August 10, 2022

“We are literally fighting for our lives.” A new political movement emerges outside Puerto Rico’s two-party system

2020 Puerto Rican general election

The Puerto Rican flag is seen in front of the governor’s residence as Puerto Ricans vote in the general election in San Juan, Puerto Rico on November 03, 2020. Credit – Alejandro Granadillo—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Alexandra Marie Figueroa-Miranda spent days counting ballots after the controversial November 3 election. But, as a resident of Puerto Rico, she counted no votes for Donald Trump or Joe Biden. She and the millions of other Americans living in the Commonwealth cannot vote in US presidential elections, despite their federal tax contributions and their status as US citizens.

The question of Puerto Rico’s colonial status and the best way for Puerto Ricans to exercise their rights as American citizens has been central to every election on the island in recent memory, including this one. For the third time in 53 years, Puerto Ricans voted to become a US state in a nonbinding referendum on the ballot and elected a new governor from the island’s main pro-state party.

But, for the first time, a constellation of new parties that has attracted large numbers of young voters could signal a new direction for the territory.

“We are literally fighting for our lives,” says Figueroa-Miranda, founder of La Clara, a political youth advocacy group. “These elections were so important because for four years we have been improvising a country.”

For decades, Puerto Ricans have faced a series of competing economic and political crises. But over the past four years, things have gotten worse. Student strikes over austerity measures, the ensuing devastation Hurricanes Irma and Mariadestructive earthquakegrowing tax debt and the local impact of climate change have brought the island to a crossroads.

Many Puerto Ricans blame the territory’s two-party political system for the current situation. Over the past fifty years, control of the island has swung between the two dominant parties that represent competing philosophies on the island’s future: the New Progressive Party (NPP), which advocates for a separate American state as a whole, and the People’s Democratic Party (PPD), which favors maintaining the current Commonwealth status.

Now, several smaller parties are gaining traction with young Puerto Ricans who have watched several failed federal responses to disasters and aren’t necessarily interested in becoming the 51st state. They tout alternative visions for the island that could bring greater autonomy and improve economic conditions, such as seeking full independence from the United States, or becoming a sovereign nation in “free association” with states. United States, such as its relationship with the Marshall Islands.

“For new generations, all their lives, what they’ve seen is Puerto Rico in an economic recession,” says Edil Sepúlveda Carl, a Washington DC-area lawyer who engages with the federal government on Puerto Rican self-determination issues. .“ They saw the very terrible response of the federal government after Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes…. We felt like there’s a sort of transition going on in Puerto Rico, especially with the young people who are more anti-state.

While 52% of the island voted in favor of statehood on November 3, turnout was relatively low, with only around 53% of eligible voters. The NPP, which spent millions to include the question on the ballot after Attorney General William Barr refused to appropriate federal funds for the plebiscite, announced the result as a victory for the cause of the State. But many see the referendum simply as a political tool for the party to bring supporters to the polls and wonder if the results reflect what most Puerto Ricans actually want to see happen.

“Regardless of your positions on statehood for Puerto Rico, saying ‘A clear majority of Puerto Ricans support statehood’ is factually inaccurate,” tweeted Nuyorican scholar and filmmaker Andrew J. Padilla a few days after the vote. “The island needs to come together and create a process and a determination that can really garner real consensus from the people,” he later told TIME.

The election also handed a narrow victory to the NPP, which has held the governor’s seat since 2016. Critics have accused the party of mishandling federal emergency aid, and party members have regularly come under fire. corruption investigations. Last year, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets to demand the resignation of then-scandal-ridden NPP Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who eventually resigned. This month, the NPP’s Pedro Pierluisi won the gubernatorial race with 32.93% of the vote, the lowest support of any winning governor on the island, while the PPD candidate trailed with just 17,000. voice less.

Pierlusi’s narrow margin of victory is indicative of growing support for parties outside the traditional system, including the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), and the new anti-colonial Citizen’s Victory Movement (CVM) and anti-corruption Project Dignity parties. . More voters voted for all three together than for the NPP and PPD, accounting for almost 35% of the vote.

The new voter leadership of these parties has also historically been able to win six seats in the House and Senate of the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly. Now the PPD, which comprises the majority of the legislature, will likely have to work in tandem with some minority representatives to move forward.

Those who went to the polls ready to say goodbye to the NPP are disappointed with the result. Within eleven days of the party’s re-election, an NPP lawmaker has already been arrested by FBI officials on corruption charges. Thousands of uncounted votes from various constituencies were found days after the election, according to the New York Times, with some alleging the ruling party is involved. An NPP representative on their election council has since denied those claims, saying the party prioritizes a fair election, the NYT reports.

Figueroa-Miranda de La Clara also accuses the NPP of this and other electoral irregularities. Like other young Puerto Ricans, the 27-year-old has been suspicious of the territory’s political system and doesn’t trust official results.. “I’m afraid the numbers don’t represent what really happened here on November 3,” she says.

As Puerto Ricans struggle with the island’s dire financial woes, with millions without electricity or running water for months at a time, many have tried to settle on the American mainland. The island’s population has steadily declined over the past decade, and reached a new low after hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2018.

For Sepúlveda, the lawyer from Washington, moving to the United States after studying law on the island offered not only a better future, but also the possibility of defending Puerto Rico in America. In 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Sepúlveda co-founded Boricuas United in the Diasporaa network of Puerto Rican professionals who lobbied Congress to implement a serious process of self-determination and decolonization.

Puerto Rico’s status has been a controversial topic in Washington for several administrations. In 2016, Congress and former President Barack Obama passed a bill known as PROMESA, a plan to address the island’s looming debt crisis through a finance committee that oversees the island’s budget, colloquially referred to in Puerto Rico as “the junta”. Many on the island have criticized the surveillance, saying it does not address the unjust conditions in their daily lives.

During Trump’s tenure, he called the United States territory “one of the most corrupt places on the planet” and made it clear that Puerto Rico would be an “absolute no” for him if the current mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, remained in place. Office. He and Cruz began to feud after she criticized his handling of Hurricane Maria, including her infamous throw paper towels in a crowd of hurricane survivors in 2017.

Last month, former acting governor Wanda Vázquez of the NPP endorsed Trump’s re-election, a move that could have potentially helped the incumbent gain momentum with the Latino vote in Florida, where more than a million live. of Puerto Ricans. Now that President-elect Joe Biden takes office, he has signaled he will support Puerto Rico’s statehood and offered a comprehensive stimulus package for his administration to address the island’s problems.

Sepúlveda’s group supported the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act that Rep. Nydia Velázquez and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed in August, which would begin negotiations between Congress and a body of Puerto Rican-elected representatives to take a decision on the future status of the island.

The bill, which was not approved by the pro-state NPP, remains in limbo as the Natural Resources Committee has yet to pass it in the House. Although they haven’t said publicly why they didn’t support the bill, Sepúlveda and others suggest it may be because they want to retain control of the accession process. ‘State.

Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist and Rep. Darren Soto of Florida, a state with a growing population of Puerto Ricans, said they would introduce more bipartisan resolutions in support of the Nov. 3 referendum result. But with no clear sign that Congress will weigh in on the many issues Puerto Ricans will face anytime soon, many feel the island’s future is in their hands.

“You can’t wait for a government to help you,” says Sepúlveda, adding, “Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo.” Only the people save the people.