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Tonight on Al Jazeera America: Should Puerto Rico become the 51st State?

With its people culturally united but politically divided, what is the best way forward? Join the conversation at 7:30pm ET.

What do you think? Record a video comment or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Yesterday Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, a non-voting member of the US Congress, published the following public letter on his Facebook site (the original document can be seen here). Pierluisi, a pro-statehood Democrat who actively campaigned for President Obama and distanced himself from Republican pro-statehood and Mitt Romney supporter Governor Luis Fortuño, who lost his re-election bid on November 6. As suspected, Pierluisi is using his political capital to try and get the Obama administration to begin a status process for Puerto Rico, a US territory/colony since American troops landed on the island in 1898.

In the meantime, Governor-elect Alejandro García Padilla (a pro-commonwealth Democrat) wrote his own letter to President Obama. In that letter, García Padilla said that the latest status vote—which rejected the island’s current status quo in its first question and preferred statehood even though close to 500,000 votes in the second question were left blank—did not produce a “clear result,” and suggested that he meet with the President to discuss this matter formally. He also added that even though the pro-statehood faction is claiming victory, García Padilla believes that this is not the case. He told the President that the combined voted of those who support the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA), Puerto Rico’s current commonwealth system, defeated the statehood voices.

Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi

Here is Pierluisi’s full letter:

November 13, 2012
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

I want to begin by warmly congratulating you on your re-election. You and the administration you lead have done an outstanding job under difficult circumstances at home and abroad, and the election results are evidence that the American people recognize this fact. Moreover, in your first term in office, you have been a champion of fair treatment for the U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico and the other territories, particularly in the areas of economic development, health care, and public safety. I look forward with enthusiasm to continuing to work with you over the next four years.

I write to you today about an issue of fundamental importance not only to Puerto Rico but also to the nation as a whole. As you know, on November 6th—the same day as the U.S. general elections and Puerto Rico’s local elections—Puerto Rico held a political status plebiscite authorized by local law. Although the final results have not yet been certified by the Puerto Rico State Elections Commission, I would like to convey the preliminary results to you,[1] to describe their significance, and to express my hope and expectation that the White House will take appropriate and timely action in light of these results, consistent with the recommendations contained in the March 2011 Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, a body whose mandate you renewed—and expanded—though Executive Order 13517 (October 30, 2009). I know this letter will be the first of many communications between my congressional office and your administration on this topic.

The plebiscite ballot consisted of two questions. On the first question, voters were asked whether they want Puerto Rico to remain a U.S. territory, the status the Island has had since 1898. Over 1.74 million people responded to this question. That is approximately 75 percent of all registered voters in Puerto Rico, a level of participation that is substantially higher than the national turnout for the U.S. general elections on the same day. More than 943,000 voters—54.0 percent—said they did not want the current territory status to continue, while 803,400 voters—46.0 percent—said they did want it to continue.

On the second question, voters were asked to express their preference among the three alternatives to the current territory status that are legally and politically viable according to the federal government and international law: statehood, nationhood in free association with the United States, and independence. Over 1.32 million people chose an option. 61.13 percent—nearly 810,000 people—voted for statehood; 33.33 percent—about 442,000 people—voted for Puerto Rico to become a freely associated state; and 5.54 percent—about 73,000 people—voted for independence. In addition, some 472,000 voters did not provide an answer, a point addressed below.

As evident from the hundreds of news reports that have appeared in the national and international press in the wake of this plebiscite, the vote was historic in several respects.

This was the first time voters were directly asked whether they want Puerto Rico to continue as a territory. One of the two main political parties in Puerto Rico, the Popular Democratic Party, strongly urged a “Yes” vote. Nevertheless, the “No” vote against the current territory status won by an eight-point margin, 54 percent to 46 percent. Those voting “No” included statehood supporters, as well as advocates of free association and independence.

There is no reasonable way to interpret these results as anything other than a decisive rejection of the current territory status. This status deprives the U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico of the two most basic democratic rights: the right to choose the leaders who enact and execute their national laws, and the right to equal treatment under those laws. This vote fundamentally alters the terms of the status debate in Puerto Rico, which has seemingly been stuck in neutral for years. In my view, after this vote, the question is not whether, but when, Puerto Rico will cease to be a territory and will instead have a political status—either statehood or nationhood—that provides its people with full democratic rights and full equality under the law. In short: it is clear that a solid majority of my constituents want to close the long territory chapter in Puerto Rico’s political life, and to begin a fresh new chapter.

