Thursday, October 23, 2008

Waiting for Ninguno: Puerto Rican Nationalism in 2008

In the scorching August sun of his home state, John McCain stumped with Puerto Rican reggaetonero Daddy Yankee, introducing his “special friend” as the megastar famous for delivering gasolina.

The double entendre on Daddy Yankee’s hit single, whose chorus is “dame mas gasolina,” implied an endorsement of McCain’s pledge to “drill, baby, drill.”

On board the Arizona senator’s plane after their joint appearance at Phoenix’s Central High School, the top-of-the-charts musician told the media with a straight face that his hit song was about energy independence.

Ironically, Daddy Yankee (Raymond Ayala) cannot even vote in the presidential election, since he resides in Puerto Rico.

The pop icon’s endorsement, which was apparently based on McCain’s war record, anti-terror stance, and immigration plan, raised the ire of staunch Puerto Rican nationalists, including many in the five boroughs.

Puerto Rican nationalists have counted 21 presidential elections since their movement was born in 1922. Yet, this 2008 election is no different. Puerto Rico is just waiting for Ninguno.

Both candidates in this otherwise historic presidential election have supported the status quo on the unresolved political status of Puerto Rico. And that means supporting indecision - waiting for Puerto Rico to decide for herself.

The three options in this lingering Caribbean saga are full independence, maintenance or enhancement of commonwealth status, and full statehood.

“Even if a majority of Puerto Ricans are not supportive of independence, the Puerto Rican community is still sympathetic to Vieques, the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, and the prisoner issue,” said Hiram Rivera, an active member of the Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico (PNPR) who lives in the Bronx.

A poll conducted in May by Kaagan Research Associates of New York found that 57 percent of Puerto Ricans on the island supported statehood, 34 percent supported the status quo, and a mere 5 percent supported full independence.

Plebiscites on the status question were held in 1967, 1993, and 1998 saw strong majorities vote against independence. In 1998, 50.3 percent voted write-in for “none of the above,” while 46.7 percent were for statehood, 2.5 percent for independence and a mere 0.1 percent for the status quo. Puerto Rico keeps waiting for Ninguno.

The day that over 120 million mainland Americans pull the lever for 44th president, Puertorriquenos vote for governor, non-voting Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in Congress, and a number of local offices.

Enter Ninguno. For the gubernatorial race, political theater group Papel Machete launched a satirical write-in campaign in September called “Ninguno pa’ Gobernador” or “Nobody for Governor.” They have advocated voting for an ironic puppet named Ninguno: “Everyone makes promises, but Ninguno delivers.”

Other slogans include Ninguno favorece la libertad de los prisioneros politicos (Nobody wants freedom for the political prisoners) and Ninguno respecta a las periodistas (Nobody respects journalists). Ningunistas represent la quinta (the fifth) – in opposition to the four main Puerto Rican political parties.

In this odd political limbo, an acute case of indecision plagues the 110-year-old colony of four million people with a gross domestic product per capita of $18,400.
The populations aqui y alla are growing steadily, and the stateside population of Puerto Ricans is also nearly four million.

“For folks who are born here and have never been there, the flag, food, drink, and the music are about pride. But, the average young Puerto Rican does not learn much history about Puerto Rico,” said Rivera, a PNPR member who also works as a youth organizer for Brown University’s Urban Youth Collaborative.

The U.S.-based nationalist party is most closely linked to the green-hued Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), whose members - pipiolos - are the most numerous pro-independence group on the island.

Rivera, who wore a black hoodie with “Sucka Free” scrawled across the front, discussed the party’s concerns about the island being used as a springboard for U.S. military interventions in Latin America.

Since World War II, the island has had more casualties per capita than any of the 50 states, and the Puerto Rican casualty rate is also among the highest in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon statistics.

The list of complaints by nationalist groups includes concerns about the carcinogenic effects of U.S. Navy weapons testing at Vieques and a myriad of economic woes.

“While full independence for Puerto Rico is a noble ideal, integration as an equal state of the union with all the rights of U.S. citizenship is best,” said Justin O’Brien, executive director of the United States Council for Puerto Rican Statehood.

O’Brien said that support for full independence has waned, with notable public figures such as Brooklyn-born actress Rosie Perez now partial to statehood.

Divisions between the three main factions are expressed by the three versions of the Puerto Rican flag. Although the horizontal bands are always red, the triangle color varies with ideological stance.

Navy blue for statehooders. Sky blue for nationalists. And royal blue for proponents of the status quo.

Although Puerto Rico retains a significant amount of autonomy, ultimate authority is vested in the U.S. president and Congress.

While all eight million Puerto Ricans on both the island and the mainland are U.S. citizens, island residents cannot vote in the general election – like residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.

This year, for the June 1 Democratic primary, both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama visited the territory.

Clinton won by more than a 2-to-1 margin. According to CNN exit polls, Clinton supporters were much more likely to be pro-statehood.

President Clinton formed the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, which culminated in the publication of two reports by the Bush administration in 2005 and 2007. To mixed reviews by the two main political parties in Puerto Rico, it concluded that the island remains a territory of the U.S. under the plenary powers of Congress.

On June 14, 2007, the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization urged the U.S. to “expedite a process that will allow the Puerto Rican people to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.”

