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Puerto Rico's big political shakeup

Puerto Rican flag is seen outside the Governor's residence. (Alejandro Granadillo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Puerto Rican flag is seen outside the Governor's residence. (Alejandro Granadillo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Puerto Rico is in the middle of a major gubernatorial race.

As a new political party appeals to younger voters — who’ve only experienced years of corruption, poverty and financial crisis — who wins could have a big effect on the territory.

Today, On Point: Puerto Rico’s big political shakeup.

Guests

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano, longtime political reporter. Former news director for Univision Puerto Rico.

Jorell Melendez Badillo, assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Author of the new book “Puerto Rico: A National History.”

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.

Puerto Rico is in the middle of a major race for governor. And Puerto Rican TV is loaded with coverage like this, on Telemundo Puerto Rico this week.

JENNIFFER GONZALEZ: Te ofrezco un gobierno que te escuche y te resuelva.

PEDRO PIERLUISI: Voy a continuar logrando ese progreso que tú quieres para ti y tu familia.

CHAKRABARTI: The island’s primary elections are next week, June 2nd. Incumbent Governor Pedro Pierluisi and current Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González made their case to voters. Both are members of the island’s New Progressive Party, abbreviated as “PNP” in Spanish.

You heard Gonzalez say, “I offer you a government that listens to you and solves your problems.” And Pierluisi say, “I’ll continue to make the progress you want for you and your family.”

Then there’s Puerto Rico’s other traditional party, the Popular Democratic Party, or the “PPD” in Spanish. On that ballot, Jesús Manuel Ortiz is running against Juan Zaragoza. Here’s Zaragoza back in February:

(SPANISH) Miren, ustedes no saben la emoción que provoca en uno cuando uno va caminando por las calles del país y hay tanta gente que le comunica a uno que sus esperanzas están puestas sobre – los sobre los hombros de alguien. (APPLAUSE)

CHAKRABARTI: Zaragoza tells the crowd, “Look, you don’t know how emotional it makes me when I walk through the streets and so many people tell me their hopes are riding on me.”

So those are the traditional party candidates.

But now, a new political coalition is on the rise in Puerto Rico. And it could upend the two major political parties that have ruled the island for 70 years.

The coalition is called the Alianza, or “the alliance.” It’s made up of two historically smaller parties on the island: the Puerto Rican Independence Party, or “PIP” and the Citizens’ Victory Movement, or “MVC.” Their candidate for governor is Juan Dalmau.

(SPANISH) Estamos en un momento historico unico en Puerto Rico. Los momentos extraordinarios requieren acciones extraordinarias.

CHAKRABARTI: Dalmau there saying, “We are in a unique historical moment in Puerto Rico. Extraordinary moments require extraordinary actions.” Extraordinary, because who wins Puerto Rico’s governorship will have a big effect on the territory – and its relationship to the United States. So we’re going to take a close look at what’s at stake in Puerto Rico.

Joining us now is Susanne Ramirez de Arellano. She’s a longtime political reporter and former news director for Univision Puerto Rico. Susanne, welcome to On Point.

SUSANNE RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: Thank you so much.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, describe to me, when I say that there’s a lot at stake in this particular governor’s election in Puerto Rico, how would you describe what is at stake?

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO:  I think the future of the island is at stake.

That’s how serious it is. You, we’re looking at a Puerto Rico that the present governor, which is  PNP, Pierluisi, is telling the world that everything is fine here, that there’s progress, that tourism has increased, that money’s flowing in. But that’s not the case, and that’s not the truth. The reality is that you have this smoke and mirrors created by incremented numbers of mass tourism.

You have gentrification caused by Act 60, which allows people to come to Puerto Rico and basically pay no taxes. You have a collapsing health system, which the current government refuses to acknowledge. You have an educational system that’s also on the verge of collapse. People are very concerned about crime and security.

So what you’re looking at right now is a population that is very tired of their day to day, we live with constant blackouts from a company that was hired by the government in power that has proved to be very good at collecting millions and millions of dollars, but very ineffective.

