“We are Puerto Ricans first, and Americans second,” says my old friend Anton Clemente, who has picked me up in his SUV. “Of course, everyone in North and South America is American, but we are proud to be U.S. citizens too.”
In the last plebiscite, a tiny majority of Puerto Ricans voted to become the 51st state of America. Instead, it remains an “unincorporated territory” with islanders being U.S. citizens eligible to be drafted to fight in her wars but not entitled to vote in Presidential elections, even though the American president is head of state. They can, however, vote in Primaries and the five million Puerto Ricans who live on the U.S. mainland, including a million in the key swing state of Florida, help make the island an important stop for candidates.
“Full statehood might be the answer to many of our problems, but what we want is not really important,” says Anton as we sit down to lunch in an Old San Juan restaurant. “With the current state of partisan politics in America, no one there is going to vote for a new state full of Spanish-speaking, Catholic Puerto Ricans. Republican candidate Marco Rubio is the only one who has spoken out in support of statehood during this election cycle.
“We also do not have the resources to function as an independent country, so we have to accept the status quo. That’s fine with many people. Lots of Puerto Ricans can carry on depending on the Federal Government to support them – what we call ‘el mantengo’ – and Americans get to go on holiday somewhere exotic where they do not need passports, yet can still spend dollars and find a Burger King or a Taco Bell.”
The lines of shiny hotels, where coaches disgorge groups of U.S. tourists, illustrate his point. With a population under four million people, Puerto Rico attracts roughly the same number of visitors every year, of which 90 per cent come from cities in the northeastern U.S., especially those with large Puerto Rican communities. Yet tourism only makes up six per cent of Puerto Rico’s GNP, with manufacturing accounting for more than 40 per cent.
I find that hard to believe when I watch the towering cruise ships dock in San Juan harbor to disgorge passengers by the thousands. As they throng the Guess outlet or line up at the Hard Rock Café, San Juan looks at its most American.