Indeed, you have to look back roughly a decade to find the last time Puerto Rico played a starring role in mainland politics — the summer of 1999, when President Bill Clinton drew sharp criticism by offering clemency to 16 imprisoned Puerto Rican nationalists who belonged to an organization responsible for more than 100 bombings in the U.S. and Puerto Rico between 1974 and 1983.
At the time, Clinton was accused of attempting to curry favor with the large Puerto Rican community in New York, where Hillary Rodham Clinton was preparing to run for an open Senate seat. In response, the Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating, “President Clinton should not have offered or granted clemency to the FALN terrorists.” The political backlash proved severe enough that Mrs. Clinton, then the first lady, ended up publicly opposing her husband’s offer, saying she had nothing to do with it.
Yet for all the controversy surrounding the episode, nary a word is heard about it as Clinton and Barack Obama battle for the 63 delegates at stake in Puerto Rico’s primary.
“It’s a highly charged issue, but it has not been an issue in Puerto Rico [this year] because it is pretty far back and there has been a desire to get past that conflict,” said Kenneth McClintock, president of the Senate in Puerto Rico and co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign there.
“No one has raised it, and I don’t think it will be raised,” agreed Jean Vidal Font, a lawyer in Puerto Rico and chairman of the local chapter of Generation Obama, a youth volunteer movement for Obama’s campaign. “A lot of people in Puerto Rico do not support what those people did, but they do believe the lengthy sentences were unjust. So they would rather just not talk about it.”
Nor would the Democratic candidates, neither of whom would have much to gain by revisiting the controversy.
In Clinton’s case, it would serve as a reminder of an episode she would rather forget. Back then, she was whipsawed between Puerto Rican leaders who were angered by her opposition to clemency and Republicans who viewed the clemency offer as a crass political maneuver designed to benefit her impending Senate campaign.
Asked to comment on the role the clemency affair might have in the Puerto Rico primary, Clinton spokesman Isaac Baker sidestepped the issue.
“Puerto Ricans share the concerns of all voters — turning this economy around, keeping our neighborhoods safe and providing quality health care to every Puerto Rican,” he wrote in an e-mail. “They know Hillary has the strength and experience to deliver real solutions to the challenges facing Puerto Rico.”
Vidal Font says the clemency issue has no effect on his candidate preference because he does not credit Hillary with her husband’s actions. “I don’t feel any pull to Hillary because of the clemency,” he said. “I do think Bill Clinton did a good thing in granting clemency. But the loyalty would be to him rather than her.”
He added that while he disapproved of Hillary Clinton’s clemency opposition, her stance on it was not a decisive factor for him. “It did bother me that she disagreed with him because those people were serving unjustly long sentences, but my mind had already been made up for Obama when I found out that she had come out against it.”
While Puerto Rican surrogates for both candidates downplay the relevance of the clemency issue, President Clinton’s record on Puerto Rico — and Hillary Clinton’s as first lady — still looms large over the primary, where she holds a healthy lead in polls.
“She was here as first lay after Hurricane Georges,” noted Francisco Domenech, Democratic national committeeman for the Young Democrats of America and a Clinton supporter. Domenech praised her “extensive record on Puerto Rico,” adding that as a senator she worked to stop the naval bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
Puerto Rican Clinton supporters also cite Bill Clinton’s creation of the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which provided funding for many new police officers in Puerto Rico. Hillary Clinton has pledged to restore COPS funding cut by President Bush.
But Obama supporters, such as Vidal Font, have turned the Clinton administration record against Hillary Clinton, noting that President Clinton cut tax credits to companies that do business in Puerto Rico — a move that some say hurt the local economy.