the boricua vote here and there

Commentary

By Clarisel Gonzalez, puertoricosun.com

San Juan - Two years ago, a Mexican-American friend visited me from Texas and asked me what was up with "the commonwealth" status.

"What's that all about?" he asked.

Well, I explained to him that Puerto Ricans are US citizens and have to follow federal laws. But we don't have a right to vote for president or pay federal income taxes.

The way we are now I joked is like shacking up with a lover with limited benefits rather than getting married with all the benefits.

"Hey," he responded, "I prefer the lover then."

"Who wants to pay federal income taxes?" he asked.

If he were a Puerto Rican living here, he'd probably be for remaining a US commonwealth every time just because we don't have to pay federal income taxes.

"Voting for president is overrated," he joked.

If my friend were here, he probably would have been among the thousands who spent July 25th in Ponce celebrating the 52nd anniversary of Puerto Rico's government as a US commonwealth or "free associated state."

But it's more complicated than that.

While boricuas here vote in massive numbers in local elections, they can't vote for president. In Puerto Rico, we don't vote for federally elected officials and we don't have voting representation in Congress. There's something not too democratic about that.

But things seem to be changing. Pro-statehood and pro-independence supporters say there is growing bipartisan consensus in the US that commonwealth is only temporary, and that the political status issue must be resolved.

A large group favors "perfected commonwealth'' as the best option, which would provide broader autonomy while another significant group favors "statehood.'' Only about 5 percent of the population favors independence.

Puerto Ricans opted to keep the status quo over statehood in the most recent nonbinding plebiscite of 1998 on the island.

While the divide over status continues to be in the heart of Puerto Rican politics here the whole year every year, boricuas are listening closely this election year to what the presidential candidates have to say, specifically on this hot-button issue. Puerto Ricans stateside are too.

That's why it's important for Puerto Ricans stateside to register and vote because they can actually elect a president and influence change.

Far too often, Puerto Ricans who live in the good old USA are just not taking full advantage of their clout. Many Puerto Ricans stateside seem to take their votes for granted and that, too, has to change for the good of boricuas there and here.

But there is a movement to help draw more stateside Puerto Rican voters, and it seems to have a positive impact. It's a nationwide nonpartisan movement that was actually launched by Puerto Rico Gov. Sila M. Calderon of the ruling pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party.

Now, let's see if stateside boricuas who register actually vote in November. For now, the picture is looking pretty, judging by what has been accomplished so far.

At a July activity in Yonkers, NY, just north of New York City, Mari Carmen Aponte, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, announced the next expansion phase of what she says has become the nation's largest Hispanic voter education, registration and mobilization campaign.

"I am proud to announce that our nonpartisan voter registration effort has registered 250,000 new voters nationwide including over 100,000 right here in New York State," Aponte states on a July 15 press release on the PRFAA website.

Eight days later, at a Puerto Rican activity in Ohio, Aponte states that the number had actually climbed to 280,000 registered new voters nationwide including more than 5,500 in Ohio, home to many boricuas.

Mainland Puerto Ricans have the opportunity to play a crucial role in this year's presidential, state and local elections as Democrats and Republicans alike aggressively court the Latino vote. The mainland Puerto Rican population has grown to 3.4 million, a 28.5 percent jump in the last 10 years alone, according to the 2000 census.

Meanwhile, the nationwide, nonpartisan voter registration and education program "Que Nada Nos Detenga" that Calderon launched in July 2002 to empower Puerto Ricans and Hispanics across the nation by encouraging them to become more engaged in their own communities does seem to be working. Aponte states the campaign is on target to register 300,000 new voters by the November 2004 elections.

So far, the campaign has proven to be a good, impressive civil rights movement even though it also seems to contradict the fact that US citizens on the island don't have the same right to vote for president.

Nonetheless, good things are happening for mainland boricuas who should probably follow the example of island boricuas when it comes to voting.

According to PRFAA, voter registration and participation rates on the island are higher than any state in the United States. In Puerto Rico, voter registration is 95 percent and participation rates are 86 percent in elections here. But the story is different when boricuas move to the mainland with voter registration and participation dropping to about 40 percent, partly because of apathy and language issues.

It really is important for stateside boricuas to cast their votes in the upcoming presidential election to improve the quality of life in their own stateside communities as well as in Puerto Rico.

So, Boricua, please vote. Voter registration and participation matters for all of us whether we are here or there! It's about political leverage.

As Calderon states: "We are mobilizing Puerto Ricans and raising awareness of their potential impact on elections in New York, as well as issues that affect their communities and the Island. All citizens play an important role in the political process and should have the information and the opportunities to help control how decisions are made that affect their daily lives."

According to PRFAA: "the campaign's success can be seen in exit poll data made available following the 2002 elections where polls showed a 70 percent increase in turnout among first-time Puerto Rican voters. In addition, 87 percent of Puerto Ricans surveyed in 2002 said they were aware of the voter registration campaign and 54 percent said they were motivated to vote because the campaign drew a clear link between voting and benefits for their community. Since the campaign's launch in July 2002, major voter registration rally events have been held in New York, New Jersey, Florida and Pennsylvania - all states with large Puerto Rican populations."

For now, we closely follow how the presidential candidates court the stateside boricua/Latino vote and what promises they make. After all, stateside boricuas/Latinos do have a say on who they will vote in as the nation's president, and it is to our benefit to have as many boricuas stateside voting.

President Bush reactivated a task force last year to clarify legal options for the island and appointed as co-chair a White House adviser who has said Puerto Ricans eventually would have to choose sovereignty or statehood.

Last spring, Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry released a position paper saying that the political status here "remains undetermined." He supposedly would deal with island issues such as the economy and political status.

Something has to be done to bring real change. Puerto Rico needs to decide its future. And, it's about time Congress address the situation and allow Puerto Ricans decide.

July 2004

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