What the US election means for Puerto Rico’s fight for democracy and dignity

This November, Puerto Rico is bracing itself for two different elections that will have great repercussions for its future.

The US general election could reshape policy towards the unincorporated territory in the years to come, particularly if Democrats regain the presidency and the senate. This is even though its residents, who are nominally American citizens, can’t vote.

The local elections for governor and the legislature, also taking place on 3 November, could also lead to major change – particularly if it creates a shift away from Puerto Rico’s two major parties and toward a new kind of politics.

Three years after a devastating hurricane wreaked havoc on the island, and four years after the island had much of its governmental autonomy stripped away from it by a fiscal control board that oversees its budget, Puerto Ricans are fighting to retain a sense of democracy and dignity.

Puerto Rico is still a colony of the US. This was recently confirmed in June when the Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit brought against the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), which was imposed on the island in 2017 to restructure its $72 billion debt.

The lawsuit was brought forward by an unlikely partnership of hedge funds, who were trying to extract better terms of repayment, and the Puerto Rico Electrical Authority’s union, which believed the FOMB infringed on their labor rights.

The court ruled that the US Congress’s naming of the FOMB’s members did not violate the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, using logic that the US has often used when dealing with Puerto Rico. Under the Territorial Clause, re-interpreted by a series of racist early twentieth century Supreme Court rulings, Congress claims a plenary power over Puerto Rico, allowing the Court to rule that the FOMB’s duties were local, and not federal in nature.

Up until now, the deceptively named New Progressive Party, now dominated by its right wing, has held onto power through the governor and both legislatures. The party is sponsoring another poorly conceived, non-binding plebiscite which simply asks: “Should Puerto Rico be admitted as a US state? ”

This format, which does not suggest any alternative status, is the second in a row conceived and executed by the pro-statehood party. The last time this happened in 2017, it achieved a result of 97% in favor because a boycott by the pro-Commonwealth (status quo) party meant that the turnout was only 23% of the electorate.

All three of Puerto Rico’s most powerful politicians – the unelected Governor Wanda Vásquez, the Resident Commissioner (non-voting Representative in the House of Representatives) Jennifer González, and the Senate President Tomás Rivera Schatz – are right-wing Trump supporters. They are seemingly oblivious to the fact that Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and various other powerful Republicans have all recently stated they are not in favor of statehood. It is difficult to measure what support statehood has on the island, as polls seem to show that most who are against statehood refuse to answer the question.

While some liberal members of Congress support Puerto Rican statehood, and some US-based Puerto Rican politicians also favor it, others think supporters are misguided. Recently Nydia Velásquez and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez supported a bill that would create a Status Convention in Puerto Rico where islanders could debate status proposals and create a binding referendum that could result in true self-determination.

Representative Raúl Grijalva has also introduced a series of proposed amendments to the PROMESA law that created FOMB, that would eliminate the cost of the board itself, currently paid by Puerto Rico, as well as crack down on board member conflicts of interest, and provide for a forensic audit of the debt.

Other reforms that could be undertaken by Democrats if they seize more control of the federal government include addressing the slow disbursement of FEMA disaster funds – often mired in corrupt no-bid contracts – and the lack of parity with mainland US citizens in Medicaid/Medicare, SNAP and SSI programs. A status convention would allow real participation from a cross-section of Puerto Ricans to create a path to statehood, independence or a different form of association that is not the current, failed commonwealth status.

But none of these measures take on the essence of Puerto Rico’s problem as a dependent economy with no plan for economic growth, lack of autonomy on trade decisions, and the resulting vulnerability to the disaster capitalism that is currently plaguing the island.

A privatization deal announced this summer hands the island’s electrical authority (known as PREPA in English) to a consortium of American and Canadian companies named LUMA. The deal threatens to raise already high prices for Puerto Ricans as well as block the transition to renewable energy – the Puerto Rican government’s stated goal – in favor of liquified natural gas profiteers like Democratic Party donor Wesley Edens’ company New Fortress Energy.

Recent laws passed that create tax shelters for the ultra-rich have fueled luxury real estate explosions amidst a foreclosure crisis faced by ordinary residents. The education system, whose former director Julia Keleher was recently indicted on federal fraud charges, is closing hundreds of schools to facilitate a private charter school agenda favored by education secretary Betsy De Vos. The University of Puerto Rico is under dire threat of slow extinction.

Puerto Rico, with its plentiful sunshine, makes an ideal site for implementation of AOC’s Green New Deal, but both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have insisted in their debate appearances that they are not behind it and will not even commit to banning fracking.

However, there may be hope to draw from the new political landscape that is beginning to emerge in Puerto Rico, where there were as many as six different candidates in the final debates for governor. The main winner of the small party sweepstakes is the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, a new party that originally pushed for the status convention, and the Independence Party.

In the gubernatorial debates, issues like the privatization of PREPA, the state of emergency regarding violence against women, and various instances of local corruption were all confronted. Unlike what US viewers have seen in the disaster between Trump and Biden, the debates have been civil and confront real issues.

But Democratic victories in the presidential and senate contests loom more important than ever for Puerto Ricans, given the possibility of more progressive policy shaped by the party’s left wing and the likelihood that Democrats will try to reverse much of what Trump has done. This tendency could make Puerto Rico reform a low-risk high reward pet project.

However, debt relief may be difficult since vulture funds that hold much of the debt are donating to Biden at a rate of six times as donations to Trump. Even Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment firm that made millions from underwriting many of Puerto Rico’s junk bond deals, has had enough of him.

In the end it’s up to Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the diaspora to make sure that reforms led by a new Democratic congress address what’s really wrong – and ultimately lead to true self-determination, sustainable economic development, and a sweeping conversion to renewable energy.

[Originally published by OpenDemocracy, October 30th, 2020]

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