Dancing with them what brung ya’

Will Puerto Ricans change partners in next years Senatorial election?

by Patricia Guadalupe
illustration by Julia Reynolds


First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that she would wait until “sometime next year” to make a final decision about running for the Senate seat being vacated by New York elder statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Good thing for her that by then most people would have forgotten — and forgiven — the furor she caused in the Big Apple’s Puerto Rican community last September when a few comments about some jailed independentistas exploded in her face.

It all started last August, when President Clinton offered clemency to 16 Puerto Rican independentistas who had been jailed in federal prisons across the country for almost 20 years. They were members of the Puerto Rican nationalist group, Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, an island nationalist group that claimed responsibility for several bombing attacks in Puerto Rico and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. Not one individual claimed responsibility for the attacks and none were ever convicted of offenses that caused physical injury, yet they were serving sentences of from 55 to 90 years. The president’s clemency offer came as a result of years of lobbying by many groups and prominent people — Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King among them — and included the old-fashioned sacks of postcards mailed to the White House urging the president to let the group out.

The president’s offer came under immediate attack from Republicans and law enforcement officials, including former prosecutor New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — the presumptive GOP Senate candidate — who charged that the clemency was part of a “presidential political ploy” to gain support among Puerto Rican voters in New York for the first lady’s Senate bid there. The White House denied any political connection, and further denied that the president had even spoken to the first lady about the issue.

The next few weeks went by with supporters of the prisoners attacking the offer’s conditions as too stringent, and opponents crying foul, labeling the independentistas “terrorists” and calling for congressional hearings. Politics-as-usual, ala Washington Beltway.

Meanwhile, the prisoners mulled over the offer and its conditions, which included not being able to associate with one another once they were out — including two sisters who would not be allowed to see each other ever again — and being prohibited from participating in any independence movement activities. And then, after the outcry against the offer erupts and after denying she had anything to do with his decision, the first lady tells the Associated Press that it should be withdrawn because the prisoners had been given “more than enough time” to accept it and their silence “speaks volumes.” It was, as one legislator described it, “like a big slap in the face.” “I am disappointed and angry,” said New York congressman José Serrano, on the floor of the U.S House of Representatives, who added that he could not support the first lady’s candidacy. “Frankly, I view her candidacy differently. I’d be a hypocrite not to.”

Another New York legislator, Nydia Velázquez — the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives — spoke with the first lady a few days after the comments. “I urged her that in her ‘listening tour’ of New York she come and talk to the Puerto Rican community. I don’t understand how she didn’t talk to Puerto Rican leaders beforehand. Now it all depends on what she does with the community. She really needs to double her efforts in the community because she has a serious credibility problem.” When asked, most of the 1.3 million boricua New Yorkers identify themselves as Democrats, but they are not necessarily party loyal; 37 percent of Hispanics voted for Republican Giuliani in the last election, although that support has been falling of late. In the heat of the moment, Puerto Rican leaders argued that the political fallout for the first lady could seriously affect her all-but-announced Senate campaign.

“What the first lady said really angered me and I don’t know yet who we would support. No candidate should assume that the Puerto Rican vote is a done deal,” said New York State Assemblyman Rubén Díaz. But what choice is there? Endorsing Giuliani — or any GOP candidate for that matter — is out of the question for the largely liberal, very Democratic Puerto Rican leadership in New York. Particularly after Giuliani and Republican legislators virulently attacked the president’s offer — going as far as holding hearings and voting for resolutions in both chambers of Congress that condemned the president’s offer — the Puerto Rican leaders began to reconsider what exactly it meant to not support the first lady.

“On one hand you got a guy who’s beating you over the head with a bat, and one who’s stepped on your toe. Who are you going to dance with?” the Bronx Democratic Party’s powerful chair Roberto Ramírez told The New York Times. And as the saying goes, you dance with them what brung ya’. Clearly stung by the criticism, Rodham Clinton has been holding regular meetings with Puerto Rican and other Latino leaders in New York. The first lady’s operatives are hoping that when the dust settles, the boricuas will consider that it was the Democrats who brung them to the dance a long time ago during the community’s political infancy, and why leave just because the record skipped momentarily?

© 1999, 2000 El Andar Magazine