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No appetite for the traditional parties

An analysis of the 2020 elections in Puerto Rico

The results of the 2020 elections in Puerto Rico were reflective of an unprecedented mass movement on the island in 2019—against undemocratic governance and neoliberal austerity. They have placed the forces of the Left and the anti-colonial struggle in an advantageous position to continue the fight. Monique Dols spoke with Paul Figueroa to put all this in context. Figueroa is a community organizer, a leader in the campaign against Puerto Rican statehood, and a former candidate for San Juan City Council representing the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

Monique Dols: While many people were overly focused on the 2020 elections in the United States, Puerto Rico had some pretty important and noteworthy election results. Can you tell us a little bit about what was on the ballot on November 3, and what the outcomes have been so far?

Paul Figueroa: In Puerto Rico we had our general elections, and we also had our sixth status referendum in the past 50 years; that was our third or fourth referendum on political status in the past decade. That is what was on the ballot. It was historic in that we saw two left-wing political parties make significant gains; a new party, the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC), and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), to which I belong, and which had its best electoral performance since 1956.

MD: Can you give an introduction on the two-party system and the broader political landscape for our readers who might not know a lot about politics in Puerto Rico?

PF: Two parties have dominated politics in Puerto Rico since 1968, at least on the level of our national races: the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), which is right-wing and pro-statehood; and the Partido Popular Democratico (PPD), which is a moderate, center-left party that promotes commonwealth status. The PIP has not historically held power in the way that the two other parties have, but we have always participated in the electoral process. We are a democratic socialist party that supports independence. Those are the three parties that have always participated. This year there was also a new, alternative left-wing party, the MVC. There was also a right-wing, Christian fundamentalist party, Proyecto Dignidad, and an independent candidate for governor, Eliezer Molina, came on the scene. So there was a wide diversity on the Puerto Rican ballot.

MD: You mentioned that you are a member of the PIP, and you have also helped lead the Vote No campaign on Puerto Rican statehood. Can you tell us how that went?

PF: Well, the result was not necessarily what we would have wanted. However, it is still a victory for those of us that desire political freedom for Puerto Rico, and for those of us on the Left. The PNP passed a status referendum earlier in the year, “statehood: yes or no,” designed to make it virtually impossible for opposition groups to organize effectively. The referendum was a clear attempt at voter suppression—directed at those who do not believe in statehood. The federal government actually had to strike down certain measures of the referendum in order for there to be equal footing between the opposition and the pro-statehood campaign. There was no opposition campaign recognized by the government.

Prior to the federal courts striking down aspects of the measure, if you were an organizer you could face a ten thousand dollar fine or two years in jail. So, many people that joined the opposition effort did so only a month before the election. It was very difficult for us to organize an effective opposition campaign in just a month, while the pro-statehood people had a year to organize against us.

The PNP is very connected with lobbying and special interest groups, with the elite and anti-worker classes on the island, and it pumped millions of dollars into this referendum. It is my understanding that our opposition campaign had an operating budget of less than fifty thousand dollars.

Yet, once you factor in all those that voted no, and all those that left the ballot blank in protest, statehood only won 50.5 percent in the referendum. So, to have had only about a month of actual organizing, to have had a very small budget compared to the millions of dollars that the PNP invested in the referendum, and to only lose by 0.5 percent, I think that is something absolutely extraordinary. Out of all of those that voted, about half rejected the measure. What a message to send to the United States.

This election was very atypical. Puerto Rico normally has one of the highest voter participation rates in the world, and during the most active electoral events in Puerto Rican history, we would have 90 to 94 percent voter turnout. In more recent years, 70 to 75 percent is typical. This year only 50 percent of people voted, so there is a lot of apathy. Since this referendum was non-binding, a lot of people said, “well, nothing’s going to change, right?” So, we don’t really know. I cannot speak for the people that did not vote and what their motivations were, but of those that voted, half of them were against statehood. I think that is extraordinary given what we were up against.

MD: So, to be clear, this referendum was simply a yes or no vote on statehood. Is that right?

PF: Yes, but it was the first time that the choice has been put [so black and white], which is part of the problem. You cannot have a serious decolonization process based on the question of statehood, with a simple yes or no vote. A serious decolonization process is one that proposes alternatives, and that educates people on what they mean.

