Puerto Rican independence has gotten a new convert. After the uproar about clemency for terrorists, Hillary Clinton surely wishes the island were out of American politics, if not under water, which is where it has been pulling her for the last month.
Previous victims of the Puerto Rico Triangle include society columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, on whose head all hell broke loose when he made some rude observations in the Spectator of London about the behavior of spectators at New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day parade. Next to disappear was Scott McConnell, then editorial page editor of the New York Post , who ran a piece suggesting that Puerto Rican statehood was an idea whose time had not come, then promptly lost his job.
The Clintons claim to have acted independently on the clemency question, but they, and the terrorists themselves, have been moving together like dancers. Looking at Rudy Giuliani’s strong showings among Hispanic voters during his mayoral campaigns, the President thought of a way, as vile as it is sensational, to curry Puerto Rican favor-clemency for 16 pro-independence bombers and bank robbers, on the condition that they renounce (future) violence. Then Mrs. Clinton declared that the clemency offer should be withdrawn, ostensibly because no renunciations had been made, in fact because too many New Yorkers had remembered the bombers’ handiwork during the 1970’s and 80’s-three cops maimed, five New Yorkers murdered. Then a dozen of the Latino freedom fighters said they do renounce violence-to give the Clintons some cover-so the deal went through. The most effective conspiracies require no secret meetings or messages written in invisible ink; they can be conducted by public discussions among the like-minded.
The Puerto Rican carnival is more than political theater; it highlights the alienation of Puerto Rican political sentiment from American, and democratic, political practice.
In the middle of the maneuver, when Mrs. Clinton pulled in her horns in response to public clamor, it was not the entire public that was clamoring. The Puerto Rican-American political class liked her husband’s clemency offer just fine, and they turned on her when she said it should be revoked. Representative José Serrano, Democrat of the Bronx, took back his support of her noncandidacy. “To me, this is as important as Ireland is to the Irish, Israel to the Jews,” he said. “The First Lady did not take one minute to try to understand the pain.” Here, disguised in the garb of traditional New York ethnic politicking, is the dead end of it. In decades past, New York politicians jerked themselves around to support or oppose terrorism in foreign countries. Now Puerto Rican-American politicians require their colleagues to support terrorism in this country. Mr. Serrano said Mrs. Clinton cannot understand the pain. But the pain of cops missing hands or patrons of Fraunces Tavern missing lives is all in a day’s work, in the cause of Puerto Rican self-esteem.
This gang wants an island of its own, on which to inflict their notions of politics and Volk . If Mr. Serrano is representative of Puerto Rican opinion, I would say, Godspeed, except that a century of ownership gives us some obligation to protect the nonferal residents of Puerto Rico from their lunatic and bloody-minded cousins. The Republican Party has a better idea: solve the political problem by making Puerto Rico the 51st state.
This proposal, first made by Gerald Ford in the lame-duck days of his Presidency, was a policy of Newt Gingrich’s Speakership, which pushed a fast-track statehood bill through the House of Representatives. If that policy stands, some day 50 percent plus one voter in a Puerto Rican referendum may opt for statehood, and all the problems of irresponsible boosters and bloody resisters will lie squarely in the lap of American politics.
Would such a thing be considered if Puerto Rico were white and English-speaking? Imagine Idaho as a territory, emptied of everyone except the Aryan Nation and a mass of nonviolent gun nuts and home-schoolers. Assume a bare majority voted for statehood, while the independence-minded lunatic fringe robbed banks and blew up people in Chicago and New York. Would we give such a crew a star on the flag and four or five electoral votes? Would President Clinton and Representative Joe Sterno ask that imprisoned Aryan Nation gunsels be let loose? Only because Republicans feel inadequate and vulnerable, and Democrats see a multicultural constituency, has the Puerto Rican statehood scenario gotten as far as it has.
The question of Puerto Rico’s status is difficult. We acquired the island in a burst of imperialism, which, unlike earlier bursts, saw us acquiring territories-Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines-with substantial populations that were not going to be overwhelmed by waves of immigrants from the existing states. We let the Philippines go, and made Hawaii a state. Puerto Ricans would have to decide by an overwhelming margin (comparable to the 70 percent-plus registered in Alaska and Hawaii) that they wanted statehood, with all the potential cultural losses that might entail, before the United States should even consider it. Conversely, if a large majority want independence, there is no reason to deny it. Puerto Rico is certainly large enough and distinct enough to go its own way. If support for the status quo hovers at or about 50 percent, as it does, then it must continue into a new century. Puerto Ricans have less power over their destiny than other American citizens, though they have more than Bostonians did when they took to the streets in the 1770’s. But a right that a community declines to claim is theoretical only. Whatever you call their status-commonwealth, or colony-Puerto Ricans are not unhappy enough to change it.
The only possible good result of the Clinton clemency mess would be for American politicians, and the Puerto Rican people, to think more seriously about the island’s status. The only likely result will be what we have seen so far-baiting and switching, and showboating.