Presidential primary brings attention, frustration to Puerto Rico

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / May 31, 2008

SAN JUAN - Tomorrow's presidential primary is bringing Puerto Ricans just the attention the struggling island has been clamoring for: visits by the candidates and a former president, and media attention that people hope will help their fellow US citizens on the mainland to understand their plight.

But Puerto Ricans have too much experience of being taken for granted to believe it will make a difference.

US politicians promise to help Puerto Rico every four years, then seem to forget about the island once the elections are over, residents here complain.

The Democratic presidential campaigns - at least for now - are indeed paying homage to Puerto Rico, which offers the biggest delegate prize of the remaining three contests that finally bring the long primary voting season to a close on Tuesday.

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York is favored to win tomorrow, owing in large part to the New York-Puerto Rico connection and affection for the Bill Clinton administration. A recent poll by El Vocero, a San Juan newspaper, had Clinton ahead by 51 percent to 38 percent over Obama. But because of the way the 55 delegates are apportioned, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois could add a sizable number of delegates to his count even if he loses.

Obama needs the support of just 42 more delegates to reach the 2,026 needed to win the Democratic nomination -unless the arithmetic changes today when the Democratic Party's rules committee meets in Washington to consider what to do about the disputed delegates from Florida and Michigan.

Clinton has been campaigning more aggressively in Puerto Rico, returning last night for a rally in tourist-packed Old San Juan, but Obama has also visited, and both contenders are on the airwaves with ads in both English and Spanish. Obama reminds Puerto Ricans that he, too, grew up on an island (Hawaii) and understands their needs, while Clinton has underscored her experience and New York ties to Puerto Rican issues and culture.

But for Puerto Ricans, the primary election is less about what the results will mean for the two candidates, and more about what it will mean for the commonwealth itself.

Many are upset about the $2.5 million the government is spending to hold the primaries, and are planning to protest the outlay tomorrow morning. And while Puerto Ricans fight in US wars, they still don't have the right to vote in the general election.

"I'm not voting. I think it is a waste of time and money to vote in a primary when you can't vote in the presidential election" in November, said José Herrera, 22.

"We'll get the spotlight for a little bit. They say they will do something for us, to fix the status problem," said Herrera, who works at a radio station. But Puerto Rico is "not a priority" for US politicians, he lamented.

Politics here have little to do with the traditional left-right construct on the mainland; the dialogue is almost entirely about the future of the island and its relationship with the United States, local and US officials say. Nearly half of Puerto Rico's residents want the island to be a state; approximately an equal number want it to remain a commonwealth, with reduced political rights but also less taxation; and a very small percentage wants Puerto Rico to be an independent country.

Since both Clinton and Obama have supported Puerto Rico's right to determine its own future, voters say they see little difference between the two contenders on the issue most important to Puerto Ricans.

Politics here are largely machine-driven, said Charles Venator, an analyst with the Institute of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at the University of Connecticut, and normally, the election results would be determined by the turnout operations of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. But with both of those major parties divided between Clinton and Obama, the parties' voter turnout efforts will be less effective, he said. Some officials are predicting that turnout - often 80 percent in other Puerto Rican elections - will be half that, or even lower.

"It makes no sense for me" to vote, said Nilda Medina, a 63-year-old food vendor. "And we are losing a lot of money in the vote" that could be directed toward needy Puerto Ricans, she said.

Still, island voters and their advocates are hopeful that the US attention to the Puerto Rican primary will highlight locals' concerns - and perhaps lead Congress to focus on them more.

"This has thrust Puerto Rico into the limelight they desperately need for their future relationship with the US Congress," New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said in an interview after returning from a campaign visit to the island for Obama. While Richardson gives Clinton the edge tomorrow, he said Obama, whom he has endorsed, "can bring Democrats and Republicans together" and help settle the status dispute.

Puerto Ricans enjoy US citizenship but limited benefits from it. They serve in wars, are subject to payroll taxes - without getting the same benefits as state residents - and are not guaranteed all of the rights in the US Constitution, Venator said. Puerto Ricans do not pay federal taxes on income earned here, but must pay US income taxes on federal government salaries, or on income earned outside Puerto Rico, he said.

Representative José Serrano, a New York Democrat who was born in Puerto Rico, said the island has suffered one of the highest casualty rates among its soldiers in Iraq. "How ironic, that they served the commander in chief and never voted," said Serrano, who has campaigned here for Clinton.

Tomorrow's contest, many Puerto Ricans believe, is a rare chance to remind Americans - and perhaps the next president - of the need to address double-digit unemployment in a place where nearly 45 percent of people live in poverty.

"We need more money, more jobs, and more tourism. Without [tourists], we are nothing," said Raymond Cruz, a 46-year-old roofer and painter.

Cruz said he was voting for Clinton because she would bring "change" to Puerto Rico's circumstances.

Jackie Oben, 52, said she would cast her vote for Obama because "deep in my heart . . . I believe he cares about the poor."

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