What’s Left in Puerto Rico?

Progressive forces in Puerto Rico must link social justice to national determination if they want to lead the island out of precarity.

San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz on September 30, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

At the founding general assembly of Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party (PDP) in July 1940, Luis Muñoz Marín made a momentous decision. Long an advocate for independence from the United States, Muñoz also recognized that many rural poor viewed the PDP’s position on the island’s political status suspiciously. In a party meeting just days earlier, a militant asked him how the party would demand independence if it won the elections. Muñoz answered: “Political status is not an issue in these elections. The votes for the party will not be counted in favor or against any political status.”

The militant turned away, disheartened — a feeling the then-senator shared: “And I, still an independentista [pro-independence advocate], understood the desolation in his spirit,” he recounted in his autobiography. But this offhand remark would soon turn into party dogma. Muñoz had found the slogan at the heart of his upcoming senatorial campaign, one he repeated thousands of times: “Status is not at issue.”

At the time, many of Muñoz’s colleagues condemned his remark. While his counterparts in the PDP leadership understood the electoral considerations that motivated his pragmatic turn — independence remained an unpopular, even terrifying, prospect for the peasantry in Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior — many were unconvinced.

Vicente Géigel Polanco was a key skeptic. He did not want to leave the future of Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States to a referendum called only on that issue. Heartbroken by Muñoz’s statement, he denounced the senator for abandoning the cause of independence. Though their schism was briefly overcome — Muñoz chose Géigel Polanco as attorney general in his first cabinet as governor in 1948 — they eventually split over a disagreement about how to deal with those responsible for the failed nationalist uprising of October 1950.

Indeed, the divisions within the PDP would persist, even if they were long overshadowed by the force of personality and three-decade-long electoral successes engendered by Muñoz’s leadership. Today, this historic split is crucial to understanding the Puerto Rican political panorama and the emergence of its rising star, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

Unexpected Questions

Yulín Cruz became an overnight sensation in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. For Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, she represented the defiant face of the island, unwilling to keep quiet amid the unfolding disaster. To mainland Democrats, she offered a bat with which to beat President Trump. She stood in stark contrast to Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who, unwilling to condemn the leader of the country he wants to join, could only beg for more help.

Few on the island, bereft of electricity as they were, could witness Yulín Cruz’s astute use of the media in her defense of the Puerto Rican people. But her fiery statements placed her in an unexpected spotlight. Within a matter of days she was ceremoniously parodied on Saturday Night Live and appeared on Colbert’s Late Show and Meet the Press.

Americans unaccustomed to seeing such a stirring Puerto Rican presence on their televisions had to consider this unincorporated territory. What to make of this island of American citizens we are told to care about? What is the nature of its relationship to the United States?

Others, familiar with the island’s history, began to wonder: how can the island move forward? How can its colonial relationship be re-thought in conjunction with allies in the fifty states? Most crucially, what does it mean to be “left” in the Puerto Rican context?

The answer to this question should be straightforward. Left-wing currents in Puerto Rico share many demands with their counterparts across the world: they demand free education, quality health care, progressive taxation, collective bargaining, food sovereignty, incentives for local industry, initiatives to slow or reverse climate change, and, eventually, the end of capitalism and patriarchy as we know it.

Yet the national question hovers over Puerto Rican politics like a behemoth. It fractures the Left in a series of opposing and disconnected camps. Too often, class politics is sacrificed at the altar of nationalist purity.

Echoes of the Past

Muñoz’s critics often forget the second half of his electoral slogan: “lo que está en issue es la miseria y pobreza en la que vive el puertorriqueño.” That is, “Puerto Rico’s status is not at issue; what is at stake is the poverty and misery in which Puerto Ricans continue to live.”

By prioritizing social justice over political status, Muñoz sought to build an electoral coalition that would include both the island’s small middle class and the urban and rural poor, ending the decades-long hegemony of American absentee landlords and conservative Puerto Rican sugar barons, who bought the jíbaros’ votes and maintained an economic system premised on their exploitation.

In this respect, Muñoz’s electoral calculus resembled the one Antonio Gramsci proposed in “Some Aspects of the Southern Question.” In order to overturn the existing order, Gramsci called on the Italian Communist Party to gather all oppositional forces within the country. He described a tactical system of “class alliances” that would unite the urban proletariat in the north with the southern peasantry against the retrograde state. Not unlike in Puerto Rico, Gramsci’s strategy entailed winning over the rural poor and the petite bourgeoisie while countering the influence of the church and conservative thinkers.

