Puerto Rico’s Plebiscite

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Rafael Bernabe

THE NOVEMBER 14 PLEBISCITE in Puerto Rico was held, allegedly, for the electorate to express its preference regarding Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States—what on the island is normally referred to as the “status question.” Although described as a plebiscite or referendum and presented by its promoters as an act of self-determination, the results of this exercise, organized by the Puerto Rican government, were not to be binding on Congress, on any agency of the U.S. government or even on the Puerto Rican government itself.

This fact led many critics to argue that the plebiscite was in fact a very expensive poll and no more. This may be true. Yet the plebiscite’s consequences and effects should not be taken lightly.

The electorate was given an opportunity to vote for one of three options: independence, statehood or an enhanced version of the existing Estado Libre Asociado (ELA—associated republic). Throughout the campaign preceding the plebiscite, the defense of each formula was monopolized by the three electoral parties which exist on the island: The ruling Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) for statehood, the Partido Popular Democratico (PPD) for Estado Libre Asociado, and the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno (PIP) for independence.

Over 75% of the registered voters participated in the plebiscite, with the following results:

Estado Libre Asociado recieved 823,258 votes or 48.4%
Statehood received 785,859, which was 46.2%
Independence received 75,253, or 4.4%

To better understand the causes and significance of these results, we must first examine the context in which the plebiscite was held.

A Plebiscite Organized by the PNP

The plebiscite was fundamentally an initiative of the ruling pro-statehood PNP It is not difficult to see several reasons why its leadership chose to conduct a plebiscite at this time:

• In less than two years the PNP had obtained two significant electoral victories. In the December 1991 referendum the electorate was asked to vote YES or NO to a statement asking that any future status (whether statehood, independence, some form of autonomy, or ELA) guarantee Puerto Ricans their language and culture as well as U.S. citizenship, among other things.

The 1991 referendum was organized by the then ruling PPD with the evident objective of blocking the statehood option—or at least making such a move difficult The PNP, which called for a NO vote, successfully presented the YES vote as one for separation from the United States, and even supporting independence. Although the PNP was not in office—and in spite of the fact that the PPD, the PIP and the Partido Socialista Puertorriqueno (PSP) called for a YES vote—the NO won the referendum handily.

This was an impressive victory for the PNP, serving as a platform to launch its campaign for the general elections of 1992. This, in turn, became the PNP’s second electoral victory as Pedro Rossello defeated the PPD’s candidate for governor, Victoria Munoz Mendoza. For the PPD, the 1992 election was the worst electoral defeat in its history.

• The PNP could also count on the relative popularity of Governor Rossello, if only because he is a relatively new face in Puerto Rican politics. Rossello ably projected himself as the representative of a new generation. Evidently the PNP hoped that his popularity would translate itself into votes for statehood.

• The PNP strategists could also count on the disorganization of its opponents. The electoral defeats of 1991 and 1992 had turned the PPD into what seemed like a leaderless, demoralized and financially troubled organization. A third defeat—its enemies hoped—could even threaten its survival as a significant organization, thus creating the conditions, if not necessarily for statehood, then at least for a long period of PNP control.

• The PNP could, furthermore, be confident that ever since the 1967 plebiscite, in which statehood obtained 38% of the votes, support for that formula had risen significantly. Although hard to determine how much support statehood actually enjoyed, the results of 1991 could be taken as an indication that it was growing, particularly if associated with a new face like Rossello.

A final aspect of the plebiscite as conceived by its initiators must be underlined: Through the plebiscite the PNP sought a mandate from the electorate in favor of statehood. Yet a majority of those who voted, voted against statehood.

How Confrontation Backfired

The reasons for the PNP’s defeat are significant. First, one must cite the government’s project of privatization and confrontation with the labor movement.