The result of the second question, which asked voters which status should replace the current territory status, is also of great import. As noted, of the 1.32 million people who voted for one of the three viable alternatives to the current status, a supermajority of over 61 percent chose statehood. It is critical to note that the number of votes cast in favor of statehood on the second question—nearly 810,000—is also greater than the number of votes—803,400—cast in favor of the current status on the first question. For the first time ever, there are now more people in Puerto Rico who want to become a state than who want to continue as a territory. This fact further undermines the democratic legitimacy of the current status.

Naturally, some are seeking to downplay the historic nature of this plebiscite by citing the voters who left the second question blank at the urging of some leaders in the Popular Democratic Party. This argument may have some superficial appeal, but it does not withstand scrutiny.

First and foremost, in our democracy, it is well-settled that outcomes are determined by ballots properly cast. Power rests with the citizen who votes, not the one who stays home or refuses to choose from among the options provided.

Moreover, this was the first status vote in Puerto Rico’s history to include only the valid status options. True self-determination is a choice among options that can actually be implemented, not an exercise in wishful thinking. Because all viable status options were on the ballot, not voting was an empty act.

Logically, some voters may have left the second question blank simply because they prefer the current status to any of the three possible alternatives. Those voters were able to—and did in fact—vote for the current status in the first question, so their viewpoint was fully reflected in the plebiscite results. Other voters may have declined to answer the second question because they were led to believe there was another status option that should have been on the ballot—namely, a proposal sometimes called “Enhanced Commonwealth.” But each of the last four presidential administrations, including your administration, has considered and rejected this proposal as a valid status option,[2] as have all key congressional leaders who have examined the proposal.[3] A blank vote to protest the exclusion of an impossible status proposal is entitled to no weight.

To summarize: a majority of voters in Puerto Rico have soundly rejected the current status in favor of a new status. Among the three viable alternatives, statehood won a decisive victory. And, in a historical first, statehood obtained more votes than the current status (or any other status option).

* * *
In light of these results, I believe that the White House has a clear basis, and a clear responsibility, to act. I further believe that the precise steps to be taken ought to be guided and informed by the recommendations in the March 2011 Task Force Report and the public statement you delivered during your historic visit to Puerto Rico on June 14, 2011.

The first recommendation in the Task Force Report notes that the government of Puerto Rico had plans to hold a plebiscite under local law. The Task Force states: “Without taking a position on the particular details of this proposal, the Task Force recommends that the President and Congress support any fair, transparent, and swift effort that is consistent with and reflects the will of the people of Puerto Rico. If the process produces a clear result, Congress should act on it quickly with the President’s support.” See Page 23.

In its second recommendation, the Task Force says that four status options should be included in the plebiscite: “Statehood, Independence, Free Association, and Commonwealth.” See Page 24. The Task Force then explicitly states: “Under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution.” See Page 26.

In its third recommendation, the Task Force discusses a number of possible ways to structure the plebiscite process, while confirming that it “supports any fair method for determining the will of the people of Puerto Rico.” See Page 26.

And in its seventh and final recommendation, the Task Force states that, “[i]f efforts on the Island do not provide a clear result in the short term, the President should support, and Congress should enact” federal legislation that “specifies in advance for the people of Puerto Rico a set of acceptable status options that the United States is politically committed to fulfilling.” The Task Force recommends that “the Administration develop, draft, and work with Congress to enact the proposed legislation.” See Page 30.

Several months after the release of the Task Force Report, you traveled to Puerto Rico and delivered a speech where you stated as follows: “[A] report from our presidential task force on Puerto Rican status provided a meaningful way forward on this question so that the residents of the island can determine their own future. And when the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.”

I am the first to recognize and respect that you face many important domestic and foreign policy challenges as you begin your second term in office. However, in light of these historic plebiscite results and the commitments embodied in the Task Force Report, I believe that the White House must devote the necessary time, resources and—above all—leadership to help resolve the question of Puerto Rico’s political status. There are a number of possible steps that the White House can take to fulfill its responsibility in this regard, and I look forward to discussing the alternatives with senior administration officials and congressional leaders in the coming days. In the final analysis, the people of Puerto Rico have spoken and, as their official representative in Washington, I intend to do everything within my power to ensure that the federal government responds in an appropriate and timely fashion.

