Puerto Rico 2021: A Shift in Perspective, A New Opposition

Puerto Rico’s Left made significant gains in the recent general elections. This vote for decolonization and social change must be appreciated.

December 1, 2020

Demonstrators celebrate the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló, marching from Milla de Oro in Hato Rey to the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 25, 2019. (Photo by Daryana Rivera / Wikimedia)

This piece was originally published in Spanish by 80grados.

Translator’s note: In Puerto Rico’s general elections, progressive candidates gained on the two traditional parties, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the New Progressive Party (PNP). In the gubernatorial race, narrowly won by the PNP's Pedro Pierluisi, support for the PNP and PPD dropped significantly compared to the last election, while third and fourth place candidates Alexandra Lúgaro of the Citizen's Victory Movement (MCV) and Juan Dalmau of the Puerto Rican Independence Party garnered notable support. In San Juan, a close mayoral race between the PNP's Miguel Romero and the MCV's Manuel Natal had yet to be definitively called. Progressive candidates also made inroads in Puerto Rico’s Senate.

One of the things often taken for granted by the independence and socialist movement is knowing when to claim a victory. As a consequence of suffering so many blows throughout its history, the movement has become reflexively cynical when having to assess some kind of partial victory or progress. Let’s recall, among other signature chapters, in 1976 the Puerto Rican Independence Party received 80,000 votes, which, when combined with those of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, equaled nearly 100,000 votes. Or the founding and progress of the Workers United Movement (MOU), which managed to bring together the country’s top unions and mobilize a sizable radical movement. Or when Madison Square Garden filled to capacity in 1974 in support of Puerto Rico’s independence, a massive event that closed with Juan Mari Brás and in which Angela Davis, Jane Fonda, and a robust contingent of the North American Left participated. Or when the Puerto Rican Socialist Party just barely elected Carlos Gallisá and Mari Brás to the Legislature. In each case, success was followed by strife.

In other cases, the movement acknowledged “success,” but not its long-term impact. Before pessimism kicks in, it would help to revisit some of the most recent progress of the last two decades: the struggles for Vieques, against the natural gas pipeline, and against the toxic ash in Peñuelas are evidence of important victories outside of the metropolitan area. The student strikes between 2010 and 2017 planted the activist seed in thousands of youth who went out to vote on November 3. The release of Oscar López Rivera, the militant mass feminist mobilizations of the past few years, agroecological projects and autonomous organizing in many communities, [and] the numerous, ever-increasing, and persistent struggles for human rights [are all important]. And finally, the events of Summer ‘19, the impact of which resonated in the United States and around the world. All this cumulative experience showed up in different ways in November 2020: a voting bloc has clearly emerged in opposition to the current colonial and neoliberal regime.

Sometimes, in the face of “achievements,” in addition to ignoring or downplaying them, either bold or too risky decisions are made. I myself helped turn victory into defeat when I was a student leader at the University of Humacao in 1975. Bravery is confused with uncontrollable stubbornness, which ends up leading the movement to a dead end. And I’m not just talking about sensational episodes like the strikes. The best experts on the tactics of the PSP [Puerto Rican Socialist Party] or the PIP [Puerto Rican Independence Party] must miss the “cadre schools” to train leaders—very anonymous work—which were abandoned despite their consistently extraordinary achievements. Training was replaced by a preference for “action,” as if the two were incompatible or mutually exclusive.

Against this tradition, it’s important to reflect on the significant progress of the Left in Puerto Rico in the 2020 election cycle. I propose an optimistic outlook based on the election results, not mere fantasy. I am one of those people who feels the progress has been undervalued. Perhaps this is because the results were somewhat unexpected for many. In any case, the big questions are: How do we view the new landscape on the Left? How will the opposition to the colonial and neoliberal regime adjust going forward?

I’m now referring specifically to those forces that place themselves in opposition to neoliberalism and colonialism in Puerto Rico—without losing sight of some important differences among them. In other words, I’m not talking about a single community, but rather a pluralized “community” belonging to a very diverse movement that could identify as leftist in the sense described above. To be clear, I assume that the votes for independence and socialist candidates, for the MVC [Citizens' Victory Movement] and the PIP, and for independent candidate [José Antonio “Chaco”] Vargas Vigot are like-minded votes mostly oriented toward some kind of transformation of the country and social progress—whether via a gradual or decolonizing route—and not a mere “act of protest.”

