Unbudging Partisanship: How it has exacerbated bad governance in Puerto Rico

by Patricia Quintero Estades

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and I grew up finding the showy, grand, and loud political campaigns of every election cycle normal. I grew accustomed to political campaigns that are unlike anything I have seen in mainland U.S., except in the context of rival sports teams and championship parades.

The people rally in the streets, in motorcades or “caravanas” of pick-up trucks mounted with loudspeakers blasting the party’s catchiest jingle. Maybe this wouldn’t be so shocking if not for the fact that these caravanas happen in every municipality, throughout the island for months and months preceding the election. The candidates ride in the back of these pick-up trucks dancing or waving to onlookers as if they were in a parade.

Looking back, it seems clear to me that these campaigns were largely about showmanship—about appearing grandiose and stirring up excitement rather than about promoting ideas or a serious platform.  I speak in the past tense only because I have not lived in Puerto Rico for over five years. This type of campaigning is still very much the norm.

These campaigns are a mere reflection of the type of government that we have been forming in Puerto Rico for decades; a party-centered way of governance that disregards pragmatism and long term policy implementation. Partisanship in Puerto Rico is fanatical. I see it as a tale of Blues against Reds in a never-ending battle for the next four years in office. As they battle it out, the island crumbles.

Photo credit: Angel Xavier Villa-Vargas https://www.flickr.com/photos/xavierito/15437005737
Photo credit: Angel Xavier Villa-Vargas https://www.flickr.com/photos/xavierito/15437005737

When talking about governance in Puerto Rico, it is important to consider the island’s political status. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, and the current political status is that of a “free associated state” or a commonwealth. This status is vague, complicated, and often problematic. Many joke that Puerto Rico is neither free, associated, or a state. When I use the term “political status,” I am referring to the island’s relationship with the United States. Many in Puerto Rico favor statehood, others favor our current status (with or without some modifications), and some favor independence (sovereignty).

In Puerto Rico, the traditional political parties are organized by the political status that they endorse for the island. The two majority parties are the pro-statehood party, Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP); and the pro-commonwealth (which relationship with the U.S.) party, Partido Popular Democrático (PPD). The idea is that your party affiliation is determined by your preferred status for the future of the island. The third traditional party is the pro-independence party, Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), which has not amassed more than 5% of the votes since 1960.

Puerto Rico has many socio-economic and political issues that stem from many different circumstances. Good leadership is lacking, and there are many other problems stemming from a governmental work culture which lacks efficiency and accountability. While all of these issues have not been directly caused by the wild partisanship that exists, they definitely have been fed and exacerbated by it.

It is becoming a more widely held idea that the rule of these majority parties is hurting effective governance. In a forum called “What to do for Puerto Rico” the former Chief of Staff for our current governor Ingrid Vila, expressed that the first thing she would do to move the country forward is to do away with the two main political parties. This partisanship becomes even more worrisome when party politics are invasive. Bureaucratic government and agency positions are deeply linked to political relationships and nepotism. Party affiliation determines appointments to government positions, government contracts, key positions such as DA, etc.

Last summer, an article published in the Washington Post looked at one of Puerto Rico’s public utilities and pointed out some of the problems mentioned above. It touched on bureaucratic inefficiency as well as the permeation of party politics at every leadership level within a government entity (in this case, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority):

“More than a thousand of these ‘trust employees’ work more — and earn more — when their party is in power. ‘So when your party is in the majority, you might be given more responsibilities, and if it is out of power then you are sent to the basement for four years,’ said former Puerto Rico secretary of state Kenneth McClintock.”

There is such a sense of distrust and antagonism between officials from different parties, every time a new administration comes into power it usually appoints a whole new leadership and generally does away with everything that the previous administration was working on, rather than building on it. This has been constant for over 15 years, as there has not been a two-term governor in that time. Puerto Rico has had four different administrations since 2000. Since 2005, power has gone back and forth between the two main parties each election cycle, bringing a deep sense of instability. It has blocked the adoption of effective long-term policies and projects that the island desperately needs.

Photo credit: Ricymar Photography https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricardo_mangual/6271311504/in/photostream/
Photo credit: Ricymar Photography https://www.flickr.com/photos/ricardo_mangual/6271311504/in/photostream/

Without long term policy planning everything becomes about reelection. Elected officials become primarily concerned with keeping a favorable position in their party because they know that as long as their face is next to their party’s insignia come the November ballot, their chances of getting elected are at worst 50-50. What partisanship foments in Puerto Rico is a system of public servants who are only accountable to their party, instead of their constituents.

Puerto Rican attorney Alexandra Lúgaro is running for governor in 2016 as an independent, largely due to the damage that she thinks this back and forth between the traditional parties has caused. She holds that the best way to create a change in Puerto Rico is to govern with no party affiliation. In the press release announcing her candidacy she stated:

“[e]very four years the projects of the previous administration are destroyed to accommodate the interests of the incoming government, without being evaluated objectively. People vote for the party that represents the political status they prefer, instead of voting for the candidates most qualified to manage the country; this is precisely what has brought us here.”

Voters blindly vote for the party for which they have always voted, which is often the same as the one of their parents’. They vote for a party whose only comprehensive platform is a preference for a political status that it has little power to (possibly even less intention to) change.

Bipartisan cooperation is something that you hear that the U.S. needs as well, and it rings especially true in Puerto Rico where one issue is what divides the parties. The issue of our political status is a central one and it must be dealt with. It is currently holding us back from enjoying powers and benefits that we would have either as a sovereign nation or as a U.S. state. However, it is obvious that choosing the reds or the blues, like we have been doing for over 60 years, will do nothing to change the island’s political status in the four years following the election. Wouldn’t it have changed or be settled by now?

In the meantime, we are unable to work collaboratively to reform our agencies and adopt policies that will be good for the country in the long run. There are many policies that could be adopted to get the island on the right track which have nothing to do with political status; that will not drive the issue in any specific direction. Education, law enforcement, economic recovery: parties are constantly blocking or undoing each other’s initiatives rather than focusing on long-term policy implementation. Now in the midst of a fiscal crisis it is even more unlikely that politicians will start thinking long term.