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Last night the island of Puerto Rico experienced a historic election. Not only did Puerto Ricans go to the polls to vote for Governor, Resident Commissioner, and other legislative positions, they also voted in yet another non-binding plebiscite that tried to determine whether Puerto Ricans favored its current commonwealth relationship with the United States, and if not, whether it favored statehood, independence, or associated free state.

The biggest news of the night was that Republican pro-statehood incumbent governor Luis Fortuño of the island’s New Progressive Party (PNP) lost his re-election bid to Alejandro García Padilla, the Democratic pro-commonwealth challenger of the island’s Popular Democratic Party (PPD). The independence candidate, Juan Dalmau, as well as the other third-party candidates, didn’t even play a role in the tally, which is still being counted. The following screen shot showed the latest results as of this morning, with over 96% of the precincts reporting.

 

The Fortuño loss confirmed what many Puerto Ricans had said all along: his policies and personality were too polarizing. While he was being praised by FOX News for being a new Latino conservative, Fortuño could not break away from his critics and detractors. Double-digit unemployment and a consensus that Puerto Rico was heading in the wrong direction, a Gasoducto project gone bad, and the Ley 7 protests gave García Padilla the little boost he needed. Of course, it wasn’t a landslide and with pro-statehood Democrat PNPer Pedro Pierluisi winning his re-election bid for Resident Commissioner, the Fortuño loss is not a clear mandate for García Padilla. He is going to have to work with the PNP since the role of Resident Commissioner (the island’s non-voting member in Congress) is seen as the island’s second-in-command. Pierluisi is Puerto Rico’s Washington voice and the uneasy alliance between the PPD and PNP will be interesting to watch, to say the least.

Yet I will argue that this is all a good thing for Puerto Rico, since no matter what García Padilla or the PPD are saying today, the island’s formal Washington-San Juan relationship is now a bipartisan status  issue (it doesn’t hurt that both García Padilla and Pierluisi are Democrats). And given the results of the plebiscite, that is a good thing. A really good thing.

Which brings us to the status questions, and why in the end, Puerto Rico wins.

Here are the latest results. Question 1 basically asked if Puerto Ricans prefer to keep the status quo (commonwealth) or reject. The status quo was rejected. (FYI, there were over 64,000 blank votes, more to come on that.)

 

García Padilla, Puerto Rico’s governor-elect, favored a YES vote. He lost.

When it came to what options Puerto Ricans favored (statehood, independence, free associated state), here are the latest results:

Statehood was what Fortuño favored, and so did Pierluisi. So in essence, Fortuño won this one. However, it gets complicated when one takes into account that over 468,000 votes (so far) were blank for this category, which is the strategy García Padilla declared. Because a blank vote meant that you were voting for the status quo, which by the way was already rejected in Question 1. Therefore if you take into the account the blank votes, here is where it stands:

 

Let’s face it, García Padilla made a strategic mistake on his part, and that is actually great thing for Puerto Rico. Here is why: Question 1 basically said NO to the status quo, which is what García Padilla favored. Question 2, which only listed three options (BLANK was not an option), made statehood the winner. As uncomfortable as that makes García Padilla today, the reality is that political games that telling people not to vote backfired.

Voting BLANK doesn’t count. It doesn’t mean anything. It just means BLANK. It means you didn’t want to vote or even provide an honest choice, especially since Question 1 already rejected the status quo or the BLANK people were trying to defend in Question 2.

If the PPD were smart and savvy about Question 2 and if they wanted to have statehood lose the vote, they should have pushed for either independence or associated free state, or they would have initiated a real write-in campaign for the status quo. But they didn’t, and this morning they are left defending a political system that around 1 million Puerto Ricans don’t want and a status option the PPD can’t support. Already, García Padilla has lost control of the status agenda. He will be forced to resolve it by engaging those who favor other options.

So governor-elect García Padilla needs to be careful right now. He cannot start his administration by refuting and ignoring the results of the plebiscite. He will be making a huge mistake in putting the political history of the PPD ahead of a vote that clearly says that the status quo must change. I am not suggesting that García Padilla should all of a sudden push for statehood, but what he SHOULD do his first day in office in tell Pierluisi to demand that Congress move the process on resolving Puerto Rico’s political status. Staying stuck in the past will keep the island in neutral and eventually going backwards, instead of doing the right thing and putting the people over one political party’s stubborn preference.