Congratulations again.
Sincerely,
Pedro R. Pierluisi
Member of Congress

cc: Hon. David Agnew, Co-Chair, The President’s Task Force of Puerto Rico’s Status
Hon. Tony West, Co-Chair, The President’s Task Force of Puerto Rico’s Status
Hon. Cecilia Muñoz, Director, White House Domestic Policy Council
The Hon. Luis Fortuño, Governor of Puerto Rico
The Hon. Alejandro García Padilla, Governor-elect of Puerto Rico

[1] As of this writing, ballots from 1,615 of Puerto Rico’s 1,643 electoral units—98.3 percent—have been tabulated.

[2] See, e.g., March 2011 Report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status, pg. 26 (“[C]onsistent with the legal conclusions reached by prior Task Force reports, one aspect of some proposals for enhanced Commonwealth remains constitutionally problematic—proposals that would establish a relationship between Puerto Rico and the Federal Government that could not be altered except by mutual consent. This was a focus of past Task Force reports. The Obama Administration has taken a fresh look at the issue of such mutual consent provisions, and it has concluded that such provisions would not be enforceable because a future Congress could choose to alter that relationship unilaterally.”)

[3] See, e.g., December 1, 2010 Letter from Chairman Jeff Bingaman and Ranking Republican Member Lisa Murkowski, Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, to President Barack Obama (endorsing the view that the “Enhanced Commonwealth” proposal is “incompatible with the Constitution and basic laws of the United States in several respects”); see also House Report 111-294, accompanying H.R. 2499 in the 111th Congress (“Proposals for such a governing arrangement have been consistently opposed by federal authorities in the executive and legislative branches, including this Committee, on both constitutional and policy grounds. Nevertheless, this hybrid proposal continues to be promoted in Puerto Rico as a feasible status option. Such proposals have resulted in misinformed and inconclusive referenda in Puerto Rico in July 1967, November 1993, and December 1998.”)

Last week, I suggested that García Padilla avoid making the status vote a political matter that has kept Puerto Rico from progressing. I still believe that his suggestion to leave the second question blank in the vote backfired since it allowed the pro-statehood factions to control the status agenda. This latest example of Obama letters confirms that. Pierluisi took advantage of the vote and proactively pushed his agenda. García Padilla still appears to be in a defensive position, and he continues to place politics over the vote.

Alejandro García Padilla

Now García Padilla enters his first term with a major headache, which could have easily been avoided if he had told his supporters to choose other status options for the second question besides statehood. Furthermore, García Padilla is making a huge tactical mistake by ignoring the KEY TAKEAWAY of this entire vote, which is the first question. That question led to a rejection of the island’s current status quo, which García Padilla supported. He cannot dodge that fact, and if he continues to do so, the luster of his well-deserved victory over Fortuño will fade rather quickly.

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Last night the island of Puerto Rico experienced a historic election. Not only did Puerto Ricans go to the polls to vote for Governor, Resident Commissioner, and other legislative positions, they also voted in yet another non-binding plebiscite that tried to determine whether Puerto Ricans favored its current commonwealth relationship with the United States, and if not, whether it favored statehood, independence, or associated free state.

The biggest news of the night was that Republican pro-statehood incumbent governor Luis Fortuño of the island’s New Progressive Party (PNP) lost his re-election bid to Alejandro García Padilla, the Democratic pro-commonwealth challenger of the island’s Popular Democratic Party (PPD). The independence candidate, Juan Dalmau, as well as the other third-party candidates, didn’t even play a role in the tally, which is still being counted. The following screen shot showed the latest results as of this morning, with over 96% of the precincts reporting.

 

The Fortuño loss confirmed what many Puerto Ricans had said all along: his policies and personality were too polarizing. While he was being praised by FOX News for being a new Latino conservative, Fortuño could not break away from his critics and detractors. Double-digit unemployment and a consensus that Puerto Rico was heading in the wrong direction, a Gasoducto project gone bad, and the Ley 7 protests gave García Padilla the little boost he needed. Of course, it wasn’t a landslide and with pro-statehood Democrat PNPer Pedro Pierluisi winning his re-election bid for Resident Commissioner, the Fortuño loss is not a clear mandate for García Padilla. He is going to have to work with the PNP since the role of Resident Commissioner (the island’s non-voting member in Congress) is seen as the island’s second-in-command. Pierluisi is Puerto Rico’s Washington voice and the uneasy alliance between the PPD and PNP will be interesting to watch, to say the least.