This is why the jíbaros mattered so much to Muñoz’s project. Without their conversion to the cause of social justice, their lives and the country’s politics would remain subject to the intermediaries and overseers of American imperialism. Absent such alliances, they, like the southern peasantry Gramsci examined, would remain mired in a web of annexationist and conservative ideologues with no glimmer of intellectual light, “no program, no urge towards betterment and progress.”

When the votes came in on November 5, 1940, confirming the PDP’s slim victory, Muñoz believed the days of vote-buying and corporate control had ended. In his autobiography he wrote, “We ourselves felt, and the people felt, that as a party we had defeated not only the rival parties, but an entire epoch.” All credit belonged to the peasantry, as “the faith in democracy of those jíbaros had moved the mountains of Puerto Rico.”

Condemning Independence

After eight years as president of the Puerto Rican Senate, Muñoz finally convinced the US Congress to authorize elections and allow Puerto Ricans to choose their own executive branch. He soon became the island’s first elected governor.

Despite the growth achieved during Muñoz’s tenure (1949–1965), he left a disheartening legacy. Aware that the majority of the island’s inhabitants still felt they lived in a colony, Muñoz sought to recreate the island’s relationship with the United States.

A year into Muñoz’s first term, Congress allowed Puerto Ricans to write their own constitution. Of course, the United States would dictate the parameters of this document, which had to be ratified by the president and Congress, regardless of what Puerto Ricans decided. The new constitution, introduced July 25, 1952, made Puerto Rico a Free Associated State (ELA). This new political status was not only a contradiction in terms, it also set the island down a problematic development path.

From the outset, Muñoz counted on the United States’ political and economic investment to bolster living conditions. He pushed toward industrialization in hopes of replacing seasonal agricultural jobs with formal employment in factories and enterprise. He hoped federal assistance would convince his constituents that the evils of capitalism were best combatted through growth and New Deal–style redistribution rather than full-scale revolution.

And for many years, Congress obliged, offering tax exemptions to companies that opened manufacturing operations on the island as well as welfare benefits to the Puerto Rican poor. American citizenship became a migratory lifeline to those unable to find work, displacements that made the United States’ colonial rule all the easier.

The productivist underpinnings of Muñoz’s approach are easy to condemn in hindsight. For one, Puerto Rican agriculture would never recover from the influx of cheap American imports and the industrial push. But at the time, most socialist republics embraced industrialization; few countries put questions of environmental justice on their political agendas.

More poisonous in the long run was Muñoz’s turn away from independence, leaving behind the struggle for national self-determination and divorcing it from the economic difficulties that would inevitably confront the island. This decision not only postponed discussions over the country’s paradoxical political status, but it also condemned — in conjunction with several bouts of state repression — pro-independence elements to near invisibility.

Muñoz was invested in Puerto Rico’s new political relationship with the United States, so he needed to defend that agreement’s fundamental pillars. These were not social justice, the redistribution of wealth, or workers’ rights. Though these goals appeared in the constitution, they were easily ignored — as the past decades have repeatedly shown.

Rather, legitimizing the ELA required a boisterous defense of American citizenship and permanent union with the United States. Cultured and intelligent, Muñoz could easily satisfy the educated class while calming the rebellious poor. He ensured that answers to “the Puerto Rican question” did not go beyond certain limits, did not become revolutionary. But rebellion might have been necessary, as American benevolence was far from guaranteed.

Today, the pro-American view has become hegemonic. The need for a permanent union with the United States, whatever its form, is now common sense, secured thanks to the diffusion and popularization of the elites’ worldview. This is the dark side of Muñoz’s legacy — his unwillingness to condemn American empire, his preference for ever-closer union.

As the PDP transitioned from a social movement to a party of government, the impetus behind Muñoz’s embrace of a more pragmatic stance to the island’s relationship with the United States was lost. Today, the party is haunted by his legacy, unable to overcome the mental shackles imposed by Puerto Rico’s colonial status,  which many resent, but few are willing to fully disavow.

The Electoral Conundrum

For the past twenty years, the PDP has been divided into two groups: those who favor permanent union with the United States, whatever the circumstances, and the soberanistas or libre asociacionistas, who seek more autonomy.

The first group still controls the party. Its members defend the status quo by threatening left-wing currents with an electoral landslide: islanders are not ready to contemplate increased autonomy, they proclaim, so running a soberanista candidate would guarantee defeat.