In this sense, it helps to think of the 2020 elections as we think of the Summer of 2019: not just as an experience of “protest,” but also as an experience of “proposal” where citizens are protagonists with a new sense of politics. Outside traditional party lines, the 2019 uprising featured a common goal: the resignation of [Governor] Ricardo Rosselló and prioritizing basic public morality: no violence against women and no gender discrimination. It was also a warning against authoritarianism and the whiteness of political leadership in general. It’s difficult to name what happened, in part because there isn’t an adequate, all-encompassing concept in political terms. But also in part because the language of the people (the performance) prevailed in an unprecedented manner, from the perreo combativo in front of the Cathedral to [MCV lawmaker] Manuel Natal’s speech in front the Capitol, in which he described the majority of legislators as a “party of cabrones” just when Summer of 2019 was getting underway. That day of action, organized by feminist groups who played a key role throughout the uprising, ended with the music of Danny Rivera. The crowd was moved by a song that the independence and socialist movement transformed into a hymn many years ago:

I want a people,
Who laugh and sing,
I want a people who dance in the streets…
I want
A loving people.

Yo quiero un pueblo,
que ría y que cante,
yo quiero un pueblo que baile en las calles…
yo quiero
un pueblo que ame.

In short, no one can take away what we lived in 2019...or 2020.

The convergence around “social change” falls under a very wide umbrella, from partial choices—as one might consider a vote for individual candidates—to more calibrated decisions, as in the cumulative vote for the PIP or the MVC. Candidates of these two parties identified with “decolonization” and the struggle against “neoliberalism” accumulated a very high number of votes. Ultimately, we witnessed a change in mindset, a transformation of common sense. I see this as a living mosaic with distinct sections embodied by the radical feminist movement that organized the Summer 2019 protests; Bad Bunny, René Pérez, and Ricky Martin; [MCV’s gubernatorial candidate Alexandra] Lúgaro, Natal, and the MVC; and finally, the Independence Party with its [gubernatorial candidate Juan] Dalmau as the face of a convincing resurgence.

That cultural shift didn’t fall from the sky. Implicated in this movement for change are surely all efforts, many unknown, in every aspect of national life, whether in associations or unions, community or economic projects, meetings around a theme, or historic demands such as those of the women’s struggle, or in education, human rights, environmental issues,t or labor. This flexibility is what allows us to talk about a new opposition to the colonial and neoliberal regime.

I’ll borrow a quote from Hannah Arent before the comments that follow: “Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.” Hannah Arendt (recovered by Oscar Dávila del Valle)

Let’s take a look.

In 2020, three leftist candidates were elected to the Senate, two from the MVC and one from the PIP. María de Lourdes Santiago [of PIP] obtained 132,208 votes in a field of candidates where there was also greater variety and similar platforms to hers. She received 2,000 more votes than Dalmau did in 2016. The PIP Senate candidacy is posting similar figures to those of the last four elections. This historical continuity makes me think that the overwhelming majority [of MVC voters] are independentistas. Ana Irma [Rivera Lassén of MVC], a known independentista, feminist, and spokesperson for the LGBTQ+ community, obtained 67,139 votes; [MVC’s Rafael] Bernabe, independentista, socialist, and former union leader, obtained 62,926 votes...The number of the votes for María de Lourdes and Ana Irma adds up to 199,347. One variable to consider that would considerably increase this estimated figure are the votes for Chaco Vargas Vidot, who received 67,151 votes. Among them there was likely a decent number of votes leaning toward social change and independence. If we were to just add a third of votes for Vargas Vidot to the total “alternative” vote (independence-socialist leaning) in the Senate, the total figure would reach 221,506.

You can only vote for one at-large candidate. Denis Marquez obtained 122,973 votes and Mariana Nogales received 85,227. The “alternative vote” between them totals 208,200. For their part, José Bernardo Márquez, statehood candidate for the MVC, obtained 65,682, and among those supporters, it’s very likely that there are a lot of independentistas given the cumulative number of votes. All these “alternative votes” equal 273,882. Although it merits more than scrutiny, not all the votes for Denis and Mariana necessarily coincide with the same reasoning (you could imagine, for example, that Mariana drew feminist support, unlike the others). It’s difficult to identify those who voted for Bernardo, [though] I argue that it’s reasonable to believe that among them there are around 220,000 independentistas and/or people who identify with decolonization and social change, just as reflected in the Senate votes for PIP and MVC candidates along with a portion belonging to Vargas Vidot.

The 176,000 votes for Lúgaro leave no doubt that they fall under the wide umbrella described above. The MVC candidate projected herself as committed to social change and repeatedly identified herself as an independentista. Moreover, she was joined by candidates who clearly identified with independence, such as in the case of Ana Irma, and some with socialism, as in the case of Bernabe and Mariana. If her running mate on the ballot was indeed a “state-hooder,” the vote count favoring the PNP [New Progressive Party] rules out a solid statehood vote for the MVC. We don’t know with certainty how many of these votes aligned with decolonization from the perspective of independence, but let’s consider it reasonable to guess, given the circumstances, that at least ⅔ of these 176,000 votes for Lúgaro come from this sector, when looked at from a wider perspective: the original base of independentistas and activists that founded the MVC in the first place, the unaffiliated, the former abstainers, the people who abandoned the “strategic vote” for the PPD [Popular Democratic Party] and the new blood of many youth radicalized by the social and higher education struggles of the country.

