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Hillary's Puerto Rico Problems

Michael Sean Winters, who knows an awful lot about Puerto Rican politics (and blogs here), has chimed in with some pre-primary analysis.

Hillary Clinton is headed back to Puerto Rico this weekend after a new poll shows her leading Barack Obama 51% to 38% in the June 1* primary. If those numbers hold, they would represent a great storyline for Obama, who has consistently lost Latinos by margins of more than two-to-one to Clinton. The press would likely say he is uniting the party, that a key part of Clinton's base was abandoning her, and that her claims to be the only person capable of delivering the Latino vote were demonstrably false. But that narrative is itself demonstrably false: Puerto Ricans have vastly different interests from most stateside Latinos, starting with the fact that Puerto Ricans are citizens and do not have to worry about immigration issues.

More to the point, though, Clinton isn't especially liked in Puerto Rico. Her husband did nothing to end the Navy's presence at Vieques, an issue that was less about military deployment and more about national pride. The Navy had previously abused another pristine natural habitat in Culebra, leaving a toxic mess to be cleaned up three decades after the Navy left. The threat that they were doing it again, combined with the Navy's shocking indifference to the death of a civilian guard, enraged the population, producing large protests and uniting virtually the entire political spectrum. Puerto Ricans were united in the conviction that they would never again consent to be treated like "pendejos," or suckers.

Hillary's war vote is also a major drawback. Latinos throughout the U.S. have been more opposed to the war than most, but in Puerto Rico the war highlights the island's colonial status. "If the death of a Puerto Rican soldier is tragic, it's more tragic if that soldier has no say in that war," noted a leading official in the island's Independence movement. San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez, a major player on the overwhelmingly Catholic island who had led the effort to get the Navy out of Vieques, was very vocal in opposing the Iraq War at its inception. By 2007, 57% of Puerto Rico's high school students or their parents had signed forms to withhold their personal information from Pentagon recruiters, according to The Washington Post. That same poll indicated that 75% of Puerto Ricans opposed the Iraq War.

Clinton's more recent pander on the issue of Puerto Rican voting rights did nothing to improve her image either. The important political divide on the island is not between Democrats and Republicans, but between statehood advocates and those who prefer the current, more autonomous arrangement. A small but vocal minority supports independence. All Puerto Ricans know the ins-and-outs of the issue thoroughly. Clinton suggested that the island's citizens be able to vote for president, without saying she was advocating statehood, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled such participation unconstitutional. The most  prominent newspaper on the island, El Nuevo Dia, mocked her "wish list" approach to the issue and made it clear that residents thought she was either uninformed or disingenuous.

Then, there are the cosmetic problems. Last weekend, she was photographed sitting in a restaurant with a local beer. Cultural pandering has as fine a tradition in Puerto Rico as it does in the States. Except that the beer she chose--Presidente--is not a Puerto Rican beer; it's Dominican. Medalla is the native Puerto Rican brew.

Drinking the wrong beer may not cost Clinton any votes. But, the visual image fed the more substantial perception that she does not grasp the pride Puerto Ricans take in their island, in its natural beauty and its cultural traditions. And the failure to grasp that pride may explain her relatively poor performance next Sunday. 

--Michael Sean Winters

*This originally said June 7. Typo.