And when you speak about running an electrical system, we live with daily blackouts. The water goes out. There’s potholes on the streets, but you turn on your television, as you very rightly started in the beginning. And you see these politicians exposing these Disneyland scenarios, which people in Puerto Rico, people on the street just can’t relate to, because that’s not their life.

So for the first time, you’re looking at a Puerto Rican population that is turning away from the traditional parties. They’re looking for people that tell them what is happening. Tell them the truth, and that are capable of administering the island. When you look at the Alianza, which is a coalition of people of different political leanings, what the Alianza is proposing is that we look to administer and solve the problems that we’re experiencing now in Puerto Rico.

CHAKRABARTI: Susanne, so there’s so many details in what you said that I want to dig into a little bit more. So, first of all this sort of magical thinking, as you describe it, going on with the current government and specifically incumbent governor Pierluisi, it didn’t just come out of nowhere.

As I mentioned also earlier, the traditional parties have been in power in various forms in Puerto Rico for some 70 years, right? So can you tell me what those parties traditionally have stood for?

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: The PNP traditionally stands for statehood, what they’re looking for, what their north star is, and what they spend most of their time doing is talking about the fact that statehood will reach Puerto Rico in record time, if they’re in power.

When you look at El Partido Popular, they’re talking about the ELA, which is in association with the United States. Now, the reality is that both parties, which we call, what we talk about in Puerto Rico … both parties have been in power. You know, it’s like a relay race. One day I’m in charge. The next day you’re in charge. Both parties have not been able to set this island on a course for self-determination, for progress. And it stagnated it and driven it into the situation that we are now.

So, El Partido Popular, as I said, they are the ones that advocate for the ELA, El Estado libre asociado. The PNP has, it’s almost a cult, which they advocate for statehood.

CHAKRABARTI: I see.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: No matter how far away it is, no matter how impossible, they continue to, the linchpin of their party is the promise of statehood.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I ask you then so these the considerable economic and corruption challenges that you had outlined a minute or two ago, they’re not new as of a year or two ago. How have the traditional parties been able to hold on to power for so long? Given that, as you’re saying, even the dream of statehood is still just a dream and hasn’t materialized in any meaningful way.

But yet it’s still a central aspect of what the PNP stands for.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: I think people have to start looking at Puerto Rico as another country, as another nation. It doesn’t matter whether we are a nation in word and nation on paper. We are another country. This is a Caribbean and Latin American country.

How did these two parties remain in power? Because, together, they form a network of political power that wouldn’t allow anything else to penetrate. And both of them hinged their power on their relationship with the United States, specifically federal funds. So what both of these parties have done is to create a dependent country.

Where we were told, I remember since I was growing up, that we were nothing without the United States. That narrative has been cracking for a long time. The other thing I wanted to point out is that corruption is part of both of these parties. Now, one of them is a lot better at it, if you will, although both of them practice the George Santos style corruption, which is low hanging fruit.

But corruption is part of the way that that Puerto Rico has been governed for many, many years. You have Maria hit, you have Irma and Maria hit, you have a catastrophe that really stripped the island of any pretense, any makeup that it had, it stripped it and you could see exactly what the situation was.

Once this happens, what you had is what’s made it incredibly worse and has pushed all of this to the surface. Where you can’t deny what we’re seeing is the disaster capitalism that follows Maria and Irma. So then you have a lot of people coming in, as you saw in Hawaii in Maui after the fire, coming in and taking advantage of the situation, taking advantage of a government or a network of political power that sold off a lot of what is Puerto Rico, a lot of their resources, a lot of the land. And what has happened and what has made this more visible is the catastrophe after Maria, in my opinion.

CHAKRABARTI: Because, the disaster capitalism, that’s a very, I think, apt way of putting it.

Because I think you’ve previously mentioned that in terms of funds that were supposed to go to helping rebuild Puerto Rico, that what? Only 8% of them, of those funds have been used and the rest of the funds are elsewhere, yeah, go ahead.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: That’s right. I mean, that’s after, because remember Donald Trump withheld the funds after Maria.