The votes for the PIP tripled and reached 70,000, while Dalmau approached 170,000. If we take into account the fear campaigns and all the negative fabrications circulating around the independentistas, then we should consider the majority of these votes independentistas or sympathizers, but not likely state-hooders or colonial sympathizers satisfied with the current situation or far from seeking social change. In addition, it is likely that the attention deficit that the PIP provoked in the last elections has largely been overcome. The more youthful, sharp, and energetic image of PIP’s gubernatorial candidate, Dalmau, is worth noting, as is the deep resonance of the call to strengthen the “independentista instrument,” which swayed tens of thousands of possible abstainers or voters who historically channeled their support toward the PPD in the name of the the “strategic vote.”

Thus, it is possible to estimate, while also considering the legislative vote and its factors, that there are 120,000-140,000 independentista socialists or sympathizers who voted for Dalmau, and 120,000-140,000 independentista socialists or sympathizers who voted for Lúgaro and the MVC. With this, we can estimate total electoral support of some 240,000 people for one form or another of the independence struggle, decolonization, and social change.

Finally, to estimate this aforementioned convergence in a more precise way, we must consider the “absolute abstainers” and the total number of people who exercised a “strategic vote” for the PPD. In any event, although the PPD attracts several thousand leftist voters, in the 2020 elections, this significantly decreased.

We must also consider how the call to vote against bipartisanism—“anything but PNP and PPD”—impacted voters’ mindsets. Given the strong identification of these parties with Puerto Rico’s colonial condition, a vote against bipartisanism can be considered a vote against the colony. This reasoning may have aided another kind of “strategic vote.” That is, many PNP supporters took advantage of the opportunity to disassociate themselves from the party and let it be known that there’s a limit to corruption and opportunism.

The advances in the struggle for decolonization and social change cannot be underestimated. Reviewing the results of the elections reveals that an estimated 240,000 people or more support “change.”

The results are very unusual because the “alternative vote” has become more evident. In past elections, many [alternative voters] remained submerged in the PPD, ignored because they abstained, somewhat visible in their support for historical PIP candidates and Vargas Vidot in the legislature, and finally, as a miniscule representation of socialists. All of this has been left behind. The MVC presents itself as a third electoral force with a promising future and two young leaders with national recognition—Lúgaro and Natal—ready to face political drama from unconventional positions. The MVC elected four legislators with an indisputable margin and achieved a historic opening in San Juan. The PIP, for its part, has been strengthened, with a vigor not seen in many years, and a highly visible leadership trio of Denis Márquez, María de Lourdes Santiago, and Juan Dalmau. In 2021 and onward, these leaders—who all have the opportunity to achieve great national renown and combine energies and projects with greater success than ever in the legislature—are complemented by Eva Prados (good luck with the recount!), Mariana, Bernabe, Ana Irma, Bernardo Márquez, and Vargas Vidot.

The 2020 election results, in sum, reconfigure the map of leftist factions: in addition to the two PIP legislators elected, four of the five MVC candidates elected identify as independentistas and social movement activists, to whom we must also add independentista Chaco Vargas Vidot. The election of Bernardo Márquez, who has declared himself a state-hooder but who supports the “urgent agenda” of social change that the MVC proposes, suggests possible changes in the so-called “obsolete paradigm of status,” in the sense that opening the door to new convergences between state-hooders and independentistas (if Márquez doesn’t become an independentista before then). The election of Rodríguez Veve and Burgos Muñiz to the Congress, with a very conservative party of religious and moral conviction, further adds to the diversity won in 2020.

Bipartisanism is not defeated, it seems, given the strength of the PNP and its ability to elect a leader disgraced within their own party, with a history of corruption, and a track record of subservience to the Fiscal Control Board. The most promising force, on the other hand, is among the leftist factions and a discontented population that mobilized for the MVC and the PIP, including, among others, many young people carrying the torch of recent university strike experiences, diverse sectors of an adult population with varying ideological perspectives, people affiliated and unaffiliated but very much embroiled in many social and political struggles including feminism, environmental defense, autonomous organizing (autogestión) and other forms of solidarity and action, all of which have been working, since the summer of 2019, toward political change on a greater scale. What is at stake for the future is not the election results of each one, but rather the convergences and the changes in mentalities that allow us to aspire for true transformation of the country in a context of global struggle against neoliberal capitalism and colonialism. May this path be viable.

Translated by NACLA.

Luis Fernando Coss has been a professor in the School of Communication at the University of Puerto Rico since 1987. He worked as a journalist for many years. He was director of Claridad, cofounder of the monthly Diálogo, coordinator of the series Periolibros, founder of the weekly Palique, and a special assistant to the president of the Corporación de Difusión Pública de Puerto Rico (Radio y Televisión).


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