This referendum was conducted without even negotiating conditions of statehood with the United States. How can we in good conscience, vote yes or no on something, if we have no idea what the consequences of that would mean? Those are some of the many reasons why we were opposed to this referendum; because it takes away from the legitimacy and the seriousness that a decolonization process deserves.

MD: The press say that the yes vote got 52 percent, but you said 50.5 percent. Why is that?

PF: The 52 percent number does not count protest votes. This has happened in many referenda. It happened in 2017, and in 2012, when people, instead of choosing an option, would intentionally damage the ballot. I was a poll site coordinator, and I saw a lot of ballots that had more colorful ways of saying they were against statehood than simply checking “no.” For example, the machine does not count when somebody writes-in, “F-U statehood.” The machine only counts when somebody marks “no” in the box. So, once you count the votes that were damaged, or the votes that were reluctant blanks, statehood only won 50.5 percent of the vote.

MD: In addition to this referendum, you mentioned that there were elections for governor, the House of Representatives, and for the Senate. Pedro Pierluisi, from the right-wing PNP, is the governor-elect of Puerto Rico. This is the same party of Ricardo Roselló, who was brought down by the massive summer rebellion in 2019. In other words, the greater evil won the governorship. What is your take on this?

PF: The greater evil won, but at the same time they did not win because they do not have a significant mandate. If I were Pierluisi, I would be looking to leave as soon as possible. The PNP has been opposed to calls for constitutional amendments, or for allowing a second round of voting (a runoff election). If I were Pierluisi, I would be all for it. I would not want to govern under those conditions. He only won 32 percent of the vote. 68 percent of the people voted against him. It is very hard to govern when 68 percent of the electorate does not support you out of the gate.

Pierluisi was a target of the summer protest. He was installed as governor for about a week after the “Ricky Renuncia” protests won Roselló’s resignation, and then the Supreme court took him out. There was already a resistance movement to Pierluisi before he even announced his candidacy for governor in 2020. Therefore, he is not in a very strong position to lead right now.

In the Puerto Rican house, the pro-commonwealth PPD won a clear majority. In the Senate, the PPD came up just short of a majority, so they will have to form a coalition government with the parties of the Left: the PIP, and the MVC. It will be a rough term for Pierluisi. While he won the election, the vast majority did not choose him. He will govern with a legislature to his left, opposed to his views on status and social issues, with a clear mandate against him and his agenda.

MD: Some people might say that if it were not for the campaigns of the PIP and the MVC splitting the progressive and left-leaning votes, more votes would have gone to the U.S. Democratic Party-aligned PPD, and the so-called lesser evil would have won by a landslide. They might say that in the interest of creating an alternative, the Left did more harm than good allowing for the election of Pierluisi as governor. As a PIP member who played a role in campaigning for an independent, socialist politics, how do you answer this?

PF: Earlier in the interview I talked about the apathy of people towards the entire electoral process. If you look at trends since 2008, you see a reduction in people voting down-ballot for the PNP and PPD; people are starting to vote across party lines. Loyalty to the two major parties in the past four or five election cycles has consistently gone down. This year, Pierluisi won with only 32 percent of the vote; Ricardo Rosselló won with only 39 percent in 2016; and in the 2012 elections, Alejandro García won with 47 percent. There is no appetite for the traditional parties in the way that there was before. What the MVC and the PIP are doing is providing an alternative. We are bringing diversity to the conversation in a way that would not have happened under the monopoly of the PNP and PPD.

And, to call Charlie Delgado, the PPD candidate for governor, a leftist, is being very generous. He did a lot of courting of the religious Right over the course of the campaign. He did not agree to some of the demands of the LGBT and feminist communities, and actually changed his opinions several times over the course of the campaign. He did not agree with the teachers unions’ demands to stop charter schools or honor teachers’ pensions; both things that the MVC and the PIP support. Charlie is not a leftist, and I do not think we split a vote that he never would have gotten anyway.

MD: And maybe part of the problem is also the assumption that the supposed lesser evil is entitled to people’s votes, and if you pose an alternative, you are spoiling the system?

PF: Right.

MD: Why do you think that so many people right now are looking for a political alternative in Puerto Rico? Can you talk a little bit about some of the big political issues and events of the past few years that you think have motivated people to turn away from the two-party duopoly?

PF: Puerto Rico has an over seventy billion dollar debt crisis that we can not pay back.

