Alexandra Lúgaro and Manuel Natal, the young political power couple of the Citizen’s Victory Movement (MVC) party, is upending Puerto Rico’s status by nurturing a new generation of leaders —“la nueva cepa”— who grew up in Puerto Rico in times of crisis and have come of age on the brink of a political revolution.
The 2020 elections marked the end of the island’s two party-system —“the untouchables”— and the rise of other parties. The time is ripe, Lúgaro and Natal feel, to build momentum at home and, together with the Boricua diaspora, tell president-elect Joe Biden the archipelago must be allowed to decide its future and not leave it to Congress.
Love them or hate them, Lúgaro and Natal are not going away. Not your typical island politicians, both are media savvy, could grace the cover of Vogue, and have mobilized the island’s youth voters —these children of crisis historically apathetic about politics— to vote.
Last week, Latino Rebels caught up with them and, in separate telephone interviews, spoke about the demise of the island’s ancien régime, the generational change, and what they would say to Biden, among other things.
Natal, 34, who earned his bachelor’s at Cornell University, his law degree at the University of Puerto Rico and is a member of Puerto Rico’s 29th House of Representatives, has been busy. He ran for MVC mayor of San Juan, and is knee-deep in a controversial recount. The vote count has been a roller coaster—uncounted votes appearing and the numbers changing faster than one can blink. As of this writing, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) candidate Miguel Romero (who auto-proclaimed himself the winner early on) is ahead by around 2,200 votes.
Whatever the results, that Natal and the MVC got this close to the capital city is a victory for such a young party.
“I think we are at the brink of a political revolution here in Puerto Rico, a political revolution that is not only taking place on the streets but also the electoral side,” Natal said. “It is an uphill battle.”
“It is a battle in which we will only prevail if we bet on the collective process. It’s not something that can be done by individuals, it’s not something that can be done by winning a seat here and a seat there,” he added. “It’s only possible to defeat the untouchables if we join forces in terms of the individuals who have not been equally represented.”
“They [the opposition] have forgotten that this is a race. It is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” the 39-year-old Lúgaro, who studied in Madrid and is also a lawyer, said. “If we are educating this new cepa [strain] of young people who will grow up with political knowledge, then I think our country has more of a future than a past.”
For Lúgaro and Natal, it is all about the next generations. Lúgaro sees it in her 10-year-old daughter Valentina and Natal in his two younger brothers, Eduardo and Ricardo. Their wish is to leave future generations a Puerto Rico in better shape than the one the duo grew up in.
Puerto Rico’s youth has grown up under a recession, bankruptcy, an unpayable $70 billion debt, an imposed fiscal control board, profound cuts to education, pensions, and health services, the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María, never-ending earthquakes, corrupt governments, a pandemic, and Donald Trump.
They are the generación de “yo no me dejo” (the generation of “I won’t allow it”) who took to the streets and brought down the corrupt government of Ricardo Rosselló in the summer of 2019. MVC was born the same year in March, drawing support from progressive sectors and campaigning on a platform of social welfare policies, resisting neoliberal austerity measures, and calling for the island’s self-determination. This is the generation to which Lúgaro and Natal speak to, and effectively. To highlight what is happening with Natal, the San Juan race and the unaccounted for “maletines” (ballot boxes,) this past weekend Lúgaro posted a Charlie Chaplenesque TikTok and up to now has gotten hundreds of thousands of views. Nothing to sniff at.
The End of the Two-Party System
November 3, 2020 ended the more than 50-year reign of the PNP and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD). It was also the day MVC rose from a collective to become an important player in the island’s political arena.
PNP gubernatorial candidate Pedro Pierluisi got only 33 percent of the vote, squeezing into La Fortaleza like he would a pair of tight trousers with the lowest count in the party’s history. The PPD’s Charlie Delgado came in second, dragging behind by just 17,000 votes.
Lúgaro ran for governor under the MVC umbrella. She came in third, with 15 percent of the vote. In 2016, she was the first female independent candidate to run for governor, also finishing third with 11 percent of the vote. At least 61% of Lúgaro’s supporters in 2016 were millennials.
Juan Dalmau, Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) candidate, typically with only 3 percent of the vote, got 14 percent, and César Vázquez, of the ultra-right-wing religious Proyecto Dignidad (PD, or Project Dignity), got 7.06 percent.
The Senate and House will also have a new look—with many candidates from other parties occupying seats. MVC won two seats in the Senate and two in the House.
“Puerto Rico understands the changes that are coming, and this is not a matter of opinion, you just have to look at the numbers,” Lúgaro said. “The fact that you have bipartisan candidates coming out of the elections with only 30 percent of the vote, that has never been seen in the political history of this country.”
