A government for the Puerto Rican people?

November 26, 2012

In elections on November 6, Alejandro García Padilla, of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), defeated conservative incumbent Gov. Luis Fortuño, of the New Progressive Party (PNP), by about 13,000 votes. At the same time, in a nonbinding referendum, 61 percent of voters indicated that they would like Puerto Rico to become a U.S. state.

Paradoxically, it seemed that Puerto Ricans chose to toss out their pro-statehood governor while opting for "statehood" on the political status referendum. But as with much in the November elections, there was more to the results than met the eye. García Padilla campaigned for a "government for the people." But he is really committed, as was Fortuño, to a "government for the same old rich people."

Giovanni Roberto, a member of the Organización Socialista Internacional in Puerto Rico, analyzes the results of the elections and what they mean for the future.

IN PUERTO Rico's election for governor on November 6, Alejandro García Padilla defeated the pro-statehood conservative incumbent, Luis Fortuño, by casting himself as a lesser evil to Fortuño. "Vote for me to defeat Fortuño" was the core of Garcia Padilla's strategy. That made sense, given that Garcia Padilla isn't very charismatic and has shown that he isn't much of a leader either. But he had the support of important bourgeois newspapers like El Nuevo Día, which backed him from the beginning.

The PPD's strategy of taking advantage of the anti-Fortuño vote cut with public sentiment. Fortuño and his PNP government forced through an unpopular scheme of privatization of public services, and attacked labor and civil rights. In his first year, Fortuño fired 30,000 public-sector workers under Law 7.

Fortuño's government passed laws that encouraged more exploitation of workers and poor land use. It protected the cement industry and its developers on one hand, and made salary cuts on the other. In the Republican Party, Fortuño is admired as a Ronald Reagan (or Scott Walker)-type figure. The Wall Street Journal backed him and highlighted his support from Puerto Rico's bondholders.

Puerto Rico's governor-elect Alejandro García Padilla
Puerto Rico's governor-elect Alejandro García Padilla

Luis Fortuño was the perfect candidate for an economic class that kept getting richer during the recession, while peoples' living standards dropped, and public services declined.

The "same old, same old" plan

Although his party's positions are close to those of the Democratic Party in the U.S., García Padilla's electoral campaign could have been run by a Republican. In September, he clearly came out against same-sex marriage, arguing that, for him, marriage is "the union between a man and a woman." He didn't even support civil unions, although he said that all people should have the same rights. When it came to the LGBTTIQ community, there was no "lesser evil" between the PPD and the PNP.

On the issues of crime and domestic security, García Padilla's plan for the "intelligent use of the National Guard" was another way of promoting militarization of our shores and eventually our streets.

"Mano dura" (iron fist) policies, although they have gone under different names, have proven to be failures since the conservative governments of Govs. Pedro Roselló and Pedro Toledo launched them in the 1990s. Before becoming governor, Toledo had been Puerto Rico's superintendent of police, under both PPD and PNP administrations. In each incarnation of the bipartisan "mano dura," individuals' personal safety didn't improve. But the state increased its systems of surveillance and control, spent more money on police and stepped up its repression.

The PPD's economic plan advocates incentives and partnerships with the same industries that have been responsible for raiding public finances under Fortuño. This includes all of the same North American companies that benefit from the already existing tax exemptions to a tune of $35 billion a year.

In García Padilla's election campaign manifesto, he promises to be an effective administrator:

Our government will put forward a new institutionalized economy with clear, coherent and stable incentives that stimulate growth, and it will endorse the formation of trained human resources for the careers that the new economy will require. Through a renewed policy of science and technology for development and an effective link with the higher educational system, [the government] will encourage the development of productive linkages around the comparative advantages of our country.

We will strengthen the public instruments of financial aid for the early stages of private investment, improving and expanding programs high-tech business development, seed and venture capital. In the same manner, for more and better growth, Puerto Rico should strongly boost its existing small and medium-size companies (PYMES) as well as new ones, created by enterprises that, with new ideas and products, increase the competitiveness of the country. (my emphasis)

If this accurately describes his plans, then García Padilla will be an effective administrator of the same policies that Fortuño championed.

Incentives to business will increase the profits of multinational companies like Pfizer, Amgen and Microsoft, while undermining public finances. "Clear incentives" won't contribute to the public treasury, nor will they guarantee a good use of public resources. Moreover, we see that university education will be subservient to industry as an extension of the "productivity chain."

The PPD's transition team is composed of the same groups of businessmen, engineers and lawyers, some connected to past PPD administrations, that are now trying to preserve the policies of Fortuño's government without Fortuño. The PPD offers nothing new on economic policy.

The electoral results

For the first time in Puerto Rican history, six political parties competed in the governor's race. This included two newcomers, and the second appearance of Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico, or PPR. This reflected the underlying discontent with the dominant parties. But the final results, with the PPD and PNP nearly tying, underscored the continuity of the two-party system.

None of the emerging parties obtained results they expected. All of them drew under 1 percent of the vote. Not even the PIP (Puerto Rican Independence Party, the second-oldest party) was able to win re-recognition as a party, which requires parties to receive at least 5 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the PIP's candidate María de Lourdes Santiago won a position as senator.

