With his sights locked on the governor’s mansion in 2024, Juan Dalmau understands the importance of timing in Puerto Rico.
While the ruling pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) stumbles and struggles to make Puerto Rico a state of the Union, Dalmau is building on the Puerto Rican Independence Party’s (PIP) emergence as a viable political alternative by taking a message of Patria Nueva and harnessing the electoral power of a new generation fed up with the status quo and the island’s colonial status.
Dalmau —who heads up the PIP and advocates independence for Puerto Rico— is also bringing his message to Capitol Hill, in direct conflict with the statehood messages his PNP opponents are also trying to bring.
According to Dalmau, he is already in conversations with Reps. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) about a new self-determination bill that will give all Puerto Ricans the right to decide the island’s future.
“I can tell you that I have participated in meetings at a distance via digital and electronic systems” recently with Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez, Dalmau said in an interview with Latino Rebels.
Later this week, Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez, both of Puerto Rican descent, will likely introduce a 2021 bicameral version of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act with allies in the Senate, weeks after a bipartisan House version of the Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Act was pushed by Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL), Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez and Puerto Rico governor Pedro Pierliusi.
Like many others, Dalmau believes that the 2021 statehood bill will go nowhere, just like previous versions from previous years.
“Pierluisi’s government is digging its own grave, and once, in the eyes of the world and the United States, it is clear that the colony is buried, the New Progressive Party’s annexation project will also be over,” he said. “The PNP leadership, after having lost credibility in its administrative capabilities, after having lost effective public policy and execution, their only way to salvage electoral votes, which are dwindling, is to give a false impression that they are pushing statehood.”
Fed up with government corruption, Puerto Ricans mobilized to oust former pro-statehood governor Ricardo Rosselló in 2019.
In addition, Puerto Ricans have experienced a litany of obstacles and tragedies over the past few years—a recession, earthquakes, two hurricanes that caused the death of more than 3,000 people, a pandemic, an insurmountable debt, an imposed Fiscal Control Board, and Donald Trump, who at one point talked about swapping the island for Greenland.
As a result, many Puerto Ricans went to vote in 2020 demanding a change to the status quo.
In the governor’s race, the PNP got 33 percent of the vote, the status quo Popular Democratic Party (PDP) got 32 percent, Movimiento Victoriana Ciudadana (MVC) captured almost 14% and the PIP got 175,000 votes, close to 14 percent. That means that roughly 35 percent of the electorate did not vote for a gubernatorial candidate from the two major parties.
The growing support for alternative parties like the PIP, MVC, and the fundamentalist Project Dignity also led to six seats in the Puerto Rican House and Senate, altering the dynamics of the Legislature and the Puerto Rican political landscape.
After the dust settled, the PIP emerged for the first time in the island’s modern history as a serious political alternative to the island’s two-party system.
Some may see this as a partial victory, but it’s not. It is a change of mentality, the end of local bipartisanship —the gatekeepers to Capitol Hill— and the emergence of the independence movement as a viable alternative to Puerto Rico’s colonial status.
The PIP’s advantage is Dalmau. With a Juris Doctor from the University of Puerto Rico and a Master of Law from Harvard University, he is a veteran of Puerto Rican politics and previously a member of Puerto Rico’s Senate.
Charming, photogenic, and adept at social media, he ran a modern campaign with an understanding that the personal is political—Dalmau’s character played a large part in the party’s rise.
“The message that we campaigned on was accessible to the country, a message that was not a dogma, it’s about a proposal for the country. If you were not an independentista, you could support it because it had nothing to do with independence arriving the next day,” Dalmau said. “Of course the Independence Party believes in independence, as do I. And for that, there will be a process at the right time. But what we were focusing on is on Patria Nueva —a New Homeland— and to tackle the problems that the other parties have not addressed in government.”
He is now going house to house knocking on doors to spread his campaign message of Patria Nueva—his government platform that calls for a new way of governing the island based on respect, human dignity, and the protection of human rights.
“My focus now is to strengthen the party’s grassroots organization, strengthen the youth organization that acted as volunteers in my campaign to establish Patria Nueva as the new direction for the island, throughout all our communities, and the status issue,” he said.
Besides the status question, one of the most contentious issues on the island is Act 22, which has turned Puerto Rico into a tax haven for white and wealthy foreigners, mostly Americans.
“It’s not that I am anti-American. I am not against foreign investment,” Dalmau said. “But in Puerto Rico, there has to be a profound revision of all the privileges, credits, and tax exemptions that are allowed, and that includes Act 22.”
“I do not believe that this should continue like this. There has to be a total revision of this. And these privileges must be in a way that benefits all sectors, including the small and medium local businessmen and businesswomen in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican entrepreneur, whose capital remains on the island,” he explained. “There has to be a balance.”
At the end of the day, though, the most salient issue at present is the status question.
As Velázquez and Ocasio-Cortez wrote last year: “For more than 100 years, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has been subjected to policies foisted on it by a Congress frequently uninterested in the welfare of those who live there. This reality touches every aspect of Puerto Rican life.”
That is why both are backing a 2021 version of the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, which would prompt Puerto Rico’s Legislature to create a status convention with delegates elected by Puerto Rican voters and develop a long-term solution for Puerto Rico’s status, be that statehood, independence, free association, or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.
“Now more than ever, I believe the issue of Puerto Rico’s status will be in the forefront, because of Velázquez’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s act, and the PNP’s desire to push for a unilateral agenda that I believe will dig their own grave,” Dalmau said.
A string of nonbinding plebiscites in 2012, 2017, and 2020 that the PNP has coordinated as a ruling party have led to no momentum or mandate. In the 2020 plebiscite, held during an election cycle that saw just 55% voter turnout, 52% chose statehood and 48% said no to statehood.
“That is why it’s important that in Washington they know that here [in Puerto Rico] half of the island has a different vision of what the future of Puerto Rico will be and Washington should educate itself about this particular, and not rely solely on the version that is pushed by the Puerto Rican governor, who obtained only 32% of the votes,” Dalmau said.
When asked to detail his Washington strategy, Dalmau would only say that he “has had necessary communications with the offices of Velázquez, Ocasio-Cortez,” as well as others involved with the Puerto Rican issue.
Dalmau said that the PNP full-court press for statehood only proves that the PNP has a small political window of opportunity.
“Pierluisi, from a place of political and electoral weakness, wants to sell the U.S. Congress on the idea that Puerto Rico is crying out for statehood,” he said. “This is false.”
“Although it is true that statehood obtained 52% of the votes, what that means is 48% of Puerto Ricans voted against statehood,” Dalmau added.
It is time that Washington hears from them and for Dalmau, he feels the time is right to take that message, and Patria Nueva, to Capitol Hill.
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. She has a blog in El Nuevo Día called Dos Caminos y Una Subversiva. Comments can be sent to her email. You can follow Susanne on Twitter @DurgaOne.