Yet I will argue that this is all a good thing for Puerto Rico, since no matter what García Padilla or the PPD are saying today, the island’s formal Washington-San Juan relationship is now a bipartisan status  issue (it doesn’t hurt that both García Padilla and Pierluisi are Democrats). And given the results of the plebiscite, that is a good thing. A really good thing.

Which brings us to the status questions, and why in the end, Puerto Rico wins.

Here are the latest results. Question 1 basically asked if Puerto Ricans prefer to keep the status quo (commonwealth) or reject. The status quo was rejected. (FYI, there were over 64,000 blank votes, more to come on that.)

 

García Padilla, Puerto Rico’s governor-elect, favored a YES vote. He lost.

When it came to what options Puerto Ricans favored (statehood, independence, free associated state), here are the latest results:

Statehood was what Fortuño favored, and so did Pierluisi. So in essence, Fortuño won this one. However, it gets complicated when one takes into account that over 468,000 votes (so far) were blank for this category, which is the strategy García Padilla declared. Because a blank vote meant that you were voting for the status quo, which by the way was already rejected in Question 1. Therefore if you take into the account the blank votes, here is where it stands:

 

Let’s face it, García Padilla made a strategic mistake on his part, and that is actually great thing for Puerto Rico. Here is why: Question 1 basically said NO to the status quo, which is what García Padilla favored. Question 2, which only listed three options (BLANK was not an option), made statehood the winner. As uncomfortable as that makes García Padilla today, the reality is that political games that telling people not to vote backfired.

Voting BLANK doesn’t count. It doesn’t mean anything. It just means BLANK. It means you didn’t want to vote or even provide an honest choice, especially since Question 1 already rejected the status quo or the BLANK people were trying to defend in Question 2.

If the PPD were smart and savvy about Question 2 and if they wanted to have statehood lose the vote, they should have pushed for either independence or associated free state, or they would have initiated a real write-in campaign for the status quo. But they didn’t, and this morning they are left defending a political system that around 1 million Puerto Ricans don’t want and a status option the PPD can’t support. Already, García Padilla has lost control of the status agenda. He will be forced to resolve it by engaging those who favor other options.

So governor-elect García Padilla needs to be careful right now. He cannot start his administration by refuting and ignoring the results of the plebiscite. He will be making a huge mistake in putting the political history of the PPD ahead of a vote that clearly says that the status quo must change. I am not suggesting that García Padilla should all of a sudden push for statehood, but what he SHOULD do his first day in office in tell Pierluisi to demand that Congress move the process on resolving Puerto Rico’s political status. Staying stuck in the past will keep the island in neutral and eventually going backwards, instead of doing the right thing and putting the people over one political party’s stubborn preference.

Many Puerto Ricans will criticize Fortuño, and those criticisms have merit, but Fortuño should be commended for establishing a plebiscite process that rejected the status quo and initiated a real tangible dialogue about where Puerto Rico goes next. García Padilla, if he is smart enough, could actually go down as the Governor who finally moved the needle on the island’s status and resolved it. He can also thank Fortuño for that because that is why leaders do: sacrifice politics for the greater good, even if it means losing your own election.

Now for a different take on this, read what my dear friend Gil the Genius has to say about it. This time around, we follow different paths about yesterday’s results and come to the same conclusions: we need more “adults” in Puerto Rican politics. The PPD leadership missed a huge opportunity to be “adults” and to clarify the plebiscite question by actually fully participating in it, instead of trying to be clever about it. Being clever is the old way. Being honest about where Puerto Rico goes next is the new way. Here is to the new way. It it will win.

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So, this interview from Fox Business’ Varney and Co. with Puerto Rico Secretary of Commerce José Pérez-Riera is quite telling. The level of ignorance from the American media is sad. Let’s get this straight: you can disagree with Pérez-Riera, but the interviewers should at least respect the guy. When will Puerto Ricans wake up and demand that the US media be more respectful to Puerto Ricans? This has gone beyond politics, this should now be about Puerto Ricans banding together and saying that they will no longer be treated like the little colony that the US media has portrayed them to be.

