Politics is not kind to women in Puerto Rico and less so to those women who dare to tread in what traditionally has been male territory. Ask San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz who has been called “crazy” by Donald Trump and a whore by her own countrymen. But Yulín has persisted and counts on the fact that the times are changing and that the male dominated status quo is on its last legs because people are tired of it.
Puerto Rico itself is fed-up. The aftermath of two hurricanes, earthquakes, an insurmountable recession and debt, the 2019 summer protests that took out a corrupt governor only to be replaced by an incompetent interim one, and now COVID-19 have brought Puerto Ricans to the end of their tether. The question now remains — will the frustration spill over into the ballot box this November and bring about change?
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is confident that it will and that is why she chose to suit up for the biggest fight of her political life and run for governor. She is banking on the discontent being enough to help her overcome the odds against her and elect her as the second woman to occupy La Fortaleza.
In a political field dominated by men, Yulín, 57, slung her hat in the ring under the umbrella of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) and pushed a center-left line and a re-thinking of the colonial relationship between Washington and San Juan. She made the fight for equality and against poverty central planks of her campaign.
“Crisis, after crisis, after crisis, has forced us to be unable to pretend that things are not happening the way they are happening,” Yulín said in a recent interview with BELatina.
“I believe that in the next elections Puerto Rico will have to choose between the country that it wants to be and the country it is,” Yulín said.
“The country it wants to be and should be is a different one, new, with an agenda of equality. That agenda of equality will never be achieved when the ones who are in La Fortaleza, of whatever party, have their fingers tied by interests. And the voter will have to think not in what the person is saying, but what the person [that is running] has actually done,” she said.
Yulín became an international star after facing off with President Donald Trump over the inept federal response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the deaths of more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans. This diminutive, bespectacled woman hit Trump’s words back at him as if fielding easy pitches and brought herself and Puerto Rico to global attention.
But much has happened since.
She hopes to win, as she did twice before in San Juan, on the strength of the frustrated and disenfranchised, but it remains to be seen if this will work this time. In the streets of Old San Juan, she is far from the anti-hero hero she was back in September of 2017. They have taken less than kindly to her many absences. The popularity she has on the mainland is far removed from how they feel about her in the capital city.
“I said it [during hurricanes] Irma y Maria and the Boricuas were not happy. But now it is evident — between Irma and Maria, the earthquakes, and the pandemic — it is evident that in Puerto Rico the one that has less is the one less capable of trying to save himself,” she said.
“And in a way, the reality that the Puerto Rican people live has come to support what I have been saying all my public life. That in Puerto Rico exist profound inequalities, that poverty is in the majority in Puerto Rico and that we have to declare war on poverty — but with actions,” she said.
Even before Hurricane Irma and Maria devastated the island in 2017, resulting in the deaths of almost 3,000 Puerto Ricans, the island was struggling under the worst economic and fiscal crisis of its history, brought about by a massive $70 billion debt, which resulted in the establishment of a Washington appointed fiscal control board, a looming budget gap, and migration not seen since the Great Depression.
This rosary of disasters drove 3.5 percent of the island’s population to the streets of San Juan to oust pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) governor Ricardo Rossello. It also drove home a bitter colonial truth: The US didn’t care.
The NPP rid itself of Ricky and, tone deaf to the message delivered by the thousands that took to the streets to oust him, anointed now-governor Wanda Vázquez to spread the gospel: We are not the same as Ricky. We are the “New Government.”
“Wanda was not elected, and because Wanda was not elected, Wanda believes the island is the island of Ricky Rosselló because she is the same as Ricky Rosselló,” Yulín said. “Wanda Vázquez is the Corin Tellado version of Ricky Rosselló.” Tellado was a prolific Spanish writer of romantic novels.
According to Yulín, Vázquez weaponized the pandemic from the beginning. “[Vázquez] is a Republican and follows Trump’s playbook.”
The truth is Vázquez’s administration has been another disaster. Plagued by allegations of corruption and mishandling of the pandemic, Vázquez muzzled the press, severely hampered civil liberties by placing the population under strict curfew while her administration piecemealed information about the trajectory of the coronavirus, and pushed an ultra-conservative religious doctrine, culminating in a draconian Civil Code.
Yulín’s, who in her last two mayoral campaigns was known as La Pitirre [the Puerto
Rican national bird – tiny, yet ferocious], this time around adopted the campaign slogan “Sin Miedo” [Without Fear] — the iconic words of Inés Mendoza, widow of the father of the PDP, Luis Muñoz Marín.
Her slogan and visuals — brightly colored, millennial-style graphics for the generation that was born on the internet — seek to harness the youth vote and those of all ages that came out in the thousands to oust Rosselló. In an island where voter abstention is high, in the 2016 elections, 45 percent of voters who registered to vote didn’t make it to the polls, this is yet another hurdle for Yulín.
Ignoring the voices that warned her it was too soon, she went ahead and called back her “army of red fire ants” — an unconventional amalgam of alliances, inclusion, and a message of hope and personal attachment — that led her to a historic victory in the first campaign for San Juan and an eventual second term.
Yet, Yulín knows she faces a tough race to the finish, but she has taken on that challenge, risking her political future. The PDP primaries on August 9th will be the toughest, and it will depend on her ability to convince the party faithful that she can return an ossified PDP to its roots of Pan, Tierra y Libertad [Bread, Land and Liberty] — or social justice.
If she wins, Yulín plans to give the municipalities, of which there are 78, more power. This is a smart move because it attaches the PDP mayors to her campaign in the upcoming party primaries.
“But the way to eliminate poverty in Puerto Rico is by making the municipalities what they have made of themselves,” she said.
“The municipalities [and not the central government] were the ones who took care of people’s needs during the pandemic, the hurricanes, and the earthquakes — but with no money,” she said.
When asked if she thought the thousands that protested against Rosselló and got him out would also be present at the ballot box, she said unequivocally yes.
“They have a reason to mobilize. Why do people mobilize? When they get sick and tired they realize they are fed up. Puerto Ricans are fed up with the corruption, but more than with the corruption, they are tired of a government that doesn’t work, a government that doesn’t function, a government that doesn’t listen, a government that does not have the best interest of its people at heart,” she said.
“Remember that the island changed after Irma, it changed after Maria, it changed after the summer of 2019, it changed after the earthquakes, and it is a different nation now after COVID-19,” she said.
“This is a country that is tired of the abuse, a country that is tired of the doublespeak, a country tired of politicians who believe they are better than the people,” Yulín said.
It remains to be seen whether Puerto Ricans are fed up enough to see Yulín as the only alternative for change.