Bill Clinton Goes to Puerto Rico

In 1963, in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and as part of an initiative to stem the tide of communism in Latin American, President John F. Kennedy visited the island of Puerto Rico. A U.S. colony since the 1898 Spanish American War, the status of the island had been converted to that of a “commonwealth” in the early 1950s, a change orchestrated by the U.S. to avoid the continuing public hypocrisy of being simultaneously the “leader of the free world” and the colonial oppressor of millions of Puerto Ricans. Through his visit, the President sought to garner support for his hemispheric, anti-communist project Alianza para Progreso (the Alliance for Progress). The initiative sought, in Kennedy’s own words, “to satisfy the basic needs of the American people for homes, work and land, health and schools – techo, trabajo y tierra, salud y escuela.”

Not since 1963 has a United States President stepped foot on the island.

Yesterday, former President Bill Clinton arrived in Puerto Rico to campaign for his wife. Holding what some have called “the first U.S. presidential campaign rally in Puerto Rican history,” Clinton did what he never did as a sitting U.S. President. A Washington Post story reported the former president “looked distracted” as he sat through speeches in a language he doesn’t understand. When it was his turn to speak, he addressed the Spanish-speaking audience in English, encouraging them to vote for his wife in the colony’s upcoming primary on June 1.

For one of the few times in its history, the island of Puerto Rico is figuring into the politics of the United States. For a nation like the U.S–which has perfected a longstanding vision of itself so as to largely ignore the challenges posed by its relationship with this “commonwealth”–this position is unique. Most days, most people in the United States, don’t even think of Puerto Rico. Now presidential campaigns will be making stops on the island to assure its residents that the U.S. does, in fact, care about them and the issues they face.

Of course, these visits and speeches should do nothing other than remind Puerto Ricans and all Latinos that there is a tragic pattern to the history of the U.S. focusing its attention on Latin America. Like Kennedy’s visit 45 years ago, and Clinton’s visit this week, the U.S. is most concerned about Latin American when it can do something or be something for them. For most of this past century–a period in which the U.S. has exerted an imperial influence over the island–only rarely have U.S. citizens and politicians confronted the primary issue of their relationship with Puerto Rico, namely, that they felt it was their right to deprive the island of any possibility of self-determination and sovereignty.

Keep your eyes open Boricua! And don’t forget to duck.

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