POLITICS

In Puerto Rico, Conservatives Sweep Island-Wide, But Progressives May Score One Big Win

The U.S.'s largest territory didn't get to vote in the presidential contest, but 2020 was a huge election all the same.
A man carries a Puerto Rican flag during a protest against the referendum for Puerto Rico political status in San Juan.
A man carries a Puerto Rican flag during a protest against the referendum for Puerto Rico political status in San Juan.

Puerto Rico had no say in Tuesday night’s presidential election. But candidates from the traditionally conservative-leaning party won the top two island-wide seats in the United States’ largest territorial possession.

Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in the U.S. Congress and a vocal ally of President Donald Trump, easily cruised to reelection early Tuesday evening. Pedro Pierluisi, a veteran politician and former lobbyist for a coal-fired utility accused of contaminating groundwater, is projected to win the race to be the island’s next governor.

Both candidates are members of the New Progressive Party, which historically champions low taxes, privatization of services and social conservatism but orients its politics primarily around advocating for Puerto Rican statehood. The other dominant force on the island is the Popular Democratic Party, whose support for maintaining Puerto Rico’s commonwealth colonial status with the U.S. defines its politics.

Their victories highlight the complexities of politics on a debt-strangled, storm-ravaged island in a constant tug-of-war over how to define its relationship to the United States, which conquered the Caribbean territory 122 years ago. Trump is widely reviled on the island, but González ― a registered Republican and frequent booster of the president ― handily defeated her opponent early in the night. Pierluisi, who affiliates as a Democrat in mainland partisan circles, briefly took over as governor in 2019 after millions of protesters ousted the scandal-struck Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. But after a week, Puerto Rico’s highest court invalidated Pierluisi’s ascension and handed the job to sitting Gov. Wanda Vázquez, whom he beat in August’s primary. 

Pedro Pierluisi briefly took over as governor of Puerto Rico in 2019. Now, he's projected to win the race to be the island's
Pedro Pierluisi briefly took over as governor of Puerto Rico in 2019. Now, he's projected to win the race to be the island's next governor.

But, in what may be the biggest shake-up of the 2020 election in Puerto Rico, Manuel Natal, a 34-year-old liberal firebrand, could become the next mayor of San Juan. By Wednesday morning, he was ahead of New Progressive Party candidate Miguel Romero by 429 voters, with 95% of precincts reporting. 

Natal, a lawmaker in the lower chamber of the legislature, ran as a member of the newly formed Citizens Victory Movement, an upstart progressive party that eschewed the status question that defines Puerto Rico’s other parties and focused on demands for more economic rights and an end to crushing fiscal austerity. 

The most successful new party on the island in recent memory seized on Puerto Ricans’ anger over corruption and years of harsh budget cuts that an unelected fiscal control board imposed in 2016 to manage the island’s $119 billion of debt. Puerto Rico was already poorer than the poorest U.S. state, and, as a territory, received significantly less in Medicaid and welfare benefits. But the austerity measures shuttered hundreds of schools, jeopardized retirees’ pensions, and left the island incapable of recovering from a devastating series of natural disasters, including 2017’s Hurricane María. 

Citizens Victory Movement candidate for San Juan mayor, Manuel Natal, had a lead of more than 400 votes with 95% of districts
Citizens Victory Movement candidate for San Juan mayor, Manuel Natal, had a lead of more than 400 votes with 95% of districts counted Wednesday morning.

The party’s gubernatorial candidate, Alexandra Lúgaro, came in a distant third. But taking City Hall of the capital and largest metropolis would grant Citizens Victory Movement one of the island’s most influential political perches. The previous mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, soared to national fame in the mainland U.S. after the storm, when she sparred repeatedly on television with Trump over his administration’s failure to provide adequate aid to the hurricane-damaged Caribbean territory, where nearly 5,000 died

Yet her popularity with stateside English speakers never quite matched her reputation at home. In the August primary, Cruz’s bid for the Popular Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination fell short. Her party’s pick to succeed her as mayor, Rossana López León, came in a distant third on Tuesday. 

The New Progressive Party clinched another symbolic victory Tuesday night, too: In a nonbinding vote, slightly over half of voters approved of a resolution calling for statehood. But it’s hardly a clear mandate: Voter turnout was near-record low, with just over 50% of the island casting ballots. 

We want to know what you’re seeing on the ground on Election Day. If there’s anything you think we should know about going on at polling places or anything else, email us at scoops@huffpost.com.

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