls himself a socialist—something unprecedented in the American political mainstream. Surely, even if Sanders won the presidency, he could not completely eliminate the moneyed influence of those who benefit from Puerto Rico’s colonial status and shamelessly argue to maintain it. But again, it’s a matter of changing, the sociopolitical conditions that support and reinforce colonialism.
(While on the topic of money, let me dispatch with another frequent objection to the Puerto Rico primary—that it’s little more than a fundraising scheme. We are talking about candidates that raise millions of dollars in just a few hours in the United States. As Latino Rebels documented, through the end of 2019, all American presidential candidates combined (Trump included!) had raised less than $100,000 from Puerto Rico. This is chump change. I’m sure they enjoy every penny, but the objection is laughable. However, I do agree with another objection—that holding the primary on the island costs a few million dollars and Puerto Rican taxpayers end picking up the tab. If it were up to me, the Democratic Party would pay the costs. But given the wasteful, nonsensical ways the Puerto Rican government spends its money, this strikes me as one of the least offensive ones.)
But on to the second point, which I consider the most important, I believe one of the greatest impediments to Puerto Rican independence is that, deep down, many well-intentioned American politicians (and citizens, for that matter) believe something like this: “Sure, there’s something unfair and kind of undemocratic about Puerto Rico’s status, but it’s a small, poor island nation, and the U.S. is a big, rich, powerful country. Better to keep Puerto Rico under its imperfect embrace instead of ‘abandoning’ it, which would be even more undemocratic, given how few people on the Island seem to want independence from the U.S.”
I would bet that all Democratic presidential candidates, Sanders included, share that sentiment, which I find wrong-headed, but again understandable from the American perspective. But I suspect that Sanders shares it to a much lesser extent and is more open to seeing things differently. While other presidential candidates merely talk about more federal funds for Puerto Rico, Sanders has been the most forceful—not just now, but in the history of American presidential politics—in denouncing Puerto Rico’s status as “colonial.” (It’s useful to compare him to Warren, who has also been above-average when it comes to Puerto Rico policies, but who inexcusably demurred—listen starting at 13:00 here—when Latino USA’s María Hinojosa asked her flat out whether Puerto Rico is a colony.)
It is truly only Sanders who speaks firmly and with moral clarity about the United States’ long history of imperialism. Whatever one thinks about the particulars of his statements or support for various governments, his own history is undeniably one of deep concern and solidarity with Latin America. Even now, in the heat of the presidential race, he loudly reminds his audience of the various U.S.-led coups and invasions in the region, though he must know full well that it costs him votes in a country where Cold War-era fearmongering is still alive and kicking.
Sanders is someone who understands that the United States has frequently been a bad actor on the international stage. That worldview is unprecedented at the highest levels of American politics, and I believe it’s indispensable in concluding that the U.S. (not just Trump’s Republican party) has been —and still is— a bad actor when it comes to Puerto Rico, and that the only just course of action is to grant us our freedom. I’ll say it again, it’s a matter of shifting, bit by bit, the political culture and context of the country that unfortunately controls our fate.
The argument above should be enough, but there are other considerations. One of the primary goals of pro-statehooders in Puerto Rico is (or should be, if they were smart and capable) convincing Republicans that, as a state, Puerto Rico would not elect a wholly Democratic congressional delegation. Voting en masse in the Democratic primary —and for the Party’s most leftist candidate, no less— seems a great way to spoil their game.
And of course, there is a whole other argument based on civic responsibility and transnational solidarity. It should go without saying that, like it or not (and I don’t like it at all), American politics affects Puerto Rico. It affects even more the lives of our family and friends in the United States, our Latin American brothers and sisters being detained at the border, and all the peoples of the world who might enjoy greater peace and prosperity if the United States were governed just a bit better. Puerto Ricans can do very little —perhaps little more than add our proverbial grain of sand— to change those political realities. We may be duty-bound to do so nonetheless.
Perhaps I’ve proven entirely unconvincing, and anyone who reads this might assign just a 1% chance of success to this admittedly idealistic theory of change. But I would reply that not voting carries a 0% chance of success. No one, on the Island or the “mainland,” is treating Puerto Ricans’ low turnout in presidential primaries as a rejection of the colonial status. I very much doubt that, should electoral participation improve, anyone would conclude that there has been some shift in sentiment about our relationship to the United States. If we gain something else by not voting, or lose something else by doing so, I confess I lack the perceptiveness to imagine it. But I’m all ears.
I understand that the idea of advancing our struggle by participating in the democratic process of the country that denies us full democracy is, to say the least, counterintuitive. But in this and in all cases, we should seek to overcome facile ideological assumptions and submit our political dispositions to a rigorous analysis: What are the pros and cons? The costs and benefits? The causes and consequences? Let us explore —or, at the very least, let’s not dismiss too quickly— absolutely every avenue, improbable as it may seem, that could lead to freedom for Puerto Rico.
Alberto Medina is a writer/editor. He tweets from @AlbertoMedinaPR.