Donald Trump was the one that called us dirty and poor. He said that he wanted to exchange us for Greenland and a series of other lovely and wonderful statements. He withheld the funds. What we’re talking about is non-recurrent funds. All of a sudden, these funds were released, and you have a wave of money coming to Puerto Rico, the party in power loves to fill its mouth with saying, you know, all that, which means work, look at the works we’re starting.

Look at that. And all of them are in limbo. Yes. Everything here is in its inception, if you will. So basically, what has happened is 8% of the funds have been used. The rest are either in the bank or in somebody’s pocketbook.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Susanne, you were talking about those funds, that the 8% of funds that have been used to begin some works in Puerto Rico, but the rest of the funds, these are post Maria funds, have been in the bank or someplace else.

Tell me, finish that story for us.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: This island operates on a network of contracts. I mean, I think that’s corruption 101. So you have all these companies, let’s start by talking about the electrical company, Luma, which has us on almost daily blackouts.

So Luma has paid a lot of money by the government in Puerto Rico. And then, you know, they’re left to their own devices. A lot of this money probably is being funneled through those contracts. A lot of that money is just sitting in the bank because of the inefficiency of the government to administer the funds.

We’re looking at two primaries. One is El Partido Nuevo Progresista, the party in power and pro-statehood. And the other one is El Partido Popular Democrático. Now, when you talk about the dramatic change, will be with the PNP primaries, because you’ve got two main leaders, the cupula, the cadre of the PNP, fighting with each other, basically eating, they’re killing each other. And in the interim, they’re doing severe damage to the party.

The resident commissioner has herself come out and said that the PNP, not the governor, who she is running against in the primaries, but the PNP, the party has betrayed the Puerto Rican people. Because of corruption, because the monies that were coming from D.C. were not handled correctly. Now, Pierluisi, on the other side, will sit and talk about all the things he’s done, except that all the things he’s done are not really visible.

You cannot tell people in Puerto Rico how great you are when on a daily basis, their lives are interrupted by, again, blackouts, high prices in supermarkets.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I just jump for a second, Susanne, forgive me, but so, when you’re talking about the PNP, the two main candidates of the PNP running against each other and really splitting the party, essentially, the other one, just so everyone can keep up here, it’s Jenniffer González right?

The resident commissioner.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO:  Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: She’s saying that the PNP itself, her own party is the source of the corruption, but she’s still running as a PNP member.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: Yes, I mean, listen, there is a reason why they call Puerto Rico “Macondo” which is the fantastical village created by Gabriel García Márquez in A Hundred Years of Solitude.

Nobody with a logical mind can understand, yes, I can understand why she would attack the governor, but she’s attacking the party. What I want to see is what kind of party will be left after the primaries, because even though in the past, where there has been this kind of fight between two candidates, they have been able to join together.

This one has been really down and dirty severe and it’s further evidence for people that are watching this going, my God, if they can’t even join together, if they can’t even, if they’re fighting against each other and calling each other corrupt, how do we expect them to govern the country?

You can’t tell people in Puerto Rico, Oh, we’re going to do great work, when you’ve been in power all these years. Right. So they’re in, I mean, the new parties, especially La Alianza y El Partido Proyecto Dignidad, which is an ultra-conservative, right-wing party, religious party, have been coming up the pipe due to the fact that people are fed up.

CHAKRABARTI: Yep.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: I think the status quo question is really on the back burner right now. People just want their daily lives to get better.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, it makes a lot of sense, right? Like statehood is that impossible dream in the future, but having reliable power and affordable food right now would definitely be of greater urgency for folks.

So to that point, I just want to play a little bit of tape from Juan Dalmau, who’s running for governor of Puerto Rico with the support, with the support of Alianza the coalition that you just talked about, Susanne. Now, Dalmau also ran for governor back in 2020 with the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

He got 14%of the vote then. Here he is in an interview with ABC Puerto Rico in 2022.

