Puerto Rico is in desperate need of a change, and so much about this year’s election cycle serves as proof. In its deep economic crisis, nobody’s happy with the status quo on the island. For the first time ever, a third-party candidate has a genuine chance of being elected governor. And that’s not all that’s unprecedented in the current political landscape.
That lingering $70 billion debt has wrought some tragic statistics: Unemployment hovers close to 12 percent, and more than 150 public schools have closed in the last five years. The cost of living has soared exponentially after raising sales tax to 11.5 percent, a number that that trumps any other U.S. city, and astonishingly high electricity rates that will likely further increase next year. The implementation of PROMESA and its US-appointed fiscal control board looms, and there’s a growing sector that sees it as a colonial tactic of control and abuse—a human rights violation. Protests are ongoing: At universities, on public beaches threatened with privatization, at banks and financial institutions, in the streets of Old San Juan and at the Campamento Contra la Junta, a perpetual occupation in front of the US District Court in Hato Rey established about four months ago.
All of this is underscored by a growing distrust in Puerto Rico’s own government. Last year, the FBI arrested 10 government officials and businessmen charged with bribery and extortion. Anaudi Hernández, a primary fundraiser for the campaign of the current government, Alejandro García Padilla, has seemingly taken the fall, confirming his role in exchanging money and gifts for government positions and contracts. (Unsurprisingly, García Padilla is not running for a second term.)
The radical political climate of now, this growing zeitgeist of disenchantment, is a culmination of all of those forces. Below are three ways this election is unlike any other in Puerto Rico’s history.
Alexandra Lúgaro could be the first independent governor
An attorney running as an independent wouldn’t stand a chance in most scenarios, but the appeal of a political outsider for governor of Puerto Rico is exceptionally high. Alexandra Lúgaro is exactly that, the first in the island’s history to run as an independent—and a recent poll puts her at 14.5 percent. She appeared to galvanize the younger generations at first, focusing on social media to promote her economic plans of legalizing marijuana and challenging the US-imposed cabotage restrictions that have hindered internal growth since 1920. She also pro same-sex marriage, and pro agriculture growth, an issue neglected for so long that imports now comprise about 80 percent of the food supply.
Despite her proposals for sweeping positive change, local media has see-sawed between treating her as a serious candidate and contributing to overwhelmingly sexist commentary on her looks. This week, however, Lúgaro is embroiled in two prickly situations of her own doing. A fiery social media debate is ongoing after having caught flack on Facebook from the organizers of Santurce es Ley, a much-beloved annual independent art fest, for promoting her campaign closing event with a video in which festival murals are prominently featured. Additionally, a video recently surfaced in which she admits she’s atheist. In a culture where the vast majority of the population is either Catholic or Protestant, that may not have been the smartest choice. A bit from that interview that’s overlooked in favor of sensationalism, though, is when she stressed she would not push her own or any religious beliefs on the people she hopes to govern.
Partido del Pueblo Trabajador gains real momentum
This is only the second election that the PPT has participated in; it was founded only six years ago. Having run for governor in 2012 and again this year, Rafael Bernabe is at the forefront of the group, which includes a lot of activists, professors, students and union workers, and is sometimes referred to as Puerto Rico’s version of Bernie Sanders. Socialism and anti-capitalism are thoroughly woven into its principles, as are women’s and LGBT rights. Unlike the pro-statehood Partido Nueva Progresista or the autonomist Partido Popular Democrático, the PPT does not espouse a specific belief regarding Puerto Rico’s status.
One of the party’s slogans this cycle is “Abre paso.” Another, though, is much bolder: #AbajoLaJunta. They proudly promote the party with an image of Mariana Nogales Molinelli, their candidate for Resident Commissioner, raising three fingers in the air Hunger Games-style. At a Nov. 3 televised debate, she took that stance live, and the video immediately began circling dizzily throughout social media. The same night, she and Bernabe sought out millennials and college students with a “Jangueo con Mariana and Bernabe” that kicked off with a question-and-answer session on Facebook Live before literally hanging out at the bars around the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. Nogales Molinelli has also publicly stated that she is an atheist, as well as a longtime supporter of the underground goth and punk scenes. (She’s even endorsed by Fofé Abreu of Circo and Fofé y Los Fetiches.)
The PPT is an alternative to the ruling two-party system in every sense. But while they do overlap with Lúgaro on a few issues, they don’t share the same high profile. Last election, they only earned about 1 percent of the votes. Considering they’d formed only two years prior, though, it was some kind of feat—and evidence that people believe in the party’s message—to have collected the 55,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot. The party actually filed a suit against the State Electoral Commission claiming the current administration actively tried to keep the PPT out fraudulently rejecting new signatures for eligibility in this year’s elections.
The government is indefinitely under the thumb of La Junta de Control Fiscal
The PROMESA legislation gives the oversight board complete power over the local Puerto Rican government. If its members so choose, they could override any initiative, any law. One of the proposals included in the law is lowering the minimum wage for people 25 and under to a dismal $4.25. Should they opt to enact that, the next governor—whoever that may be—couldn’t do much to prevent it. Additionally, any and all new legislation proposed by the Puerto Rican government is required to be reviewed by the oversight board before it can officially be signed into law. In the worst case scenarios, these strict regulations could render the terms of these newly elected officials somewhere between ineffective and totally useless. There’s no end date specified in the law, either.