Posts Tagged ‘first elected governor’

Puerto Rico’s Moment in the Sun

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

By MICHAEL JANEWAY
New York Times (May 22, 2008)

PUERTO RICO, an afterthought trophy for the United States 110 years ago at the end of the Spanish-American War and an island in limbo since, has become an improbable player in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Its primary on June 1 could bolster Mrs. Clinton’s claim to a majority of the popular vote — the combined tally for all the Democratic primaries and caucuses held across the country over the past six months.

Puerto Rico’s formal role in the process is indeed weighty. Its 63 voting delegates — 55 elected ones and eight superdelegates — at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer will outnumber delegations from more than half the states (including Kentucky and Oregon) and the District of Columbia. Yet Puerto Rico does not have a vote in the Electoral College, nor will its 2.5 million registered voters cast ballots for president in November.

How in the world did this happen? From the beginning, the question of Puerto Rico has perplexed the United States. The island was essential to the defense of the Panama Canal, so we did not make it independent, in contrast to two other Spanish possessions we gained in the war, Cuba (which become independent in 1902) and the Philippines (1946). And we judged it foreign in language and culture — and worse, overpopulated — so New Mexico-style Americanization leading to statehood was out of the question.

Similarly, Puerto Ricans have never resolved their relationship with the United States. For almost 50 years after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rican sentiment was divided between dreams of statehood and of independence. This ambivalence deterred the island from ever petitioning Congress for one or the other. And until mid-century, sporadic outbursts of violent nationalism haunted the scene.

Partly to put such extremism out of business, Congress in 1948 allowed Puerto Rico to elect its own governor and then in 1950 gave it an intricately designed, semi-autonomous “commonwealth” status short of statehood. Two years later, the island adopted its own Constitution, and Congress quickly ratified it.

Puerto Ricans elect their own Legislature, along with the governor. They enjoy entitlements like Social Security, but they do not pay federal income taxes. They retain their own cultural identity (Spanish is the prevailing tongue) but live under the umbrella of the American trade system and the American military. They have been citizens since 1917, but they have no vote in Congress or for the presidency.

The man who brought forth this unique arrangement, which has come to seem permanent, was Luis Muñoz Marín, who dominated Puerto Rico’s politics beginning in 1940. In 1948 he became the island’s first elected governor. He won three more terms and could easily have been “president for life.” A stretch of 116th Street in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem is named Luis Muñoz Marín Boulevard in his honor.

Muñoz was an eloquent advocate of independence until, faced with daunting statistics at the end of World War II, he concluded that Puerto Rico’s impoverished economy could not support nationhood. So he began packaging his third-way brainchild.

When pitching commonwealth on the mainland, Muñoz — an artist of words and imagery who also enjoyed a drink or two — would observe that Puerto Rico is the olive in the American martini. The phrase went down well in Washington, but Muñoz used different language at home. Neither Congress nor the American courts have ever embraced Muñoz’s Spanish-language phrase for “commonwealth,” universally recognized in Puerto Rico: “estado libre asociado,” or free associated state. Those three words suggested an autonomy (or even statehood or independence) beyond what came to pass. But Muñoz was too popular on the island for that to cause him trouble.

Still, Muñoz always intended to bring “enhanced autonomy” in trade, self-governance, taxation and entitlements to Puerto Rico. But Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba in 1959 moved Washington’s attention away from the commonwealth.

Muñoz left office in 1965. His dreams faded. The economy he jump-started went flat. Today, the government accounts for 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s work force (compared with 16 percent on the mainland).

Then in 1974, the Democratic National Committee and some shrewd local political strategists came up with an idea for how to play to lingering discontent over the island’s status: Why not make nice with Puerto Rico (and, as important, with the Puerto Rican vote in American cities) by awarding it the number of delegates to the Democratic presidential nominating convention that its population would yield as a state? But not until this year has a presidential race been close enough, long enough, to yield Puerto Rico a role in the endgame.

On the island, politics is focused on the longstanding deadlock between the two dominant parties, whose identities — one is for statehood and one is for enhanced autonomy — today bear no relation to those of the Republicans and Democrats in the 50 states. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are, gingerly, bidding for support from both of them.

But the mainland population of Puerto Ricans (like the island’s, almost four million) is watching, too. That fully enfranchised constituency is up for grabs in November. Republicans have fished in these waters, too.

Presidential candidates usually offer Puerto Ricans hazy promises that are sure to be unfulfilled. First on the list: We’ll do whatever you want about the island’s status if you deliver us an overwhelming majority for one or another option. That’s not going to happen.

Since 1967, public support on the island has seesawed inconclusively between statehood and enhanced autonomy — a better version of the deal they already have. Muñoz’s commonwealth helped eclipse independence; that course enjoys only limited support today. An overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans wants, one way or another, to be American.

The next president could just appoint another commission, more high-level and forceful than past ones, to reopen the dormant question of Puerto Rico’s status. But there is an additional option.

Fidel Castro is gone from office, Hugo Chávez’s influence is growing, Brazil is becoming an oil power, and the United States has no Latin American policy to speak of. John F. Kennedy wisely turned to Puerto Rican leaders to help him frame a new policy for the region in 1961. Similarly, the next president could ask Puerto Rico, with its democratic tradition and its past success with economic development, to help us plan for the post-Castro Caribbean.

The United States is overdue in re-engaging with this special place, which landed in our lap as a stepchild of imperialism in 1898, and which we have never seen clearly.

Michael Janeway, a former editor of The Boston Globe and a professor of journalism and arts at Columbia, is writing a history of the United States and Puerto Rico in the 20th century.