Now, people laughed at me when I wrote the following piece last year called Why Puerto Rico Will Never Become the 51st State. My main argument is that there are many Americans (especially those in the conservative media) who have no clue about Puerto Rico and actually don’t want Puerto Rico to become a state.

Americans will never accept a flag with 51 stars in it

Well, this latest clip from Fox News Business just confirms my original thesis. Wake up, Puerto Rico, the United States media does not care about the status question. And Pérez-Riera is a pro-statehooder whose leader is a Republican governor. It is bizarre, but it does not surprise me any more.

By the way, the news has been spreading around the island.

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Tonight, Puerto Rico’s Noticias 24/7 broadcast a debate to discuss the island’s upcoming November 6 political status plebiscite. The moderated forum featured pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuño, pro-independence candidate for governor Juan Dalmau, and  Luis Delgado, who supports a freely associated sovereign state.

I could get into the details and try to encapsulate decades of political status history into this post, but that would only complicate matters. All you need to know is this: Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth (some would say “colony”) of the United States since 1952 and a US territory (some would say “colony) since American troops landed (some would say “invaded”) on the island in 1898. In 1917, Puerto Ricans became (some would say “forced to become”) US citizens. On the island, Puerto Ricans do not have the same political rights as American citizens who live on the mainland. To some, this only proves how colonial Puerto Rico is. To others, this confirms that Puerto Ricans on the island are just second-class American citizens stuck in status limbo. Add to the fact that Puerto Ricans on the island fight for the United States, receive federal benefits and entitlements from the US, but then represent Puerto Rico in the Olympics, cry when Miss Puerto Rico is named Miss Universe, have immense pride in their boricua-ness, and are still a people with a strong national identity, and you can see how complicated this issue really is.

In addition, let’s mention that some Americans would rather cut off Puerto Rico from the federal rolls even though generations of Puerto Ricans have defended Americans’ rights and freedoms, and it gets really complicated. Wait a minute, there is a Spanish-speaking island that is part of the United States? When did that happen and why are we allowing it to happen? You get the idea. (For more on this anti-Puerto Rican sentiment in the United States, you can read a column I wrote over a year ago.)

Finally, since the plebiscite is non-binding, and in essence nothing could ever happen until the US Congress decides to reopen the status process for Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans are literally voting for an issue they have no control over. Congress owns you, Puerto Rico. At least for now.

The whole status question is… complicated. Like really complicated.

At tonight’s debate it got even more complicated because not everyone’s position was represented. You see, the first part of the two-question plebiscite asks Puerto Ricans if they would like to maintain the current territorial relationship with the United States. The three debate participants who accepted Noticias 24/7’s invitation all agreed that NO is the only option for Puerto Ricans. The one person favoring a YES vote, the Popular Party’s Alejandro García Padilla, Fortuño’s main challenger in the gubernatorial election (also on November 6), didn’t even show up at the debate. You would think that García Padilla knew about a poll where 51% of Puerto Ricans actually favor a YES vote to the first question, and you would also think that if this were his position, he would have had the political courage to get up in front of a televised debate and defend his position. Especially when the guy you want to defeat in a few weeks is also debating. García Padilla didn’t, and it was a costly mistake. I actually think Fortuño will win the governor’s race now.

Alejandro García Padilla

And I also think that García Padilla’s absence hurt the entire YES position as well. While Fortuño, Dalmau, and Delgado could all agree on a NO vote even though they would disagree on the second part of the plebiscite—which asks voters to choose either statehood, independence or freely associated sovereign state—tonight’s debate proved to me that a NO vote is now the only option for Puerto Ricans. Why? Because in the end, even though Congress doesn’t have to do anything, a public vote that would reject the island’s current status will get attention. Voting NO gives Puerto Ricans a chance that Congress would maybe revisit the status question. Voting YES would keep the status quo and last time I checked, this commonwealth ride needs to end. Fortuño, Dalmau, and Delgado would concur. Puerto Rico really hasn’t improved at all and the “colonially entitled society” is still reality. Now I could have been convinced that a YES vote would actually still be possible, but the guy who supports the YES vote wasn’t at the debate. Fail.

