The Other Option in Puerto Rico

For another perspective on elections in Puerto Rico, please check out our recent article by Antonio Carmona Báez.

As the US media continues to talk about the presidential elections, I think that many people also forget that there are elections taking place in one of the last colonies in the western hemisphere, Puerto Rico. But in order to understand the current debate taking place, it’s important to talk about the historical development of the current colonial system.


Since the Spanish began to colonize Puerto Rico in 1492, it has experienced many different political structures: from authoritarian military governors during the majority of the Spanish occupation, to a brief period of autonomy in 1897, back to military governance when the United States invaded, to a period of rule by non elected civilian governors until the election of Luis Muñoz Marín as the first elected governor in 1948. With the election of Muñoz Marín came the biggest change in the political system of Puerto Rico with the establishment of the Commonwealth (Estado Libre Asociado or ELA in Spanish, which translated literally means Associated Free State). This was the creation of the political elite of Puerto Rico as a compromise between statehood and independence, giving some form of of self government to Puerto Rico. However, it is one of the biggest paradoxes of the Puerto Rican reality. Puerto Rico is not free; any change in status needs to come from the United States Congress, where Puerto Rico has no voting representatives. Puerto Rico is neither a state in the sense of a state within the union nor a state in the sense of a nation state.

Along with the ELA came the current party system of Puerto Rico with two major parties. The Partido Popular Democratico (PPD) favors the commonwealth and the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) favors statehood, while one minor party, the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP) favors independence. The two major parties have differed on economic issues; the PPD with a “center-left” ideology resembling the Democratic Party in the United States and the PNP with a “center-right” ideology resembling the Republican Party in the United States. However, much like the United States, it has become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the two parties with both offering their own flavor of neoliberalism.

Recently, current Governor Luis Fortuño of the PNP declared a ‘state of fiscal emergency’ with Ley 7 cutting over 30,000 public sector jobs. This served as a prototype for Republican Governors in the United States seeking to implement similar austerity measures. As if this wasn’t enough, he has also began a crusade against public education and Puerto Rican culture, forcing his neoliberal ideology on the university through appointments within the administration. His self-hating, assimilationist ideology was manifested in education reforms that seek to implement English as the primary language in Puerto Rico’s schools. But the PPD and their gubernatorial candidate, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, have failed to even present the illusion of an alternative. For example, this past summer when the PNP led a campaign against the right to bail (effectively making someone guilty until proven innocent), Garcia Padilla stood alongside Fortuño in endorsing the referendum. It was ultimately rejected by the people.

The failure of the PPD to be an alternative has created a large number of people who are dissatisfied with the two major parties and has led to the creation of 3 new political parties, who, along with the PIP, seek to fill this political gap: the Partido Puertorriqueños por Puerto Rico (PPR), the Movimiento Unión Soberanista (MUS), and the Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (PPT). However, much like third parties in the United States, minor parties in Puerto Rico have historically failed to gain a big enough share of the vote to make a difference in electoral politics, even though the PIP has had a small number of ‘at-large’ representatives in the legislature.

The oldest of these minor parties is the PIP, founded in 1948. Its ideology has changed over time since beginning as a left wing nationalist political party. Following the popularity of the Cuban Revolution, the PIP adopted a socialist platform until abandoning it in the 1980s. Since their abandonment of socialism they have moved further to the right. This election, their gubernatorial candidate, Juan Dalmau, presents a change in the face of the PIP and is trying to present himself as a responsible alternative advocating independence that accommodates all of Puerto Rico’s social classes. The PIP has joined the PNP in promoting a plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s political status which, despite conversy, ultimately doesn’t even matter because US Congress has the real power on all questions of status.

The PPR, (Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico) is the second oldest of these parties, founded in 2007. With an ideology that’s a mix of centrist green politics and nationalism (however, not enough nationalism to advocate independence), they say that rebuilding Puerto Rico is more important than status. In 2008 they presented a nice alternative to those who were sick of politics as usual, receiving almost 3 percent of the vote. But after the elections ended, support faded away, leaving the party a lot weaker now than in 2008.

The MUS (Sovereign Union Movement) was founded prior to the current election, hoping to unite supporters of different ideologies in favor of a status that promotes sovereignty for Puerto Rico. Like the PPR, they have a broad ideology which advocates a mild form of nationalism, but don’t really present a real alternative to the colonial status of Puerto Rico.

The PPT (Working People’s Party) was also founded prior to this election, with the purpose of creating a party that is able to represent the interests of the Puerto Rican working class and is open to everyone from the working class, including estadistas and autonomistas. This is interesting, considering the fact that many of the founders of the PPT are members of MAS, the Puerto Rican section of the Fourth International, or independent socialists who have traditionally advocated independence. That said, many of the individual candidates in the PPT do advocate independence, but don’t see it as a reason not to cooperate with others in forming a broad political party for the working class. Their political program mixes proposals that would be impossible to impose under any other status but independence with calls for more funds from the United States congress and no mention whatsoever of socialism.

For instance, they say they would ask the US Congress for money for a reconstruction plan that would essentially reverse the neoliberal reforms implemented by the previous governments and put Puerto Rico on the path to an environmentally friendly, cooperative based economy. This would never happen. The US congress would just do what they do to any proposal about Puerto Rico, ignore it. The program is also filled with other economic proposals that would be impossible both under the ELA and statehood, such as producing the majority of the food that Puerto Rico needs within Puerto Rico, and labor standards like adjusting salaries for inflation and a 7 hour work day.

Even if they did win the elections, which is virtually impossible under the current Puerto Rican electoral system, none of these programs would be able to succeed because Puerto Rico would still be a colony of the United States. Although I understand that the PPT is attempting at creating consciousness in the Puerto Rican working class or as they put it “planting the seeds”, I feel that they know just as well as everyone else that what they are proposing is impossible under North American colonialism. So I just don’t understand why they don’t call it as it is and combat capitalism and imperialism, instead of calling for a sustainable form of capitalism and colonialism.

For this reason many on the Puerto Rican left are choosing to abstain from the electoral process, most notably the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (Socialist Workers Movement) who have been leading a campaign for abstention. This makes a lot of sense to me considering the fact that the Puerto Rican electoral system is anti-democratic and only favors the interests of the rich.

First off, the electoral system resembles that of the US in that it is designed so that two major parties have all of the control and minor parties can only hope to get nominal representation, if any at all. Like Lenin said in The State and Revolution “freedom in capitalist society always remains just about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners”.

Second, because Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, the Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United also applies here. Money the primary factor in elections, although I will admit that state funding has allowed minor parties to receive more attention than they would in the US.

Third, the government is corrupt. Over the past month there have two major scandals involving the PNP: one about voter fraud surrounding the elderly and absentee ballots in the August referendum on the right to bail, and another about federal government funds going to the staunchly pro-government and pro-statehood newspaper El Vocero. So why compete in elections where the rich won’t even play by their own rules?

Fourth, none of the parties offer a real alternative to capitalism and the colonial status quo, because they have all agreed to work within the colonial framework which makes real revolutionary change impossible. I think that the international left, especially in the US because of the similarities in electoral systems, could learn a lot here from those in the Puerto Rican left who are challenging the illusions of electoral politics and demonstrating that real revolutionary change happens in the streets and not in the ballot box.

Cruz Bonlarron Martínez is a Solidarity member who recently relocated to Puerto Rico. He is a student at the University of Puerto Rico.

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