“What will happen in 2021 is that we will have a Senate with a plural composition with people from the Independence Party, with people from Projecto Dignidad, with people from MVC,” Lúgaro added. “And for the first time, the Senate will need to establish alliances between the opposition parties, or between the PNP and the PDP if they want to approve legislation. So then in a country where you need both the House and the Senate to approve laws, this means [this new composition] that the people now have power in what is decided in the Senate.”
Pierluisi will now govern a country where 70 percent voted against him and a Senate and House that neither he nor his party controls. But that is not the spin the PNP is putting on it. Elephant. Room. Ignore.
“I think the traditional parties here in Puerto Rico are in some ways invisibilizing what is going on, they have been minimizing it, and now when they have seen the results of these elections,” Natal said. “Whether it is what has happened in San Juan or what has happened nationwide in regards to the elected officials in both the House and the Senate, and the diversity of it, now they are kind of realizing that they should have taken us seriously before.”
“But they still feel a level of comfort because they see that even though their parties are losing support and the opposition is gaining support, it’s fragmented support. And they are counting on that,” he explained. “They might think they have had a short-term victory, but when we think about this mid-term and long-term, we are talking about a generational change here in Puerto Rico that is just going to happen.”
A New Reality?
To Natal and Lúgaro, they both see this change as inevitable, and they both plan to take this new reality to Washington.
LR asked what they would say to Biden when they do go to Washington and what they thought of Pierluisi calling for another status referendum. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony since Washington invaded in 1898 and was imposed citizenship in 1917.
“I would tell Biden that the people of Puerto Rico need a process of self-determination. They need to reconstruct their debt without Promesa, without the Fiscal Control Board,” Natal said. “And the people of Puerto Rico need the tools to be able to make the decisions that are in the best interest of all Puerto Rico and not necessarily in the best interest of Washington D.C. or the US Congress.”
“This is a message that needs to get to Washington,” Lúgaro added. “I think that the work that needs to be done in Washington is two-fold: we must educate Congress about the real issues of Puerto Rico and we must educate the over five million Puerto Ricans in the United States strategically as to how they can become our political biceps.”
“I think it is very important that the Puerto Rican diaspora be part of the entire decision process,” he noted. “Our diaspora in many cases would have more political power than politicians here in Puerto Rico.”
They both scratched their head at Pierluisi’s call for a second referendum on statehood, just after one was held on November 3. Of the 52 percent of Puerto Ricans who went to the polls for this referendum, just 52 percent answered Yes and 48 percent answered No. The vote is non-binding and was not sanctioned by the Department of Justice, as happened with the island’s previous five plebiscites
“In politics, I have discovered that for every absurd decision, there is always someone ‘guisando’ [making a profit],” Lúgaro said. “Why would they want another plebiscite that is going to cost millions when they know the Department of Justice of the United States have already told them it has no value? This is nothing more than a costly survey. The issue of statehood has been a powerful tool to collect money for the New Progressive Party. They live off the promise of statehood.”
A Dirty Business
For Lúgaro and Natal, their fight has not been easy. Puerto Rican politics is a dirty business, but it reserves special bile for women, especially intelligent ones. Lúgaro has been told to cut her hair, to not dress sexily, to do something about alleged dark shadows under her eyes, to stop being so “angry” when she speaks.
But the gossip show La Comay plumbed the lowest depths with an odious piece involving where the program sexualized Lúgaro’s underage daughter, accusing her and Natal of being bad parents.
“I used to think that there were lines, lines that shouldn’t be crossed. For example, attacks on your family. It’s like the mafia,” Lúgaro said. “The mafia says that they do not kill children, or women, they don’t shoot at schools, one would think it would be the same way. But we have reached the lowest of levels.”
To deal with it, she first sought out “reservoirs of patience I never knew I had. And I also told myself that this was not just about me, that what I and the movement are doing has a bigger purpose than any one person,” she said, adding that she has developed an armor.
But Lúgaro refuses not to be herself because she also sees herself as a role model for younger women and her daughter.
“A woman of state first and foremost has to be a free woman, and a free woman says what she feels, expresses what she feels, she dresses how she wants, without the impositions they wish to place on us and the boxes they want to put us in,” she said.
Natal, who is an avid reader, says he tries to challenge all that frustration, discomfort, and anger into positive actions.
“I use it as a motivation because that is what they want you to do [quit]. They want to distract you, they want to dissuade you and they want to make sure they stop whatever you are doing. I am not willing to do that.” We are fighting the good fight in terms of making sure that every vote is counted as it’s supposed to, and when the results are certified, the next day, regardless of the outcome, we are going to go back to the communities.”
“We are going to keep on building the next generation of leaders that are going to be able to complete the change that we need to see here in Puerto Rico,” he added.
It would be easy to romanticize Natal and Lúgaro. They fit the cliche—she is beautiful; he is handsome; they both are smart. But like it or not, they do speak for their generation and do it well.
The numbers say so. Ignore them at your peril.