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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Next Time, Come Back as President

Today, President Barack Obama returns to Puerto Rico as a candidate to raise money, starting at $35,000 a ticket, for his next presidential campaign.
Despite the brazen pretense of coming here to check on issues related to education and the economy –  and presumably to fulfill his campaign promise to return as president – there is still a chance for Obama to display presidential leadership.
Obama owes Puerto Rico serious consideration from the president its stateside compatriots helped elect in 2008.
There’s no doubt running a presidential campaign is prohibitively expensive – conventional wisdom says candidates must raise about $1 billion. Obama’s visit, while necessary for his campaign, could also have been beneficial to his presidency. He is, at heart, a teacher, and our firestorm status debates would welcome his gift of tempered leadership. If his presidency would actively address inequities in the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S.,  Obama could have a major geopolitical victory in the Western Hemisphere.
His White House Task Force on Puerto Rico erred in its recent recommendation that Puerto Rico hold a status referendum in 2012. Obama could slow down the process to broaden informed participation.
In a future visit, the president could be the keynote speaker at a summit organized by his non-partisan task force and centered on the different status options. It could be one of several summits held across the island over the course of the next two or three years to ensure ample debate and participation.
Right now, partisan media outlets, mostly ruled by families and businesses who share a curious love of statehood, can’t sort out the complex nature of the U.S.–Puerto Rico relationship without calling it a “problem” or a vestige of colonialism.
The political status of Puerto Rico deserves more than instant gratification politics and tired, antagonizing buzzwords uttered by fear-mongering politicos.  We deserve thoughtfulness. This is us that we are talking about, the us that includes not just those to come but also those who came before.
No one should be shoved out of the process. The pro-independence movement isn’t any less worthy because of its small size anymore than the large pro-statehood or pro-commonwealth movements. Countries such as Spain value a multi-party system that relies on coalitions to advance its desire for progress.
History is a great teacher but for generations, Puerto Ricans have not had the privilege of being students of Puerto Rican history. In public schools, Puerto Rican history is an elective that competes with the much-enjoyed study hall hour. Yet students must take U.S. history. How can we vote on our future when we don’t know our past?
Obama could direct his Puerto Rico Task Force to nudge the Puerto Rico Education Department, despite its allegiance to the pro-statehood party, to include Puerto Rican history in the public school curriculum.
The president knows that thoughtfulness is the harvest of a good education, that it is through healthy debates in which ideas are rigorously tested that we can arrive at a vote of consequence.
Puerto Rico is vastly poorer than it was two years ago when Obama first visited to raise money for his campaign. Violent crime has expanded far outside the realm of narco-trafficking circles and crept out from under the cover of night. Prized cultural institutions have been decimated by a governor intent on disappearing Puerto Ricanness. Public education is in ruins. The incompetent health system forces sick people to wait hours for a regular office visit. The show-stopping ineptitude of the Legislature, which rivals children fighting in a sandbox over the fire truck, is a disgrace to those who fought hard build to a democracy, however still imperfect.
This is not the right environment to debate political status; Puerto Ricans are busy just trying to survive the day.
Hopefully, Obama will return again, this time solely as a president, to help lead Puerto Rico into a thoughtful debate about political status.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Obama's promise to Puerto Rico imperils Puerto Rico

The White House Task Force on Puerto Rico released its list of recommendations for what to do about Puerto Rico today, proving once again that Puerto Rico remains a mystery to Washington, DC.

In October of 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order updating and broadening the functions of the Task Force to not only examine and report on the status question, but to also focus on matters affecting Puerto Rico’s economic development, and provide advice and recommendations to the President and the Congress on policies that promote job creation, education, health care, clean energy, and economic development on the island.

Obama's commitment to helping Puerto Rico stems from a campaign promise that, while it did not win him the strangely coveted 2008 primary in Puerto Rico – Hillary Clinton won that vote overwhelmingly – was a historic first. 

For the first time, a politician acknowledged and stated on the record that Puerto Rico's special relationship with the United States was worthy of respect. It was a love letter, and he is fulfilling his promise.

In fact, the White House Task Force on Puerto Rico wants to hold at least two referendums on the island for voters there to choose which status they prefer: statehood, commonwealth, independence or free associated state.

Back in in February 2008, Obama the camdidate wrote: "As President I will actively engage Congress and the Puerto Rican people in promoting this deliberative, open and unbiased process, that may include a constitutional convention, or a plebiscite, and my Administration will adhere to a policy of strict neutrality on Puerto Rican status matters. My Administration will recognize all valid options to resolve the question of Puerto Rico's status, including commonwealth, statehood, and independence."

