In November 2020, the United States held its quadrennial presidential election, and has since been dealing with a fascist, white supremacist pushback. While Western mainstream media has devoted itself to feigning surprise at U.S. extremism, there has been little coverage on a much more significant election that occurred on the same day in Puerto Rico.
This was the first election since Hurricane Maria devastated the island nearly three years prior. Votes were cast for Puerto Rico’s governor, legislature, municipal mayors and a statehood referendum. These past few years have been tumultuous, and have included events like Hurricane Maria’s humanitarian crisis, which saw infrastructure failure, the local and U.S. governments’ willful neglect, and the death of at least 3,057 people. Puerto Rico has seen its elected officials laugh in the face of Hurricane Maria’s dead, the ousting of the widely unpopular Ricardo Roselló, and countless deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is not surprising that the election results from this past November were a historic and monumental display of the island’s desire for change.
Like the United States (or, rather, because to U.S. imposition), Puerto Rico’s government has been dominated by two political parties: Partido Nuevo Progresista, PNP, which argues for statehood, and Partido Popular Democrático, PPD, which aims to maintain Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth status. This year, however, saw a dramatic increase in the strength of Puerto Rico’s Independence Party, PIP, as well as the emergence of two new parties: Proyecto Dignidad and Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, MVC.
Between these three parties, the election has been a significant blow to bipartisanism. Both legislative bodies have had third-party candidates voted in, and the dominating PPD just barely holds half of the seats in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Even though many of the legislative, gubernatorial and municipal mayor votes have maintained PPD and PNP party members in power, many of the electoral races just barely passed over third party candidates like Eva Prados Rodríguez (District 3 Senate nominee) and Manuel Natal Albelo (San Juan mayor nominee).
Despite the parties’ extensive financial backing and historical precedence, neither the PNP nor the PPD was able to capture more than a third of Puerto Ricans’ support. The newly appointed Pedro Pierluisi, PNP, was voted in with only 33 percent of the election’s votes. Meanwhile, the island’s independence party received 14 percent of the vote, the highest seen since 1952: the year that Puerto Rico’s status was changed to a “Free Associated State.” That year, the party’s results were at 19 percent despite being only six years old and at a time when the U.S. worked furiously to squash the island’s independence movements. Now, almost 70 years later, PIP’s popularity has seen a sudden increase and, with an approval rating greater than three percent, this will be the first time the party is legally recognized since 2000. Such an unexpected increase from the last election’s 2.1 percent demonstrates that the wounds of the past four years are awakening Borinquen’s hunger and zeal for change.
Nowhere was this shift more notable than in the statehood referendum. Like many times before, U.S. Congress put forth the question of statehood on Puerto Rico’s ballot, in spite of having never changed the island’s colonial status regardless of the outcome. The last referendum was held in 2017 a few months before Hurricane Maria, and even though 97 percent of voters answered “Yes” on the ballot, nothing changed. The cruel irony of the aftermath of that year’s hurricane season is that many Boricuas witnessed how little the U.S. and Puerto Rico’s corrupt elitists cared for their wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, last November, 48 percent of voters rejected the idea of statehood despite the “Yes” campaign’s significant financial advantage and propaganda both on the island and in the United States. While the referendum technically still lands in favor of fully incorporating the island into the U.S., it seems unlikely given past referendums that there will be any follow through. What is likely, however, is that this election has ushered in a new era for Puerto Rican politics, as evidenced by PIP’s success as well as those of the new Proyecto Dignidad and MVC parties.
