Puerto Rico’s Crisis Could Break Its Two-Party System
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Just a day after Puerto Ricans forced their governor to resign, they were training their rage on new targets. Urged on through a drizzle by drums, whistles, and horns, they carried signs depicting politicians as pigs or behind bars with messages like “You’re next.” On the walls of San Juan’s colonial buildings they had spray-painted warnings to their new targets, including Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, next in line to be governor after several other cabinet secretaries resigned. “Ricky was first,” said Yaritza Santiago, a 22-year-old from the southern city of Ponce, referring to outgoing governor Ricardo Rosselló. “Now we need to clean the capital and the political system of all these corrupt people.”
Disenchanted voters around the world have created populist movements from France to Brazil to the U.K., and of course the U.S. mainland. Aroused and organized on the internet, they’ve weakened the institutions and parties that stabilized politics for much of the 20th century.
Few have as many reasons as Puerto Ricans to be furious at the status quo. The quarter of the island’s 3.2 million residents who are 21 or younger have lived most of their lives in a grinding recession that forced hundreds of thousands to migrate to the mainland. The U.S. commonwealth declared bankruptcy in May 2017, its economy brought down by an addiction to borrowing that at one point created a $74 billion debt. It now operates under a congressionally mandated fiscal oversight board, which has demanded austerity. Public services were so hollowed out by budget cuts that when Hurricane Maria hit a few months after the bankruptcy filing, there was little help for citizens. Federal aid was slow to arrive and given grudgingly by President Donald Trump, an aggravating echo of the island’s colonial status. At least 3,000 died.
Among the protesters’ chief demands in the weeks leading up to Rosselló’s July 24 resignation was an end to Promesa, the federal law that created the oversight board. The marathon financial crisis defines the new politics. “We’re fed up,” says Manuel Natal, a member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives and a political independent. “Fed up with the situation, with the corruption. And we think the only way to get the change Puerto Rico needs is by ending this corrupt two-party system we have.” Natal is among politicians organizing a new party, the Citizens Victory Movement, which plans to put up a slate of candidates in 2020. For now, the CVM is aiming to do as much damage to the two main parties as possible.
The question of whether to remain a commonwealth, seek statehood, or try for independence has long been the defining issue for voters. Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, founded in 1967, seeks statehood and controls the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature. The minority Popular Democratic Party helped get Puerto Rico commonwealth status and dominated politics for three decades after its 1938 founding. The parties are alike in their ability to engender patronage, graft, and bitter, Kremlinesque internecine conflict. In the wake of the protests, some politicians expressed hope that the vibrancy and flexibility of youth may be able to change a hidebound system. “Puerto Rico has just experienced a democratic revolution led by its young people,” says senate minority leader Eduardo Bhatia, 55. “I hope it lasts forever.”
Cracks have begun to appear in the two main parties’ foundations. Historically, around 95% of voters went for one of them, but in 2016, about 1 in 5 voted for other parties’ candidates for governor. “It showed people that these two political parties are not invincible,” says Alexandra Lugaro, 38, a lawyer. She ran as an independent in 2016 and finished third with 11%, the most for an unaffiliated candidate in more than four decades, then helped to found the Citizens Victory Movement this year. She says the new party has gathered most of the 50,000 signatures it needs to qualify for the ballot.
Lugaro says the island’s defining question—whether to remain as a commonwealth or pursue statehood—can be solved only after the financial crisis is over. “We need to regain our economic development so that we’re in the position to negotiate the question of status with the United States,” she says.
Rosselló, a fresh-faced biotech executive and graduate of MIT, enjoyed a golden boy reputation as he took office. But that didn’t help him as he made deep budget cuts in service of a debt restructuring. Then came the arrests of two of his former officials on graft charges and the leak of hundreds of pages of chats showing that he and his circle of advisers used homophobic, sexist, and disparaging language to refer to opponents and ordinary citizens.
“The chats and the new and blatant cases of corruption have been the limit for many,” says Pablo S. Torres Casillas, a Puerto Rican historian and university professor. “This is not because of what has just happened, but because of what has been going on for a long time in Puerto Rican society and how many Puerto Ricans do not see the traditional political parties as the vehicle to channel their political interests.” On July 28, five days before Rosselló had pledged to step down, Vázquez tweeted that she has “no interest in occupying the position of Governor,” throwing the question of succession into the air.
“Both the PNP and the PPD need to go,” says Angelina Stevcic, a 31-year-old professor of French at the University of Puerto Rico who attended the rally the day after Rosselló’s resignation with her mother. “We must demand the total dismantling of the corrupt system that governs us, start from scratch, and build a new country.” —With Michelle Kaske
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