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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."