SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The plane glides close to the water and its wingtip nudges the ribbon of waves as we approach Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. The view out the window is one I know well from many departures and arrivals. They say you can’t go home again, but Puerto Rico is a place where time flows, stops, and reverses back in a circle. The truth is you never leave Puerto Rico because the archipelago never leaves you.
This is la versión romántica of the anticipated return home of this Diasporican, and it’s colored by the dread of what I will find when stepping foot out of the airport—since the perfumed edition of Puerto Rico that lives rent-free in my head is not real.
It’s not the island I grew up in —the one associated with the mythical village created by Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude— but it’s the one I return to only to discover is evolving, in spite of it all.
Puerto Rico is undergoing a fundamental shift in its social and political architecture, and for the first time since I can remember, strong winds are blowing in favor of self-determination and possibly, eventually, independence.
The signs are there: Macondo is changing.
As I stuff the back seat of the taxi with bags and boxes – I am moving back and have lots to carry – I ask my driver Israel: “¿Como están las cosas?” How are things?
“Mal, bastante mal,” he says. Bad, pretty bad. “They are trying to take the island away from us. But Puerto Rico is ours, and we are not going to let them. There will never be Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans.”
Leaving the airport, Israel points to all the Puerto Rican flags flying everywhere. Boricuas have always been patriotic, but this feels different. The mono estrellada waves from cars, rooftops, and balconies; it adorns restaurants, coffee shops, and kiosks. It’s on t-shirts, bags, and running shoes. And not a U.S. flag in sight.
Arriving in Old San Juan, I hear the change in the frustrated tone of my childhood friend, Michelle Lavergne Colberg, who I haven’t seen since the pandemic began, as she describes what the last couple of years on the island have been like.
“Our land has become a haven for crypto invaders and Wall Street buzzards who buy up our island and patrimony … disrespectful carpetbaggers whose only motivation is money,” she says. “It is hard to see the future clearly, when our reality is in such disarray.”
The last 14 years have hit Puerto Rico with blunt force and created a dystopia that Boricuas are trying to survive.
The archipelago has endured a $70 billion debt (supposedly resolved); an imposed fiscal control board; cuts to education, the University of Puerto Rico, pensions, and health services; the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María; earthquakes; corrupt governments (and the ousting of a pro-statehood governor); a pandemic; and the gentrification of the island —mostly by crypto bros hiding behind Act 60— that threatens to marginalize Puerto Ricans in their homeland.
María also showed Puerto Ricans how little the U.S. cares. President Donald Trump withheld aid, told us we had ruined his budget, called us dirty and poor and wanted to swap us for Greenland. President Joe Biden promised to treat Boricuas with “dignity, equality, and respect” but has not done much past the sweet words. It is the modus operandi of most U.S. leaders, many of whom can’t place the islands on a map.
But even before María stripped away the greasepaint to reveal a corroded infrastructure and Washington’s negligence, the 2008 Great Recession laid this stagnation bare and left almost half the islands’ residents in poverty and unemployed, forcing hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to leave and draining the islands’ tax base.
Puerto Ricans are fed up—actually, they are furious. You hear that in conversations everywhere: the pharmacy, your local bar, in restaurants, as Boricuas dodge hordes of tourists in the old city, in the convoluted arguments of really bad political pundits on television, and at the family dinner table.
This anger was evident in Puerto Rico’s 2020 elections. The pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) got Gov. Pedro Pierluisi elected by the skin of its teeth, with 33 percent of the vote. The status-quo Popular Democratic Party (PPD) got 32 percent.
The Citizens’ Victory Movement (MVC), with a young female candidate, 39-year-old Alexandra Lúgaro, captured almost 14 percent, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), fronted by Juan Dalmau, got close to another 14 percent, with 175,000 votes. Roughly 35 percent of the electorate did not vote for the PNP or PPD, dealing a mortal blow to the two-party system.
The PIP is now a serious political contender. The hope is that Dalmau, the party’s secretary-general, will run a successful campaign for governor in 2024. The hope is also that the PIP will ally with the MVC and secure a win, but that is yet to be seen.
In the meantime, the Pierluisi administration stumbles from fiasco to fiasco. He seems to be suffering from the psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people believe they are smarter and more capable than they really are. He has been successful in one thing only: totally screwing things up.
If the litany of catastrophes, corruption scandals, false promises of Washington’s love, and nepotism —what is his sister Cari Pierluisi doing at La Fortaleza besides traveling for free?–– weren’t enough, the question now on everyone’s lips is Do you have electricity?
Pierluisi turned over a fragile power system —brought to its knees by María— to a private consortium known as LUMA Energy, and they have done a disastrous job, while being paid millions.
“I can’t believe that we took to the streets and kicked out PNP Gov. Ricky Rosselló, and then we turned around and elected another one of these incompetent fools,” Israel said as we drove around Old San Juan. (He used another phrase, but it’s not suitable for print.) “I just don’t understand it.”
The island-wide blackouts are a metaphor for Pierluisi’s failure and his party collapsing like a house of cards, held up only by the empty promise of statehood and federal funds. But the latest blow, courtesy of Washington, just might finish the job: the Supreme Court denied Puerto Rico residents equal benefits under the federal government’s primary disability insurance program.
The PPD has its own problems. It’s a party that doesn’t know what it is and is desperately reaching out to the ultraconservative evangelical vote to fill its ranks. But more on that later.
So, with the PNP and PPD drastically weakened, could this finally be the end of a political era? In the archipelago’s complicated political circus, nothing is certain.
There are two important groups that can change things: women and the younger generations.
In 2020, the number of young voters 18 to 29 years old was 406,324. Even if the numbers do not increase, they could swing the vote away from the moribund two-party system.
“What I see is a dynamism and an entrepreneurship among the young and a political class living in the past,” said Richard Figueroa, a Puerto Rican lawyer.
“Maybe with the Supreme Court ruling on Vaello-Madero (the benefits ruling mentioned above), where for the upteenth time the court has shoved in our face that we are just a colony, there will be political repercussions,” he said.
“The question is will there be enough motivation within the younger generations to move mountains, because that is the work that needs to be done to get rid of the PNP and the PPD.”
This is where the women come in. Women account for over half of the islands’ population and vote in record numbers—more than the men. Women can swing an election.
This is why the PNP and PPD are hellbent on controlling the female vote, even if it means subjugating it to religious bigotry via the cruelest way possible: limiting women’s reproduction rights.
Puerto Ricans are overwhelmingly Christian. Around 56 percent of Puerto Ricans living on the islands identified as Catholic in a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. Thirty-three percent identified as Protestants, among whom roughly half, 48 percent, also identified as born-again Christians.
In recent years, Pentecostal fundamentalism has infected the islands—taking a lot of women with it. There are some 1,500 Evangelical churches in Puerto Rico today, if not more.
But what the PNP’s and the PPD’s upper echelon fail to see is that this move against women’s rights could turn out to be a double-edged sword, pushing young women to come out and vote against them. That’s how revolutions are started.
That’s what I am hearing.
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. Twitter: @DurgaOne