The newest and most interesting organization was the Working People's Party (PPT in Spanish). The majority of its candidates were members of the socialist left. PPT's candidate for governor, University of Puerto Rico professor Rafael Bernabe, is recognized as a social activist and member of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS, in Spanish). MAS was a key component of the organizations that formed the PPT.

The PPT didn't take a position on Puerto Rico's political status, arguing that social justice is the most important issue. In the gubernatorial debates, Bernabe effectively forced the issues of marijuana decriminalization and same-sex marriage into public discussion.

The PPT aimed to win electoral registration, but it fell short of that goal, winning only 17,000 of the required 60,000 votes. Today, the PPT's social base is small. But it will bear watching to see what type of political organization it becomes in the future.

At this time, our political project, the Organización Socialista Internacional (OSI), is building among working-class youth in universities outside the traditional electoral process. We want to contribute to building a culture beyond the "electoral circus" that takes hold every two or four years. We want to help build a culture of struggle, organizing and self-determination.

There are many people who are interested in building an alternative politics from below, even if they vote at election time. That's why we are determined to build an organization that will fight around present and future struggles.

For the third straight national election, an increasing number of voters failed to turn up at the polls. This increase in electoral abstention reflects the disenchantment with the electoral system. Some radical left organizations, like OSI, publisher of Socialismo Internacional, and the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST) argued that abstaining from the elections offered the best way to reinforce a perspective of independent struggle and organization in the face of an expected four years of employer attackS.

Is Puerto Rico the 51st state?

The election result that raised the most questions inside and outside Puerto Rico is the 61 percent support for "U.S. statehood" in the political status referendum.

Although this was the fourth plebiscite on political status in the history of Puerto Rico (the others took place in 1967, 1993, 1998), it was the first that showed a majority for statehood. Statehood advocates argue that the referendum should pressure the U.S. Congress to discuss how to convert Puerto Rico into the 51st state. But reality suggests otherwise.

The plebiscite consisted of two different questions. The first asked if Puerto Ricans supported the current "commonwealth" status. The second asked what status they desired between statehood, independence and a "sovereign free associated state" (called ELA by its initials in Spanish). The ELA status is similar to the current "commonwealth" status, where Puerto Rico is essentially a U.S. colony, with limited self-rule, but whose residents are U.S. citizens.

Almost 54 percent of voters rejected Puerto Rico's current colonial status. But on the second question, if you count voters who left their ballots blank, only 45 percent favored U.S. statehood. About 24 percent voted for the ELA, while 4 percent favored independence.

This isn't the first time that the PNP, a pro-statehood party, had tried to construct an artificial majority in favor of statehood. In the 1998 plebiscite, the definition of ELA, written by the PNP, was rejected by the leaders of the PPD, who normally support the ELA status. In that case, the PPD was able to place on the ballot the alternative of "none of the above," which prevailed for more than half of the votes.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in his last visit to the island, promised that Congress would take action if the referendum showed a clear majority in favor of statehood. But most likely, Rutgers University Professor Yarimar Bonilla's assessment is correct. As Bonilla told ABC News: "Nothing will come of this process. There is no consensus. The population is divided. There is no way that Obama can say that the Puerto Rican people have spoken in one voice for a clear objective."

The situation is even more serious for supporters of independence for Puerto Rico. The traditional Puerto Rican Independence Party decades ago renounced the idea that independence would come from a process led by the Puerto Ricans themselves. Quite the opposite, the PIP proposes that independence will come through negotiations with the U.S. Congress once statehood is definitively rejected.

Using this strategy, the PIP has cooperated with the PNP in its attempts to forge a majority in favor of statehood. For the PIP, the important vote was the 54 percent against colonial status. The U.S., on the other hand, has given indications that it is willing to modify colonial relations with Puerto Rico.

For socialists, the question of national liberation is connected to economic liberation of the working classes in their struggle against capitalism and colonialism. We believe that the struggle for independence will grow stronger when the struggle for socialism grows stronger.

Independence will be seen as possible when the majority of the working class identifies in independence the only way of guaranteeing a state of all oppressed sectors. In any case, the solution of the colonial problem should be an issue for the Puerto Rican people, not for the U.S. Congress.

Alejandro García Padilla's government and the PPD will face the worst economic crisis in Puerto Rico's history.

With more than half of the population living under the poverty line and with crime increasing, the situation could be very unstable for the new government. Very few trust that the PPD administration will be able to pull Puerto Rico away from its dependence on the world economy and the lack of jobs. In the last decade, almost half a million Puerto Ricans left the island, while the birth rate has declined as well. Today, more Puerto Ricans live in the U.S. than in Puerto Rico.

The radical left faces the challenge of offering an alternative of struggle, organization and power. During the next four years, we must challenge the idea that we're all responsible of the crisis. On the contrary, large companies, bankers and bondholders created the crisis. The rich must pay. We must also challenge the notion that the PPD government will help to increase the independence of the working class and popular sectors.

Lastly, it will be essential to strengthen social, labor and political organizations to lay the foundations of a real political alternative for the working class on the island.

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