As for Delgado and his position on a “freely associated sovereign state?” Let’s just start with the term. It’s way too long. However, in theory, this status option is the best of both worlds: it allows for Puerto Rico to have a more flexible arrangement with the United States without having Puerto Ricans lose their US citizenship (at least that is what Delgado and others hope). Less dependence on the US economy could occur, since it would give Puerto Rico the ability to negotiate with the US on issues pertaining to the island. For example, Puerto Rican ports could be open to ships from others countries, allowing for more economic opportunities. This arrangement would also maintain many of the things that make Puerto Rico unique, both linguistically and culturally.

Now there is theory and then there is the selling of that theory. I thought that Delgado didn’t do a great job selling this option to Puerto Ricans. It felt muddied and too complex. I can’t recall if Delgado really presented a concrete example or an explanation that basically tried to answer the question that always hounds this option: how is this different from the current setup? And will Puerto Ricans really maintain their US citizenship in this new scenario? Delgado was correct in saying that a NO vote is the way to go for the first part of the plebiscite, but in his push to promote his option, his biggest point was that Puerto Rico would work with the United States to determine its destiny. Couldn’t we just do that now? What is to stop us from just determining our own destiny and then letting the US know our intentions? We really need a vote for that?

Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño

Fortuño, quite frankly, gave the most coherent argument, even though it was an argument that, at times, felt like a politician overpromising the world. Fortuño—who is facing a very tough re-election campaign (we will see after tonight’s gaffe by García Padilla) and a Puerto Rican economy that is still stuck—basically used the promise of statehood as the cure-all for Puerto Rico’s problems. Need jobs? Let’s become a state. Want more federal money? Let’s become a state. Let’s lower the crime rate? Statehood is the only option.

I thought Fortuño did give the best line of the night when he shared his thoughts about the status quo: “I believe Puerto Ricans will reject what holds us back.” I believe that, too. Most Puerto Ricans I know feel that change must indeed happen, and with García Padilla not attending the debate, his absence only solidified that need for change.

The governor’s strongest argument for statehood should have been the only one he should have used: equal rights and political representation. In essence, that is the biggest prize—Puerto Rico could get six-seven members of the House of Representatives, two Senators, and also the right to vote for President. No one can question that, even though Fortuño won’t let Puerto Ricans know that many Americans aren’t really gung-ho about a predominantly Spanish-speaking state of the Union.

Furthermore, Fortuño was savvy enough to know that many Puerto Ricans living on the mainland (particularly those in Florida) were watching the debate, so he made it a point to remind people (twice) that Mitt Romney has already promised that if Puerto Ricans vote NO on part 1 and STATEHOOD on part 2 and if Romney got elected President, a new President Romney would begin the statehood process. That sure are a lot of “ifs.”

And Fortuño really stretched the statehood hard sell by saying that not only will Puerto Ricans get more federal aid (more than 2 billion dollars), they won’t really need to pay federal taxes, since most Puerto Ricans don’t earn enough to pay federal taxes. Yes, this is coming from a Republican governor, and the last time I checked, Republicans in general don’t like the fact that 47% of Americans aren’t paying taxes right now. Weird, huh? Welcome to Puerto Rico, where down is up and up is down.

The original Puerto Rican flag flown during the Grito de Lares in Lares, PR, 1868

Which brings me to Dalmau, the standard-bearer for Puerto Rico’s Independence Party. Dalmau is sharp and I have to say that his points about Puerto Rico’s highly dependent economic relationship with the United States and how Puerto Rico is seen by many as just another playground of US corporations are good ones. Has Puerto Rico’s progress been snuffed because we are still a US colony? Many would agree, and it would be hard to argue against that. In addition, Dalmau’s distinction between citizenship and nationalism and how they are not the same also resonated. He was also quick to point out the island’s long and vibrant history, as well as the legacy many of its independence leaders have formed.

Yet Dalmau missed one very important point: how will Puerto Rico succeed once it becomes independent? Why didn’t he talk more about that? In the end, Dalmau didn’t give many specifics and that is the one issue that still troubles many when it comes to independence. It still feels like unchartered territory.

Finally, Dalmau’s critique of Puerto Rico being the world’s “last colony” will always speak to the hearts of many Puerto Ricans. But how effective is this call to elevate the colony to a new status when in the end Dalmau is just as passive as everybody else? Has the repression of the independence movement in Puerto Rico really succeeded? It appears so, since Dalmau would rather participate in a plebiscite that is still dependent on the United States instead of taking control of the plebiscite and demanding that the will of Puerto Ricans be heard.