The PNP government misjudged the effect that its economic and labor policies could have, even in the short term, on the base of support that had guaranteed its victories of 1991 and 1992. Only this misjudgment can explain the enthusiasm with which Governor Rossello launched a widespread plan of privatization and downsizing of government agencies. The PNP government deliberately risked direct conflict with significant sectors of the labor movement in the period immediately preceding the plebiscite. During the summer and fall of 1993, tense situations developed in several important government agencies or public corporations:

• In the Department of Education employing some 70,000 workers (teachers, clerical, maintenance) the government has promoted a complete revamping of the existin structure. In the guise of decentralization and flexibility, this restructuring seeks to weaken the existing teachers’ organizations. It seeks to break a bureaucratic apparatus traditionally controlled by the PPD and replace it with a new one (admittedly downsized) controlled by the PNP Additionally it seeks to open a path towards further privatization of the public school system (corporate “sponsoring” of public schools, vouchers, etc.).

• In the Water Resources Authority, which through mismanagement and neglect has been permitted to deteriorate into an agency that is both heavily in debt and increasingly incapable of providing a reliable service, the government has refused to accept any change in the existing contract with the water workers’ union, even seeking to cut some workers’ benefits. This agency employs around 6,000 workers.

• In the Health Department, employing around 25,000 workers, the government has unveiled a wide-ranging privatization project that would eliminate almost all public hospitals. This has spurred the recruitment efforts of the Union Nacional de los Trabajadores de la Salud (UNTS), which seeks to organize the workers in this sector.

• In other government agencies (electric power, the bus system) conflicts also exist over government subcontracting, deteriorating equipment, working conditions and other issues.

Of all these, the recent conflict between the teachers and the government has certainly been the most significant. The government attempted to impose a reorganization of the Department of Education, threatening many existing workers’ rights. For example, it would make it easier to transfer a teacher arbitrarily from one school to another: This reorganization provoked the first significant attempt at collaboration between the two groupings which organize the public school teachers: the more militant Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), with around 12,000 affiliates, and the Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), with more than 20,000 members (led by figures traditionally linked to the PPD).

The fact that the new policies in the Department of Education are being carried out by a PNP government, and that those policies threaten the affiliates of both the FMPR and the AMPR, created a context in which these two organizations began to coordinate their efforts. This created a positive dynamic, which in October led to the creation of the Frente Unido de Trabajadores de la Educacion (FUTE), bringing together all the unions active in the Department of Education.

Solidarity with the Teachers

Only weeks away from the plebiscite, the government maneuvered itself into a conflict with a key sector of the unionized working class. The FMPR, AMPR and FUTE carried out a successful paro (a one-day stoppage), including a militant march to La Fortaleza (the governor’s residence). After negotiations with the government reached an impasse, the teachers’ strike began November 3, less than two weeks before the plebiscite.

A few days before the beginning of the strike, an emergency meeting of the Comite de Organizaciones Sindicales (COS) was held in the town of Loiza. The COS brings together the main labor federations in Puerto Rico: Central Puertorriquena de Trabaj adores, Federadon Americana del Trabajo (AFL-CIO) and the Concilio General de Trabajadores, to which the FMPR is affiliated. The meeting was attended by a large group of about 700 delegates and local leaders from all sectors of the labor movement wishing to organize concrete actions in support of the teachers.

The assembly mandated the leadership of COS to immediately begin preparing a Paro General (a one-day general strike) against privatization of government services and public corporations. In 1990, the COS had organized a successful Paro General against the privatization of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company.

The teachers’ strike was thus supported by the sympathies of both the labor movement and of a significant part of public opinion. Very few parents sent their children to school. In spite of the strikebreaking plan (temporarily transferring employees from other government agencies to the schools), about 80% of the schools were paralyzed on the first day of the strike.

With the plebiscite clock ticking, one day was enough for the government to yield to some of the teachers’ most important demands: It agreed to rewrite the new education laws so as to guarantee the rights endangered by the existing version and to limit the amount of the new, so-called “community schools” to an experimental 15% of the system. It is now becoming clear that the government intends to renege on this agreement, and anew strike may be in store for early next year. This does not minimize the fact that the government suffered a significant defeat days before the plebiscite.

