Puerto Ricans went to the polls on November 3 to elect a new governor and hundreds of other officials, and yes, to vote on whether their colonized archipelago should become the 51st American state. The results signaled a resounding rejection of both major political parties. They also revealed a far more ambivalent attitude towards the territorial status question than pro-statehood proponents will admit.
The gubernatorial candidate for the New Progressive Party (PNP) garnered 32.9% of the vote, besting his Popular Democratic Party (PPD) opponent by 1.4%. The two parties have dominated politics for over half a century: the PPD is a proponent of the beleaguered commonwealth status, and the PNP is a fierce statehood advocate. However, support for both parties has been dwindling steadily. It plummeted this year.
In contrast, opposition political parties made remarkable gains. The long-established Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) got 13.7% of the vote, the most ever since 1952. The upstart Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, in its first time on the ballot, got 14.2%, and even the Christian fundamentalist Proyecto Dignidad, established just this year, became a player with 6.9% support. The PPD, the PIP and the other parties obtained 67% of the vote. In other words, over two-thirds of the voters rejected the PNP, a party that has based its entire existence on delivering statehood to the archipelago.
Support for statehood was not as conclusive as its supporters want you to believe. At first glance, the results of the so-called plebiscite appear to be a ringing endorsement for statehood. Fifty-three percent voted “yes” for statehood, while 48% voted no. Columbia law professor Cristina Ponsa-Kraus says this was a “historic vote,” and that Puerto Ricans “have staked their claim to statehood.” But when you look at the figures, this bullish claim is questionable. Only about 28% of the electorate voted for statehood since just over half of the voters turned out. This is a slight increase over the 2017 referendum results when 22% of the eligible voters chose statehood. Seen in this light, the PNP-orchestrated plebiscite seems like a political stunt to rally its base to the polls by keeping the dream of statehood alive. It is unthinkable that a decision as momentous as Puerto Rico’s political destiny should be left to a quarter of the electorate.
Statehooders ignore the significance of the massive 2019 summer uprising. The historic protests forced a despised governor to resign and set in motion the extraordinary electoral gains made by anti-PPD/PNP forces. The protests shattered the myth that Puerto Ricans were going to stoically accept the ruinous policies of ineffectual elected officials who are preoccupied with resolving the status issue. But the significant take away of the 2020 elections is that Puerto Ricans repudiated the staid and pointless politics of status. Huge swaths of the population placed the blame for the hardship and distress of their daily existence on the machinations of a corrupt and incompetent political class that exercised its power through the PNP/PPD dyad. They no longer believed that unemployment and poverty, environmental despoilation, the collapsed health system, shattered public schools, and the dilapidated infrastructure are just the fault of colonialism. The voters punished the PPD and PNP because they are also responsible for Puerto Rico’s dystopian reality.
The election also marked a turning point in Puerto Rican politics. Progressive opposition forces, which in the past have often decried elections as a futile ritual designed to normalize colonialism and perpetuate elite rule, decided to confront the political class in the electoral arena. They were more successful than anyone imagined and they reconfigured the ideological composition of the legislature. The PNP sustained significant losses in the legislature, and now controls fewer seats that its archrival, the PPD. The MVC and PIP elected three senators and three representatives to the legislature —and given the fractured legislature— are in the position to challenge the political class’s blind adherence to neoliberalism, as well as their impunity.
Young people were particularly motivated and most likely voted in large numbers for the opposition political parties. This new generation of voters may have propelled Puerto Rico’s political realignment. They are socially active, participate in progressive causes and emphasize social justice over status change. They created a political crisis for the PPD and PNP, two dying parties who have proven incapable of addressing issues of vital concern to most of the population.
In the context of the political realignment that is unfolding, demands to “Make Puerto Rico a State Now” are ill-timed. Moreover, calls for Congress to impose statehood without a clear majority of Puerto Ricans wanting it is the epitome of colonialism.
Puerto Ricans are resigned to the futility of getting Congress to change the archipelago’s territorial status. No number of plebiscites will move Congress to act. Congress will act only when it is in the interest of the United States.
In today’s ideologically-laden political climate, don’t expect Congress to change Puerto Rico’s status. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently declared that “Adding stars to the American flag cannot be allowed, yeah, as long as I am majority leader in the Senate, none of that stuff is going anywhere.” McConnell is not an outlier. Congress has rejected statehood for over 120 years and that is not about to change any time soon.
The best that Puerto Ricans can achieve under colonial rule is to elect responsible officials who will enact policies to alleviate widespread economic and social suffering in the archipelago. Now more than ever, when it is facing unprecedented financial, social and environmental crises, it is time to dismiss the clarion calls to make Puerto Rico a state.
It is time to work on building a new Puerto Rico.
Pedro Cabán is Professor of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies at the University at Albany, and the author of “Constructing a Colonial People: Puerto Rico and the United States 1898-1932.” His more recent work has appeared in NACLA, Latin American Perspectives, Dissent, Jacobin, New Politics, and Current History.