Yet, during a conference call this morning with task force members

                 Cecilia Muñoz, Task Force Co-Chair and White House Director of Intergovernmental     Affairs
                 Tom Perrelli, Task Force Co-Chair and Associate Attorney General of the United States
     Eric Waldo, Task Force Member and Deputy Chief of Staff, US Department of Education
     Judith A. Enck, Regional Administrator, Region 2 US Environmental Protection Agency
                 Laura Smith Morton, Task Force Member and Senior Advisor, Renewable Energy, Department     of Energy/EERE
in which 35 minutes were taken up by members repeating some of the 221-page report's most headline-catching points, it became clear that the report, as all previous White House reports, is thin on substance and thick on grand ideas and recommendations that have no teeth. There is no regulation, law, executive order – and, given Obama's record thus far on controversial initiatives – no power of persuasion to implement any of the recommendations.

And at least one fundamental piece is missing from the report.

The report implies there is an urgency to hold a referendum on Puerto Rico's status before the end of 2012. But doesn't state why.
And it doesn't address the lack of access to impartial information that is a conerstone of any democratic process.
There are no mechanisms in place to ensure that voters on the island have complete and equal access to objective information regarding the status vote.
Puerto Rico's public education system, the third largest within the United States, has been systematically dismantled by successive administrations intent on gaining statehood for the island by encouraging more than half of the 650,000 students to drop out of school before graduation day. Their theory is, the more people don't know, the more likely they will vote for statehood.
It is a Caribbean version of the Tea Party in the U.S. Mass ignorance is bliss for vested interests.
As if not allowing enough time for the public education system to return to being one of the best in Latin America weren't enough, Puerto Rico is also littered with partisan media outlets, almost pro-statehood, that have contributed to the situation the island faces today. It's not just pundits in Puerto Rico who influence public sentiment – it is also the type of stories and how they are presented that sways voters one way or another.

In sum, we have a situation where Obama is rushing for island Puerto Ricans to vote on an important issue that will affect future generations in a context where people are poorly educated and misinformed by partisan media outlets.

This is a bad promise to keep, Mr. President.

 Before putting issues on the table to vote on, people need education. Otherwise, it will be just another episode of "Survivor"  mixed in with "American Idol." 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On immigration, nothing new

By Natalia Muñoz

The question to Gov. Deval Patrick was, “How do you persuade people
with other views to your side so that in the end, undocumented
immigrants have the tools they need to get on with their lives?”
For instance, a driver’s license, an ID that can mark the difference
between a traffic violation ticket and deportation, remains an
untenable proposal for most Republicans while most Democrats tighten
their lips so shut it appears as if they do not have a mouth.
Patrick has tried repeatedly to show both local and federal
politicians that allowing undocumented workers to learn the rules
of the road and take the test is as much a safety issue as much as
common sense.
But many politicians equate common sense with losing an election.
They would rather keep the job they are not suited for than have
to work for a living. And in this electoral climate in which most
people do not vote, these politicians are masterful at fooling most
of the people most of the time.
What their Republican colleagues also do well is transform rational
proposals into matters of tyranny vs. democracy. And the mainstream
media, which have the budgets to research and present reality
vs. demagoguery, prefer to present insipid reality shows that
stun people into inaction, similar to how the hugely popular Jon
Stewart’s “Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert’s “Report” television
shows keep the masses laughing all the way into sleepiness.
The mainstream media opts to position a nicely groomed nincompoop
like Anderson Cooper front and center and empanel the same tired
DC insiders to deconstruct the latest round of political wrestling
until … the next nonstory is broken by another highly paid
nincompoop bureau chief somewhere.
In this miasma between Barbie mainstream media and lightweight
politicians gunning for more exposure, visionary policy makers and
expedient demagogues, Patrick chips at the path to citizenship
for the thousands of residents in Massachusetts who enrich the
commonwealth with their contributions, tax- and otherwise.
Patrick answered the question, again saying that he supports
immigration reform and wants to usher in the day when undocumented
workers can apply for a driver’s license.
But another journalist at the press conference wasn’t convinced he
is doing enough and asked Patrick why he didn’t just do it without
Republican support.
After all, she said, Utah gives drivers licenses to people who pass
the test, regardless of their immigration status or citizenship. So
do New Mexico and Washington.
Patrick, who also said the commonwealth could lose millions of
federal dollars if it allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for
licenses, was not aware of this but said he would look into it.
In the meantime, no doubt that waiting for him are a herd of court
jesters and naysayers who will delight and lead the spineless
mainstream media into a talk fest where one expert will preach

anarchy is about to takeover the country and the other will plug
his new book, a profile on a Washington, DC, player who is now a
multimillionaire and jokes with Matt Lauer on ”The Today Show.” And
Stewart and Colbert will make clever jokes.
And those of us in the ethnic media who ask Patrick again and again
about immigration reform, have nothing new to report.
Natalia Muñoz is founder and editor of