Many Puerto Ricans will criticize Fortuño, and those criticisms have merit, but Fortuño should be commended for establishing a plebiscite process that rejected the status quo and initiated a real tangible dialogue about where Puerto Rico goes next. García Padilla, if he is smart enough, could actually go down as the Governor who finally moved the needle on the island’s status and resolved it. He can also thank Fortuño for that because that is why leaders do: sacrifice politics for the greater good, even if it means losing your own election.

Now for a different take on this, read what my dear friend Gil the Genius has to say about it. This time around, we follow different paths about yesterday’s results and come to the same conclusions: we need more “adults” in Puerto Rican politics. The PPD leadership missed a huge opportunity to be “adults” and to clarify the plebiscite question by actually fully participating in it, instead of trying to be clever about it. Being clever is the old way. Being honest about where Puerto Rico goes next is the new way. Here is to the new way. It it will win.

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Tonight, Puerto Rico’s Noticias 24/7 broadcast a debate to discuss the island’s upcoming November 6 political status plebiscite. The moderated forum featured pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuño, pro-independence candidate for governor Juan Dalmau, and  Luis Delgado, who supports a freely associated sovereign state.

I could get into the details and try to encapsulate decades of political status history into this post, but that would only complicate matters. All you need to know is this: Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth (some would say “colony”) of the United States since 1952 and a US territory (some would say “colony) since American troops landed (some would say “invaded”) on the island in 1898. In 1917, Puerto Ricans became (some would say “forced to become”) US citizens. On the island, Puerto Ricans do not have the same political rights as American citizens who live on the mainland. To some, this only proves how colonial Puerto Rico is. To others, this confirms that Puerto Ricans on the island are just second-class American citizens stuck in status limbo. Add to the fact that Puerto Ricans on the island fight for the United States, receive federal benefits and entitlements from the US, but then represent Puerto Rico in the Olympics, cry when Miss Puerto Rico is named Miss Universe, have immense pride in their boricua-ness, and are still a people with a strong national identity, and you can see how complicated this issue really is.

In addition, let’s mention that some Americans would rather cut off Puerto Rico from the federal rolls even though generations of Puerto Ricans have defended Americans’ rights and freedoms, and it gets really complicated. Wait a minute, there is a Spanish-speaking island that is part of the United States? When did that happen and why are we allowing it to happen? You get the idea. (For more on this anti-Puerto Rican sentiment in the United States, you can read a column I wrote over a year ago.)

Finally, since the plebiscite is non-binding, and in essence nothing could ever happen until the US Congress decides to reopen the status process for Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans are literally voting for an issue they have no control over. Congress owns you, Puerto Rico. At least for now.

The whole status question is… complicated. Like really complicated.

At tonight’s debate it got even more complicated because not everyone’s position was represented. You see, the first part of the two-question plebiscite asks Puerto Ricans if they would like to maintain the current territorial relationship with the United States. The three debate participants who accepted Noticias 24/7’s invitation all agreed that NO is the only option for Puerto Ricans. The one person favoring a YES vote, the Popular Party’s Alejandro García Padilla, Fortuño’s main challenger in the gubernatorial election (also on November 6), didn’t even show up at the debate. You would think that García Padilla knew about a poll where 51% of Puerto Ricans actually favor a YES vote to the first question, and you would also think that if this were his position, he would have had the political courage to get up in front of a televised debate and defend his position. Especially when the guy you want to defeat in a few weeks is also debating. García Padilla didn’t, and it was a costly mistake. I actually think Fortuño will win the governor’s race now.

