A New Era in Puerto Rico's Unsettled History

November's elections marked a transformative moment for Puerto Rico.

January 15, 2013, 12:11 PM

Jan. 18, 2013— -- On Monday night's inauguration in San Juan's Parque Luis Muñoz Marín, new mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz rattled off slogans timed to her Twitter feed: "The University Will Be RESPECTED" she intoned, ensuring she will not be part of a government that will tolerate police abuse of students; "Este es mi barrio y soy libre como Mandela" she shouted, quoting Calle 13's song "La Perla. In between, she mixed-in elaborate policy goals concerning education, rights for women, LGBT, and immigrants, support for workers and the poor. But one slogan seemed to capture how many feel last year's election was a transformative moment in Puerto Rican history:

"El 6 de noviembre se acabó el abuso!"

The abuse Cruz was referring to echoed the feeling of many toward the ousted New Progressive Party (PNP in Spanish) administration about what they considered to be its abusive style. The message was even clearer on the eve of her inauguration as San Juan mayor, pro-commonwealth party (Popular Democratic Party, or PPD in Spanish) mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz attended a Sunday service at Iglesia Sagrada Familia in the city's well-known municipal housing project, Luis Lloréns Torres. Her surprise victory over outgoing PNP mayor Jorge Santini has been seen as an even more dynamic symbol of change than the victory of new PPD governor Alejandro García Padilla over arch-conservative PNP leader Luis Fortuño, and the guest list at this particular service was a clear indication.

Cruz, who was assaulted by Puerto Rico police during a demonstration protesting an PNP-enforced closure of the legislature to media and the public at the Capitolio in 2010, was joined by the new president of the Senate, Eduardo Bhatia, who was bullied in front of legislators in the Capitolio by outgoing PNP Senate president Tomás Rivera Schatz in 2010, rebellious '60s icon singer Lucecita Benítez, and LGBT rights activist Pedro Julio Serrano. Presiding over the mass was the archbishop of San Juan, Roberto González Nieves, who in 2011 had been subjected to what US Representative Luis Gutiérrez called a smear campaign by "the PNP elite."

At the mass she tells the story of being the great-granddaughter of a sugar cane labor, of her humble family roots in Guánica, the town where the US invasion landed in 1898, and punctuated this tale of nationalist pride and working-class solidarity by quoting René Pérez, of Calle 13, a band that outgoing PNP Mayor Santini had once banned from playing in their hometown: "No tengo mucha plata, pero tengo cobre. Aquí se baila como bailan los pobres." ("I don't have much silver/but I have copper. Here we dance like poor people dance.")

Cruz's swearing in on Monday was be the climax of a tumultuous holiday season in Puerto Rico, one that marked a transition of political power from one of its major political parties to another, the resignation of its most controversial television personality, and what might become a new era of its unsettled history.

Almost two weeks earlier, on January 2nd, the new governor, Alejandro García Padilla was sworn in at the Capitolio. García Padilla's speech, long and rambling, was nonetheless a reassertion of the PPD's strength, an appeal to cultural and national identity as the center of Puerto Rican society. But as vague as he was about his goals of job-creation, education, and health care, he seemed pushed by Cruz's charisma at the mayoral inauguration during his briefer speech there—he announced he would create 50,000 jobs in his first 15 months in office and insisted he would hold the PPD's promise to rescind the extra $800 fee imposed by the Luis Fortuño administration on University of Puerto Rico students.

"We'll be lucky if they rescind the cuota within two years," said Oscar J. Serrano, editor and founder of online news site Noticel.com. Serrano feels that the PPD victory was fueled by an impression of the PNP engaging in mandate overreach, alienating even some of its own constituency. "Santini had an abusive attitude and burned everyone, so he had no power base," said Serrano. "It was so bad a lot of PNP's voted for Yulín."

García Padilla's new cabinet features younger, more dynamic appointees like Secretary of State David Bernier, and Chief of Staff Ingrid Vila Biaggi give the 41-year-old governor an impression of promoting change. Idalia Colón, the new head of the Department of the Family, was characterized as a "radical" by a headline in the print version of El Nuevo Día because she wants to promote sex education, feels abortion is a right, and believes in respect and tolerance for diversity.