Pierluisi was the lawyer for the fiscal control board that is responsible for managing debt payments, and he bears responsibility for the austerity measures being implemented in Puerto Rico. Pierluisi and the government refuse to audit the debt. It is the fiscal control board’s lawyers who are representing us in government right now. They have closed and privatized our hospitals. They are trying to privatize our power system. The quality of life in Puerto Rico is deteriorating, poverty is increasing, and workers’ rights are under attack because of the labor deform laws. The [austerity, combined with] the past administration’s ineffectiveness in reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Maria, all of the inefficiency, and the blatant attacks against women, the LGBT community, the poor, and the working class, people are fed up. If you look at the strength of the MVC and the PIP, and all of our growth in the past election cycle, it is the participation of millennials and Generation Z, [that has made the difference].

Because the current economic depression started in 2006, 18-year-olds voting for the first time probably do not have a memory of a Puerto Rico that is not in crisis. They are a generation of crisis. When you are living in these conditions and you have never seen a time when the PPD has delivered “Pan, Tierra, y Libertad” (Bread, Land, and Freedom), or you have never seen a time when the PNP has delivered “Progresso y Seguridad” (Progress and Security), which is what they promise, you are going to look for change. That is what the parties of the Left have to offer.

MD: Do you think that all of [these factors] are also changing people’s perspective about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States?

PF: I think it plays a big part. For generations, Puerto Ricans have been told that if we were to become independent, or elect a socialist government, we would become like Cuba or Venezuela. This generation coming up, which has never lived in a Puerto Rico free from crisis, is saying: “well, under the rule of U.S. [capital], we are already there.” The fear tactics that have been instilled in generations of Puerto Ricans are simply not working. That is why you see the openness among the people.

I have also seen a lot of people ask, “why only now, after 74 years, is the PIP making [inroads] into Puerto Rican politics?” The answer lies in examining our history. For many years, it was simply illegal to be an independentista. If you were caught with a PIP flag, you could be arrested under acts of sedition, or put under police surveillance. The son of Juan Mari Brás, the founder of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, was killed by the Puerto Rican police force. PIP offices were bombed regularly for decades, by counter-revolutionary forces. For a very long time it was socially unacceptable to be an independentista (supporter of independence). So, when people wonder why we have not accomplished these things before, my answer is simple: we could not. However, like I said before, [the stigma and] fear of being labeled as an independentista, or a socialist, among the new generation, is simply not there.

MD: Some of the candidates that were elected from the PIP to the legislature have long histories in the social and labor movements in Puerto Rico. What do you think it means for the bipartisan consensus to be kind of thrown off balance in this way? And what do you think it means for the social and labor movements in Puerto Rico to have all of these newly elected politicians, with this kind of history?

PF: Mariana Nogales, who was elected as representative for MVC, said that her goal in the House was to create a shield against the fiscal control board. That might be difficult, of course, because the PPD has a simple majority in the House. However, we have two senators from MVC, Rafael Bernabe and Anna Irma Rivera Lasséns. We have the independent, José Antonio Vargas Vidots, and we have Maria de Lourdes Santiago from the PIP. The PPD will have to form a coalition government with the four of them, in order to constitute a majority against the PNP. Maria de Lourdes Santiago from the PIP won her at-large Senate race with a clear majority. She beat her closest opponent by over forty thousand votes. There is a movement right now to make her President of the Senate, because she won such an overwhelming majority. She won nearly seventy thousand more votes than the current President of the Senate did in his reelection campaign. On an island of three million people, seventy thousand votes is quite significant. What this likely means is, in order for the PPD to get things done, and for the coalition to be effective, the Senate will have to shift left and make real strides towards decolonization. I think that is very exciting for Puerto Rico.

The PIP has almost always had representatives elected to the House and Senate; but very rarely have we had this type of influence. If you look at the gubernatorial race and combine the votes for the candidates of the PIP (Juan Dalmau), MVC (Alexandra Lugaro), and the independent (Eliezer Molina), they combined to win 30 percent. This is unprecedented and we can see how socialism is becoming a viable political force.

MD: When you say that a left-wing agenda is becoming more mainstream, what does it mean for the social movements, or the labor movement? Are there particular issues that you think are going to come up in those halls of power that relate to things that are going on in people’s lives every day?

