Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

As more candidates for the U.S. presidency throw their hats in the ring, those already in the race are making the rounds, glad-handing for early promises of voters’ support. Iowa, one of the most important stops on the campaign circuit, was the first destination of Hillary Clinton, the only Democrat to declare her candidacy thus far, on her much-publicized road trip to meet and greet voters.

Presidential candidates are already looking to the south, too, and putting one place that can’t be reached by road trip on their travel agendas: Puerto Rico.

Earlier this week, Jeb Bush, a Republican who hasn’t actually declared a formal bid for the presidency yet, announced he will visit the island on April 28.

According to a report published in the local English-language newspaper, Caribbean Business, Bush “will take part in a $1,000-per-person fundraising luncheon at Zoraida Fonalleda’s residence in Guaynabo. Fonalleda is the Republican Party’s island delegate.” He will also hold a public town meeting in Bayamón, a city just outside metro San Juan. Bush, who is Caucasian and who is married to a woman from Mexico, was recently criticized for identifying himself — accidentally, he says — as Latino on a voter registration form.

Identity gaffe aside, Bush’s visit to Puerto Rico is a smart move, representing a jump start on what is expected to be a densely populated field of Republican candidates. While only Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have made formal announcements of their candidacies, at least nine other members of the party have expressed that they will likely join the fray.

Bush’s early visit will put him ahead of the pack, garnering key support on the island of 3.5 million people. Although they can’t vote in the presidential election itself, Puerto Ricans can cast votes in presidential primaries, and with such a substantial population, those votes could contribute to a “make or break” situation on the Republican slate.

Clinton has not yet announced plans to visit the commonwealth, but she will inevitably make at least one campaign stop there, and Puerto Ricans who vote Democrat are already anticipating her with open arms. They’ve kept track of the time and attention Clinton has spent on the island during the course of her political career, and last Sunday, they published an open letter detailing exactly that, saying:

“[T]here has been no presidential candidate in the history of the U.S., Democrat or Republican, who knows and has visited Puerto Rico more than Hillary Clinton. In addition to visiting us in 1998 after Hurricane Georges, and supporting many legislative initiatives in benefit of Puerto Rico when she served as U.S. senator, between her, her husband and her daughter, they campaigned for 17 days at more than one-third of Puerto Rico’s municipalities. In that campaign, she managed to unify important state and local Democratic leaders of both major parties in Puerto Rico. Her final televised ad, for example, included [local political leaders] Prats, McClintock, and Hernandez Mayoral and Ricardo Rosselló.”

Candidates who include the island as a stop on the campaign trail should be prepared to face tough questions from Puerto Ricans who want to know where the presidential hopefuls stand on the status issue: statehood, independence, or continued commonwealth? And if the latter, will any provisions of commonwealth status be adjusted? Might, for example, Puerto Ricans finally be granted true representation in Congress? Might they be allowed to vote in the presidential election?

Read more: Puerto Rico’s fight to escape “second-class citizenship”

The candidates’ records of public statements on the issue will inevitably be scrutinized, with inconsistencies or hypocrisies seized upon.

Most likely, after the flurry of campaign activity dies down and the new president takes office, Puerto Rico’s importance and its very real needs will be forgotten. The island, so valuable during election season, tends to recede as a priority among politicians once they’ve been sworn into office.

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Mexico Drug War
Students look at pictures of Lucila Quintanilla, who was killed by gunmen in 2010, at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León in Monterrey. Photo: AP Photo/Carlos Jasso

The Mexican government’s inability to maintain law and order is having a major impact on access to higher education in the drug violence-ravaged northeast of the country.

According to a report by Mexico’s Proceso magazine, a wave of extortion, kidnappings and even killings of university students by vicious drug cartels in the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila has forced the closure of several universities.

The breakdown in security has also fueled a major exodus, with thousands of students leaving the region to complete their studies in safer parts of Mexico or across the border in the United States.

For the last two years, the Gulf Cartel and its fearsome former armed wing Los Zetas have demanded that universities in Tamaulipas pay them 100,000 to 350,000 pesos (US$6,500 to $22,900) per month in return for “protection,” Proceso reported.

University closures

The extortion has led to the closure of two campuses run by the private University of the Valley of Mexico (UVM), while Mexico’s Chamber of Commerce has denounced threats against another 18 universities in the region.

UVM temporarily shut down its facility in the border city of Reynosa last September as a direct result of the authorities’ inability to provide sufficient protection.

The university claimed that the campus had been receiving military protection, but as soon as the soldiers withdrew from the facility it was attacked by organized crime.

Then, in February, UVM announced the permanent closure of its campus in nearby Nuevo Laredo, again citing recent threats from organized crime.

The university reported the presence of “hawks,” or cartel lookouts, and armed men circling in trucks outside the Nuevo Laredo campus grounds.

“Due to the serious nature of the threats, which included direct attempts against the lives of members of our community, we took the decision to vacate the premises and close the campus,” UVM said in a statement.

While emphasizing that extortion is a national problem that also affects many other aspects of society, Dr. Sergio Cárdenas, a Harvard-educated specialist in higher education policy at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), told Latin Correspondent that “universities are particularly vulnerable” to organized crime.

“When closures occur because of threats or extortion then without doubt the authorities should be doing more to protect them, especially because educational institutions are the primary tool we have to lead young people away from a life of crime,” Cárdenas added.

Student exodus

One of the first indications that Mexico’s universities were becoming caught in the crossfire of the drug war came in March 2010, when two students from the prestigious Tec de Monterrey were shot dead at the entrance of its Nuevo León campus.

The pair were collateral damage in a shootout between the military and cartel gunmen but, in a bid to brush the killings under the carpet, the soldiers planted firearms on the innocent students’ bodies to make it look like they were criminals.

Since then the number of people studying in the region is said to have fallen drastically.

Dr. Rossana Reguillo Cruz, a renowned sociologist and anthropologist from Guadalajara’s Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESO), confirmed the reports of students fleeing from northern Mexico.

“I was recently giving a talk in Torreón, Coahuila, and several teachers told me that there has been an incredible exodus of students from the region. This demonstrates the deterioration in the quality of daily life, security and democracy that we’ve suffered in Mexico,” she told Latin Correspondent.

“Of course the government should be doing more to protect them, and not just the universities, but the population in general,” Reguillo added. “But the authorities are not doing the job that they’re supposed to do.”

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