Proyecto Dignidad, barely a year old, aims towards anti-corruption and Christian democracy. The party claims they are anti-discriminatory, and are against corruption, nepotism and partisan favoritism. Additionally, they focus on supporting health and education, including free education at all levels on the island. These are all well and good, and certainly neither the PPD nor the PNP have had satisfactory results in any of these areas. However, Proyecto Dignidad’s approach is not decolonial, but one of Christian ideology. Too often what this results in is not a Camilo Torres-like approach to religion and politics, but rather a conservative, liberal and harmfully pacifistic one. Furthermore, even though they mention being anti-discriminatory, Proyecto Dignidad says nothing on anti-LGBTQ discrimination. In fact, the party kicked out its mayoral candidate for the municipality of Guanica, Edgardo Cruz Vélez, for being openly gay. In turn, the mayor-elect was nearly Ismael Rodríguez Ramos of PPD. However, in a surprising twist, Cruz Vélez was recently declared the real winner of the election after being directly written in on electoral ballots. While we as anti-imperialists can’t in good conscious support a candidate with a 22-year long career in the U.S. military, the election result certainly is a testament to Guanica’s poder popular, as well as a movement away from homophobic beliefs.
As for the equally young MVC, this party has a seemingly more progressive and anti-colonial line. Its three areas of concern are “the rescue of public institutions; social, economic, environmental, and fiscal reconstruction, and decolonization.” At first glance, the party seems like another alternative to Puerto Rican bipartisanism, and certainly with already established politicians like Alexandra Lúgaro and Manuel Natal, it’s not surprising that the MVC gained popularity as fast as it did.
However, upon closer inspection, the MVC is not as progressive or radical as it portrays itself to be. Take for example decolonization, one of the party’s top priorities and certainly a subject of utmost importance for Puerto Rico’s future. While there is agreement that decolonization is necessary, MVC takes no hard stance on how to get there. The party may have progressive members, including known independentistas like Rafael Bernabe Riefkohl, but without a firm stance on terminating Puerto Rico’s colonial status, they are, at best, paying lip service to the public. Meanwhile, MVC’s approach to economics is nothing short of a continuation of the same neoliberal practices that have brought Puerto Rico to its knees under the weight of ballooning debt. One of its aims is to attract foreign capital with stimuli aimed towards small and medium-sized enterprises. Historically, this has been done by creating a balking number of tax incentives that ultimately contributed to the current debt crisis and towards maintaining the island as a colony, both entirely counterproductive to MVC’s proclaimed goals. If MVC is making empty calls towards decolonization without an ideological stance, and if it continues to encourage destructive neoliberal economics, then their emergence onto the political scene should not be celebrated, as it has been, but rather understood as an alarming repetition of history.
We should recall that the current independence party, PIP, was formed after the PPD moved away from its original goal of socialist independence and towards boosting the island’s economics ahead of decisions on sovereignty. The PPD, vague on its ambitions towards Puerto Rico’s status, ushered in the 1952 Constitutional Assembly, which made hardly any changes for the island and whose approval by the U.S. Congress required the removal of proposed women’s rights, rights to work, and rights to decent housing. Since then, Puerto Rico’s economy has been sustained by making the island a tax haven for various enterprises to grow fat at the expense of Puerto Ricans themselves. The Constitutional Assembly was, as said by Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, a colonial baptism that did nothing for the island’s political power. Instead, the economy has become increasingly dependent on the economy and loans of the exterior and every day Puerto Rico has sunk deeper into impoverishment and austerity. Lukewarm stances on the island’s colonial status and pushes towards statehood will only worsen this reality.
In the end, the only true path to Puerto Rican freedom is independence.
So long as the U.S. has had control over Puerto Rico, it has never once cared for the island, nor the wants and needs of Boricuas. Instead, the island has been purposefully maintained as a territory, the “possibility” of status change dangled like a carrot explicitly to hold power over Puerto Rico’s economy and self-determination. Puerto Rico has been used as a cash cow, as a testing ground for weapons and pharmaceuticals, and a means of easing U.S. imperialism in Latin America. All this has been maintained at the expense of African and mestizo people on the island, and it will continue until Borinquen is its own sovereign nation.
If these elections have told us anything, it’s that one way or another Boricuas are about to take their future in their own hands. The U.S. empire is crumbling, and we can be sure that La Isla del Encanto will celebrate when it does.
¡Pa’l carajo el imperialismo!