Why Puerto Rico matters

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On June 1, all eyes will be on the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as the island plays a key role in determining the Democratic presidential nominee. With 63 delegates, Puerto Rico will have an impact in this year’s presidential election for the first time ever. But even as this wave of attention grows, most Americans are unfamiliar with Puerto Rico and its politics. With the spotlight on us, Puerto Ricans are excited to introduce our unique role in the United States to the rest of the country.

Some say that politics are the preferred sport of Puerto Rico — though our international basketball team, which handed the U.S. Olympic team its first loss after NBA players’ inclusion in the Olympics, also has quite the following. Our voters are passionate and engaged, with local and national politics receiving heavy media coverage and generating continuous debates. Everyone has an opinion, and most Puerto Ricans are not shy about expressing theirs.

Because Election Day is a holiday or held on a Sunday, voter participation is markedly higher than in the U.S. mainland. Approaching 80 percent turnout, it is among the best in the world. So as the mainland media marvel at increased voter interest in the presidential race and the candidates boast of attracting new voters, we are glad others have begun to follow Puerto Rico’s lead. In fact, Democratic leadership in Puerto Rico voted this year to switch our traditional caucus system to a primary to maximize turnout.

For the past 50 years, Puerto Ricans have enjoyed a mutually beneficial commonwealth partnership with the United States that gives us some special privileges designed to fit Puerto Rico’s unique circumstances. With our passion for politics, the fact that Puerto Ricans will not vote in the November general election might seem an enigma. It actually marks one of the trade-offs of our commonwealth relationship with the United States.

Just as residents of Puerto Rico do not pay federal income taxes, but contribute to Medicare and Social Security, island residents also do not vote in federal elections but are welcomed by the Democratic and Republican parties to seat delegates at their national conventions. Similarly, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, the resident commissioner, serves on committees in the House of Representatives but has limited voting rights.

The economic benefits of our commonwealth status are arguably its biggest asset. With a GDP of $75 billion, Puerto Rico is the strongest economy in the Caribbean and is a regional leader in education, manufacturing, research and development and professional services. And we enjoy a $70 billion trading relationship with the U.S. mainland — creating jobs and growth throughout the country as our citizens buy and use American goods and services.

As in the 50 states, we must continue to create job opportunities in the face of economic globalization that has brought successful competition from places like Southeast Asia. Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status has been a boon, as Puerto Rico’s federal corporate tax exemptions allow us to offer high-value incentives to investors.

The results are impressive, with more than half of the Fortune 100, and big names like Eli Lilly, Amgen, Lockheed Martin and Honeywell, operating on the island. Our $4 billion in recent investment in the life sciences earned us the nickname “Bio Island,” and the combination of offshore-quality incentives and a work force adhering to federal contracting requirements under ITAR and the Berry Amendment for U.S. citizenship draw aerospace and computing companies. Continuing these advantages is a top priority in selecting a presidential candidate.

To support these high-tech industries, our university system produces a disproportionate number of graduates in engineering, math and science compared to U.S. mainland counterparts. Thirty-five percent of Puerto Rico’s bachelor’s degrees are in these fields, more than 10,000 annually. Two of the top 20 engineering schools nationally are in Puerto Rico, ranking sixth in graduating women engineers and first in graduating Hispanic engineers in the country. And we anticipate continued growth; biology is currently the most requested major for incoming freshmen at the University of Puerto Rico.

The June 1 primary will be a proud moment for Puerto Ricans, who treasure our U.S. citizenship and have proudly served in the armed forces since World War I. Just as Iowans did in early January, and as the rest of the country has done in the months since, Puerto Ricans are carefully weighing the candidates’ positions on the issues of importance to us, and the country, before making an informed selection. With Puerto Rico poised to have a true impact in the presidential process, our people are up to the task.

Flavio Cumpiano is executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, the office of the government of Puerto Rico in Washington.

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