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Puerto Ricans Vote to Narrowly Approve Controversial Statehood Referendum & Elect 4 LGBTQ Candidates

StoryNovember 06, 2020
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As most eyes were focused on the race for the White House, Puerto Rican voters on Tuesday narrowly approved a nonbinding statehood referendum. We get analysis from Democracy Now! co-host Juan González and speak with Afro-Puerto Rican human rights, feminist and LGBTQI activist Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, who was elected to the Puerto Rican Senate.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show looking at Tuesday’s election in Puerto Rico, where voters narrowly approved a nonbinding statehood referendum and elected four out candidates — among them, Afro-Puerto Rican human rights, feminist and LGBTQI activist Ana Irma Rivera Lassén. She was just elected to the Puerto Rican Senate. Her victory came months after she was mocked by the host of a Puerto Rican gossip show. She spoke with Democracy Now! about her historic win.

SEN.-ELECT ANA IRMA RIVERA LASSÉN: [translated] What it means is that I am an openly LGBTQI person and obviously Black woman. This is evidence of the need to recognize the intersections and the complexity of the discrimination that some of us may face. …

I’ve received messages of joy from many people, women, Afro-descendants, LGBTQI people, people from many communities in Puerto Rico, who are conscious of making a Puerto Rico that is more inclusive, a Puerto Rico that represents all of us, and in the building of a more inclusive country, push for sustainable economic development, search for a solution on our status as a U.S. colony, be a country that is not just divided on what our status should be, but a country that focuses on the inclusion to defend people’s human rights and the basic necessities for our people that the Puerto Rican government must respect and guarantee. We have to approach this through a lens of inclusion. …

What the Puerto Rican people said in the summer of 2019 is that they want transparency. They don’t want the two political parties that have been alternating power in Puerto Rico. I think this bipartisan dictatorship is over. And the people have selected candidates from diverse political parties to make up the legislative body. …

The Puerto Rican people are still in power, in the sense that they haven’t let go of it since the moment they took to the streets. They continue to be alert, and they still have the power.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, interviewed by Democracy Now!'s María Taracena. Juan, you've been closely following what’s happening in Puerto Rico, your own birthplace. Can you talk about that latest news?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Amy, while in the U.S. millions of us were mesmerized with the vote counting for president, the island of Puerto Rico had its own election on Tuesday that also produced a close race and historic results, but in a very different way. Puerto Ricans, after all, cannot cast ballots for president and do not have voting representatives in Congress, even though they are U.S. citizens, because the island remains a colonial territory of the United States. But they do vote every four years for their own governor, their own Senate and House of Representatives. And this year they also voted on a controversial referendum for the island’s future.

But unlike the U.S. voter turnout, the island saw an all-time low in turnout, just 51% of eligible voters, compared to levels that used to be, just a decade ago, around 80% or so. The plummeting turnout is no doubt due to disgust by many voters with the continued corruption of the two dominant parties, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. But it’s also likely due to the fact that elected officials in Puerto Rico these days have little real power, since Congress imposed an outside financial control board to run the island’s affairs four years ago.

So, what happened with this election? Well, first, the referendum was controversial because, unlike other status votes in the past, it only gave a choice of one status. It asked a yes-or-no vote on statehood for Puerto Rico. So voters had to choose either the current status of the control board or annexation to the United States. It was, in short, a rigged referendum, with no choice of independence or the current commonwealth or free association. But because it was scheduled during a regular election, many voters were going to the polls anyway, and statehood ended up with 52% of the vote, a bare majority. No one expects Congress to grant statehood, however, even though an increasing number of Democrats and billionaire hedge fund types are pressing for statehood as a way to increase potential Democratic votes in the House and the Senate.

But the truly historic change came in the regular election. An unprecedented number of voters deserted the dinosaur duopoly of the pro-statehood and pro-commonwealth parties, that has alternated in power for more than 60 years. Several minor parties ended up grabbing a third of all the votes cast. The pro-statehood progressive party’s Pedro Pierluisi is right now barely in the lead for the governor’s race with just 32% of the vote, over the Popular Democratic Party’s Carlos Delgado’s 31%. But the pro-independence candidate, Carlos Dalmau, amassed nearly 14% of the vote, the highest vote total for an independence candidate since the 1950s. Meanwhile, Alexandra Lúgaro, candidate of the left-oriented Citizens’ Victory party, also received 14% of the vote. And a new right-wing evangelical party, the party of Dignity, got 7%.

More importantly, three candidates from the two left-wing parties got elected to the Puerto Rican Senate, thus creating their own version of the radical “Squad” that has become so famous here in the U.S. Congress. They include Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, a member of the Citizens’ Victory party and the first lesbian woman of African descent elected to the Puerto Rican Senate. They include Rafael Bernabe of the Workers’ Party, who ran with Citizens’ Victory for the Senate. And it includes María de Lourdes Santiago of the Independence Party. And finally, Manuel Natal of the Citizens’ Victory has a small lead in the race for mayor of San Juan.

So, in short, Puerto Rican voters took a giant step Tuesday toward rejecting the legitimacy of the island’s two-party system, either by refusing to vote altogether or by voting for new radical political candidates. So there was significant progress in the political maturity of the Puerto Rican electorate as a result of Tuesday’s vote.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ll continue to follow this. Thanks so much, Juan. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is Democracy Now!

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