The often overlooked and forgotten unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico, has a political discourse dominated by the island’s future status. With many areas in the U.S. that send non-voting delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives, perhaps Puerto Rico is the most important of them all. The political dynamic in Puerto Rico is almost entirely separate from the mainland U.S., with different parties who advocate for completely different things. The three main parties, all see Puerto Rico as a different island with a completely different future, and they all revolve around the question of Puerto Rican nationhood. In this article, I will be taking a closer look at these three parties and understanding what they stand for.
For the unaware, Puerto Rico is a small, Spanish speaking island in the Caribbean, which is informally a part of the U.S. Despite the fact that they do not pay federal taxes and are not considered a state in the Union, they have a population of 3,725,789 in the 2010 U.S. Census. That population of 3.7M would place them as the 29th largest state in the Union, above the likes of Nevada, Kansas and Mississippi. However, as an unincorporated territory, they do not vote for the President of the United States but are ruled by him or her, regardless. You will find a map below displaying Puerto Rico's position in the Caribbean:
As a result of having no significant representation in the U.S., the Puerto Ricans have their own Cámara de Representantes (House of Representatives) and Senado (Senate). The main parties within the Puerto Rican political system are not the Democrats or the Republicans, nor are they representative of that same left-right split that we see in mainland U.S. politics. In fact, the three parties are primarily focussed around the question of independence:
Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP)
The biggest party, currently holding the House and the Senate is the Partido Nuevo Progresista (in Spanish) or New Progressive Party (in English). The PNP stands for Puerto Rican statehood. That is the admission of Puerto Rico to the U.S. as an officially recognised state, becoming the 51st to be so. The PNP is arguably the most popular party in Puerto Rico historically, having won the Governorship of the territory (akin to the Presidency) 7 out of the 13 times an election has been held. Furthermore, the PNP holds 21 of the 30 Senatorial seats, 34 of the 51 seats in the House, and 31 of 78 municipalities.
In November 2012, a referendum was held on the status of Puerto Rico, with two separate questions asked. The first, asking whether Puerto Rico should continue in its current territorial agreement with the U.S. The second, asked those who had answered no to the first question which status they would then prefer if the territory were to abandon their current status. The options in this second question were between statehood, free association and independence. The results were as follows:
To the first question: Should Puerto Rico continue its current territorial status?
· Yes - 46%
· No – 54%
To the second question: Which non-territorial option do you prefer?
· Statehood - 61.2%
· Free Association – 33.3%
· Independence – 5.5%
It is clear from the referendum results that the people of Puerto Rico, by a small majority, are unhappy with the current territorial arrangement and that gaining full statehood, to put them on a par with the other 50 states would be the desired option. However, under the U.S. Constitution and the agreements between the U.S. and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the option of forming a free association is not possible, only full statehood and independence are viable. Nonetheless, due to the deep debt the territory is in, the criticism of the ballot’s writing by opposition parties, as well as the vote being non-binding and advisory, no concrete action was taken by Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico’s status as a territory remains as it was. However, this does clearly demonstrate that the PNP’s message is arguably the most popular in the territory and bodes well for them in the future.
Finally, and rather peculiarly, the PNP encourages its members and its elected officials to join a nationally focussed party. Because the PNP is more-or-less entirely focussed on achieving Puerto Rican statehood, wider issues surrounding economics and social attitudes are allowed to be reflected by party member’s choice of national party. For instance, of the PNP’s 7 Governors, 3 have belonged to the Republican Party nationally, and 4 have belonged to the Democratic Party nationally.
Partido Popular Democrático (PPD)
The Popular Democratic Party, as it is known in English, is the second biggest party in Puerto Rican politics. In direct political conflict with the PNP, the PPD argues for the retention of the status quo (i.e. remaining a territory). Known formally as the Pro-Commonwealth movement, its popularity as waned in recent political history, with only 7 seats in the Senate, 15 in the House, but a healthy 51 municipalities. With a further 7 Governors throughout Puerto Rico’s history, they have shared the burden of the Executive branch an equal number of times to their PNP colleagues.
As the most vocal critics of the 2012 Referendum, they asked their supporters to spoil their ballots, and even boycott the referendum. A cunning tactic, which serves to cast doubt and suspicion over the veracity of the results for those in Washington D.C. who would prefer the current Puerto Rican status to remain the same. However, the PNP and many voters would argue, quite fairly, that if you decide to boycott a referendum, then your voice doesn’t get heard.
Nevertheless, the last PPD to act as Governor of Puerto Rico was Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who was elected on the same day the 2012 Referendum took place, which lends some accuracy to the claims that many Puerto Ricans who favour their current status as an unincorporated territory did boycott and thus, invalided the reliability of the referendum. Since Padilla’s term finished in 2017, every Governor of Puerto Rico has belonged to the PNP, however.
When it comes to wider political issues, the PPD also allow their members to decide between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party for their national party affiliation. Although, most PPD members choose to affiliate themselves with the Democratic Party. This is in part due to the PPD’s liberal philosophy, marketing itself as the centrist party whose focus is on the conservation of Puerto Rico’s territory status.
Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP)
Our final Puerto Rican political party offers perhaps the most radical platform: total independence. As we saw from the 2012 Referendum, only 5.5% of voters supported total independence. The Independence Party of Puerto Rico, as they are referred to in English, are solely driven to achieving that end. However, because independence is not very popular at all in the territory, they only have 1 seat in the Senate, 1 in the House with absolutely no municipalities under their control.
By process of elimination, you know by now that the PIP has never held the Governorship of Puerto Rico. Since 2000, the highest share of the vote PIP has ever received was 11.2% in 2000. Since then, their vote share has lingered around the 8% mark. That is not including the 2008 election, in which PIP didn’t even stand a candidate – they still received 5% of the vote – presumably the same 5% that voted for independence in the 2012 Referendum.
On a national level, the PIP membership generally follows the lead of the PPD membership, who move towards the Democratic Party over the Republicans. Truly, PIP sees itself as further left than the PPD, having become affiliated with the Socialist International political organisation in 1994.
So, there you have it…
A brief overview of the politics of Puerto Rico, which has the topic of its status as a U.S. territory right at its heart. When we picture concepts like the Overton Window, we seldom conceptualise them outside of the typical framework of an advanced democracy - a framework in which the question of the very status of your land is in rarely in dispute. The parties of Puerto Rico, which are not limited to the main three I have listed here, constitute a broad and fascinating debate over the future of the country. Puerto Rico is an island very different to the mainland U.S., but no less worthy of forging its own place in the world.