06 March 2018

What’s Left in Puerto Rico?

At the founding general assembly of Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party (PDP) in July 1940, Luis Muñoz Marín made a momentous decision. Long an advocate for independence from the United States, Muñoz also recognized that many rural poor viewed the PDP’s position on the island’s political status suspiciously. In a party meeting just days earlier, a militant asked him how the party would demand independence if it won the elections. Muñoz answered: “Political status is not an issue in these elections. The votes for the party will not be counted in favor or against any political status.”
The militant turned away, disheartened — a feeling the then-senator shared: “And I, still an independentista [pro-independence advocate], understood the desolation in his spirit,” he recounted in his autobiography. But this offhand remark would soon turn into party dogma. Muñoz had found the slogan at the heart of his upcoming senatorial campaign, one he repeated thousands of times: “Status is not at issue.”
At the time, many of Muñoz’s colleagues condemned his remark. While his counterparts in the PDP leadership understood the electoral considerations that motivated his pragmatic turn — independence remained an unpopular, even terrifying, prospect for the peasantry in Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior — many were unconvinced.
Vicente Géigel Polanco was a key skeptic. He did not want to leave the future of Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States to a referendum called only on that issue. Heartbroken by Muñoz’s statement, he denounced the senator for abandoning the cause of independence. Though their schism was briefly overcome — Muñoz chose Géigel Polanco as attorney general in his first cabinet as governor in 1948 — they eventually split over a disagreement about how to deal with those responsible for the failed nationalist uprising of October 1950.
Indeed, the divisions within the PDP would persist, even if they were long overshadowed by the force of personality and three-decade-long electoral successes engendered by Muñoz’s leadership. Today, this historic split is crucial to understanding the Puerto Rican political panorama and the emergence of its rising star, San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.