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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.