On December 10, more than 4,000 people filled the main hall at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP)’s annual general assembly, with thousands more attending virtually. A latent sense of hope filled the air. Kicking off with two hours of pro-independence protest songs performed by musicians and artists from across the nation, the event’s main purpose was the ratification of the party’s 2024 electoral candidates.
“We have to lead with truth, with the message that we the government want to return to the people the dignity they deserve,” said Juan Dalmau, making a heartfelt case for ratifying his political program. “And that government is the Patria Nueva.” Dalmau, Puerto Rico’s most visible political figure, received support from the assembly to run for governor in the November 2024 election.
The 2023 assembly represented a change in the PIP’s strategy compared to previous electoral exercises: for the first time in Puerto Rican history, the PIP set aside its ideological differences with other sectors of the nation’s progressive left to form an electoral alliance with the Citizens Victory Movement (MVC), a relatively new left-wing/progressive coalition. La Alianza—as the alliance, ratified by the assembly, is known—seeks to overcome the ills of the colonial duopoly rule by which the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and the pro-status quo Popular Democratic Party (PPD) have historically shared power. La Alianza’s eventual horizon, however, is much greater: both parties seek the nation’s eventual decolonization.
In this sense, the assembly and La Alianza represent an unprecedented independentista unity behind an electoral strategy. As Puerto Rican journalist Benjamin Torres Gotay put it, “The PIP has never before been seen trying to measure forces with the PNP and the PPD in an assembly.” This strategic change—while years in the making—came after the PIP received unprecedented support in the 2020 election, winning roughly 14 percent of the vote for governor—up from the party’s usual 2 to 4 percent of the vote in recent decades. The MVC also received a little over 14 percent in the race.
The PIP’s and MVC’s 2020 results came at the expense of the pro-imperialist PNP and PPD, which finished with an embarrassing 33 percent and 32 percent, respectively. For Puerto Ricans fed up with the status quo, these results represented an opportunity. The PIP and MVC began to negotiate a series of internal agreements to support a slate of each other’s candidates in the 2024 election. Specifically, La Alianza now includes agreements made around eight mayoral candidates (PIP/MVC divided equally), one governor candidate (PIP), one resident commissioner candidate (MVC), and various legislators in both parties.
There are few moments in history when Puerto Rico’s independence movement has represented a serious threat to the nation’s colonial establishment. More than just a change in electoral strategy, the events surrounding the PIP assembly marked a turning point. As the naked interests of U.S. imperialism have become more evident, the conditions for political unity were forged. How did La Alianza come about and where is it going? In short, this coalition is the product of the experiences anti-colonial movements have long endured under the brunt of U.S. imperialism.
Repertoires of Repression under U.S. Imperial Rule
Upon the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, which ceded the archipelago to the United States as war booty in the Spanish-American war, Puerto Rico became the subject of a series of colonial arrangements. While sanctioned by the U.S. Congress and its subservient institutions, these arrangements are defined primarily by Puerto Rico’s productive activities and the corresponding economic interests they represent. Broadly, these interests include Puerto Rico’s agroindustrial sugar exports to the United States (1900s-1930s); its light and eventually high-tech industrial goods and service exports to the United States (1940s-1980s); the captive market the nation represents for US imports (1920-present); and the archipelago’s role as a tax haven for high-net-worth individuals (2000s-present).
These activities produced economic booms that provided opportunities for the U.S. government to showcase its imperialist “benevolence.” But they have also been accompanied by the creation of colonial institutions that have coerced, repressed, and coopted anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements to the point of political irrelevance. This dynamic has ensured the continuation of economic output by way of subservience to U.S. and local colonial authorities in times of bust. Yet, during such economic busts, the most vulnerable often flee economic ills, draining the nation of anti-imperialist support through out-migration.
At the local level, over most of Puerto Rico's 125-year colonial rule, naked coercion reinforcing the U.S. imperialist threat of force has included the open aggression of the FBI and the Puerto Rican police forces toward independence and anti-imperialist movements, including through blacklisting. Similarly, the colonial political elites’ use of clientelism and “corruption”—providing pro-colonial cronies with preferential employment and contracts in exchange for votes—represents forms of coercion and cooptation modeled after an imported brand of U.S. pragmatism. While also present in sovereign nations, these coercive repertoires have become the heartbeat of Puerto Rican politics, particularly under the bipartisan pro-colonial governance by which the PNP and PPD maintain their grip on power.
Against this backdrop, Puerto Rican anti-colonial movements have struggled to develop politics around the grievances of workers, peasants, small businesspeople, and other traditionally aggrieved groups. This reality has undercut these movements’ ability to make longstanding sustainable political alliances across movements and social classes, despite some notable exceptions. One of the more unfortunate consequences of these obstacles is how different pro-independence, progressive, and socialist movements have subsumed themselves in a myriad of popular, yet easily cooptable political strategies. This tendency is often associated with groups like the MVC, which has focused on the broad material grievances of Puerto Ricans rather than taking more direct stances against imperialism.