Alejandro García Padilla

And I also think that García Padilla’s absence hurt the entire YES position as well. While Fortuño, Dalmau, and Delgado could all agree on a NO vote even though they would disagree on the second part of the plebiscite—which asks voters to choose either statehood, independence or freely associated sovereign state—tonight’s debate proved to me that a NO vote is now the only option for Puerto Ricans. Why? Because in the end, even though Congress doesn’t have to do anything, a public vote that would reject the island’s current status will get attention. Voting NO gives Puerto Ricans a chance that Congress would maybe revisit the status question. Voting YES would keep the status quo and last time I checked, this commonwealth ride needs to end. Fortuño, Dalmau, and Delgado would concur. Puerto Rico really hasn’t improved at all and the “colonially entitled society” is still reality. Now I could have been convinced that a YES vote would actually still be possible, but the guy who supports the YES vote wasn’t at the debate. Fail.

As for Delgado and his position on a “freely associated sovereign state?” Let’s just start with the term. It’s way too long. However, in theory, this status option is the best of both worlds: it allows for Puerto Rico to have a more flexible arrangement with the United States without having Puerto Ricans lose their US citizenship (at least that is what Delgado and others hope). Less dependence on the US economy could occur, since it would give Puerto Rico the ability to negotiate with the US on issues pertaining to the island. For example, Puerto Rican ports could be open to ships from others countries, allowing for more economic opportunities. This arrangement would also maintain many of the things that make Puerto Rico unique, both linguistically and culturally.

Now there is theory and then there is the selling of that theory. I thought that Delgado didn’t do a great job selling this option to Puerto Ricans. It felt muddied and too complex. I can’t recall if Delgado really presented a concrete example or an explanation that basically tried to answer the question that always hounds this option: how is this different from the current setup? And will Puerto Ricans really maintain their US citizenship in this new scenario? Delgado was correct in saying that a NO vote is the way to go for the first part of the plebiscite, but in his push to promote his option, his biggest point was that Puerto Rico would work with the United States to determine its destiny. Couldn’t we just do that now? What is to stop us from just determining our own destiny and then letting the US know our intentions? We really need a vote for that?

Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño

Fortuño, quite frankly, gave the most coherent argument, even though it was an argument that, at times, felt like a politician overpromising the world. Fortuño—who is facing a very tough re-election campaign (we will see after tonight’s gaffe by García Padilla) and a Puerto Rican economy that is still stuck—basically used the promise of statehood as the cure-all for Puerto Rico’s problems. Need jobs? Let’s become a state. Want more federal money? Let’s become a state. Let’s lower the crime rate? Statehood is the only option.

I thought Fortuño did give the best line of the night when he shared his thoughts about the status quo: “I believe Puerto Ricans will reject what holds us back.” I believe that, too. Most Puerto Ricans I know feel that change must indeed happen, and with García Padilla not attending the debate, his absence only solidified that need for change.

The governor’s strongest argument for statehood should have been the only one he should have used: equal rights and political representation. In essence, that is the biggest prize—Puerto Rico could get six-seven members of the House of Representatives, two Senators, and also the right to vote for President. No one can question that, even though Fortuño won’t let Puerto Ricans know that many Americans aren’t really gung-ho about a predominantly Spanish-speaking state of the Union.

Furthermore, Fortuño was savvy enough to know that many Puerto Ricans living on the mainland (particularly those in Florida) were watching the debate, so he made it a point to remind people (twice) that Mitt Romney has already promised that if Puerto Ricans vote NO on part 1 and STATEHOOD on part 2 and if Romney got elected President, a new President Romney would begin the statehood process. That sure are a lot of “ifs.”

And Fortuño really stretched the statehood hard sell by saying that not only will Puerto Ricans get more federal aid (more than 2 billion dollars), they won’t really need to pay federal taxes, since most Puerto Ricans don’t earn enough to pay federal taxes. Yes, this is coming from a Republican governor, and the last time I checked, Republicans in general don’t like the fact that 47% of Americans aren’t paying taxes right now. Weird, huh? Welcome to Puerto Rico, where down is up and up is down.

The original Puerto Rican flag flown during the Grito de Lares in Lares, PR, 1868

Which brings me to Dalmau, the standard-bearer for Puerto Rico’s Independence Party. Dalmau is sharp and I have to say that his points about Puerto Rico’s highly dependent economic relationship with the United States and how Puerto Rico is seen by many as just another playground of US corporations are good ones. Has Puerto Rico’s progress been snuffed because we are still a US colony? Many would agree, and it would be hard to argue against that. In addition, Dalmau’s distinction between citizenship and nationalism and how they are not the same also resonated. He was also quick to point out the island’s long and vibrant history, as well as the legacy many of its independence leaders have formed.