The unionists’ vision for Puerto Rico is as unimaginative as it sounds. They believe that permanent union with the United States is the inalienable pillar of Puerto Rican politics. Much like the pro-statehood party, they can do little more than lobby Congress in hopes of winning more support for Puerto Rico’s economy. Wait and see; pressure and hope. In brief, a recipe for more of the same.

The pro-independence movement, a potential hub of emancipatory politics, is equally bereft of ideas, enthusiasm, and movement-building praxis. While strong among students, intellectuals, and certain trade unions, the independentistas remain a divided and substandard electoral force.

The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), which militants formed in 1946 after being expelled from the PDP, shoulders much of the blame for this state of affairs. Resistant to change and diversity, an octogenarian group of male lawyers control the party. They reject alliances with social movements and other parties, including the Working People’s Party of Puerto Rico (PPT), which was established in order to combat the PIP’s inability to organize the island’s most disenfranchised sectors.

For fifty-six years, the PIP has been unable or unwilling to reconstruct the mass electoral base it had in the 1950s. Confident that it was on the right side of history, it neglected elections and the need to build popular support. The party received just 2.13 percent of votes in the 2016 gubernatorial election.

The pro-statehood party would be ripe for playful derision if not for its electoral clout. Combining an odd amalgam of bankers, developers, ruthless free marketeers, religious fundamentalists, centrist Democrats, and populist ideologues, the ironically styled New Progressive Party (NPP) has taken clientelist politics to impressive heights. It has no clear position on anything except winning elections and joining the United States — an effort recently disowned by Senator Marco Rubio, who cited the rather obvious lack of congressional support.

Nevertheless, party elites continue to promise the poor and working classes, especially in the rural towns that now form the NPP’s electoral base, that utopia will arrive as soon as Puerto Rico joins the American union — a prospect that excites few in Washington and probably fewer in the American heartlands.

For many in the local bourgeoisie, the other crucial component of the NPP’s electoral base, the party’s appeal is more obvious. Governor Ricardo Rosselló made clear in his campaign and his first year as governor that he wants to impose the most misdirected forms of austerity on the island. Just this January, he proposed privatizing Puerto Rico’s electricity company when a third of the island’s residents still lack power. Surely, he insists, the private sector will have the population’s best interests at heart. Disaster capitalism at its best.

Rosselló made his neoliberal agenda even clearer in the economic plan he submitted to the Financial Oversight and Management Board, the technocratic overlords nominated by the Obama administration and sent by Congress to ensure Puerto Rico pays its debt. The plan predicts the departure of another two hundred thousand Puerto Ricans for the United States and endorses closing over three hundred public schools and cutting $303 million from the education budget. The whole scheme rests on the rather optimistic assumption that FEMA and private insurers will deliver $35.3 billion and $21.9 billion, respectively.

Despite these cuts, Rosselló still foresees a funding gap of $3.4 billion through 2022, even without paying a dime to bondholders — a position that will not hold if federal courts overturn the island’s bankruptcy filing.

Rosselló’s plan is as absurd as it is disastrous. It contains no vision for the island’s development and, worse, demonstrates an active yearning to privatize, dismantle, and cut those services most crucial to the poor and disenfranchised. The party’s more populist elements have raised token resistance but offer no alternative. To the chagrin of many, the PDP remains the only electoral force capable of dethroning the NPP and its government’s clumsy attempts at austerity.

What Is to Be Done?

In the long term, the Puerto Rican left must build a political movement that represents and mobilizes the island’s working and subaltern classes, a movement unconnected to the political elites and crony capitalists who now sit at the apex of Puerto Rican politics. Electoral reform is also a worthwhile cause. The current system disproportionately benefits the two major parties, making independent candidacies and new parties impossible undertakings.

In the short term, however, the mayor of San Juan offers the only tangible hope for a decade not filled with rapacious cuts to public expenditure, increasing inequality, and the reconstruction of the island for the few rather than the many.

But Yulín Cruz is suspicious of her own party. Many believe that she is considering an independent bid for governor, as she has repeatedly stated her disenchantment with the PDP’s outmoded doctrines and unimaginative leaders. She rightly worries that the party is incapable of implementing any sort of structural change to the island’s political status or development model.

The PDP’s leaders continue to cling to the erroneous premise that Puerto Rico’s colonial status is not at issue. They prohibit dialogue among party members that could offer an innovative solution to the status quo, and they ban alliances with pro-independence and left-wing forces — the very coalitions Yulín Cruz employed in her two successful campaigns for mayor.