(TRANSLATION)

CHAKRABARTI: So he’s saying there:

“I ran for a party called the Puerto Rican Independence Party. The PNP doesn’t call itself the statehood party. The PPD doesn’t say we’re the commonwealth party.

The PIP has its objective in its name. I believe in that objective. I never hid it. I’ve said I’m going to promote a clean government. I’m going to clean house and a democratic decolonization process. But some people are mad because they wanted the PIP campaign to be fake. Because the PNP has been governor for the last 18 years and where is statehood?”

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Juan Dalmau from 2022. Susanne, let me introduce Jorell Melendez Badillo into the conversation. He’s assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the new book, Puerto Rico: A National History. Professor Badillo, welcome to On Point.

JORELL MELENDEZ BADILLO: Thank you for having me. So you know, taking, given your historical perspective here on the island’s long history, do you agree or disagree with Susanne that this particular election could be a tremendous turning point for Puerto Rico?

BADILLO: Yes, I absolutely agree with Susanne, and I subscribe to all of the things that she has mentioned very eloquently in the show.

I think that the elections that we have in November of this year have the potential to shatter the bipartisan system that has been ruling Puerto Rico since 1968. So the first time that we actually elected our governor was in 1948 and it was Luis Muñoz Marín of the PPD, the Popular Democratic Party.

And that party ruled Puerto Rico for about 20 years. And it was in 1968 that the PNP actually won the first election. And since then, we’ve had this bipartisan system. And I think that this election that we have in 2024 has the potential of breaking away from that bipartisan system that has been ruling the archipelago for so long.

CHAKRABARTI: Now I want you to help us, you know, people who aren’t that familiar with Puerto Rican domestic politics sort of get a better sense beyond the independence question as to what the parties stand for. And this may be too simplistic, so correct me if I’m wrong, but since Susanne had mentioned just a second ago that … in terms of parties that make up the Alliance, that there’s some far-right elements.

How would you describe what the traditional parties were, using, I don’t know, U.S. political terms? Were the traditional parties more left wing and the Alliance righter wing or not? I just kind of need to help us get a sense as to, beyond the independence question, what they stand for, professor.

BADILLO: Absolutely. So the political system in Puerto Rico. The electoral system doesn’t confine itself to the same sort of bipartisan logic of the United States, meaning that it doesn’t fall under the umbrella of either Democrats or Republicans.

So traditionally and historically, ever since the mid 20th century, Puerto Rican electoral parties, both the PNP and the PPD, were sort of in the Democratic camp that has changed in the last 20, 30 years. There have been members of the PNP particularly that have gravitated towards the Republican party of the United States, and so in terms of the political landscape in Puerto Rico, we can understand in simplistic terms, the PNP as the right-wing party, the PPD was sort of in the center and the PIP, which was founded in 1946, in the left sort of spectrum.

But those politics have changed recently, particularly because of the things that Susanne was mentioning in terms of the fiscal crisis that we’ve been having in Puerto Rico since 2006. And so the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, which emerged a couple of years ago, it’s basically a movement, a coalition in itself, the party of different political players, people that have been in politics for a long time.

So we talk about Juan Mao, as, you know, part of the Alianza, or the Alliance for the PIP. But we also have the … commissioner from Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, who has been a long-term lesbian, Black lesbian activist in the Puerto Rican political sphere. She was the president of Puerto Rico’s Bar Association.

And so this is a party that is composed of a lot of different groups. The PIP, as you had mentioned a few minutes earlier, is a pro-independence party, and then outside of the Alliance, you have a new political party, which is what Susanne was mentioning, which is Proyecto Dignidad. And so a lot of people think about the emergence of Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana and the Alliance as the afterlives of the 2019 Summer protests that ousted governor Ricardo Rosselló.

And so what I always caution people is that, yes, we have this progressive movement that is signaling that we need to think about the current political and fiscal, and the realities of Puerto Rico. Before talking about the political status of the island. But at the same time, you have the rise of this ultra conservative group called Proyecto Dignidad. And so in the last elections, in the 2020 elections, Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana was able to get two seats in the Senate. Two seats in the House, in the Legislature. But also, we need to think about that Proyecto Dignidad also landed people inside of the House.