Yet Dalmau missed one very important point: how will Puerto Rico succeed once it becomes independent? Why didn’t he talk more about that? In the end, Dalmau didn’t give many specifics and that is the one issue that still troubles many when it comes to independence. It still feels like unchartered territory.

Finally, Dalmau’s critique of Puerto Rico being the world’s “last colony” will always speak to the hearts of many Puerto Ricans. But how effective is this call to elevate the colony to a new status when in the end Dalmau is just as passive as everybody else? Has the repression of the independence movement in Puerto Rico really succeeded? It appears so, since Dalmau would rather participate in a plebiscite that is still dependent on the United States instead of taking control of the plebiscite and demanding that the will of Puerto Ricans be heard.

And that is the biggest problem with tonight’s debate. All three speakers (and the guy who wasn’t there) were never active with their comments and remarks. It was all about pushing for a non-binding vote that may or may not send a message to the United States. The debate and the politics surrounding it still assume that the United States is the Big Daddy and Puerto Ricans are just kids asking for the car keys. What if Daddy gets angry? What do we do then?

True political courage and leadership occur when people step away from the same talking points that got them to where they are and begin to literally alter the discourse. I would have had more respect for all the speakers tonight if they stood there and announced that the plebiscite would be binding and it would lead to real self-determination. I would have had more respect if the speakers told people that they should have their family members living on the mainland begin to pressure elected officials in Congress and called for a binding vote. I would have had more respect if the speakers tonight took control of their destiny. Now. Like right now. What would have been more powerful—a televised debate that didn’t reveal anything new or a rally among all of the island’s political parties live streaming into Washington DC saying that Puerto Ricans’ voices must be heard?

Instead, Puerto Rico is still playing games and the biggest charade is the question of political status. No one is truly taking this seriously because it is all part of a system that has been central to the island’s politics for decades. Just dangle illusions of status and maybe just maybe the United States will listen to us.

Tonight, the people of Puerto Rico could have screamed in unison: ¡BASTA YA! Our destiny is in our hands and no one else’s. However, all I heard were the same old tired whimpers. I am done listening to the arguments of the past. Are you? And if so, what are you going to do about it?

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Now it gets interesting. Just a month before Puerto Ricans get to determine the fate of incumbent pro-statehood Republican governor Luis Fortuño as well as vote on yet another non-binding political status plebiscite, today’s poll by El Nuevo Día (the island’s largest newspaper) has Fortuño trailing pro-commonwealth Democratic challenger Alejandro García Padilla by just two points, 41%-39%.

The poll, published today, suggests that Fortuño continues to gain as he seeks his second term as Puerto Rico’s governor. According to reports, García Padilla was leading by 5 percentage points after an August poll and by 7 percentage points after a poll in May. Fortuño, who favors statehood for Puerto Rico and is head of the island’s New Progressive Party, has recently turned his campaign push as a push for statehood, even though the upcoming plebiscite—held the same day as the elections—would be non-binding, meaning that the US Congress would still have to decide Puerto Rico’s political status and while Mitt Romney has promised that if Puerto Ricans chose statehood in the plebiscite he would push for the island’s entry into the Union, President Obama went on record last year to say that the plebiscite’s results would have to be pretty definitive before Congress could act.

As for Puerto Rico’s Independentista candidate Juan Dalmau? According to the latest poll, he is still stuck at 4%. That is less than those who told said they were still undecided (6%). Ouch.

So, in the end, what can be said about where Puerto Rico’s race stands? Let’s just say this: In the end, Fortuño, the Republican, is like President Obama, the Democrat. Both are trying to tell voters that things are getting better, and they both have a tough case to make. Fortuño can also dangle the fantasy of statehood, which is still attractive to about 40%-45% of the island.

García Padilla is a lot like Romney. Not the greatest of candidates. But just like Romney, if García Padilla keeps pounding Fortuño’s record, just like Romney is pounding Obama’s, García Padilla (and Romney) just might win. But polls are polls, and who knows what will happen on November 6. What we can guarantee is this: it should make for an intense night, both on the mainland and on the island.

