Residents of Puerto Rico, the United States' last formal colony in Latin America, cannot vote for the U.S. President, despite the fact that the executive branch's policies heavily influences the domestic policies of the Caribbean country. It is a rather curious situation since, according to official history, the colonies that would form the United States fought for their independence ostensibly due to a lack of political representation.
Puerto Ricans can vote in U.S. primaries, however. Meaning the selection process for the Democrats and Republicans plays a more prominent role than it does in U.S. states as it is one of a few opportunities to influence future decision-makers.
In this election cycle, the major question is not the legal status of Puerto Rico vis-a-vis the United States, though that issue can never be ignored, but rather the island's critical financial situation. In August 2015 Puerto Rico went into default for the first time in its history, unable to make full payments on its US$72 billion debt.
Even with this issue, the colonial status of Puerto Rico is a factor. Since the island is categorized as a “territory” and not a state, it does not have the same right as U.S. states, which can declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy and renegotiate its debt in its totality. Puerto Rico on the other hand must negotiate with each individual bondholder.
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Republican primary candidates have mostly been silent on Puerto Rico, despite two of the leading candidates trumpeting their Latino background. Meanwhile, Democratic primary candidates have all come out in favor of extending Chapter 9 bankruptcy rights to Puerto Rico.
Bernie Sanders (D)
Sanders has been critiqued for saying little about his foreign policy aims but has come out in support of debt restructuring for Puerto Rico and, more importantly, said that austerity is not the solution to the island's woes.
“The economic situation in Puerto Rico will not improve by eliminating more public schools, slashing pensions, laying off workers, and allowing corporations to pay starvation wages by suspending the minimum wage and relaxing labor laws,” wrote Sanders in a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Oct. 21, 2015.
Earlier this month Sander's campaign released a statement following legal action by insurance companies over Puerto Rico's efforts at paying some creditors over others.
“It is unacceptable that Wall Street vulture funds have chosen to take Puerto Rico to court instead of working out a fair deal. Puerto Rico must be given the time it needs to restructure its debt and grow its economy. Vulture funds on Wall Street must understand that they cannot profit from this crisis while Puerto Rico suffers high unemployment rates, struggles to rebuild its economy and children go hungry,” said Bernie Sanders’ Latino outreach director Arturo Carmona.
His use of the term “vulture funds” is telling as it gained prominence after Argentina battled for years to prevent these kinds of funds from extorting billions from the country. That Sanders' campaign would link Puerto Rico's current struggles to those of another Latin American nation is promising.
Sander's position on Puerto Rico, and his general disposition in favor of lower-income and working class people, has even earned him the praise of Calle 13's Rene Perez.
Perez, the singer of the hugely popular group, has never been shy about his leftist politics and first made his name known through a song called “Querido FBI” that chastised the U.S. federal police over their alleged murder of Puerto Rican national liberation leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios and U.S. policies toward the island in general.
Hillary Clinton (D)
Clinton supports extending bankruptcy rights to Puerto Rico, a right it actually once had but lost in 1984 after a curious reform by the U.S. Congress.
However, as with most issues, Clinton's response has been far more tepid. While Sanders has argued that any debt acquired unconstitutionally should be written off, Clinton has said that Puerto Rico should “find a way to pay back its debtors in an orderly fashion.”
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Although Clinton has sometimes hinted that she opposes austerity measures, her official statement suggests otherwise.
“We also have to step back and look hard at how Puerto Rico’s economy arrived at this dire situation …
It will take tough decisions and real economic reforms,” reads a statement on her website.
Latin America and the Caribbean are intimately familiar with language like that, it has always translated into austerity and a degradation of supports and social programs for low-income people.
Ted Cruz (R)
Ted Cruz has been largely silent on Puerto Rico. Cruz is reportedly very interested, however, in the 23 Republican delegates afforded to island. In a tight race, these delegates could prove consequential in Cruz's quest for the nomination.
Cruz recently suggested that should he win the presidency of the United States that he would offer the island's residents an opportunity, via a referendum, if they would like to become the 51st state.
Marco Rubio (R)
Marco Rubio's surprisingly strong performance in the Iowa primary is quickly leading many to tag him as the Republican Party's “establishment” candidate, with many pundits arguing he will eventually win the nomination.
Like Cruz, Rubio has not said much but what he has said is troubling and seemingly at odds with congressional leaders from his own party.
Rubio opposes bankruptcy for Puerto Rico, meaning that he believes the island should pay its debts at all costs, privileging creditors over the island's residents.
“The reality is that Puerto Rico’s leaders must lead and do the difficult but essential work of cutting spending, reining in out-of-control big government and eliminating job-killing policies, including scores of new tax increases,” read a September 2014 statement by Rubio.
This position is not in line with the Republican leadership as House Speaker Paul Ryan has committed to introducing legislation regarding Puerto Rico's credit crisis by the end of March.
Rubio's opposition to bankruptcy has come under heavy scrutiny, after Fusion uncovered that at least six hedge fund executives have donated to the Rubio campaign. Hedge funds that hold Puerto Rican debt stand to lose should the island be allowed to declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt.
Rubio is also an advocate of statehood for Puerto Rico, arguing that its status should be determined in a future binding referendum.
Rubio is planning a last-minute trip to Puerto Rico Saturday in an effort to shore up support there.
Puerto Rico happens to be one of the jurisdictions that affords all of its 20 delegates to candidate that secures a majority of support. A victory here would be important for Rubio who is still reeling from having only won a single state on Super Tuesday.
Donald Trump (R)
Trump is likely uninterested in support from Puerto Ricans, his harsh anti-Latino rhetoric has made him deeply unpopular with Latinos. He too has not taken a position on bankruptcy for the island but has come out in support of a binding vote regarding the nation's status.
Perhaps it was presence of politicians like Trump that led Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos to famously state in his time that "the ballot box is the coffin in which to bury the Puerto Rican nation.”