They also got people elected. So you have this discontent on the one hand by progressives. But also, you have the rise of right-wing elements in Puerto Rico that are looking towards Proyecto Dignidad as an option.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, that’s interesting. And so it sounds, and Susanne, let me turn back to you. It sounds like that this sort of perhaps unusual group of parties, one of the animating or organizing principles here would be the anti-corruption, the desire for anti-corruption, as you were talking about earlier. To that point, Susanne, you had mentioned something called Act 60, and I want to talk about that for just another minute, because it was instituted in 2022. And I think a lot of people may not know what that is or what its impact has been.

Can you talk about that?

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: Sure, and I’m sorry, the voltage here went up and down, and this is evidence of what we live with, so I didn’t catch the professor’s entire participation, so I do apologize.

CHAKRABARTI: Essentially, he was saying he agrees with your analysis. And then gave us more detail in terms of how to understand the political perspectives of the various parties.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: Well, I’ve been reading his book, and it makes a lot of sense. A lot of sense. And it’s great to see Puerto Rico getting some agency. Anyway, Act 60 was something that was sold to the people as, Oh, we’re going to bring in capital and it’ll generate jobs. What it has done, it has created a tax haven in Puerto Rico where people come here and either pay zero taxes or pay 4% taxes. And what they’ve got to do is to give $10,000 to a philanthropical cause.

Now they have changed it. Before it was Act 20/22 now it’s Act 60. Now they have changes that they have to purchase property. But what you have is a thin line of people who are living in Puerto Rico, where Puerto Ricans pay more than 33% taxes, not paying any taxes, buying land, gentrifying areas.

Forcing Puerto Ricans to move out because they no longer can pay those rents or those food prices. A very good friend of mine, also a journalist, called Puerto Rico the best laundry machine in the world now, because a lot of people are here laundering money. What I find incredible is that the United States government, the IRS, knows what is happening.

They have said they’re going to do something about it and they have not. There are states that are losing tax money because of these gentrifiers. This has caused, not malaise, I would say anger and rage within the Puerto Rican population. And the word on the street is that the government, especially the PNP, wants a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, wow.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: That’s what Act 60 is.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Can I just jump in here? Because hearing you say that this has generated anger and rage in Puerto Ricans, I mean, that’s showing up in a lot of different ways because some of the people who’ve taken advantage of Act 60 include YouTube influencer Logan Paul, right?

And I’m seeing here that just a couple of years ago Bad Bunny actually called out Logan Paul for, you know, exploiting this new law and it not doing any good for Puerto Rican people. Now, that might seem like an odd cultural reference, but I always think that when things make their way into pop culture, it means that there’s a broad discontent. That even, you know, the island’s artists are talking about.

RAMIREZ DE ARELLANO: No, I think that’s far fetched. I mean, that’s outside of any realm of reality. I mean, Bad Bunny is a powerful figure in Puerto Rico. And yes, Bad Bunny called out Logan Paul individually, personally, and Logan Paul tried to answer, but he couldn’t. I mean, you have Logan Paul, you have Logan Paul’s brother.

You have people like one of the lawyers that was very close to Trump who has been indicted. He was living here. You have somebody like Brock Pierce who came in, talked about cryptotopia. And what has happened is he lied through his teeth. Right now, he owes people money. He has a lawsuit going on, with somebody that he had dealings with over a hotel. I mean, what has happened is that Act 60 has collected members of the problematic crowd that weren’t allowed in Monaco. That’s what you’ve got here. I mean, I’m not saying that all lack 60 people are this way, but I would say that the majority.

And what this has caused is unbelievable resentment from the Puerto Rican people, which has turned electors away from the PNP and the PPD, towards La Alianza and Proyecto Dignidad. Now, Proyecto Dignidad is another kettle of fish because you see people from the PNP, especially Pierluisi, who last week or the week before, that came out and said that he would allow companies to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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