Voters shaken by political upheaval and crises in Puerto Rico face crucial election

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Bryant Guardado joined more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans who demonstrated in the largest demonstration on U.S. soil in recent history to oust Governor Ricardo Rosselló last year following a political scandal involving him and a dozen members of his cabinet.

“It was the first time I saw an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans motivated to stand up for what’s right,” Guardado, 28, said in Spanish. “We’ve all seen this kind of awakening, but there is also a concern when it comes to voting. Will these actions translate into votes? “

On Tuesday, almost a year and a half after Rosselló’s resignation, voters on the island will elect a new governor, along with local lawmakers and mayors who will work to resolve the aggravating crises that have built up in Puerto Rico in recent years. time. years. Because Puerto Rico is not a state, islanders do not vote for the president.

The island continues to recover from Hurricane Maria – the deadliest natural disaster in the United States in 100 years, which killed at least 2,975 people in 2017 – while struggling to get out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

A man passes houses destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Cataño, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017.Hector Retamal / AFP – Getty Images File

Mass protests “unleashed pent-up frustration, anger and powerlessness” over a declining recession and botched hurricane response, said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, political scientist at the Center for Puerto Rico Studies at Hunter College from New York.

At the same time, the protests made voters more critical of the partisan lines that have deeply divided the Puerto Rican electorate for more than five decades. Most of the islanders supported the pro-state New Progressive Party or the People’s Democratic Party, which supports the island’s current Commonwealth status. A smaller percentage of “separatists” support the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which advocates the island’s independence from the United States.

Before historic events, the warning signs

The same frustration and desperation that effectively destroyed Rosselló first manifested itself in 2016, when Puerto Rico recorded a record voter turnout of 55% – an unusual milestone for an island known for a high turnout. from 73 to 89%.

The low turnout was fueled in part by “an extraordinary lack of confidence in Puerto Rican government institutions” which has made voters on all sides feel disenfranchised over the past decade, Vargas said. Ramos. Islanders are grappling with the biggest financial crisis in Puerto Rican history after accumulating an estimated $ 72 billion in public debt – with no way to legally declare bankruptcy, unlike other U.S. jurisdictions.

People wave Puerto Rican flags at a rally to celebrate the resignation of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan in July 2019.Dossier Marco Bello / Reuters

As a result, Congress passed the PROMESA Act in 2016 to create a federally appointed fiscal council to allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debt, a move that resulted in tough austerity measures that escalated tensions and frustration with government and parties.

Distrust led to a wave of independent candidates for governor in 2016. After their unsuccessful offers, many of them came together last year to organize new political parties, such as the functioning Citizens’ Victory Movement. on an anti-colonial ideology, and Project Dignity, which promotes Christian democracy.

Given the protests and the new parties, Vargas-Ramos said he believed “maybe these will spur greater participation in the electorate.” But 2020 has started sadly for many Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico was hit by numerous severe earthquakes that destroyed hundreds of homes, schools and small businesses in January, followed by more than 9800 tremors. Two months later, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Coronavirus-related closures have resulted in widespread unemployment and food insecurity and a poor-quality transition to distance learning.

A house collapsed after an earthquake in Guanica, Puerto Rico on January 7.Reuters Television

But failures in the local government’s response to the earthquakes and pandemic could trigger the same dismay that led to low voter turnout in 2016, Vargas-Ramos said, although there were some caveats. A new electoral law that expanded early voting on the island and a scheduled state-building plebiscite could help boost voter turnout in governorate elections.

Voters make their choices

Savvy and energetic 85-year-old Iraida Quiñones still remembers the day in 1952 when Luis Muñoz Marín officially declared the formation of the People’s Democratic Party, which supports Puerto Rico’s current status as a Commonwealth or American territory.

“I even have a photo, in the office next to me, of Muñoz Marín announcing the ‘Estado Libre Association of Puerto Rico’,” Quiñones said in Spanish, referring to the official name of the Commonwealth government.

Quiñones is one of the thousands of Puerto Ricans who voted early. While admitting that she was considering voting for Juan Dalmau, the candidate for governor of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, “because I thought he had some really good ideas,” she said she didn’t was not sure this was his best way to overthrow the power. party, which is currently in power.

A man carries a statue of St. Jude from the ruins of the Inmaculada Concepción Church after it collapsed in an earthquake in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, Jan. 7.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP – Getty Images

“I think the People’s Democratic Party is the only one that can bring down the New Progressive Party. I don’t think we can endure four more years of corruption and instability that it brings, ”said Quiñones, who voted for the People’s Democratic Party. Candidate of the Carlos “Charlie” Delgado party.

But loyal New Progressive Party voters like Miguel Hernández, 47, are ready to go to the polls on Tuesday to help preserve their status in power and vote ‘yes’ in the state referendum, which directly asks voters whether Puerto Rico must be immediately admitted to the union as a state. Voters can answer “Yes” or “No”.

But the reputation of the New Progressive Party has been tainted by failures in disaster responses that sparked an “institutional crisis” after Rosselló, who was a pro-state governor, resigned following his private chat scandal, Vargas-Ramos said.

Ricardo Rosselló, then governor of Puerto Rico, at a press conference in San Juan in July 2019.Carlos Giusti / AP File

Hernández, a former housing secretary on the island who is pro-state, said he believed the party had gone to great lengths to tell voters that the actions of some state leaders did not reflect not the values ​​of the whole party. He will vote for New Progressive Party candidate Pedro Pierluisi, who defeated Acting Governor Wanda Vázquez in the primaries.

But her two children are not so convinced.

Her 20-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, who will vote for the first time on Tuesday, wonder if they should vote along the old traditional lines.

“What they’re really wondering is what is the best way to use their vote to break down the deep partisan divide that persists between the New Progressive Party and the People’s Democratic Party,” Hernandez said in Spanish.

For young voters like Guardado, that means supporting new emerging candidates, so he’s ready to vote for Alexandra Lúgaro, 39, of the Citizens Victory Movement, he said.

“But really, the most important thing in this election is for voters to demonstrate that we are not voting blindly to support an ideology that parties have been touting for decades – and haven’t done anything,” Guardado said. “We need to vote for candidates who seek to solve problems in a way that could immediately improve our lives. “

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