Four days after the teachers’ strike concluded, the bus drivers in the San Juan metropolitan area carried out a pa to that paralyzed the bus system. This action, like the teachers’ strike, drew in considerable support from other sectors of the labor movement.

Undoubtedly many voters took the plebiscite of November 14 as an opportunity to vote against a government which, in a few months, squandered the popularity it enjoyed when it took office. Several additional factors had a similar effect on the PNP’s aspirations.

The ELA Campaign: Return of the PPD

The defeat of the PNP in the plebiscite, furthermore, may not be understood if we ignore the campaign carried out by the PPD in defense of the Estado Libre Asociado To better understand the lasting power of the PPD, in spite of recent defeats, it is necessary to consider the dual nature of Puerto Rican autonomism in the epoch of imperialism.

Autonomism, throughout the twentieth century, has been both an expression of partial resistance to colonialism and a movement capable of placing Puerto Rican national sentiment at the service of legitimizing colonialism. Autonomism has flourished in the legal context created by U.S. policy after 1898.

It must be remembered that U.S. policymakers chose not to annex Puerto Rico (turning it into a state or a territory of the United States), but instead turned it into an “unincorporated territory.” Thus it is considered to be a possession, but not part, of the United States; residents of Puerto Rico do not pay federal taxes.

This fact enables the federal government to exempt U.S. corporations operating on the island (through section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code) from paying federal taxes. [A full analysis of section 936 in Puerto Rico’s economy follows this article —ed.] 936 corporations obtain around $10 billion tax exempt profits every year in or through Puerto Rico, constituting the backbone of Puerto Rico’s colonial economy. These corporations are thus staunch supporters of the ELA and opponents of statehood, under which they would lose many of their existing privileges.

The PPD, not surprisingly, has been the most enthusiastic defender of the 936 corporations. Yet it can very effectively present its defense of the existing status as a defense of Puerto Rican culture and identity against the threat of statehood and annexation. Indeed, a significant number of independentistas regularly vote for the PPD in order to prevent the pro-statehood PNP from gaining ground.

Autonomism thus links national sentiment with both the existing colonial relationship and even the interests of 936 (mostly North American) corporations. The PPD’s dual nature manifested itself glaringly when former governor Rafael Hernandez Colon, in a much trumpeted act of national affirmation, declared Spanish to be Puerto Rico’s official language, while at the same time attempting to sell the Puerto Rican Telephone Company to one or several U.S. corporations.

Thus, PPD politics combine constant references to Puerto Rico’s national identity with an equally emphatic defense of an economic strategy which relies completely on U.S. capital investment for whatever dynamism it may possess. In its plebiscite campaign the PPD again exhibited this dual nature: Its campaign slogan, “ELA: The best of both worlds,” sought to convey the notion that under the present status Puerto Rico enjoys most of the advantages of statehood (U.S. citizenship, federal programs on equal terms with the states) without its burdens (above all, federal taxes).

Furthermore, goes the argument, ELA status permits Puerto Rico to develop its economy through foreign investment (936 corporations) while retaining its own language, culture, Olympic representation and national identity. ELA was thus presented as combining the advantages of statehood and independence, while avoiding their drawbacks. To the PPD’s argument that statehood would imply an end to the 936 arrangement (936 corporations directly employ more than 120,000 workers), the PNP was never able to counterpose a credible economic blueprint for statehood.

According to the PNP, statehood would enhance Puerto Rico’s drawing power as a tourist center. The political security and stability associated with statehood, furthermore, would allegedly make the island more attractive to foreign investors. In its ad campaign, the PNP argued that with statehood Puerto Rico would, by the very fact of becoming a state, attain the living standards popularly associated with the U.S. mainland.

To this, the PNP added the argument that under statehood the poor would not pay federal taxes, while federal aid programs that could benefit them would be extended. In the final days, the PNP relied heavily on TV commercials featuring ex-Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush speaking in favor of statehood.

