Meet Alexandra Lúgaro, the Unlikely Independent Candidate Transforming Puerto Rico’s Governor’s Race

Read more

Alexandra Lúgaro cuts a striking image for a politician. At 35 years old, she has the well-balanced features and impeccably styled coiffure of a Latin pop star. Her wardrobe is sophisticated and fashion forward, with plunging necklines brought to the brink of propriety with an almost scientific precision. When she speaks, she trains her gaze with confidence and authority, underlining her Caribbean-inflected Spanish with the emphatic gestures of a Puerto Rican matriarch. And over the last year, the young lawyer, educational consultant, and independent gubernatorial candidate has led an improbable electoral revolt that has shaken Puerto Rico’s two party system to the core.

Since the establishment of the commonwealth in 1952, Puerto Rico has been governed by an almost mechanical alternation of political parties identified by their stance on the island’s slippery and perennially controversial status. On one end, the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD or Populares) is aligned with the status quo codified by party founder and Puerto Rican political icon Luis Muñoz Marín; on the other, the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) advocates full integration with the US as the 51st state.

With rare exceptions, these parties pass the baton every four years then go about dismantling the work done by the previous administration – a process that often includes firing perfectly competent civil servants and shutting down newly formed agencies in the name of political payback. Meanwhile, the beleaguered Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP) pushes its social-democratic, anti-colonial message each election cycle with lukewarm results; and once in a blue moon, a quixotic independent candidate makes a stillborn push for the governorship.

That is, until Alexandra Lúgaro came along. A doctoral candidate in law at the Universidad Compultense de Madrid and outspoken educational advocate on the island, Lúgaro shocked the establishment last year when she became the first female independent candidate in Puerto Rican history. But few could have imagined that the ambitious young challenger with the Hollywood looks would ultimately fragment the PPD and PIP’s electoral bases and secure herself an unprecedented third place standing in the polls.

Cutting through the stranglehold of the established media channels has been key to Lúgaro’s success. In the months after announcing her candidacy, Lúgaro amassed a social media following that dwarfs the combined totals of all three major parties, with over 350,000 followers on Facebook alone. She’s made masterful use of Facebook live, where she often expounds on policy issues or current events from the driver’s seat of her car, and each video easily racks up hundreds of thousands of views with thousands more comments and reactions. It’s no surprise then, that Lúgaro has found her footing principally among millennials, who have taken as much to the candidate’s savvy use of social media as they have to her common-sense and ideologically fluid message.

Indeed, in stark contrast to the three traditional parties, Lúgaro makes little reference to political status in her interviews and stump speeches, aligning herself with a new breed of status-neutral politicians that includes the newly-founded Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (PPT) and fellow independent candidate Manuel Cidre. Instead, she focuses her rhetorical energies on the island’s educational crisis, showcasing her expertise in the field and raising the profile of an oft-ignored social issue that she believes to be the foundation of Puerto Rico’s future prosperity.

But, while one might be tempted to pigeonhole Lúgaro as a single-issue candidate, she has also stirred Puerto Rico’s political pot by advocating vocally for legal marijuana and LGBT rights, while her frank discussion of atheism recently generated heated debate across the island and won her many sympathizers. Plus, in a particularly unsavory campaign season tainted by massive corruption scandals, she has railed against the government’s lack of transparency, while espousing a sort of shapeshifting economic policy that leans toward neo-liberal with some progressive trappings.

In a recent poll by Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Día, Lúgaro’s impact was made starkly clear: her support stood at 13%, exactly the deficit PPD candidate David Bernier needed to overcome in order to defeat his first-place rival from the PNP, Ricky Roselló. Combined with Manuel Cidre, the percentage supporting Puerto Rico’s independent candidates stood at 22% – just shy of Bernier’s own 28%. Tellingly, a closer look at Lúgaro’s support also reveals that the lion’s share comes from potential voters between 18 and 34 years old, leading many pundits to reflect on an impending millennial rebellion at the voting booth.

Yet, it seems clear that Lúgaro won’t overtake Roselló’s commanding 40% lead over the next few days, despite her somewhat presumptuous calls for Bernier to throw in the towel and support her candidacy. Her own campaign has been beset by an unending litany of scandals ranging from gossip-column fodder to more worrying ties to shady consulting firms; while many critics have decried her ambiguous policy positions as glossed-over versions of the traditional two-party platitudes. What is not clear, however, is how Lúgaro’s legacy will play out in the future electoral habits of a generation marked by intractable economic recession and the total failure of the island’s governing class.

Photo: El Nuevo Día
Read more

In the end, Lúgaro’s candidacy has shown that political status is no longer the convenient ideological football it was for generations past, and Puerto Ricans voters are eager to hear thoughtful solutions to bread-and-butter issues. While status may indeed be intimately bound up with Puerto Rico’s social and economic fortunes, it has also defined generations of political inaction that have given rise to the word politiqueo – or “politicking” – as the noun of choice to describe the island’s political process (its practitioners, by extension, tend to be labeled politiqueros – or “politickers” – rather than simply “politicians.”)

Indeed, island residents have shown an unprecedented receptivity to the prospect of a new political party, and Lúgaro’s pioneering campaign – not to speak to her virtues or defects as a candidate – may very well signify a tectonic shift in Puerto Rican political discourse. In this way, candidates may soon be judged by their proposed solutions to the island’s most pressing concerns – repayment of the debt, economic development, social justice, criminality, corruption – rather than their professed outlook on Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States.

Many will rightfully point out that the two are inextricably bound up with one another, but perhaps the process of dismantling Puerto Rico’s colonial straightjacket begins with a responsive political system working for the best interest of Puerto Rican society – regardless of ideology. With one of the two traditional parties slated to carry this election yet again, it seems we’ll have to wait until 2020 to know for sure.