PF: I think it will be very hard for the government to go through with the privatization of the electric energy service. I also think it will be very hard for the government to continue dismantling our public education system through the expansion of charter schools, and by the closure of our public universities.

I think it bodes well for pensions for our teachers and public-sector workers; I think it means that the labor deform law for public workers will probably be put back on the table to be renegotiated; I also know that we will have at least four senators who will be in constant resistance to the fiscal control board, and their austerity measures.

MD: What about the debt, and the relationship with the junta? In what way does the legislature have the ability to either challenge, or to give a rubber stamp to the junta?

PF: The legislature has the power to negotiate the budget; the scope of which will define the terms of the debt payments. In turn, it will determine the depth of the austerity measures that they are proposing. This will be a clear area where there will be friction between the legislature and the junta over the next four years.

MD: The PIP and MVC made their electoral gains while also advancing arguments for the rights of the oppressed, such as women and LGBTQI people in Puerto Rico. At a moment when femicide and violence against queer and trans people is disturbingly on the rise, this is extremely important. What is your take on the extent to which the elections did or did not advance discussions around these issues?

PF: I think the election brought a lot of these issues into the mainstream in ways that were not talked about before. I think a lot of it had to do with the debates because the television companies wanted good ratings. [For example, the media outlets and moderators were more than happy to pit] César Vázquez, a gubernatorial candidate who formed a religious fundamentalist party, against the three candidates on the Left, for this purpose. What it ended up doing, however, was engage lots of people in a national conversation that took up critical questions, such as: what is gender violence? Should a state of emergency be declared against it? What does education with gender equity look like? All of these questions have come up. Pierluisi has said that he would declare a state of emergency for gender violence on the island, but we will see if that actually happens.

There will be a lot of pressure on Pierluisi from within the legislature for him to do so. Pierluisi’s party, the PNP, usually governs from the right, and has a history of going back and forth on gay rights. For example, the Rosselló administration, previously proposed a bill prohibiting gay conversion therapy and another one essentially legalizing discrimination based on sexual preference, under cover of defending freedom of religion, on the same day. The PNP has also tried to walk a fine line of doing one good thing for the LGBTQ community—to try and keep it from revolting—while simultaneously undermining it.

It will be interesting to see how Pierluisi tries to walk that line within a legislature that is going to want to govern from the left.

MD: Somehow we have managed to have this whole conversation and not talk about the pandemic. There are more nurses and doctors getting ill, and there is discussion of another lockdown looming. How are you dealing there in those regards?

PF: Cases are rising rapidly, and the government is urging people to use more caution.

However, Pierluisi is publicly stating that he wants in-person classes to start next semester, when our COVID-19 cases are higher, and we are very clearly in a second wave in Puerto Rico. [Although, it is probably more accurate to say] that the first wave never stopped. It was more a case of flattening the curve. There has never been this flattening of the curve like in the United States. People often ask: “how do we keep the situation stable?” Well, it is looking like that is becoming increasingly impossible.

MD: When there was so much uncertainty about what was going to happen with the U.S. presidential elections, I was really taking a lot of heart and hope from the developments in Puerto Rico. Seeing the way that the movements have been able to take the anger in the streets from the summer of 2019, [stemming from] the decades of austerity, and actually give an electoral expression to that, has been very exciting. Do you have any big lessons, or key takeaways?

PF: There are a lot of people getting involved in the electoral process for the first time, and my biggest worry is that they will think, “well, we did not accomplish anything. We voted once and it gave us Pierluisi.” The challenge now is: how do we harness this electoral energy and [channel it into grassroots movements?] How do we transform it into community organizing, to organizing the streets, to mutual aid and solidarity efforts? Even though we have a really promising legislature right now, Pierluisi is still the governor. Jennifer Gonzalez is still the Resident Commissioner. What can we do in our own circles to organize, and to not lose the sense of urgency; to not lose the sense of hope; to not lose the sense that it is possible to create another breakthrough vehicle. Having been so inspired by all the people that voted for the first time, and are clearly supporting a left-wing alternative, that is my main concern right now. How do we make the energy that we have accumulated last over these next four years? I think that is going to be a huge challenge, but also a great opportunity.

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Monique Dols View All

Monique Dols is an early childhood educator in New York City and a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus of the United Federation of Teachers. She writes and translates on Puerto Rico.