The Republican presidential candidates have taken their campaigns to Puerto Rico. The island’s residents can not actually vote for president, but since they are U.S. citizens, both Democrats and Republicans give them the privilege of helping pick their party’s nominees. I was there in 2008 when Hillary Clinton trounced Barack Obama 2-1 in the Democratic primary, not that it did her much good in the long run. Now it is the Republicans turn, and due to a blunder by one of the candidates, it is already all over but the voting. I’ll explain why in a minute, first the nuts and bolts.
23 delegates to the Republican national convention are to be awarded based on the results of the GOP primary this Sunday, March 18th. It is a prize rich enough to have drawn Rick Santorum, fresh off his victories in Mississippi and Alabama. Mitt Romney arrives today, Friday.
Politics in Puerto Rico is a blood sport. It is argued passionately and endlessly, especially in an election year. And in Puerto Rico, almost the only defining issue is where the voter stands on the status of the island; if you are for statehood, you are a Republican, if you are opposed, you are usually a Democrat.
It is therefore serendipitous that while Puerto Ricans cannot vote in the mainland’s presidential elections on November 6, 2012, they will be voting that day on whether to maintain the island’s current commonwealth status, or would instead prefer either independence, statehood or a hybrid called free association.
Not only has the looming referendum ignited the usual political firestorm, it has also generated considerable misgivings among many islanders fearful that their world will change if Puerto Rico becomes the 51st state. The biggest anxiety is that they will be forced to become more like their compatriots in the other 50 states, and abandon their more than five centuries of Spanish language and cultural heritage.
Statehood advocates have worked hard to calm the fear of change. By inflaming it, Rick Santorum has lost Puerto Rico already.
Shortly after arriving on Wednesday, he was asked by a reporter whether the adoption of English as the official language was a prerequisite to Puerto Rican statehood, Santorum said, "I think that would be a condition," he said. "I think it's important." Later, he clarified his stance saying, “there are other states with more than one language, like Hawaii, but to be a state of the United States, English must be the principal language."
Although English is widely spoken on the island, most residents are primarily Spanish speakers. And since most official business, media, courts and commerce are conducted in Spanish, it still sounded like Santorum was saying that English would be the official language of Puerto Rico to the exclusion of Spanish. Infuriated by Santorum’s declaration, one of his delegates, Hector Perez withdrew his support.
Santorum responded by again clarifying his position, "Obviously Spanish will be spoken here on the island. But this needs to be a bilingual country not just a Spanish speaking country," he said. "Right now it is overwhelmingly Spanish speaking but it needs to have in order for it to integrate into American society, English has to be a language that is spoken here also and spoken universally."
Romney was quick to jump into the breach. "Governor Romney believes that English is the language of opportunity and supports efforts to expand English proficiency in Puerto Rico and across America," his campaign said in a statement. "However, he would not, as a prerequisite for statehood, require that the people of Puerto Rico cease using Spanish."
Although Santorum never said he would require the people of Puerto Rico to “cease” speaking Spanish, he has only himself to blame for staking out an unnecessarily confrontational position. In an exclusive interview Thursday, Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio told me, “It’s not a big deal. English is already an official language in Puerto Rico. Anyone who travels there will find that the majority of the young people speak English. It is taught in the schools. It is not that big of a challenge. Hawaii is a perfect example. It is the most recent state to be admitted in the 1950’s, and they have both languages. And I think having Hawaii as a state made the country a better country. And I would say for the people of Puerto Rico, they have to make a decision right now…the English thing is not a big deal at the end of the day, because English is already an official language.”
Rick Santorum picked a fight he didn’t have to and lost Puerto Rico in the process.
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.