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Dire Straits in the Caribbean

Approaching the Conundrum That is Puerto Rico

by MANUEL S. ALMEIDA

Let us not exaggerate too much: Puerto Rico – that territory or colonial possession of the United States (which has never been of the classical type under American hegemony) in these times of self-fashioned post-colonialism, that Caribbean island which poses now as the smallest of the Greater Antilles, now as the largest of the Lesser ones – might seem a historical anomaly to some. But anomaly might be too strong a word. Instead, the island might be approached as a symptom of some of the most unfortunate dynamics of modern human history that include classical modern colonialism, hegemonic colonialism (alive and kicking), economic and productive underdevelopment within the scheme of the the global expansion of Capitalism, a key point of transit for peoples, capital, and drug trafficking, a paradise for crime, etcetera, etcetera. These are all dynamics that operate in transversal fashion all around the globe and that encompass, though in a differential manner, all countries and territories.

This very brief piece is, of course, not intended to be a comprehensive history of the island. What we do intend is to provide a general picture or tentative radiography of the present state of things in Puerto Rico. We want to emphasize some of the island’s most pressing problems so as to provide an entryway that permits, first, a very basic understanding of the present situation and, second, as building blocks for further reflections and interventions regarding Puerto Rico.

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Puerto Rico’s present predicament is so dire and critical, that it has transcended the usual local debates and coverage, and has been commented on recently in different newspapers and magazines around the globe, including the Economist, and just a few days ago the The Washington Post. Puerto Rico is under an economic recession going on for eight years— recession of an economy that has never been very productive anyway in terms of establishing a strong basis for local linkages, sustainable development, major employment, or proper nourishment to the public finances (and thus to adequate public spending). Of course, all of this happens at the same time that multi-national corporations continue to extract over 34 billion dollars in profits every year.

Dire straits indeed: Puerto Rico has as an official figure of unemployment around 15 percent of the population, massive public debt (around $70 billion), billions and billions of dollars in unfunded public obligations, about a third of the population dependent of government aid, rampant criminality, unbelievably high rates of mental illness, drug abuse, and other conditions, among them, migration to the mainland has continually intensified in the last decade (close to 4.9 million citizens in the US identify themselves as Puerto Rican vis a vis the close to 3.7 million of Puerto Ricans in the island). All the while the response from the different government administrations so far has in general terms consisted – to a greater or lesser degree of intensity – of the typical arsenal of neoliberal measures: fiscal austerity, indiscriminate reduction of public spending, reduction of public employees (justified by the myth of Big Government due to an objective historical weakness of the island’s economy to be able to absorb much of the labor force), privatization of public installations and services, going on the offensive against labor unions, overburdening the working class with tax increases or new taxes, etcetera. The crisis is so menacing that the White House has just recently sent an advisory team in order to monitor the economic policy making and implementation of the local government. International press has called Puerto Rico either the Detroit or the Greece of the Caribbean; Detroit is probably most in mind of US officials…

It is not surprising that the typical citizen tends to disapprove or grow apathetic towards its public officials and its party system, since the perception, based on reality, is one that nothing is beneficial is done on behalf of the common  folk. Although throughout the last forty years the Puerto Rican party system has been a de facto two-party system, the traditional electoral scenario during most of that time was one in which you had two parties really disputing itself government majority (the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party) while you could always count on a third option (the Puerto Rican Independence Party). The three parties were at the same time symptomatic of the positions that traditionally defined or marked the political spectrum of Puerto Rican party politics. That is, instead of having the party political spectrum sustained by the key political distinction between left and right, the spectrum has been typically defined by parties who support a specific status option: either statehood (PNP), the commonwealth or some modified form (PDP), or independence (PIP). And that criteria is then usually imposed within the hegemonic political culture to define (or redefine) what it means to be from the left or the right, so much so that in common popular discourse in Puerto Rico to be of the left usually means supporting independence, being of the right means supporting statehood, while a center wedge is occupied by those who either favor the commonwealth as it is or with certain modifications.

This transfiguration is of itself historically and politically understandable and explainable, but it does not stop being a bit bizarre since it miscomprehends that the left and right divide refers to whether you conceive a better society to be one with more or less equality, particularly economic equality, among its citizens. Such that, nothing excludes the possibility of supporting independence and being on the right (like some nationalist parties and groups), or supporting statehood and being on the left (of which more and more voices have tended to come up to defend such position).

