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The Post Standard/Herald-Journal

The Political Status Of Puerto Rico Has Proven Very Successful Voting, Puerto Rican-Style; High Voter Participation, Media Saturation Coverage The Norm

By Jorge Romeu

December 11, 2003
Copyright ©2003
Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

[Last November] Puerto Rico had its primary elections, where party candidates for governor, resident commissioner in the U.S. Congress (representative of the island's government, with a voice but no vote) and mayor of San Juan, among others, were selected.

I took advantage of traveling there to visit family and to give a talk at the university - whose school of engineering is enhancing its ties with Syracuse University - to explore further their primary process and to establish some comparisons with our own elections.

Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession in 1898, after the Spanish- American War. Before that time, the island had an autonomous government under Spain, and its political parties continued to operate under U.S. administration. One of the most important, the Liberal Party, was led by don Luis Munoz Rivera. His son, don Luis Munoz Marin, founded the Partido Popular Democratico. Known as "Populares," it obtained commonwealth status for Puerto Rico in 1952.

Munoz Marin was governor of the island from 1948 to 1964, when he retired. During that time, he campaigned feverishly in favor of the "jibaro," the Puerto Rican peasants, obtaining many advances for them. If you travel throughout the island's mountainous center today, you will find that electricity, water and other services are ubiquitous in the countryside and that schooling is universal. The Populares are affiliated with the Democratic Party.

The second largest political organization is the Partido Nuevo Progresista, a pro-statehood party. It was founded in the mid-1960s by don Luis Ferre, who passed away shortly before these primaries at 90-plus years of age. The PNP, which is affiliated with the Republican Party, has governed Puerto Rico several times, most recently under Dr. Pedro Rosello, twice governor until the Populares beat him in 2002.

There is a third, small, pro-independence party. Headed by don Pedro Albizu Campos in the 1940s and 1950s, it organized several violent actions on the island and the U.S. mainland. As a result, it lost much support and today barely gets the minimum votes required by law to remain active and have congressional representation.

Puerto Ricans are evenly divided between the two larger parties, and election time always is very important. This time it was more so, due to the intense political competition between former governor Rosello and his former secretary of transportation and current PNP president, Carlos Pesquera. There were accusations of improper handling of funds for public works undertaken during Rosello's administration. Pesquera promoted himself as the candidate who would rescue the good name of the PNP. In the end, he was beaten by Rosello by a three-to-one margin.

Within the Populares there was no competition for governor, for the incumbent, Sila Calderon, did not seek re-election. Candidate Anibal Acevedo had the full support of his party, as did the candidate for mayor of San Juan, Mr. Eduardo Bhatia, who is of Indian descent (there is a large and growing Indian population).

The most exciting aspect of Puerto Rican elections is the way they take place. There are literally hundreds of street gatherings across the island where people, especially the younger generations, actively participate. Speeches of party hopefuls followed by dancing in the streets, automobile caravans that block the roads, and minute- by-minute coverage by radio and TV stations are the norm. Voting and participation are very high, perhaps in the 70 percent range.

The mechanics of the electoral process are also very different from the United States. During the primaries, each party staffs its own electoral office, and party registration is on a walk-in basis. A voter enters the office, shows the electoral credential (with photo ID) and fills a party registration form. Then the voter casts his or her vote.

Of course, one can vote only once, and for one party only. Computerized records prevent irregularities in the voting process.

The political status of Puerto Rico has proven very successful. As a result, it is one of the most stable societies in Latin America. Its economic and political ties with the United States likely have enhanced such political stability and without question, much of its economic development. On the other hand, its status as a commonwealth has allowed a high degree of internal autonomy and helped maintain its Spanish language and culture. No wonder that on every occasion a plebiscite for becoming the 51st U.S. state has come up, Puerto Ricans have opted for remaining an "Estado Libre Asociado."

Jorge Luis Romeu lives in Syracuse and is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent.

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