Alternatively, other groups, such as the PIP, have opted to “carry the flame of independence forward” for new generations, as stated by PIP strategist Fernando Martín. In other words, they make independence the central grievance of their political movement, despite this position’s severe lack of popularity at the ballot box to date. While these differences still permeate Puerto Rican society, the unsustainability of the nation’s colonial relationship with the United States— coupled with a series of economic catalysts induced by neoliberal austerity, Washington’s deadly mismanagement of natural disasters, and innumerable corruption scandals at the highest echelons of the PNP and PPD—has compelled the PIP and the MVC to partake in a shared strategy that places these differences aside in service of a more immediate shared goal: uprooting the bipartisan pro-colonial stranglehold over Puerto Rico’s government.
La Alianza: Tactics, Strategies, and Subjects
La Alianza differs from other political coalitions in sovereign nations for various reasons. First, it recognizes that Puerto Rico’s colonial “status” must be resolved via more democratic processes than the ones provided by the PNP and PPD, both of which have historically wielded plebiscites and referendums to rubber stamp a relationship that is imposed by U.S. Congress. La Alianza is also different from other left-wing coalitions in that both parties, the PIP and the MVC, must support each other’s candidates without the legal scaffolding of a coalition, as Puerto Rico’s electoral law—written by the PNP/PPD duopoly—does not allow for parties to run as coalitions. To these ends, both parties must run shadow candidates that they want constituents to vote against. Despite these differences, like left-wing and progressive coalitions elsewhere, La Alianza has been able to garner support from broad sectors of Puerto Rican society.
“The colonial world,” as Frantz Fanon once said, “is a compartmentalized world,” where economic output, the interests it represents, and the violence that enforces separation often impede political change. Challenges to colonial rule require that the shared interests of different social subjects be entertained and instrumentalized against the empire. In this sense, anti-colonial movements’ capacity to enact change is often impeded by separations inherent to colonialism’s structures. Both the PIP and the MVC have pursued different strategies to break down the barriers of colonial compartmentalization, garnering the support of different, yet complementary support bases that are shaping the candidacies and expectations of La Alianza.
For the PIP, much of its support base among independentistas from across the political spectrum is a product of the party’s longstanding strategy of maintaining independence as its primary political goal. In the PIP’s ranks is a social democratic majority with formidable socialist and liberal minorities. It also garners the support of people from other independentista movements that took refuge in the party during times of stringent Cold War-era repression against militant groups such as the Nationalist Party, among others. The PIP’s proposal for an economic model that isn’t dependent on the brazen exploitation of the nation’s natural and human resources has also won it the support of independent unions, such as the teachers' federation; environmentalist groups; and a variety of marginalized communities, all of which benefit from the PIP’s support of anti-neoliberal grievances by way of legislation and direct action.
The PIP’s democratic outlook and utmost defense of human rights have also helped it win the support of much of the LGBTQI+ community, as well as the steadfast support of much of Puerto Rico’s diaspora, which largely considers itself a victim of displacement. This has helped the party develop a “PIPiolo” cultural identity that has worked to maintain political cohesion, a reality that translates into a formidable electoral machinery. The party’s clean financial record, anti-corruption stances, and longstanding trajectory of fiscal scrutiny over government waste also have helped it win the support of a growing anti-corruption political identity. Despite these virtues, the PIP’s strengths also underscore its shortcomings, as it has only recently begun to seriously break into mainstream politics following the Cold War stigmatization of independentistas.
For its part, the MVC draws much support from its ability to appeal to people’s raw material grievances. Built primarily on the socialist outlook of many of its founding members, the MVC has attempted to channel Puerto Rico’s large working majorities by speaking to their economic grievances amid the neoliberal decay of societal protections under colonial rule. This political approach is also made possible by its attention to widely shared grievances about corruption and displacement. Keeping their ear to the ground constantly has also helped the MVC gain the support of other groups traditionally excluded from Puerto Rican politics and, in the process, put the issues of racial and gender-based exclusion at the center of their campaign.
In this sense, the MVC represents a wide variety of people who share a common goal of deepening democracy and defending human rights. These stances have lent the MVC much legitimacy in its short tenure in electoral politics. Yet, unlike the PIP, the MVC’s shortcomings are defined primarily by its programmatic unwillingness to support one particular status position—a reality that has also brought the party the public support of some pro-imperialist and pro-statehood elements in Puerto Rican society, despite the independentista majority among their rank-and-file members.
In this sense, the electoral strength of La Alianza lies in its ability to speak to broad sectors of Puerto Rican civil society. It also represents a threat to the pro-colonial Puerto Rican political caste in that it will likely supplant them with largely anti-colonial politicians at the local level. However, the real success of this alliance sits not in its capacity to win the elections, but rather in its ability to transform the nation’s politics in service of decolonization. In other words, it is through its ability to change the imperialist, colonial paradigms that hold the Puerto Rican nation hostage that the alliance may yield real changes.
Jenaro Abraham is a professor of Latin American Politics at Gonzaga University, the vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party in the Diaspora (DPIP), and a collaborator with Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR). His research focuses primarily on social movements, politics, and insurgencies in Latin America and the Caribbean.