SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO– The Puerto Rico Republican caucus is this Sunday and with 20 delegates up for grabs, candidates have been playing hard to the island and its voters.But what does the average voter in Puerto Rico actually think about the race?
Well, based on several interviews with local Puerto Ricans, it seems like not a whole lot. In fact, finding anyone with any real opinion on the Republican presidential candidates was a challenge itself.
Take Anne and Vladimir of Ezense tourist shop in San Juan for example, both of whom said they were indifferent about the upcoming contest.
“I like local politics,” Vladimir said, while Anne added “Very few people care [about the presidential primaries].”
Others, meanwhile, have heard about the caucus but know relatively little about the candidates themselves. Inocencio Ojeda, a 66-year-old vendor in San Juan, said he doesn’t plan to vote and admitted to not knowing much about who’s actually running.
“We know Obama, we don’t know the other ones,” he said.
Puerto Rico is considered in general more left-leaning, which may have a chilling effect during this Republican primary. In the 2008 elections, 208 votes were cast during the Puerto Rico Republican caucus, while 388,477 votes were cast in the Democratic contest. Of course, both numbers pale in comparison to the nearly 2 million votes cast in the 2008 gubernatorial election.
Still, this kind of sentiment hasn’t stopped the candidates from making their pitch on the island.
Romney has already launched ads on the island and both he and Santorum have been meeting with political higher-ups in recent days. Likewise, the race has gotten play on television and newspapers.
Ronaldo Cabrera, a supervisor at Leaseway, a car rental service outside of San Juan, said he first heard about the elections on TV.
“I see them on the T.V. talking, but I don’t remember them,” he said.
Though initially undecided, he later said with a smile that he plans to vote for Santorum because he reminds him of the “Mafioso.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for this seeming apathy is the fact that much of what is being talked about doesn’t resonate with Puerto Rican voters. Issues like abortion, which is legal in Puerto Rico, and the debate over President Obama’s healthcare law don’t really mean much to those living on the island, Cabrera said.The caucus, he said, is likely more important to Puerto Ricans living in the United States.
What does seem to be universal, however, is the economy.
Cabrera, like many others, said that improving the economy should be the number one priority.
According to Cabrera, the impact of the economic collapse can be felt on the island and has hit the tourism industry particularly hard. He said that Leaseway went from having 13 branches across the island to 5.
However, while on the surface the main concern for Puerto Ricans may be the economy, underneath most of the responses I heard was the looming question over the island’s role in U.S. politics.
In Puerto Rico, voters are able to vote in the presidential primaries but not in the general election, and this incongruity seems to be on the minds of many of those interviewed, regardless of their opinion on the race as a whole.
“How come we can vote for that and not the other?” Eva Marin, co-owner of Tropical Vision, asked me. “It doesn’t make sense.”
And more often than not, the issue of statehood was brought up, albeit to differing tunes.
Inoncencio Ojeda, the vendor in San Juan, belongs to the independent party and said he thinks the U.S. should grant independence to Puerto Rico.
“Nobody should be [kicked] out everybody should be free,” he said. “Give us a chance to be independent.”
Meanwhile, Julio Guzman, a Puerto Rican who served in the U.S. army for 25 years as a recruiter, said it wasn’t so black and white.
“If the U.S. leaves here, I’ll move out the next day,” he told me. Guzman said he wants Puerto Rico to become a state and that with more U.S. intervention “things will get fixed.” But he added that the way in which politics is currently being conducted on the island is objectionable.
“They pick up the money and leave,” he said “They don’t care about Puerto Rico. They like sleeping with the whore but don’t want to marry her.”
Already, the issue of statehood has been brought up on numerous counts in the candidates’ bid for the island’s delegates. Santorum seems to be suffering from a recent gaffe about Puerto Ricans needing to speak English and each candidate has taken a stance on the question.
And given the importance of the issue, it could be, more than anything else, the deciding factor on who comes out of Sunday ahead 20 delegates, and who doesn’t.
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