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In Puerto Rico, voters reeling from political upheavals and crises face a crucial election

The election on the island follows the historic protests following the scandal that led to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's resignation.
Demonstrators hold Puerto Rican flags as they protest against Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan in July 2019.
Demonstrators hold Puerto Rican flags as they protest against Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan in July 2019.Carlos Giusti / AP file

Bryant Guardado joined over 500,000 Puerto Ricans who marched in the largest protest in the U.S. territory in recent history to oust Gov. Ricardo Rosselló last year over a political scandal involving him and a dozen members of his Cabinet.

"That was the first time I saw an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans motivated to fight for what's right," Guardado, 28, said in Spanish. "We all witnessed this sort of awakening, but there's also a concern when it comes to voting. Will those actions translate into votes?"

On Tuesday, nearly a year and a half after Rosselló's resignation, voters on the island will elect a new governor, as well as the local lawmakers and mayors who will work to resolve the compounding crises that have been heaped on Puerto Rico over the last few years. Because Puerto Rico isn't a state, islanders don't vote for president.

The island is continuing to recover from Hurricane Maria — the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in 100 years, which led to the deaths of at least 2,975 people in 2017 — while also working to get out of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Image: Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico
A man walks past homes destroyed by Hurricane Maria in Cataño, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, 2017.Hector Retamal / AFP - Getty Images file

The mass protests "unleashed pent-up frustration, anger and impotence" over a decadelong recession and the botched hurricane response, said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a political scientist at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

At the same time, the protests made voters more critical of the partisan lines that have deeply divided the Puerto Rican electorate for more than five decades. Most islanders have supported either the pro-statehood New Progressive Party or the Popular Democratic Party, which supports the island's current commonwealth status. A smaller percentage of "independentistas" support the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which advocates for the island's independence from the U.S.

Before historic protests, warning signs

The same frustration and hopelessness that effectively took down Rosselló first manifested itself in 2016, when Puerto Rico had record low voter turnout of 55 percent — an unusual milestone for an island known for high voter turnouts of 73 percent to 89 percent.

The low turnout was fueled in part by "an extraordinary lack of trust in Puerto Rican government institutions" that has made voters across the board feel disenfranchised over the past decade, Vargas-Ramos said. Islanders have been grappling with the biggest financial crisis in Puerto Rico's history after it accumulated about $72 billion in public debt — with no way to legally file for bankruptcy, unlike other U.S. jurisdictions.

IMAGE: Rally celebrate Ricardo Rossello's resignation
People wave Puerto Rican flags at a rally to celebrate the resignation of Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan in July 2019.Marco Bello / Reuters file

As a result, Congress passed the PROMESA law in 2016 to create a federally appointed fiscal board to allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debt, a move that resulted in tough austerity measures that have aggravated tensions and frustration toward the government and the parties.

The distrust resulted in a surge of independent candidates for governor in 2016. After their unsuccessful bids, many of them came together last year to organize new political parties, such as the Citizens' Victory Movement, which is running on an anti-colonialism ideology, and Project Dignity, which favors a Christian democracy.

Given the protests and the new parties, Vargas-Ramos said he thought that "maybe these will spur more participation in the electorate." But 2020 started bleakly for many Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico was hit by multiple strong earthquakes that brought down hundreds of homes, schools and small businesses in January, followed by over 9,800 tremors. Two months later, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Coronavirus-related closings resulted in widespread unemployment and food insecurity and a shoddy transition to remote learning.

IMAGE: Earthquake in Guanica, Puerto Rico
A collapsed home after an earthquake in Guanica, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 7.Reuters TV

But failures in the local government's response to the earthquakes and the pandemic could trigger the same dismay that led to low voter turnout in 2016, Vargas-Ramos said, although there are some caveats. Both a new electoral law that expanded early voting on the island and a scheduled plebiscite on statehood could help boost turnout in the gubernatorial election.

Voters make their choices

Iraida Quiñones, a savvy and energetic 85-year-old, still remembers the day in 1952 that Luis Muñoz Marín officially declared the formation of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports Puerto Rico's current status as a U.S. commonwealth, or territory.

"I even have a photo, in the bureau right next to me, of Muñoz Marín announcing the 'Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico,'" Quiñones said in Spanish, referring to the official name for the commonwealth government.

Quiñones is among the thousands of Puerto Ricans who have voted early. While she acknowledges that she considered voting for Juan Dalmau, the gubernatorial candidate of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, "because I thought he had very good ideas," she said she wasn't sure it was her best bet to topple the pro-statehood party, which is currently in power.

Image: Inmaculada Concepcion church
A man carries a St. Jude statue from the ruins of the Inmaculada Concepción church after it collapsed in an earthquake in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 7.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP - Getty Images

"I think that the Popular Democratic Party is the only one that can bring down the New Progressive Party. I don't think we can take four more years of the corruption and instability that they bring," said Quiñones, who voted for Popular Democratic Party candidate Carlos "Charlie" Delgado.

But loyal New Progressive Party voters like Miguel Hernández, 47, are ready to show up at the polls Tuesday to help preserve their status in power and vote "yes" in the statehood referendum, which directly asks voters whether Puerto Rico should immediately be admitted into the union as a state. Voters can answer "Yes" or "No."

But the reputation of the New Progressive Party has been marred by failures in disaster responses that triggered an "institutional crisis" after Rosselló, who was a pro-statehood governor, resigned following his private chat scandal, Vargas-Ramos said.

Image: Ricardo Rossello
Ricardo Rosselló, then the governor of Puerto Rico, at a news conference in San Juan in July 2019.Carlos Giusti / AP file

Hernández, a former housing secretary on the island who is pro-statehood, said he feels confident that the party has made great efforts to tell voters that the actions of specific statehood leaders don't reflect the values of the whole party. He'll be voting for the New Progressive Party candidate, Pedro Pierluisi, who defeated interim Gov. Wanda Vázquez in the primaries.

But his two children aren't so convinced.

His 20-year-old son and his 18-year-old daughter, who will be voting for the first time Tuesday, are on the fence about whether they should vote along previous traditional lines.

"What they're really questioning is what's the best way they can use their vote to break down the deep partisanship divide that has persisted between the New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party," Hernandez said in Spanish.

For young voters like Guardado, that means supporting new emerging candidates, so he's ready to vote for Alexandra Lúgaro, 39, of the Citizens' Victory Movement, he said.

"But really, the most important thing in this election is for voters to demonstrate that we aren't voting blindly in support of an ideology that parties have been touting for decades — and haven't done anything," Guardado said. "We need to vote for candidates looking to solve issues in a way that could immediately improve our lives."

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