Progressives have good reason to fear democratic decline in the United States. The recent Supreme Court hearings on Mississippi’s controversial anti-abortion law confirmed those fears as the court appears ready for a partial if not full Roe overturn. This law of course has spurred anti-abortion legislation all over the United States, most recently Oklahoma whose legislature approved a near total ban of abortion. A Roe overturn would not only undermine the court’s legitimacy, but set precedent for how it will determine future rulings on a myriad of issues ranging from women’s, LGBTIQA+, immigrant’s, and labor rights, among others. Society’s most marginalized will bear the brunt of its democratic decline. But in Puerto Rico that democratic decline will be felt disproportionately because it already faces a grotesque democratic deficit, wherein the consequences of the court’s coming decisions and the United States’ general regression into right-wing political reaction may cause its people irreparable harm.
In fact, an emboldened reactionary right wing in Puerto Rico has taken advantage of the situation of the expected partial Roe overturn and anti-abortion legislation to present their own legislation, Senate Bill 693 which bans abortions after twenty-two weeks of pregnancy. This bill was authored by Joanne Rodriguez Veve of the new far-right party Proyecto Dignidad (Dignity Project) and senate leaders of both the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, and pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. This bill was introduced without the input of the health sector or women’s groups, and sent to a committee vote without public hearing. The way in which this bill was introduced shows that the Dignity Project lacks dignity, the New Progressive Party is not progressive, and the Popular Democratic Party is not democratic. This outlook has caused many in Puerto Rico’s Left and marginalized communities to re-examine the archipelago’s relationship with the United States.
In Puerto Rico, feminist, queer, and Afro-Boricua political collectives have either newly formed or expanded their traditional reach and almost universally call for independence. Progressives in the U.S. should view the resolution of Puerto Rico’s democratic deficit a top priority given the distinct threat that the U.S’s precarious political situation poses for it. However, in that process progressives should not look at Puerto Rico as a pawn or easy solution to solve the problems in the U.S. In recent months Democrats, even some on the party’s left-wing, have increasingly embraced statehood as a solution to the Senate imbalance, the filibuster and the Supreme Court. These musings are despite the fact that Puerto Rico’s progressives and groups that represent the populations who will experience significant harm due to U.S.’s democratic decline are actively leading the call for independence. The only appropriate way to use Puerto Rico to solve the U.S.’s problems is to use it as an inspiration in the international struggle and mobilization against far-right populism and reactionary politics.
Puerto Rico’s confrontation with its democratic deficit and the decline of U.S. democracy has taken on new life in the past five years. In June 2016, the U.S. Government approved the PROMESA Law which took draconian austerity measures that have dismantled Puerto Rican labor rights and essential services. In addition, it would be negligent to overlook the composition of the Puerto Rican working class, and those who rely on essential services in Puerto Rico, for example the working single-mothers who head more than one-third of Puerto Rican households. In 2017 Hurricane Maria and the U.S. government’s negligence under the Trump Administration also caused Puerto Ricans to critically evaluate their place in the U.S. nation/ state. Furthermore, general political instability in the United States and right-wing reactionary politics has caused local politicians to attempt to import U.S. anti-abortion, anti-LGBTIQA+, and anti-voter rights legislation into Puerto Rico’s political discourse. This paradigm shift has caused many to reconsider what benefit remaining with the United States has if that relationship institutes a direct threat to their constitutional rights, especially at a moment when progressives in the islands are making significant political gains.
These critical confrontations have resulted in overwhelming growth in support for independence among progressives. The democratic-socialist Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) saw a 700% increase in support between the 2016 and 2020 elections. In the legislature, pro-independence progressives from the PIP and other movements have a bloc that has advanced human rights and social justice legislation. Maria de Lourdes Santiago, a pro-independence and leftist icon on the island who was among the first politicians in Puerto Rico to openly support gay rights was re-elected to her senate seat for the PIP, earning more than 21% more support than her closest competitor. Outside the PIP, Ana Irma Rivera Lassen, a lawyer with a long history as a champion for LGBTIQA+ and women’s causes won a senate seat. Rivera Lassen is the first openly-lesbian and among the first Afro-Boricua women to get elected in the Puerto Rican senate. These electoral and legislative gains are accompanied by grassroots movements such as La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective under construction) which was among the first to mobilize in the successful movement for Ex-Governor Ricardo Rossello’s 2019 resignation. More recently, the collective successfully organized for current governor, Pedro Pierluisi to declare a state of emergency against femicide. Throughout its trajectory the collective has been clear on its intersectional vision for Puerto Rican liberation, and this vision is commonly accepted in progressive discourse.
Despite the growth of the Puerto Rican Left, feminist, and queer movements across the archipelago, the far-right has also made significant strides. The right-wing successfully blocked a ban on Gay Conversion Therapy last year, and the aforementioned Senate Bill 693 to limit abortion rights also is expected to pass the senate. A reason for the right-wing’s success is their own adaptation to reactionary U.S. political strategy. The Puerto Rican far-right has been following closely the democratic decline in the United States that has opened the possibility for the erosion of women’s and LGBTIQA+ rights starting at the state level, and has responded by presenting their own versions of anti-women’s and anti-LGBTIQA+ bills that we have seen in states like Texas, Indiana, Florida, and Mississippi. Puerto Rico’s right-wing knows that they are losing to the Left electorally, but that the United States courts’ are on their side, and are taking advantage of the United States’ democratic decline, and Puerto Rico’s democratic deficit, to advance their own agenda. The result will be horrific for Puerto Rican women and LGBTIQA+ folks.
The United States should no longer deter Puerto Rican democracy. Puerto Rico’s progressives are unequivocal in their vision of independence as the solution to resolving its democratic deficit and building a progressive society. Stateside progressives must respect that vision and support Puerto Ricans against a prejudicial political crisis rather than expecting Puerto Ricans to save the U.S. from its own crises. Concurrently, genuine solidarity with Puerto Rico could strengthen the U.S. Left’s knowledge and organizing-capacities as it faces the same types of threats the islands have experienced and fought against for centuries under colonial rule. The U.S.will survive this bleak time for democracy, but it may get along a lot better if it lets Puerto Rico take charge of its own.
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Paul Figueroa is an educator and academic. He ran for San Juan City Council for the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and is Co-Chair of the PIP LGBTIQA+ Caucus.