While the armed resistance peaked in a series of violent confrontations in the early 1970’s, there are still core supporters of independence both in the Puerto Rican diaspora and in the motherland.

In what critics alleged was a bid to garner Puerto Rican support for his wife’s Senate campaign in New York state, President Bill Clinton issued clemency to 11 jailed independentistas in 1999. One of the nationalists’ primary goals is liberation of the three remaining prisoners.

Nuyoricans, centered in East Harlem, constitute the most numerous of the diasporic communities. But, the swing state of Florida has attracted significant attention for its growing community of Puerto Rican origin around Orlando.

“The PNPR does not officially take a stand on elections here in the U.S.,” said 28-year-old East Harlem resident Camilo Matos, also an active member of PNPR and sales rep for the San Juan-based newspaper Claridad, formerly the mouthpiece of the pro-independence movement.

“We consider the elections a colonial game set up by the colonizers to keep Puerto Rican colonized. We call for an abstention so as not to give the election credibility,” he added.

Although PNPR officially stays out of electoral politics, dues-paying members vote for a variety of presidential candidates, including some from third parties such as the Green Party and the Socialist Workers Party.

On the one hand, the Democratic Party’s 2008 platform states: “The people of Puerto Rico have the right to the political status of their choice…to be resolved during the next four years.”

The G.O.P.’s 2008 platform is almost indistinguishable in advocating “the right of the United States citizens of Puerto Rico to be admitted to the Union as a fully sovereign state after they freely so determine.”

However, Cynthia McKinney’s running mate on the Green Party ticket is Rosa Clemente, a South Bronx-born activist and independentista who was a founding member of La Voz Boriken, a pro-independence organization.

Regardless, both major parties and their candidates for president endorse the status quo, recommending that further popular referendums determine the island’s status.

“John McCain was among the 14 Senate co-sponsors of the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007, which was introduced by Sen. Salazar and Rep. Serrano,” said O’Brien, of the non-partisan U.S. Council for Puerto Rico Statehood.

The bill would mandate the first Congress—sanctioned popular referendum on whether Puerto Rico would end up as an independent country or as a state with two senators and six members of the House.

O’Brien, whose organization arose in the wake of the last failed status vote in 1998, said that the issue is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

“Resident Commissioner Fortuno supports permanent union with the U.S. but ultimately believes that the decision should be in the hands of the Puerto Rican people,” said Audrey Sotolongo, spokesperson for the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico to Congress.

“The best outcome is to be state,” she added.

Luis Fortuno is the Resident Commissioner as well as the New Progressive Party’s pro-statehood candidate for governor. He spoke during prime time for McCain at the Republican National Convention.

However, stateside Puerto Ricans were about 3-to-1 for John Kerry in the last election. One of poorest communities in the U.S. is likely to vote Obama by about that ratio.

Although residents of the island cannot vote for president, conventional wisdom would suggest that they are largely pro-Obama, since the Illinois senator promised to “keep the checks coming,” said Hiram Rivera, the PNPR activist, who calls for the island to wean itself off of U.S. economic assistance.

The ideal for nationalists is a fully independent and sovereign island with a spot on the U.N. General Assembly.

“If you support the nationalist cause in Puerto Rico, you get blacklisted. You can’t get a job. We’re facing the same sorts of classism and racism that are in the U.S.,” added Rivera.

He continued: “You’re constantly reminded of what you’re not. Real American - not. Other category? Latin immigrants? Caribbean? West Indian? Outside of the U.S., they sees us as American, but we have an identity crisis.”

“Puerto Rico has a Fidel scare, and the anti-left propaganda says that independence equals bread lines, totalitarianism, and the equivalent of the Dominican Republic,” said Matos, also a nationalist party member.

Matos tells a poignant story about his two six-year-old nieces in the Bronx, who asked their mother why there were U.S. flags all over their block after September 11th. They were accustomed to seeing only Puerto Rican flags and could not make sense of the 13 stars and 50 stripes.

Daddy Yankee may have surprised his fans by pumping gasolina for John McCain, but nationalists have the unlikely support of Pat Buchanan.

Yet, with a stagnant movement that refuses to budge in either the statehood or independence directions, mas gasolina for unfinished political business is not forthcoming from either presidential candidate this pivotal election year. Puerto Rico is still waiting for Ninguno.

”Even though I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico was born in me. If I was born on the moon, I’d still be Puerto Rican,” declared Rivera.

He added, “Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same bird. Obama is not the savior of Puerto Rico. No U.S. president could ever be our savior.”


Clarisel said...

Thanks for sharing this link.

Puerto Rico has elected Luis Fortuno, a pro-statehood governor, on the same day that the United States elected Barack Obama, including many stateside boricuas.

Luis Fortuno is a Republican and supported McCain.

Both Fortuno and Obama ran on platforms for change.

Both candidates swept.

But what real change will either of their candidacies really bring to the island?

For now, you are invited to vote in Puerto Rico Sun's poll, which poses the question: do you want statehood for Puerto Rico?

Anonymous said...

Puerto Rican Independence, we want our Island, we ant our Homeland to be ours, you guys cant take everything. PR has its own culture and vive that will be destroyed if we become a state.. also Statehood wont be any different than the situation right now, except for alot more Americans moving into the Island, and voting for the president which wouldn't really make us any richer, we just lose our homeland and identity.

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