What Is Puerto Rico, Anyway?

In a 2010 episode of the TV show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David irritates his wife  by asking, “Do you think we really needed Alaska and Hawaii?” She ignores him and he continues, “Are they trying to turn us into the British Empire? And what is Puerto Rico anyway?”

It was the same year in which Congressional candidate Vaughn Ward, asked whether he supported statehood for Puerto Rico during a debate with Raul Labrador, said, “The problem with extending statehood to any other country is that then the infrastructure requirements, everything we have under our laws, our regulations then applies to them.”

When it was pointed out to him that Puerto Rico is not a separate country, Ward said, “I really don’t care what it is. It doesn’t matter.” Many commentators made the connection, pointing out that a situation comedy character joked about the question, and a Congressional candidate not only couldn’t answer it, but didn’t care.

Ward lost his race and was characterized as “the most incompetent candidate in America” by Slate.

Puerto Rico has been within U.S. borders for a century, so when a candidate for Congress compares statehood for its 3.5 million U.S. citizens to statehood for foreign people in, say, Botswana or Malta, that kind of willful ignorance says something about the level of importance political candidates assigned to Puerto Rico at the time.

Things have changed. Puerto Rico’s importance in political contests in the States — including the presidential election — is much more obvious now.

Residents of Puerto Rico have no vote in the presidential election, but they vote in the primaries. Puerto Rico has an estimated 44 votes at the Democratic Convention for the 2016 election, the same as South Carolina and more than Oklahoma and 20 other States. For the Republican primary, Puerto Rico has an estimated 23 votes, more than New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Delaware, among others.

Beyond that, Puerto Ricans are now the second largest Latino group in the U.S. and Hispanic voters now make up 11% of all registered voters. More than one million people of Puerto Rican origin live in Florida alone, and Florida is an important swing vote. The Puerto Rican population of Florida is therefore being wooed by candidates for the presidency.

“During the last campaign, it was called the swing vote of the swing state,” the Washington Post quoted Jeffrey Farrow, a White House adviser on Puerto Rico under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as saying.

Candidate Jeb Bush has already been campaigning in Puerto Rico, and Cristóbal Alex of the Latino Victory Project has said that his organization will work hard to remind voters in 2016 of the “people who turned their backs on Puerto Rico.”

But it may be the Economist that has made the point most clearly. “Puerto Ricans,” said an editorial, “have become too important to offend.”

Let your legislators know that you care about Puerto Rico’s status.

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