And that is the biggest problem with tonight’s debate. All three speakers (and the guy who wasn’t there) were never active with their comments and remarks. It was all about pushing for a non-binding vote that may or may not send a message to the United States. The debate and the politics surrounding it still assume that the United States is the Big Daddy and Puerto Ricans are just kids asking for the car keys. What if Daddy gets angry? What do we do then?

True political courage and leadership occur when people step away from the same talking points that got them to where they are and begin to literally alter the discourse. I would have had more respect for all the speakers tonight if they stood there and announced that the plebiscite would be binding and it would lead to real self-determination. I would have had more respect if the speakers told people that they should have their family members living on the mainland begin to pressure elected officials in Congress and called for a binding vote. I would have had more respect if the speakers tonight took control of their destiny. Now. Like right now. What would have been more powerful—a televised debate that didn’t reveal anything new or a rally among all of the island’s political parties live streaming into Washington DC saying that Puerto Ricans’ voices must be heard?

Instead, Puerto Rico is still playing games and the biggest charade is the question of political status. No one is truly taking this seriously because it is all part of a system that has been central to the island’s politics for decades. Just dangle illusions of status and maybe just maybe the United States will listen to us.

Tonight, the people of Puerto Rico could have screamed in unison: ¡BASTA YA! Our destiny is in our hands and no one else’s. However, all I heard were the same old tired whimpers. I am done listening to the arguments of the past. Are you? And if so, what are you going to do about it?

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Now it gets interesting. Just a month before Puerto Ricans get to determine the fate of incumbent pro-statehood Republican governor Luis Fortuño as well as vote on yet another non-binding political status plebiscite, today’s poll by El Nuevo Día (the island’s largest newspaper) has Fortuño trailing pro-commonwealth Democratic challenger Alejandro García Padilla by just two points, 41%-39%.

The poll, published today, suggests that Fortuño continues to gain as he seeks his second term as Puerto Rico’s governor. According to reports, García Padilla was leading by 5 percentage points after an August poll and by 7 percentage points after a poll in May. Fortuño, who favors statehood for Puerto Rico and is head of the island’s New Progressive Party, has recently turned his campaign push as a push for statehood, even though the upcoming plebiscite—held the same day as the elections—would be non-binding, meaning that the US Congress would still have to decide Puerto Rico’s political status and while Mitt Romney has promised that if Puerto Ricans chose statehood in the plebiscite he would push for the island’s entry into the Union, President Obama went on record last year to say that the plebiscite’s results would have to be pretty definitive before Congress could act.

As for Puerto Rico’s Independentista candidate Juan Dalmau? According to the latest poll, he is still stuck at 4%. That is less than those who told said they were still undecided (6%). Ouch.

So, in the end, what can be said about where Puerto Rico’s race stands? Let’s just say this: In the end, Fortuño, the Republican, is like President Obama, the Democrat. Both are trying to tell voters that things are getting better, and they both have a tough case to make. Fortuño can also dangle the fantasy of statehood, which is still attractive to about 40%-45% of the island.

García Padilla is a lot like Romney. Not the greatest of candidates. But just like Romney, if García Padilla keeps pounding Fortuño’s record, just like Romney is pounding Obama’s, García Padilla (and Romney) just might win. But polls are polls, and who knows what will happen on November 6. What we can guarantee is this: it should make for an intense night, both on the mainland and on the island.

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August was supposed to be a great month for Puerto Rican Governor and pro-statehood Republican Luis Fortuño.

He was supposed to claim victory for changes to Puerto Rico’s constitution. He did not, essentially setting himself up for an unsuccessful re-election bid in November against an opponent who quite frankly is not the strongest of candidates.

Puerto Rican Republican Governor Luis Fortuño

He was supposed to start proclaiming success in his push to turn the Puerto Rican economy, but he can’t. Even after close to four years in office, Fortuño and policies have basically moved the island’s unemployment rate from 13.8 in January, 2009 to 13.7 in July, 2012, after it was as high as 16.6% in May, 2010. During his four years as governor, the Fortuño administration has seen the following happen to the island:

January, 2009: Puerto Rico had a labor force of 1,349,246 people. 1,163,674 people were employed. 185,572 people were unemployed. That would be a 13.8% unemployment rate.