Puerto Rico’s Moment in the Sun

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

By MICHAEL JANEWAY
New York Times (May 22, 2008)

PUERTO RICO, an afterthought trophy for the United States 110 years ago at the end of the Spanish-American War and an island in limbo since, has become an improbable player in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Its primary on June 1 could bolster Mrs. Clinton’s claim to a majority of the popular vote — the combined tally for all the Democratic primaries and caucuses held across the country over the past six months.

Puerto Rico’s formal role in the process is indeed weighty. Its 63 voting delegates — 55 elected ones and eight superdelegates — at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer will outnumber delegations from more than half the states (including Kentucky and Oregon) and the District of Columbia. Yet Puerto Rico does not have a vote in the Electoral College, nor will its 2.5 million registered voters cast ballots for president in November.

How in the world did this happen? From the beginning, the question of Puerto Rico has perplexed the United States. The island was essential to the defense of the Panama Canal, so we did not make it independent, in contrast to two other Spanish possessions we gained in the war, Cuba (which become independent in 1902) and the Philippines (1946). And we judged it foreign in language and culture — and worse, overpopulated — so New Mexico-style Americanization leading to statehood was out of the question.

Similarly, Puerto Ricans have never resolved their relationship with the United States. For almost 50 years after the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rican sentiment was divided between dreams of statehood and of independence. This ambivalence deterred the island from ever petitioning Congress for one or the other. And until mid-century, sporadic outbursts of violent nationalism haunted the scene.

Partly to put such extremism out of business, Congress in 1948 allowed Puerto Rico to elect its own governor and then in 1950 gave it an intricately designed, semi-autonomous “commonwealth” status short of statehood. Two years later, the island adopted its own Constitution, and Congress quickly ratified it.

Puerto Ricans elect their own Legislature, along with the governor. They enjoy entitlements like Social Security, but they do not pay federal income taxes. They retain their own cultural identity (Spanish is the prevailing tongue) but live under the umbrella of the American trade system and the American military. They have been citizens since 1917, but they have no vote in Congress or for the presidency.

The man who brought forth this unique arrangement, which has come to seem permanent, was Luis Muñoz Marín, who dominated Puerto Rico’s politics beginning in 1940. In 1948 he became the island’s first elected governor. He won three more terms and could easily have been “president for life.” A stretch of 116th Street in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem is named Luis Muñoz Marín Boulevard in his honor.

Muñoz was an eloquent advocate of independence until, faced with daunting statistics at the end of World War II, he concluded that Puerto Rico’s impoverished economy could not support nationhood. So he began packaging his third-way brainchild.

When pitching commonwealth on the mainland, Muñoz — an artist of words and imagery who also enjoyed a drink or two — would observe that Puerto Rico is the olive in the American martini. The phrase went down well in Washington, but Muñoz used different language at home. Neither Congress nor the American courts have ever embraced Muñoz’s Spanish-language phrase for “commonwealth,” universally recognized in Puerto Rico: “estado libre asociado,” or free associated state. Those three words suggested an autonomy (or even statehood or independence) beyond what came to pass. But Muñoz was too popular on the island for that to cause him trouble.

Still, Muñoz always intended to bring “enhanced autonomy” in trade, self-governance, taxation and entitlements to Puerto Rico. But Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba in 1959 moved Washington’s attention away from the commonwealth.

Muñoz left office in 1965. His dreams faded. The economy he jump-started went flat. Today, the government accounts for 30 percent of Puerto Rico’s work force (compared with 16 percent on the mainland).

Then in 1974, the Democratic National Committee and some shrewd local political strategists came up with an idea for how to play to lingering discontent over the island’s status: Why not make nice with Puerto Rico (and, as important, with the Puerto Rican vote in American cities) by awarding it the number of delegates to the Democratic presidential nominating convention that its population would yield as a state? But not until this year has a presidential race been close enough, long enough, to yield Puerto Rico a role in the endgame.

On the island, politics is focused on the longstanding deadlock between the two dominant parties, whose identities — one is for statehood and one is for enhanced autonomy — today bear no relation to those of the Republicans and Democrats in the 50 states. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are, gingerly, bidding for support from both of them.

But the mainland population of Puerto Ricans (like the island’s, almost four million) is watching, too. That fully enfranchised constituency is up for grabs in November. Republicans have fished in these waters, too.

Presidential candidates usually offer Puerto Ricans hazy promises that are sure to be unfulfilled. First on the list: We’ll do whatever you want about the island’s status if you deliver us an overwhelming majority for one or another option. That’s not going to happen.

Since 1967, public support on the island has seesawed inconclusively between statehood and enhanced autonomy — a better version of the deal they already have. Muñoz’s commonwealth helped eclipse independence; that course enjoys only limited support today. An overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans wants, one way or another, to be American.

The next president could just appoint another commission, more high-level and forceful than past ones, to reopen the dormant question of Puerto Rico’s status. But there is an additional option.

Fidel Castro is gone from office, Hugo Chávez’s influence is growing, Brazil is becoming an oil power, and the United States has no Latin American policy to speak of. John F. Kennedy wisely turned to Puerto Rican leaders to help him frame a new policy for the region in 1961. Similarly, the next president could ask Puerto Rico, with its democratic tradition and its past success with economic development, to help us plan for the post-Castro Caribbean.

The United States is overdue in re-engaging with this special place, which landed in our lap as a stepchild of imperialism in 1898, and which we have never seen clearly.

Michael Janeway, a former editor of The Boston Globe and a professor of journalism and arts at Columbia, is writing a history of the United States and Puerto Rico in the 20th century.