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In its purest form, politics is all about taking risks. Without taking risks, you can’t impact change. This past Sunday in Puerto Rico, Governor Luis Fortuño and the rest of the island’s New Progressive Party took a risk. They lost. Big time.

At the same time, Fortuño’s opponent in the upcoming November elections for governor, Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party, tried to play it safe and really didn’t take a risk. He lost as well.

So much can be said about the surprising results in Sunday’s vote that asked Puerto Ricans to consider two changes to its Constitution: one referendum that would “have reduced have reduced the size of the U.S. territory’s legislature” and another that would have “given judges the right to deny bail in certain murder cases.” Both YES votes were leading by wide margins in the pre-voting polls, according to El Nuevo Día, yet when the results were official on Sunday evening, the NO votes had won: 54%-46% against the legislative change and 55%-45% against the bail measure.

Fortuño and the rest of pro-statehood PNP had pushed hard to get YES votes in both measures. The legislative reform, if it passed, would have given Fortuño a huge boost in his “small government” philosophy and he would have been hailed as a conservative hero at next week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, where he will be a featured speaker. The bail reform would have been seen as another accomplishment of Fortuño’s plan to reduce violent crime on the island, which saw 1,117 murders last year and has become victim to a growing drug trade.

García Padilla, who is currently leading Fortuño by 5 points in the latest polls for governor, also favored a double YES vote, and it is clear that in his mind he was making a calculated political bet, since all the mainstream pre-election polling on the measures showed both measures passing. García Padilla played it safe, perhaps too safe, since if he had the courage and know-how to read where the island’s voters were going to vote on the issue, there is no doubt that if he had favored a double NO vote (like many of his PPD colleagues), his quest to become the island’s newest governor would have been a slam dunk.

In the end, this surprise result was all about Puerto Ricans and how the message to vote NO twice spread throughout the island, particularly in social media, where tweets, posts, emails, videos, and shares calling for two NO votes took a life of their own. The push to vote NO had everything to do with the rights granted in Puerto Rico’s Constitution and how those rights still mattered. When I spoke about this vote last month on NPR, I always felt that the Fortuño administration and the two major parties pushing for YES votes were just window dressing and not really attacking the island’s real problems.

These two leaders literally did not see Sunday’s results coming, and that is a good thing. Politicians tend to get comfortable and lose focus. And maybe the vote still does matter.

Sunday night, Fortuño downplayed his losses, especially the one on legislative reform (he said very little, if nothing about it), and focused instead on fighting the good fight and standing behind the victims who have lost loved ones to violent crime. That is admirable. However, it is still ironic.

Fortuño’s push to limit rights of all citizens, even after changes to the island’s penal code were seen by some as unconstitutional, is a bit like the United States’s struggle over gun control. Fortuño the conservative was trying to limit people’s constitutional rights in the name of public order and safety. Was a new bail measure an effective deterrent? Or is a more serious debate about the reasons why crime is still major concern in Puerto Rico still needed? Maybe this vote will force the Fortuños and the García Padillas of the world to stop looking at band-aid solutions and start looking at ways to transform the island into a new chapter. I can only hope.

So in the end, where does Fortuño go from here? Does he even have a political future in Puerto Rico? My guess is no. He is probably already thinking of how he can position himself in the US as an “up and coming” Latino conservative, since the risk he took did not play out. Fortuño will be speaking at the RNC, a defeated politician who had to take a gamble if he was serious of winning a second term. He might be able to gain some points with a new unfamiliar audience who will see him as a rising star of the GOP, but on the island he is now seen as a loser.

As for García Padilla, the only thing he has going for himself is that he is not Fortuño, and unless a wave of change sweeps through Puerto Rico in the next three months before the November election and the other political parties who benefited from Sunday’s results (like the island’s independence party) win more hearts and minds, García Padilla will become the island’s new governor. Maybe this past Sunday might be the political lesson he needed to pass to make sure he learns to lead and not just be safe, since right now, the island needs leadership that still take risks. But they better take them for the right reasons.

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