But she must resist the temptation to abandon the PDP. An independent run would fracture the votes of non-statehooders and guarantee Rosselló’s triumph. Instead, she must remake the party in her image.

She would be wise to take a page out of Jeremy Corbyn’s playbook. She should foment the type of grassroots movement that has kept Corbyn at the head of the Labour Party. Momentum, formed briefly after Corbyn’s primary victory, offers one model. She should mobilize supporters in an independent organization, then fill the PDP with allied cadres and push the party to the left. Ensure that those who seek to maintain the party’s cozy ties with banks and corporate power do not get selected in primaries and build alliances with trade unions, activist groups, and pro-independence factions willing to support a democratic socialist agenda. Though Yulín Cruz has yet to take on this formidable task, she has built similar alliances in her local campaigns.

She can also learn from Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign. She must translate complex political ideas into an easily digestible platform. Corbyn called for free university education, quality health care, massive government investment in the economy, and cheaper rents. Sanders advocated for an increased minimum wage, job growth, higher taxes on corporations, and electoral reform. Yulín Cruz should do the same, while opposing each and every privatization the conservative governor proposes, all of which seek to strip the Puerto Rican people of what little wealth remains in its hands.

Second, Yulín Cruz must make the party’s stand on Puerto Rico’s onerous debt clear. The slogan is there, and Eva Prados, head of the Citizens’ Front for an Audit of the Debt, has widely proclaimed it: “the debt is usurious and we will not pay it (la deuda es usurera y no vamos a pagarla).”

The governor refuses to audit this debt, the one Puerto Ricans assumed was incurred to improve their collective well-being but was created instead to enrich the very same banks and bankers who now sit on the Financial Oversight and Management Board.

Yulín Cruz must denounce the debt on normative and political grounds. It is unjust and unfair. Then threaten default, the nuclear option left unexplored by the Syriza-led Greek government in its negotiations with the European Central Bank. Otherwise, Puerto Rico will be driven to a humiliating compromise without ever having deployed a true deterrent. The results of the supplicatory approach taken until now are clear for all to see.

Third, develop a compelling vision for the island’s future. Though it fostered dependency, Puerto Rico’s capitalist model also created growth. The island was still poor compared to the United States, but poverty was going down. Corruption and exploitation existed next to an improving quality of life. In the last decade, these few benefits have disappeared.

Yulín Cruz must offer a dramatic alternative to the current model of development. She should promote local reinvestment of wealth generated and declared on the island — amounting to nearly $35 billion a year, largely tax-exempt — impose higher taxes on foreign companies, incentivize investment premised on job creation, and lobby Congress for reconstruction funds. These measures may not ultimately save us, but they may open our imaginations to a different set of possibilities.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Yulín Cruz must connect these demands to the island’s political status. Almost half (45 percent) of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, as do 56 percent of its children. The official unemployment rate sits at 12 percent, while real unemployment is higher still. More than fifty thousand residents left this year for the mainland.

As long as Puerto Rico remains an unincorporated territory of the United States, subject to the powers of Congress, it cannot escape the Financial Oversight and Management Board’s strictures or its debt restructuring plan, which will only exacerbate the current situation. The mayor of San Juan must make the need for an end to the island’s colonial relationship clear, its connection to the precarious situation local residents endure unimpeachable.

What is left? To link the colonial relationship to economic subjugation, class rule to inequality, debt restructuring to eternal rounds of austerity, neoliberal capitalism to social injustice. To offer a path forward powered by a commitment to social, economic, and environmental justice.

In this we share much with allies in the United States, with whom we must link our demands, explaining why Puerto Rico’s decolonization should form part of their plans. Solidarity must emerge from this shared agenda, a collective struggle against the strictures of capitalism and iterations of empire that oppress us all.

A New World

Much like the Italian south, we can characterize Puerto Rico as an area of extreme social disintegration. The vast majority of the population, consisting of the working class and lumpen proletariat, have no cohesion. Unionized workers are in perpetual ferment, but they cannot give unified expression to their aspirations and needs. Much of the rural poor remains unconvinced that anything but statehood can resolve their precarity.

For Yulín Cruz to unite these groups, she must devise a new mode of politics, one that can mobilize the working class and marginalized populations against neoliberalism and the bourgeois-led colony. Transformations in the masses’ economic circumstances help change their minds. But political parties — and their leaders — Gramsci reminds us, interpret those circumstances.

The task is neither easy nor straightforward. The old world is dying, and a new one struggles to be born. Optimism of the will is running low.