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Republican Primary Poses Challenge to Puerto Rico as 51st State

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Even had Rick Santorum clipped his s's in perfect Caribbean Spanish, the message would still have burst the bubble of statehood leaders in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of nearly four million U.S. citizens gearing up for a status plebiscite in November. To their dismay, while Santorum campaigned last week for the Republican primary in Puerto Rico, he expressed that English should be universally spoken, and the upcoming plebiscite should garner more than a simple majority vote of 51 percent, as conditions for statehood.

In the immediate aftermath, Santorum began to retract and recognized that full bilingualism is not legally required though he advocates English as a "language of opportunity." The statement was in keeping with positions from Pro English, U.S. English and Tea Party movements, whose leaders implored him to pronounce on the issue as he headed into Puerto Rico's contest for 23 delegates last week, beaming from Bible Belt wins in Alabama and Mississippi.

Puerto Rico, however, cannot participate in general elections.

Santorum's position was a blow for a statehood movement that for decades has touted "la estadidad jíbara," where jíbaro is the traditional peasant and also iconic symbol of the competing Partido Popular Democrático, which is pro status quo for a commonwealth freely associated with the United States. Bilingualism in Puerto Rico is reported at 19 percent and the option for statehood has never reached 50 percent in four previous status referendums held since 1967.

Ironically, many local leaders of the pro statehood party, the Partido Nuevo Progresista, don't speak much English. The state legislature's house speaker, Jenniffer González, also a Republican, pointed out that English wasn't required for island Puerto Ricans to serve in every U.S. war since World War I, with more having served in Iraq than from 23 other states.

The irony compounds. Independence leaders of the small Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, who are known to speak English eloquently, remained mum. Santorum's insistence on English recalls official U.S. policy for the first half of the 20th century when English was imposed in Puerto Rico as a language of instruction in all subjects in all public schools. To this day, "high school" is as likely to be called "la high" as colegio or escuela secundaria. Yet Spanish remains the bulwark of cultural identity here.

Santorum presumably came to Puerto Rico to vie for its 23 delegates -- more than eight other states, and many more than the four other U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which all also hosted Republican primaries last week.

Romney didn't approach Puerto Rico with much more strategic sensitivity, having recently criticized Santorum's support for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, offending Puerto Ricans as well as Latina women everywhere. Her appointment will likely help President Obama with the coveted 45 percent of the Latino vote needed to win the White House come November.

A group of about 50 youth activists of the pro Commonwealth party brandished signs emblazoned Sotomayor ¡Sí! Romney Fortuño ¡No! during Friday afternoon rush hour at a key intersection near the Puente Dos Hermanos to Condado.

Though Romney won Puerto Rico's delegates, neither he nor other candidates tallied any points with Latinos stateside, as President Obama attempted to do with a brief visit to Puerto Rico in June, the first time a U.S. president had done so since John F. Kennedy fifty years ago.

Santorum's English admonition fell flat in a United States that has fast become the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world, in keeping with its linguistically diverse history. Now Santorum ads are touting his English stance in Puerto Rico to portray Romney as a flip flopper, as the race moved on from Illinois to Louisiana.

"It sounded as if Santorum came to Puerto Rico to pander to his right wing constituents at home," said the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cruz of Trinity Lutheran Church in Brooklyn.

The Republican Party may have yet more uses for Puerto Rico. Also last week, CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño as a potential vice presidential candidate for the GOP ticket, ostensibly to shore up weak support from Latino voters. Puerto Ricans are best poised to recognize such a ploy, considering how much Fortuño's support on the island has eroded as Puerto Rico's worst crisis since the 1930s deepens, with 16 percent unemployment, record murder rates, and a historic exodus of professionals. A financial analyst for Reuters dubbed Puerto Rico "America's Greece" in a recent column that drew sharp local reaction.

"Why would a governor whose administration is a failure qualify to be vice president?" said Yaritza Pabón, a small business owner, after stopping her bicycle to take a breather near El Morro in Old San Juan.

The vast majority interviewed said they resented being asked to vote in the Republican primary when they cannot vote in the general election.

"Even if I could vote in the general election, I wouldn't want to vote in an election that is not in my country," said a pretty, 20-something tennis player who declined to be identified.

"We have our own parties and a different political party system," said long-time independence supporter Rubén Soto Falcón. "Both U.S. parties have no social base here, the primaries are more of a private club for an exclusive sector," he added. Indeed a national delegate for the Republican primary is Zoraida Fonalleda, from one of Puerto Rico's wealthiest families, owners of Plaza Las Americas, one of the most successful shopping malls in the United States. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's nearly 46 percent poverty rate is more than double that of the poorest state, Mississippi.

Others justified sitting it out with indifferent cynicism.

"Santorum who?" retorted only half jokingly Pedro Torres Navarro, a humanities professor at the Conservatory of Music with an adorable shitsu-poodle puppy he has named Davinci "because Leonardo da Vinci didn't speak English."

"Ni fu, ni fa," said artist Jorge Sierra, shrugging his shoulders with a neither-here-nor-there expression suggesting he could care less.