With the possible exception of an ice cream cone under the tropical sun, few things are of shorter duration than an American presidential candidate's attention span when it comes to Puerto Rico's colonial status.
The Republican incumbent's attention deficit on this issue is well documented. He issued an Executive Order creating a Task Force to develop a policy-to-seek-a-policy for Puerto Rico's status. The Task Force was supposed to report within one year after its creation, but it never did. However, three years later, it was amended to allow for progress reports every two years; and reportedly, the Task Force met last week for the first time ever. If no further amendments occur, it could be submitting its first report five years after its creation. So far, the developments on that front are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
On the Democratic side, a funny thing happened to Wesley Clark on his way to New Hampshire. In a moment of epiphany, the retired Army General-presumably as shocked by U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico as Louis Rénault, the prefect of police in Casablanca, when he pretended to have just learned that gambling was taking place in Rick's Café, where he usually placed his bets-made a refreshing splash, from New Hampshire all the way to Vieques. He announced his support for a non-colonial, non-territorial solution to this military colony where the Pentagon carried out its live-ammunition abuses, until Puerto Ricans' civil disobedience and widespread opposition gently escorted the U.S. military out.
For further advice, he appointed a list of extraordinary gentlemen to a league of strange bedfellows-among others, Carlos Romero Barceló, the controversial former pro-statehood Resident Commissioner; Marco Rigau, the former senator and advocate of sovereign free association; and the influential Democratic fundraiser from Puerto Rico, Miguel Lausell, who also supports Puerto Rico's sovereignty. The General also contacted Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) officials who gracefully declined. The PIP, which does not participate in U.S. political processes, agreed nevertheless to keep lines of communication open, as usual, with anyone seriously interested in Puerto Rico's decolonization.
Most of the other candidates, however, have said next to nothing on Puerto Rico-at least, so far. But two of them, Dean and Kerry, initially approached the notion of a non-colonial, non-territorial solution, only to recoil like Dracula before a plate of garlic shrimp. "Too complicated," Dean reportedly said. "Merely a former advisor's position," according to reports from the Kerry camp. Whether it was gutlessness or vestiges of the imperial mind at work, both retreated behind the inconsequential rhetoric of "let Puerto Ricans decide among all options," including territorial status, notwithstanding the contradiction entailed by posing the problem as the solution.
The question remains as to how much longer they will be able to evade the issue. The General, himself, stood by his announced position-one more nearly consonant with international law. Unfortunately, neither he nor his contenders for the Democratic nomination ever brought it up-or even tangentially discussed Puerto Rico-during any of the debates preceding the New Hampshire primary. Thus, while Clark's proposal hit Puerto Rico with a bang, it went out in New Hampshire with a whimper. And the mixed outcome (for every candidate but Kerry) in the Feb. 3 primaries further added silence on status to the injury caused by the U.S. government's attention deficit disorder regarding the plight of Puerto Rico's political subservience.
Electoral status consultations in Puerto Rico in 1967, 1993, and 1998 failed to bring about meaningful action on the part of the U.S. In the 1990s, Rubén Berríos, Rafael Hernández Colón, and Pedro Rosselló, as presidents of the independence, commonwealth, and statehood parties, respectively, urged the U.S. government to provide non-colonial, non-territorial options for Puerto Rico's ultimate status; and this did not move Congress to enact decolonizing legislation. Finally, presidential initiatives, such as the Bush Task Force, appear to lead merely to bureaucratic procrastination. Clearly if Puerto Rico's unhealthy constitutional status is to be resolved, there is a pressing need to engage the U.S. government's short attention span on Puerto Rico.
Clark's position is, in some respects, similar to what most Puerto Ricans have urged. (Only the commonwealth party seems to view colonialism as an inalienable right.) Indeed, he has been the first presidential candidate to publicly proclaim it. However, that alone is unlikely to make presidential hopefuls focus on the issue for a national debate.
The meandering minds of U.S. policy makers must face up to the fact that the 3.8 million Spanish-speaking Latin Americans of the Caribbean living in Puerto Rico need freedom from the colonial subordination of the past 105 years, allowing for full economic and political development in the context of today's global reality. A Puerto Rican assembly on status, as an act of self-determination, is the wake-up call Washington needs for serious negotiations to begin. The process for sovereignty should begin now, and the next U.S. president should welcome it.