Bill Clinton Visits Puerto Rico, Rich in Culture and Delegates

Former president Bill Clinton greets supporters after speaking at a rally in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, on behalf of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Former president Bill Clinton greets supporters after speaking at a rally in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, on behalf of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

BARCELONETA, Puerto Rico, April 7 -- The four sound trucks filed onto potholed streets at 8 o'clock Monday morning, weighed down by the 800-pound speakers rigged to their roofs. They drove past the pineapple plantations, past the black-sand beaches, past the multicolored tiendas downtown.

All morning, the trucks blasted the same short message, as if repetition might make it more believable: "Sí! Bill Clinton está aquí!"

Yes, a few hours later, Bill Clinton did come to this farming town 1,200 miles from the U.S. mainland, bringing with him the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign. The former president walked into the humid courtyard of a university to a drumroll from boys banging on steel garbage cans, past security guards in Hawaiian shirts and women dancing to salsa music, to make the case for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It may have been the first U.S. presidential campaign rally in Puerto Rican history, but more are sure to follow. On June 1, the U.S. commonwealth will hold a Democratic primary that will help determine 63 delegates -- more than the number awarded to 24 of the 50 states. About 2.5 million voters are eligible to participate in the primary, and both Hillary Clinton and her Democratic challenger, Sen. Barack Obama, are expected to visit the island to woo them.

The 4 million residents of Puerto Rico are not allowed to participate in the general election, so they plan to press their issues during their brief turn in the national spotlight. They want better health care, higher wages and a final determination of their murky status with the United States.

Most of all, they want to inject themselves into the national conversation -- a process that started with Bill Clinton traveling Monday to five events across the island. He never came here as president -- no U.S. president has visited in 45 years -- but he spoke Monday as though he may be back soon.

"You might actually determine this election," he told the crowd in Barceloneta. "If you vote for [Hillary] and give her a big margin, she'll be the nominee and she will always honor your support."

But on Monday, the culture gap between Clinton and Puerto Ricans, who were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, sometimes seemed insurmountable. When Clinton walked into the rally in Barceloneta, he sat on a stage and listened as four local politicians introduced him in Spanish. One introducer, among 18 local politicians at the event, turned away from the microphone and looked back at Clinton, eager to interpret for him.

"When I say 'presidente,' " the mayor said, "that means I'm talking about you."

Clinton flashed a thumbs-up and smiled wanly, but he looked distracted during the Spanish speeches. Then he walked to the microphone, shielding his eyes against the 90-degree sun. He rattled off a thank-you list of Spanish names and mispronounced two of them.

As about 1,000 people crowded under white awnings to escape the heat, Clinton proceeded to give a jargon-heavy speech in English about health care and energy efficiency. Nobody interpreted, and only a handful of audience members seemed to understand him. The crowd -- raucous and dancing a few minutes earlier -- remained mostly silent during the 10-minute speech. Some people left. Others chatted on their cellphones.

"What is he saying? Do we clap now?" asked Jerry Nieves Rosario, a college student who speaks only Spanish. "If I had known about this, maybe I would have stayed home."

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