SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico ― It’s been 121 years since the United States conquered this island, 13 years since its economy went into recession, two years since painful austerity began and more than 3,000 people died in a catastrophic storm, and two months since historic protests toppled a corrupt, scandal-struck governor.
But for the political party promising to end these crises, it’s the next four months that really matter.
Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, an upstart political party, needs 49,000 signatures to qualify as an official party on the 2020 ballot. MVC ― whose name translates to Citizens Victory Movement ― has gathered more than 27,000 since it launched in March and is vowing to shake up a party system that revolves almost entirely around the question of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States.
The center-right New Progressive Party, which controls the legislature and governor’s mansion, wants Puerto Rico to become an official U.S. state, which would give the island full representation in American government and increase access to resources. The centrist Popular Democratic Party advocates maintaining the status quo as an unincorporated territory, preserving the island’s distinct identity while retaining the nominal benefits of American citizenship.
For more than half a century, these two parties have dominated Puerto Rican politics in much the same way Republicans and Democrats do on the U.S. mainland. A leftist Independence Party, hampered by the decades when U.S. authorities criminalized its push for autonomy, occupies a marginal third-party position akin to the mainland Green Party, regularly eking out a small percentage of the vote.
People are starting to wake up to the fact that these parties don’t represent the Puerto Rican people. Tristán Queriot Rodríguez Vélez, Sunrise Movement Puerto Rico
But as austerity’s squeeze and the climate crisis loom ever larger in Puerto Ricans’ lives, MVC is charting a different path for the island.
“People are starting to wake up to the fact that these parties don’t represent the Puerto Rican people,” said Tristán Queriot Rodríguez Vélez, a teenage activist who leads the climate justice group Sunrise Movement’s Puerto Rico chapter. “While one should look at every political party critically, Victoria Ciudadana could be a potential champion for something like a Green New Deal in Puerto Rico.”
The MVC platform calls for a new effort to prosecute corruption and end revolving-door loopholes that let ousted Gov. Ricardo Rosselló appoint a former coal utility lobbyist as his replacement before resigning in August.
It proposes hiking the minimum wage, restoring labor rights and passing sweeping new regulations that make environmental protection a top priority. The platform also demands a referendum on whether to abandon what it considers colonial subjugation and second-tier U.S. citizenship in favor of either statehood or increased sovereignty like that of the Federated States of Micronesia. (Micronesia closely associates with the United States and receives large federal grants but governs and represents itself independently on the world stage.)
Puerto Rico’s $129 billion in debt and unfunded retiree pensions loom large in the manifesto. MVC calls for halting payments on the $74 billion in bonds owed to so-called vulture fund creditors on Wall Street, and auditing the debt.
“We feel that Puerto Rico has been divided for too long,” said Rosa Seguí Cordero, an MVC spokeswoman and attorney. “Political parties have centered their programs on status preferences and not on developing an economic and sustainability plan for Puerto Rico. It’s time for that to end.”
The party is pushing a decentralized, democratic model based in part on protests that University of Puerto Rico students staged in 2017 against tuition hikes. MVC is holding assemblies across the island to field concerns from voters and practice a bottom-up style of decision-making built on consensus. Earlier this month, MVC hosted a forum in Guayama, a southeastern city dealing with pollution from a coal-fired power plant. Days later, it held another assembly with 400 members in the southern municipality of Juana Díaz.
Yet political stars are central to the movement. Alexandra Lúgaro, an independent gubernatorial candidate who finished in third place in 2016 with 11.1% of the vote, is one face of MVC. Another is Manuel Natal Albelo, a member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives who quit the Popular Democratic Party and now governs as an independent. The movement received some tacit celebrity backing, with Puerto Rican rapper Residente saying he’d vote for Natal as governor if he met the 35-year age requirement for the position. The politician is 33.
MVC officials are hoping the celebrity endorsements will help maintain the political momentum of the July protests. But some fear the party is too far behind in gathering signatures to play a significant role in the next election.
“They don’t seem to have the numbers to become politically viable but it remains to be seen how they can build on the political momentum generated across Puerto Rican society this summer,” said one prominent Puerto Rican scholar who requested anonymity for fear of damaging ties to the party at an early stage in its development.
Skirting the status question risks undermining the messaging among voters who see self-determination as the only pathway to retooling the economy to the benefit of working-class Puerto Ricans, said María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón, an Independence leader who ran as the party’s gubernatorial candidate in 2016.
“That’s a huge mistake,” she said in an interview at the party’s offices in San Juan. “You cannot talk about economic development under the colonial status or under enhanced commonwealth status or statehood.”
She said that may be partly why MVC is “well behind the collection of signatures they need to register as a political party.”
You cannot talk about economic development under the colonial status or under enhanced commonwealth status or statehood. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón, Independence Party leader
At the same time, other political factions are vying to capture the anger that prompted upward of a million people to fill the streets of this capital city earlier this summer demanding “Ricky Renuncia.” Earlier this month, hundreds marched in the San Juan neighborhood of Hato Rey declaring themselves the Movimiento Revolución Estadista, or Statehood Revolution Movement.
That movement, traditionally associated with the political right in Puerto Rico, stands to benefit from the Democratic Party’s growing support for statehood. Puerto Rican statehood was once a conservative position that politicians like President Ronald Reagan backed, but many Democrats now see it as a pathway to not only ending colonial restrictions on the island but securing control of a Senate that favors states that historically lean Republican.
Still, there’s “a huge opportunity for a third-party candidacy” in Puerto Rico’s 2020 election, said Ed Morales, author of “Fantasy Land,” a new book on the island’s political history and colonial struggles.
“Both parties are just not looking good ― really, the worst they’ve ever looked ― because the political power they have is seriously undermined by the fiscal oversight board,” he said. “It’s a wide open political opportunity for a group like Victoria Ciudadana.”
Nuestras Voces Unidas (Our Voices United) is a HuffPost series created to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and amplify the diverse voices within the community. Find all of our coverage here.