A Narrow Margin

The results of the plebiscite were quite close; the winning formula failed to obtain more than 50%. The PNP’s confrontation with labor—and the PPD’s ability to present both itself as a defender of Puerto Rican culture and statehood as a threat to that culture—combined to provide a small winning margin for the ELA.

We thus arrive at a paradox that defines the present situation: an upswing in labor mobilization and militancy and an affirmation of national pride on the part of a slight majority of the electorate translates itself into a resurgence of the PPD and a victory for the existing colonial arrangement!

The situation is particularly fluid. Less than a year into his term, Governor Rossello has lost much of his popularity and his party, while still in office, is deeply divided. It now faces continuing conflicts with labor and with a resurgent PPD. It had hoped the results of the plebiscite would strengthen its hands. The result has been the opposite.

The Independence Movement

The independence movement was divided on participation in the plebiscite. The leadership of the PIP, as usual, without consulting other sectors of the independence movement, decided to participate. Its stated goals were to educate the public on the advantages of independence and to prevent either of the opposing formulas from obtaining more than 50% of the vote.

According to the PIP’s leadership, growing sectors of the U.S. government are becoming deeply dissatisfied with the existing colonial relationship (due mainly to considerable federal expenditures as well as to political and diplomatic problems), while there is widespread opposition to statehood in Congress. Thus, the PIP’s leadership is convinced that a “responsible” project for independence could win significant support in Washington, support which would then enable it to become a viable, credible and attractive option in Puerto Rico.

The PIP has increasingly shed whatever references were left in its rhetoric to “democratic socialism” and has further dampened its prçsence in the social and labor movements. It has become an electoral apparatus that does not seek to build ever-wider popular mobilizations, but limits itself to lobbying in Washington, campaigning in the elections every four years, and to participating in the parliamentary give-and-take through its two elected legislators (one senator and one representative).

The Nuevo Movimiento Independentista (NMI) and the Frente Socialista (FS) decided to boycott the plebiscite. Constituted last October, the NMI includes formerly unaffiliated independentistas as well as the PSP, which dissolved itself into the NMI. The Frente Socialista includes individual members as well as the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST), the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRTP-Mach eteros) and the Taller de Formación Politica (TFP).

The FS, with its limited resources, carried out a campaign linking the boycott to the labor struggles that coincided with the plebiscite. The FS emphasized that the workers and the oppressed should not lend their votes to strengthen the PPD, the PNP or the PIP, none of which represent their interests. Instead of an abstract position against participating in colonial elections, the decision to boycott reflected the diminishing appeal of the PIP as an alternative.

The Pro Independence Party has partially supported measures of privatization and has introduced workfare legislation. Our group, the TFP distributed materials which sought to analyze the plebiscite from the point of view of the interests of the labor movement, the youth and student movements, and the struggle for women’s rights and equality.

A discussion of the differing tendencies and points of view on the plebiscite within the left would exceed the limits of this general overview. We can point out, nevertheless, that independence obtained 4.4% of the vote. This is not an inconsiderable amount of votes. It means that probably between 50-60% of all independence supporters decided to vote as the PIP leadership called on them to do. The rest was split between those who voted for the ELA in the hope of insuring a defeat of statehood and those who boycotted the voting.

The PIP’s leadership interpreted the results as a victory: they obtained 4.49o’ of the vote while preventing either the PNP or the PPD from obtaining more than 50%. The fact is that more than 95% voted against independence. Independence remains an unattractive option to most Puerto Ricans as it is commonly associated with the neighboring, “actually existing republics” of the Caribbean and Central America. It will only become attractive through the process of a growing self-organization of workers, the dispossessed and the oppressed.

The Paro General which may take place early next year, the recent examples of relatively successful working-class solidarity and mobilization, and the defeat suffered by the ruling party in the plebiscite constitute a context in which small, but real, steps may be taken.

January-February 1994