But Serrano feels its part and parcel of the party's strategy. "The PPD has always chosen the whistleblowers and activists associated with an issue or a field and put them in the corresponding cabinet position. The PNP has never done that. They name people who make the activists go ballistic."

García Padilla and Cruz have both made it clear that embracing diversity and rejecting intolerance is central to the new administration's rhetoric. Cruz even went so far as being "inclusive" of mainland Puerto Ricans by inviting Representative Gutiérrez, New York State Senator José Rivera, and allowed Spanish Harlem City Council dynamo Melissa Mark-Viverito to make a speech about uniting island Boricuas with the diaspora.

Intolerance has already been identified as public enemy number one by social media forces on the island that can take credit for the resignation earlier this month of Kobbo Santarrosa, the voice behind the gossip journalist marionette called La Comay, because of her continued use of anti-gay, anti-women, and racist remarks on television's top rated show. La Comay's resignation came as the result of a boycott lead by social media activists over his most recent comments implying a viciously murdered publicist was looking for trouble when he was kidnapped in an area frequented by prostitutes

Santarrosa's departure is important because it symbolizes the demise of what he claimed he had a monopoly on, the "real" Puerto Rican identity, and allowing for the emergence of new, tolerant, and perhaps progressive one.

The cancellation of his show, "Super Xclusivo," coincided with the stunning loss of the PNP's control over the executive and legislative branches of government. "People in Puerto Rico were fed up with a government that was very repressive, responsive to corporations and not people," said William Ramírez, president of ACLU Puerto Rico. "This government was marked by a lot of bullying—everything was secretive, there was no transparency or debate. All decisions were made behind closed doors."

The Friday before Christmas the US Department of Justice announced a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico Police Department and also an agreement with the Fortuño government to implement recommended changes in a police department accused of violating the civil liberties of women, LGBT community, Dominican immigrants, Afro-Puerto Ricans, and protesting labor unions and university students. While Ramírez's office is hoping to work with the new government to help implement change in policing practices, he is reserved so far about the new administration's commitment. "I don't know that they're going to better than the previous governor," said Ramírez. "I know they said they would, but they want to try to renegotiate the agreement, and that worries me."

The lame-duck police chief, Héctor Pesquera, whose contract is up in March, is also a problem, according to Ramírez and other advocates. "We need a new superintendent of police to come in with a new look at what policing should be and keep in mind all the recommendations made by the DOJ and ACLU," he said. "We need a police chief who is sensitive to women's and LGBT issues."

Ramírez is currently working on a proposal to create a new civilian review board to handle complaints against police, and is working with legislators to try to repeal laws passed by the Fortuño administration criminalizing certain forms of protest by civilians.

García Padilla's first act—calling up the National Guard to fight drug crime—has already been criticized as the repetition of a failed strategy. Deficits that plague both the commonwealth and municipalities make the problem of improving the economy even more difficult.

While the sudden turn in the electorate shift away from the PNP's Republican conservatism can be attributed to a defection of PNP's power base, there is a visceral feeling that the conservatism of the electorate is mutating into a younger, more progressive constituency. And although a new multi-partisan group called "Boricua, Ahora Es" announced Tuesday they were gathering over 100 people to demand action on the status plebiscite in Washington, the issue does not seem to have created a strong momentum. As has been speculated for several years now, the status issue has become less and less relevant, and the need to address a mountain of difficult issues like crime and unemployment has become central. Another one of Cruz's slogans come to mind: "The power is in the streets."

"I'm barely 5 feet tall and weigh a little over 100 pounds soaking wet," said Cruz to the throng at the inauguration ceremony. "But I'm alone, and I need you, I need all of you."

The crowd roared, perhaps sensing itself as a new majority, finally ready to throw off the tired, backward ideas of intolerance, has emerged, and the people have agreed they want to move in a new direction. There will be conflict over many issues—the one thing everyone seems to agree on is a call for the release of political prisoner Oscar López Rivera; even Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, the de facto leader of the PNP is on board—but there will always be a sense of a Puerto Rican nation whether it's a colony, a state, or formally independent. What seems to have happened is that nation has re-imagined itself in a way it never has before.