The most recent electoral process of 2012 saw a continuation of something that was put into place to a lesser degree during the 2008 elections. First, the 2012 elections saw not three, but six political parties in contention. Alongside the NPP, the PDP, and the PIP, you had the party of Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico (PPR), the Sovereignty Union Movement (or MUS for its name in Spanish), and the Worker’s Party (Partido del Pueblo Trabajador, or PPT). There are various possible explanations – many might as well complement each other – as to the reason for these many new parties. On the one hand, and not necessarily the stronger explanation, a deterioration of the public’s esteem and confidence in the traditional parties. Regardless of traditional party affiliation and loyalty, there is a part of the electoral public that identifies Puerto Rico’s social and economic woes to lack of government effectiveness both on part of the PDP and NPP, while considering the PIP as having lost its classic historical edge in terms of its traditional critical and fiscalization action. Another explanation is that Puerto Rican electoral law was revised, lowering the requirements for the inscription of new parties.

Though the electoral turnout for the four minority parties was very poor in the last general elections, that does not necessarily mean the end of possible electoral alternatives in the future for a number of reasons. Among them is the fact that in Puerto Rico there is a common electoral practice of using the vote as the main punishment mechanism (voto de castigo) against the incumbent administrations. And in order to ‘punish’ a particular administration, the voter tends to support the main electoral contender. Maybe something of the like is sustained by the fact that many different polls prior to the elections gave all the minority parties at least 1% of the vote (with the PIP with up to 4 or 5%) – more than their respective turnouts –, reflecting the intention of many potential voters, who maybe at the end of the day, within the privacy of the voting booth, opted for another way. In any case, the presence of new parties is something worth noting, since one does not change a heavily rooted two-party system overnight.

Alongside the emergence of new political parties, this last electoral process brought to the fore a party political discourse that was different in nature to the traditional one. I am referring specifically to the discourse present in the Worker’s Party (PPT) and the PPR. As I commented earlier, traditional popular discourse in Puerto Rico is articulated around the question of the issue of status, and that displaced or took over the left and right distinction. The PPT, conceiving itself plainly and strongly on the left, explicitly argued for the promotion of a policy agenda revolving around social justice, for the rights of wage-laborers, the gay-lesbian-transgender-transsexual community, for the legalization of certain drugs, etc. It campaigned urging for the vote of the electorate that identified with these issues, regardless of whether they supported statehood, independence, free association, the commonwealth or a modified form. It explicitly recognized the status issue as a problem to deal with, when the moment came for it to be dealt with, but reminded the electorate that the elections were not in themselves a plebiscite for a status option. Thus, one had to vote for a determinate policy agenda to be implemented regardless of preference of status. This meant, in practice, for example, that while the PPT’s candidate for governor supported independence, it had candidates running for mayor of different municipalities that supported statehood. As examples, there were people who voted under the insignia of the NPP but voted at the same time for the PPT’s candidate for governor, or people who voted for the PPT and in the plebiscite voted for statehood. Actions like those might not represent a problem of understanding to many, but it runs counter-intuitive to many Puerto Ricans who assume that statehood and the left are, necessarily, natural enemies. The key identification point was not preference of status, but whether you positioned yourself on the left, putting in practice the critique I advanced earlier regarding traditional political public discourse in Puerto Rico. If I use the PPT as primary example and not the PPR is because in the latter’s case there was a general attempt to procure voters arguing to go beyond the status question, but with an agenda less clearly defined around particular political positions under the subterfuge of the empty signifier of consensus. The PPT’s clear positioning on a leftist agenda provides for a stronger argument.

This political discourse is one that has potential in that it objectively has somewhere to go. That is, the typical marginal party had almost always posited itself around a particular status option, and moreover, it had particularly posited itself as antagonistic to statehood, leaving many pro-statehood citizens with the option of either supporting the NPP or supporting another party that did not contemplate statehood as an option. With this new political discourse, and potential new parties, the pool of potential voters to draw from is much vaster. Also, take into consideration, that right now, regardless of the NPP’s electoral loss in 2012, the NPP has the largest and strongest electoral base.

In the end, Puerto Rico’s de facto two-party system is still in place, but tends to present bigger cracks. It is no surprise that as we are writing this piece, the party in power, the PDP, is deploying all sorts of harassment and tactics in order to try to slow down the re-certification process of the PPT in particular. The terrible economic crisis is further compounded by a terrible political crisis.

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The cherry on top: Puerto Rico is still a colonial possession of the US, with all the limitations that this implies in terms of economic and political wiggle room. Much can be done within the present colonial and territorial status to begin steering the island on an alternative path, terrible democratic deficit notwithstanding. Nonetheless, the heading of this steering away from the crisis should, ultimately, demand an end to US colonial rule over Puerto Rico. Whether this would take us on one or other of the possible formal decolonization routes, will have to be seen.

Manuel S. Almeida is Associate Professor and Researcher of the School for Social and Human Sciences at the Universidad del Este, Carolina, Puerto Rico. Author of, among other things, Dirigentes y dirigidos: para leer los Cuadernos de la cárcel de Antonio Gramsci (Bogotá: Envión Editores, 2010).