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Puerto Rico, Obama and the Politics of Race


The longer the Democratic nominating process goes on, the more the issue of race exposes ugly fissures within the party.  With his early wins in Iowa and Wisconsin, two states with a predominantly white electorate, Barack Obama hoped that he would be able to transcend racial divisions.

Then we got Jeremiah Wright and the unflattering media coverage which followed.  The Illinois Senator started to lose primaries in white states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky.  In particular, race played a critical role in the latter state, with one in five admitting that the issue affected their decision once they got into the voting booth.

At the same time, Obama has been racking up the black primary vote in record numbers: in South Carolina he got 78%, and in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. he received nearly 90%.

The media has made much of this white- black split.  But what about other racial divisions on the campaign trail?

Latinos: Obama’s Achilles Heel

In Texas Latinos made up nearly one third of the vote.  According to CNN’s exit poll, they supported Clinton over Obama by a margin of two to one in the state’s primary.  In the Nevada caucus, Clinton nailed the Latino vote two to one.  In California, where Latino voters make up 30% of the Democratic electorate, Clinton had an even bigger blow-out: the New York Senator won 67 percent of the Latino vote to 29 percent for Obama.

Surely, Clinton benefited from high name recognition within the Latino community whereas Obama by contrast was little known.  But given the lopsided numbers, it seems logical to wonder whether Latino voters, like the whites in Kentucky, may have voted at least in part on the basis of race.

These are very sensitive questions and, not surprisingly, we haven’t heard much discussion about such issues in the U.S. corporate media.  While white pundits have occasionally mentioned white racism towards blacks they have ignored racial tensions between blacks and Latinos, perhaps because they feel awkward wading into the discussion.  And yet, as we near the Puerto Rico primary on June 1st, Latino-black race relations could play a vital role in the nominating process.

Puerto Rico: Determined to Make an Impact

Puerto Ricans are used to feeling disenfranchised in the electoral process.  Island residents are U.S. citizens but they cannot vote in the general presidential election.  They have no voting representation in Washington, D.C. though the island sends a symbolic, nonvoting delegate to Congress.  Because Puerto Rico is a semi-autonomous commonwealth and not a state, only Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland may cast ballots for president in November.

Determined to make an impact upon the nominating process this year, Puerto Rico, an island of about 4 million people, has made some important electoral changes.  The island has scrapped its traditional caucus in favor of a primary in which 55 delegates will be at stake.  In addition, Puerto Rico has moved its primary up to June 1st, which means that Montana and South Dakota will vote last on June 3rd.

Puerto Rico Democratic Chairman Roberto Prats said that caucuses were fine in previous years, when the party nominee was settled by the time Puerto Rico voted and the only task was to choose delegates to the national convention. “Now it’s different,” he told the Democratic National Committee’s rules panel in a conference call. “This is the first time in decades that Puerto Rico will be participating in an event of this magnitude.”


Obama and Clinton: It’s all About the Vagueness

Puerto Rican politics largely revolves around the long-standing question about what the island’s future relationship to the U.S. mainland should be.  To this day, Puerto Rico is divided between one major party advocating statehood and the other favoring a continuation of the current arrangement, known as a “free associated state.”

If Puerto Rico were to become a state, then the island would receive voting rights and equality under U.S. law.  However, it would also mean that Puerto Ricans would be subject to federal income tax, a fate which statehood opponents are determined to avoid.  The island has voted on and rejected statehood four times.

At a recent campaign rally on the island, Clinton said, “I believe you should have a vote in picking the president,” even before the issue of the island’s status is resolved.  Taking questions in the city of Bayamón, Obama heard an array of concerns from residents who said they felt like second-class citizens. “What it comes down to is respect,” he said.

For the most part however, both Clinton and Obama have tried to remain neutral on the overall issue of Puerto Rico’s future political status.

“I believe all people are entitled to a representative form of government at all levels of government, and that the people of Puerto Rico should have the right to determine by majority vote the status you choose from among all the options,” Clinton said while campaigning. “I have no preference. My only commitment is to work with those from all factions and with the congress to give you the right to make that decision. I want that done within my first term as president.”