July, 2012: Puerto Rico now has a labor force of 1,267,154 people. 1,093,903 people are employed. 173,251 people are unemployed. The overall unemployment rate is now at 13.7%.

Therefore, since Fortuño took office in 2009, Puerto Rico has seen a 7% decrease in its labor force (loss of about 82,000  people) and a 6% decrease in the number of employed people (a total loss of 80,000 jobs). Where are these people going? Very likely to places like Florida. In fact, they are going to Florida in growing numbers, as the latest US Census can confirm:

And that is where the Mitt Romney campaign comes in.

Unless you are totally shut off from the national election, to paraphrase the late Tim Russert: FLORIDA, FLORIDA, FLORIDA. Romney 2012 knows fully well that its candidate must make inroads into the Puerto Rican vote in Florida if it even thinks it has a chance of winning. So, being the out-of-touch campaign strategists that they are when it comes to the Latino vote, why not promote Fortuño?

Here is the problem with that. Think about it. The Puerto Rican population is migrating from the island to Florida because there are no jobs in Puerto Rico. Who has been at the helm of the worst economic crisis in Puerto Rico since the Great Depression? Luis Fortuño. There is no question that Fortuño has become a polarizing figure in Puerto Rican politics, and to think that his presence would help Romney’s efforts along the Interstate 4 corridor is unrealistic. Yay, the governor who forced me to leave the island is now telling me to vote Republican!

What is so ironic about this is that Fortuño has become a lot like President Obama, in the fact that both of them have to answer to stagnant economies and no true net changes in employment. Fortuño is quick to blame the previous administration of the opposing party, just like President Obama. But while Romney 2012 has no problem criticizing the President’s policies, it has always perplexed me why he would even roll out Fortuño. Hey, everyone, let’s celebrate the leader who has not created jobs for his own people and has seen people leave for better opportunities in the United States! Let’s hear for the guy who put a lot into pushing for changes to the Puerto Rican constitution, only to lose because people in Puerto Rico know how to Facebook and Twitter with the best of them! Right now, Luis Fortuño is damaged political goods, and his presence in Tampa will do nothing to move the needle with I-4 Puerto Ricans.

But I guess this is all about a deal. Fortuño has already assured anyone and everyone that Romney has promised the governor that if Puerto Rico were to vote for statehood in its upcoming November plebiscite (and that is one BIG IF), Fortuño were to win his re-election (another BIG IF) and if Romney were to become President Romney (a tossup IF), Romney would formally recognize the island’s desire to become the 51st state of the Union. That is the deal, and the unknowing US online media who has no clue about the complexities of Puerto Rico’s status (for example, does it even know that Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi—the Fortuño administration’s Resident Commissioner in Washington and the governor’s Number 2 guy on the ticket—is a pro-statehood Democrat who has distanced himself from both Romney and Fortuño?) eats up this whole public relations charade.

So instead of actually exploring Fortuño’s record and his growing unpopularity on the island, we get comments of how much fun Puerto Ricans love to party from Ann Romney and how Fortuño represents the new Latino Conservative (the same Latino Conservative who got billions in federal stimulus money to actually improve the situation on the island somewhat). Instead of stories that speak of a Puerto Rico that continues to see a rise in crime and a rise in income inequality, we get the shouts of “¡Buenas noches, Puerto Rico!” in Tampa. Forget the issues and the direction Puerto Rico is heading. This is all about getting the holy grail of statehood and it is also about what Fortuño will do and where he will go AFTER he loses in November.

From his speech in Tampa this week, we get a different view of a Puerto Rico from Fortuño. Cut taxes! Keep government small! Double-digit unemployment! People leaving the island I lead! Oh, wait…

In the end, all the Puerto Rican pride in the world could not hide the fact that the Romney campaign is trying to pander to Puerto Rican voters in Florida and the US every time it rolls out Fortuño as an example of success (and yes, we know, pandering to Latinos has become a tactic of both the GOP and the Democrats). As for Fortuño? It is clear that this is all about political opportunism and partisan loyalty. By not being truthful about what is really going in Puerto Rico and becoming “proof” that the GOP has new Latino stars, he is once again disrespecting and ignoring the people he serves. We thought he learned that lesson two weeks ago when he suffered a stunning defeat in the polls.

You would think he would be more humble about it. Guess not, since in a few months Luis Fortuño will be out looking for a new job.

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