American citizens enjoy all kinds of rights and privileges that most of us simply take for granted. Think about the presidential election: If you were over 18, did you have any doubt about your right to vote for Obama or any other candidate?
Yet, this is not the case for the 2.9 million eligible voters who live on the island of Puerto Rico, despite their status as legal citizens of the United States. Only residents of the 50 states can vote in national elections, and as a commonwealth—poised between statehood and independence—Puerto Rico doesn’t make the cut. Many find this state of affairs outrageous.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory for 111 years, yet Puerto Ricans remain second-class citizens. Though excluded from presidential voting and Congressional representation, they were drafted to fight in every U.S. conflict from World War I to Vietnam, when the military became all-volunteer—and they continue to serve. According to Pentagon figures, more than 12,000 island Puerto Ricans have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Juan Perez of Manate, P.R., a proud U.S. soldier, says he hopes to see his voting rights expanded because “if you have to follow the orders of your government, then you should be able to vote for them.” Congressman Jerry Weller (D–Ill.), who supports statehood for Puerto Rico, echoed that view when he recently said, “I believe that if you are eligible to join the United States military and defend our constitution and defend our freedoms, then you should have the right to vote for president.”
Of course, Puerto Ricans themselves have repeatedly voted against both statehood and independence in favor of commonwealth status, which, among other benefits, exempts them from paying federal income taxes. However, the tide may be changing: A pro-statehood governor, Luis Fortuño, was inaugurated in January, and a recent poll reported that 57 percent of islanders now favor statehood.
Even if Puerto Rico doesn’t achieve statehood, Congress can accord voting rights by Constitutional amendment, either by abolishing the electoral college (which ties the presidential election to state-by-state votes) or by defining territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as eligible to hold electoral votes—just like the District of Columbia. Based on population, Puerto Rico could have eight electoral votes, the same as South Carolina and more than 25 smaller states.
As a Nuyorican girl whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, I’ve come to understand the constitutional barrier, but I cannot accept the inaction of Congress, especially while nations like Cuba, Venezuela and Iran have testified in support of the island’s fringe independence movement during anti-colonialism hearings at the United Nations.
Puerto Ricans have done everything their adopted country has asked of them since being acquired by the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Many Puerto Ricans were initially happy to be granted territory status in 1917, assuming that it was the first step to becoming full and equal citizens of this country. It saddens my 79-year-old cousin, Wilfredo Hernandez-Lopez, a retired University of Puerto Rico professor, that so little progress has been made. “All we want is the same equality, rights and obligations as any other citizens within the United States. This situation has caused us great pain,” he says. Another cousin, Anabel Franceschini Rosa, 44, an attorney living in Puerto Rico, explains her frustration this way: “Puerto Rico continues to be the Latina mistress of the United States government. While we have benefited from this relationship in many ways, we’ve also been hurt in the process.”
It strikes me that my fellow boricuas living here on the mainland are fairly quiet about this issue. Juan Conde, 43, a television newsman in Richmond, Va., summed up what may be a common sentiment when he said, “I’m ambivalent about getting involved because I’m the best and worst part of what happens when you come to the States. My assimilation here reduces my concern for what happens there.”
I believe all boricuas should actively push for island voting rights because our combined influence could convince members of Congress that they will be held accountable by their Puerto Rican constituents throughout the country. And we should urge advocacy organizations like the National Council of La Raza to do more to advance the cause.
As the nation celebrates the election of our first African American president, it is my deepest wish that our congressional leaders will hold the door open just long enough to empower Puerto Rico to share in the joy of full constitutional equality. Our nation’s leadership, with respect to civil rights, human rights and the American principle of “liberty and justice for all,” must be demonstrated right here in our own backyard if we are to be taken seriously around the globe.