Puerto Rican Elections: Geography, Drugs and the Broken Status Quo

By Jen Soriano
Nov 9, 2012

The late Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz famously said that it was Mexico’s misfortune to be “so far from God, so close to the United States.” Puerto Rico’s new governor elect, Alejandro García Padilla, believes it’s Puerto Rico’s good 


fortune to be so close to God (he thanked God personally for his election victory) and so close to the United States. But the biggest problem facing García Padilla over the next four years has everything to do with how close Puerto Rico is to the United States.

García Padilla is part of the “status quo” party (the Partido Popular Democratico or PPD http://www.ppdpr.net/), which believes that the current commonwealth status gives Puerto Rico the best of both worlds: U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans and federal benefits like food stamps, along with freedom from federal income tax and some latitude for self-government.

The PPD party’s position on status can be summed up as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The problem is that Puerto Rico’s status quo is broke and severely so. This is why a majority (54% or 51% if you consider "protest ballots" or the number of voters who left this question blank) voted against the current colonial status. This may also be why one third or one fourth of votes chose the relatively new option of sovereign commonwealth (33.3% of 24.6% considering "protest ballots"). As has been analyzed by many since the November 6th vote, the supposed 61% vote for statehood is deceiving and breaks down to around 45% or less than a majority when you factor in protest ballots. This hasn't changed since the past rereferndum in the 90s.

The hype and dominance of debate around statehood has come from the fact that statehood has been aggressively marketed as a sort of cure-all to conditions that are frankly, getting worse under the current commonwealth status. For a choice example of this aggressive statehood marketing campaign, check out the Partido Nuevo Progresista’s (PNP, which in Orwellian fashion, is not ‘progresista’ at all), overblown propaganda video, which ran relentlessly on TV and in movie theaters the month before the plebiscite.

The video is a prime example of how statehood is more of an ideology -- fueled by fear and fetishization of U.S. power -- than a reality that will fix Puerto Rico’s social and economic problems. These problems are many and deep and are entrenched by more than a century of being “so close to the United States” -- a closeness that is geopolitical, economic, cultural and psychological all at once.

In terms of U.S. militarization, this closeness has historically meant 5 things:

•   As a commonwealth, Puerto Rico can ostensibly govern itself when it comes to domestic policies on education, employment, etc. but the island is wholly subject to the U.S. federal government when it comes to foreign policy.

•   Puerto Ricans’ have been forced to exchange able-bodied young people for U.S. citizenship. In other words, the right to US citizenship came at the price of conscription into the US military. 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted to fight WWI. Puerto Ricans were also drafted to fight in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

•   Because of an economy and job market stunted by U.S. colonial policies on trade and land use, the US military has remained an attractive career option for some Puerto Ricans.Since WWII more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans or 5% of the total population of the island has served in the US military. While they provide equal service, Puerto Rican veterans do not receive equal benefits to U.S. veterans from the 50 states.

•    Puerto Rico has been a major military launching pad for U.S. foreign policy in Central America and the Carribbean. U.S. military interventions in Guatemala, Cuba and other Carribean islands including the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Trinidad have been coordinated and launched from Puerto Rico.

•   Puerto Rico has been a testing ground for Air Force and Navy bombing exercises in both Culebra and Vieques.Though the bombing has stopped and the navy has pulled out due to mass movements of the 70s and late 90s/early 2000s, Army and National Guard exercises continue at Fort Buchanan in San Juan - the only active U.S. army base in the Caribbean. The cleanup of toxics and unexploded ordnance in Vieques is slated to continue till 2025, though the U.S. is trying to weasel out of the rest of the cleanup by trying to declare the remaining toxic land a “nature reserve”.

Today, Puerto Rico has become less important as a staging ground for active interventions and containment in the region. As Cuba’s supposed threat has waned and China’s economic and political influence has grown, the U.S. is beginning its pivot to Asia and is continuing its buildup around the Persian Gulf.

A drug sweep in Puerto Rico (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Drugs & militarism

But the misfortune of closeness remains in that Puerto Rico has become a new front for the US war on drugs. According to CNN, “Up to 80% of the drugs that pass through Puerto Rico end up in cities across the eastern seaboard of the United States...and nearly a third of drugs destined for the continental United States pass through the Caribbean.”

Supplying the U.S. drug market has come at a great price for Puerto Ricans. Local authorities estimate that up to 70% of Puerto Rican homicides are drug-related. When you consider the fact that Puerto Rico has a homicide rate higher than the U.S. and Mexico, you get a picture of just how much the island is suffering from the geopolitics of narcotrafficking.

In response, it is telling that crime, violence and security is the first point on Governor-elect García Padilla’s political platform. It is also telling that his primary approaches to solving Puerto Rico’s narcotrafficking and violent crime problems are essentially military ones. He first wants to perform a technological retrofit of the Puerto Rican police complete with military acronyms like FURA and new toys bought from the U.S. like helicopters with high-resolution Gyrocams. He then wants to activate the National Guard to interrupt the flow of drugs and arms. And finally he he wants to employ what I call weapons of mass surveillance including video equipment with feedback systems on public highways and in densely occupied spaces.

His primary approaches to solving Puerto Rico’s narcotrafficking and violent crime problems are essentially military ones

What’s more, the re-elected Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (the Resident Commissioner is Puerto Rico’s voteless observer Congress), who is from the PNP pro-statehood party, has made adamant calls to the U.S. Congress to provide Puerto Rico with its own equivalent of the disastrous U.S.-Mexico anti-trafficking border patrol program, which he calls the “Caribbean Border Initiative”.

So while governor-elect García Padilla and re-elected Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi may grapple with each other along party lines on the question of status, they seem to be relatively united along the lines of military approaches to combat crime violence and narcotrafficking.

This will be a tragic point of unity for Puerto Rico, unless García Padilla and his party take lessons from the failed U.S. war on drugs in Mexico, which even Hilary Clinton admitted has fomented violence while utterly failing to curb the drug trade.

Those lessons applied to Puerto Rico can be summed up as the following: The broken status quo will only get worse with the security plans of the next administration. Instead of militarization and technological solutions, communities and advocates have consistently pointed to the need for sustainable jobs and rigorous police accountability and reform.

Conditions and election results show that it’s time to radically change the broken status quo. Hopefully the new governor and his administration will have the wisdom to listen to -- not wage war on -- its own people.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jen Soriano is a Pinay writer, communications strategist, and musician based in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  She is communications coordinator for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, an alliance of mass-based organizations connecting local struggles in the U.S. with international movements for human rights, economic justice, and global well-being.  She is also a co-founder and board chair of the Center for Media Justice.

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