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Puerto Rico Primary Splits Island’s Independentistas

New America Media , News Report, Marcelo Ballvé Posted: May 30, 2008

Editor’s Note: Puerto Rico’s small but influential groups that support independence normally stay away from anything to do with mainland politics. But this Democratic primary season they can’t help themselves, says NAM contributing editor Marcelo Ballvé.

It's a sign of Puerto Rico's zany political scene that a famous comedian sometimes doubles as a pundit. Silverio Pérez, known for hosting TV shows on Telemundo and Univisión, is also unusual for another reason: he's an independentista, one of the small percentage of Puerto Ricans who advocate for the island to become independent, ending its 110-year history as a U.S. possession.

In general, independentistas don't touch mainland electoral politics with a 10-foot-pole, considering involvement a concession to colonialist Washington D.C.

But things are a little different as the island heads towards the June 1 primary.

Many heads turned when Pérez and another independentista star, actress Nelly Jo Carmona, arrived to attend the mid-April inauguration of Sen. Barack Obama's Puerto Rican campaign committee. Pérez's initial excuse was that his daughter had joined the Obama campaign's press team, and so he had come to show support. But later he admitted he believed Obama was better than "John McBush," according to coverage of the event in El Nuevo Día, the island's largest newspaper.

Carmona was more frank off the bat: she didn't see a contradiction in supporting anti-war Obama as the best man for the job of U.S. president, while simultaneously wanting a future for Puerto Rico as an independent republic.

The affinity of generally leftist independentistas for the liberal Obama is not surprising, but what is unusual is that they should come out in open, or semi-open, support for a candidate who, after all, is a U.S. Senator.

Independentistas typically castigate the U.S. Congress as a den of imperial interests from which no solutions for the island could possibly emerge.

To gloss over a whole mess of subtleties, Puerto Rican politics basically ride along three rails: there's a party that supports the island becoming the 51st U.S. state; there's another that supports some variety of the status quo commonwealth arrangement in which Puerto Ricans can't vote for president, don't pay federal taxes, but enjoy U.S. citizenship. These two parties form the bulk of the electorate. For their part, the independentistas – "the radical option," according to their new slogan – received under 5% of ballots in two 1990s plebiscites on status.

The relatively thin support for independence belies the independentistas' reputation as principled corruption fighters and reformists. They play a significant if minority role in what amounts to a three party system, and in local elections can win, or at least act as spoilers.

It is a party built on an unswerving principle: that the island's 4 million inhabitants can't be truly free until the U.S. yoke is removed and all its trappings eradicated. That is why even flirting with the Democratic primary is a notable deviation.

The independentista actress's Obama endorsement can be seen as breaking a taboo. And that taboo is still respected by independentista politicians like the Independence Party's leader, the intense blue-eyed Rubén Berríos. He calls for a total boycott of the primary, in which 55 island delegates are at stake, describing it as a farcical simulacrum. "It's all a media spectacle," he recently told reporters, and added scornfully (alluding to lavish promises the candidates made while campaigning on the island): "The only thing they haven't promised is to do a pole dance for us."

The Independence Party's general secretary, Juan Dalmau, echoed Berríos's line during an evening TV news interview in May: "It's a carnival of assimilation that will cost Puerto Ricans $2.5 million but has no real significance." (The video can be viewed on the blog of the Independence Party in Rincón, a town in western Puerto Rico.)

But even as the old guard strives to maintain its gruff and disapproving distance, other independentistas are being pulled into the primary, "spectacle" or not. It's a sign of how high the stakes seem in this U.S. election.

In a May 27 column for El Nuevo Día, Pérez, the comedian, anatomized the split that had occurred in independentista ranks. He classified independentistas' attitudes toward the primary into three classes: there were those who would toe the line and stay away from the primary altogether, those who would openly vocalize a preference and act on it by voting, and finally, those who would participate on the sly, not allowing it to be known they had violated the boycott upheld by Berríos and other party leaders.

He stops short of saying he will actually vote in the primary, which he compares to a reality TV show, but at the end, he admits: "If I voted, I would vote for Obama." It's clearly an endorsement – despite the vote held in reserve. It's an independentistas' way of saying: this election year, I can't help myself.

Related Articles:

Where Do Latinos Go Now?

The Latino Voting Paradox

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