Advantage: Clinton

Will Clinton continue to rout Obama amongst Latino voters once Puerto Rico votes in its primary?  No opinion polling has been conducted on the island so it is difficult to predict the electoral result.  As the junior Senator from New York however, Clinton probably has the advantage in Puerto Rico.  About four million Puerto Ricans reside in the U.S., with the largest concentration in the three-state New York City metropolitan area.  While campaigning on the island, Clinton refers to herself jokingly as “the senator from Puerto Rico.”

Clinton is familiar to most Puerto Ricans as a result of her stint as first lady.  Under husband Bill, she got involved in disaster relief after Hurricane Georges and met with protesters seeking an end to the U.S. Navy’s use of the island of Vieques for bombing practice.  In an effort to make her mark in the last stages of the campaign, Clinton has dispatched not only Bill but also daughter Chelsea to Puerto Rico.

Obama by contrast is less well known.  Until his arrival this past weekend, Obama had visited just once, for a fund-raiser last year.  To level the playing field, he has sent wife Michelle as well as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to Puerto Rico to campaign on his behalf.  In seeking to appeal to Puerto Ricans, Obama emphasizes the fact that he was also born and raised on an island far from the U.S. mainland.

Meanwhile the island’s political establishment seems pretty split between Obama and Clinton.  Puerto Rico’s Governor Aníbal Acevedo-Vila has endorsed Obama.  However, other members of Acevedo-Vila’s Popular Democratic Party, as well as politicians from the opposition New Progressive Party, are reportedly leaning towards Clinton.


Hardly a “Racial Democracy”

With no clear ideological differences between the two candidates, race may enter into the political equation.  In an interesting article in the New York Times, the paper remarked that “Obama’s biracial identity is perceived as working to his advantage” in Puerto Rico.  The article goes on to quote Juan Manuel García Passalacqua, a political commentator: “On the mainland, Obama is black, but not in Puerto Rico.  Here he is a mulatto, and this is a mulatto society. People here are perfectly prepared to vote for someone who looks like them for president of the United States.”

On the surface at least, the New York Times would seem to be talking some sense.  African slaves were imported into Puerto Rico to run the island’s sugar plantations during the colonial period and mixed with the native population.  To say however that Puerto Ricans identify as blacks or mulattoes is overly simplistic and ignores the fact that racism has long characterized social life on the island.

Many scholars agree that Puerto Rico is stratified along color lines, ranging along a color continuum from white to brown to black.  Puerto Ricans of darker skin color have faced racial discrimination in private schools, the University of Puerto Rico, private enterprises, voluntary associations and residential areas.  Loiza, the town with the largest proportion of black people, is one of Puerto Rico’s poorest and has been plagued by complaints of police brutality.

According to Jorge Duany, a leading Puerto Rican sociologist, “Although the empirical evidence on racial politics in contemporary Puerto Rico is still scanty, several studies have documented that blacks are a stigmatized minority on the Island; that they suffer from persistent prejudice and discrimination,” and that they concentrate in the lower classes.

Puerto Rico Primary and Racial Identity

Duany writes that Puerto Ricans have developed an elaborate racist vocabulary to refer to racially stereotyped characteristics.  Kinky hair, for example, is referred to as “bad” (“pelo malo”).  Meanwhile racial prejudice is apparent in folk humor, beauty contests, media portrayals, and political leadership.  “In all these areas,” Duany says, “whites are usually depicted as more intelligent, attractive, refined, and capable than are blacks.”

All of which is not to say that racism in Puerto Rico works in the same way as the United States.  However, the island is hardly a “racial democracy” as some of the island’s boosters have claimed.   Indeed, many Puerto Ricans deny their cultural heritage and physical characteristics and buy into an ideology of “whitening” through intermarriage with light skinned groups.  Interestingly, a whopping 81% of Puerto Ricans called themselves “white” on the 2000 U.S. census.

What does all this racial politics portend for the territory’s upcoming primary?  Obama has swept U.S. states with sizable African American populations like South Carolina.  Puerto Rico however could be another story however as it is by no means clear that island residents self identify as black.  On June 1st, we may see Latinos continue to vote en masse for a white candidate over a black one.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan)


NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.

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