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PUERTO RICO: Vote for Commonwealth

3 minute read

As Hawaii went, Puerto Rico will not go. That seemed to be the message handed down by the island’s voters in this month’s election. They turned out of office Governor Luis Ferré, 68, an advocate of statehood, and installed in his place Rafael Hernández Colón, 36, a handsome and articulate supporter of Puerto Rico’s 20-year commonwealth ties to the United States.

Hernández’s easy victory surprised pundits and pollsters alike, who had thought the sometimes bitter race (four persons were killed in politically motivated brawls) too close to call. Yet Hernández won with a margin of 93,000 votes out of 1.2 million cast, while the Popular Democratic Party that he leads captured more than two-thirds of the seats in the legislature. The decisive results rebuffed not only “statehooders” but also those who argue for a complete break with the U.S. The island’s Independence Party, which stirs some fears of Communist and socialist influences, received only 4% of the vote.

The loss cast doubts on the future of Ferré’s New Progressive Party, which broke the Popular Democratic Party’s 28-year lock on the Governor’s mansion in 1968 largely because of a major split in its ranks. With Ferré out of office and his statehood platform discredited, the Progressives will likely join Puerto Rico’s myriad other minority parties. As if in recognition of the fact, Ferré announced his retirement from active politics shortly after the election.

It was Hernández himself who patched up the Popular Democrats after their 1968 loss. A lawyer from Ponce, the island’s largest city after San Juan, he assumed leadership of both the party and the Senate in 1969 with the tacit approval of Luis Muñoz Marín, founder of the party, architect of the commonwealth agreement and, more than anyone else, father of modern-day Puerto Rico. This year Muñoz campaigned for his protégé. Hernández reorganized the Popular Democratic Party from top to bottom, replacing older leaders with new, fresh faces.

During his campaign, Hernández argued for the continuance of the commonwealth on the grounds that it not only provided relief from U.S. taxes but also served as a “great retaining wall” that protected the island’s Spanish culture from U.S. influence and domination. Yet he did not hesitate to employ—as did Ferré—mainland political techniques during the campaign. Both candidates hired consultants from Washington and taped endless television and radio spots. Hernández traded in his baggy suits for more modish styles and submitted to the shears of San Juan’s leading hair stylist, gambits that helped make him the clear favorite among women voters.

Hernández has promised to take steps to improve the islanders’ living conditions. Per capita income has risen from $121 in 1940 to $1,600 in 1971, higher than that of any Spanish-speaking nation in the Americas, but chronically high rates of inflation and unemployment (now at 12%) still plague the island—a fact Hernández pointed out over and over during his campaign. If he cannot improve upon Ferré’s fiscal record, he may well find himself out of office four years from now.

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