OPINION

Opinion: Hillary’s balancing act over Puerto Rico, 'con Dios y con el diablo'

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, in Las Vegas.  (ap)

My father used to tell me a folk tale about a man who needed to cross a rickety bridge. Frightened, he thought of asking for God’s protection, but he also immediately feared that the devil might cause him to fall. He decided to solve his predicament by saying with each step: “God is good, but the devil is not bad.” In this way, he managed to cross safely. That story, characteristic of the sardonic wit of Galicians, could be used to describe Hillary Clinton’s way of dealing with Puerto Rico’s political status issue.

I would not be surprised if Hillary abandoned her heretofore convenient neutrality towards a more favorable position on statehood. But then it would likely be another triumph of polling over principle.

- José Rodríguez-Suárez

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States. However, its political status is often referred to as “commonwealth” because the body politic created in 1952, pursuant to the constitution that Congress allowed the people of Puerto Rico to adopt, was named in the same manner as the commonwealths of Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

When running against Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton could have condemned territorial unincorporation as a status that, born of the juridical thinking that once upheld racial segregation, subjects a community of American citizens of Hispanic origin to unequal treatment and political disenfranchisement. Or, she could have supported statehood as a means for the residents of Puerto Rico to achieve equality in citizenship.

Rather than demonstrating principled leadership, Hillary chose to maximize political gain by playing a balancing act between trying to please statehood supporters and not offending commonwealthers. “God is good, but the devil is not bad.” Not surprisingly, Clinton’s statements on Puerto Rico are often marked by double-talk, window dressing, and ambiguity.

In 2008, her campaign committee stated that “Hillary will enable the question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate status to be resolved” through a plebiscite, thereby suggesting the continuation of the island’s present status is a problem and that a plebiscite would be the means to solve it. This pleased statehood supporters. However, commonwealthers were not offended because the statement also implied the present status would be included among the plebiscite choices. Offering the continuation of a problem as a choice among the alternatives to solve it can only be characterized as double-talk.

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By supporting the presidential vote for U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, Hillary appeared more sympathetic to the statehood cause than Obama, without necessarily losing the support of commonwealthers. In fact, according to a poll conducted by Stanford Klapper in 2010, 83 percent of sympathizers of the party that supports commonwealth status favored the presidential vote.

Clinton said “I believe that you should have the same opportunity as American citizens do in helping to pick the President.” But this is window dressing. Allowing the American citizens of Puerto Rico to participate in the election of the President requires an improbable constitutional amendment, and would still leave Puerto Rico subject to unequal treatment and the lack of proportional and voting representation in Congress.

And then there is Hillary’s latest press statement addressing Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal debt crises. Probably calculated as a political double-entendre, the last paragraph reads: “Underlying all of this is the fundamental question of Puerto Rico’s ultimate future. That question needs to be resolved in accordance with the expressed will of our fellow citizens, the people of Puerto Rico.

In the first sentence, statehood supporters can understand that Hillary believes that territorial status is at the root of Puerto Rico’s economic and fiscal troubles, while commonwealthers can interpret that she is open to what many in that camp deem as modifications to the “relationship.”

The same goes for the ambiguity in the word “expressed” on the second sentence. If Hillary used it as a participial adjective, she meant that the will of the people should be distinctly stated rather than left to inference. This meaning would be acceptable to commonwealthers. But if Hillary used it as a verb, she meant that the will of the people has already been stated. Commonwealthers would object to this meaning because it would imply that Hillary recognized the results of the 2012 plebiscite in which the current territorial status was rejected and statehood was favored among the full self-government options.

So far, the balancing act has worked, but it might not continue to work for much longer. Circumstances are now different. And there are indications that the tide is turning towards statehood. After the 2012 plebiscite, statehood supporters are not likely to be satisfied with only a promise to enable a status choice in another multi-option plebiscite.

A survey conducted for the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles in 2014 found that 64 percent of Puerto Rican registered voters in central Florida favor the resolution of the island’s political status and statehood. The poll also found that 81 percent would be proud if Puerto Rico became a state. Since that poll was taken the exodus of island residents to Florida has continued, driven by dismal economic conditions that are rooted in Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory.

Moreover, Puerto Ricans have come to take expressions in favor of self-determination with skepticism. Back in 2009, Barack Obama announced his commitment to enabling the question of Puerto Rico’s status to be resolved during his first term recognizing that “self-determination is a basic right to be addressed no matter how difficult.” Not even the quest for a legacy during his second term has motivated the President to push the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status. Without a commitment to putting an end to territorial unincorporation, favoring self-determination is a gesture invested with little significance.

There is also pressure from influential Democrats. For instance, Andrés W. López, Co-Chair of Futuro Fund, which is reported to have raised $32 million for Obama’s re-election, was quoted in BuzzFeed, describing Hillary’s neutrality on Puerto Rico’s political status as a kind of “hedge.”  “You’re either pro-immigration or anti-immigration. Pro-marriage equality or anti-marriage equality. On this, you’re either pro-equality or you’re not, you can’t be in the middle,” López said.

And then there is Jeb Bush. To start with, since Jeb made his announcement, Hillary can no longer claim that she is the candidate who knows and has visited Puerto Rico the most. Moreover, in contrast with Hillary, Jeb has expressed in plain language that he favors statehood for Puerto Rico.

Under advantageous circumstances, I would not be surprised if Hillary abandoned her heretofore convenient neutrality towards a more favorable position on statehood. But then it would likely be another triumph of polling over principle.

As with most folk tales, the story of the man who needed to cross the rickety bridge has variations. One of them is that once in safety he cursed at both God and the devil. And this leads to another well-known proverb: “A friend to all is a friend to none." In Puerto Rico, we often say the virtually equivalent: “no se puede estar bien con Dios y con el diablo.”

José Rodríguez-Suárez, a co-founder of the Puerto Rico Statehood Students Association, has served as Deputy Secretary of State of Puerto Rico under Gov. Pedro Rosselló and Gov. Luis Fortuño.

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