Who is Luis Fortuño? A primer on Puerto Rico and the Republican Party’s favorite boricua.

Tonight, at the U.S. Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, the list of primetime speakers will feature the governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño.

Although Suffragio doesn’t normally wade into U.S. politics, Puerto Rican politics lies fairly far afield from mainstream American politics, notwithstanding the plum role that Fortuño will fill tonight at the convention in his support for U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Fortuño was elected governor of Puerto Rico in 2009, winning 52.8% of the vote to just 41.3% for the incumbent, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who had been implicated in a corruption scandal.  As governor, Fortuño immediately embarked upon a relatively unpopular program of cutting $2 billion from Puerto Rico’s budget, resulting in over 12,000 layoffs of state employees.  Fortuño also passed and implemented Law 154, which imposed a temporary excise tax on certain overseas sales, while also cutting taxes 50% for individuals and 30% for businesses.  Ultimately, Fortuño brought the budget deficit from $2 billion in 2009-10 to just $333 million in 2012-13 — his zeal for cutting budgets and for lowering taxes has attracted a significant amount of regard from Republicans on the U.S. mainland, and he was even mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate for Romney.

Political parties in Puerto Rico, however, aren’t organized along the same ideological lines as on the U.S. mainland — Fortuño belongs to the Partido Nuevo Progresista de Puerto Rico (the PNP, New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico), which is first and foremost a proponent of full statehood for Puerto Rico.  In contrast, the Partido Popular Democrático de Puerto Rico (the PPD, Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico) favors Puerto Rico’s current status as a commonwealth.  A smaller third party, Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rico Independence Party) favors Puerto Rico’s full independence — it looks and feels much like a traditional Latin American populist/leftist party, and it has attracted the support of the likes of high-profile Latin American figures, including author Gabriel García Márquez.

The PPD, and its first elected governor, José Muñoz Marín, dominated Puerto Rican politics from the 1940s to the 1960s, and the PPD and PNP have traded the governorship ever since.  Puerto Rico has a bicameral legislature — like the United States — including a House of Representatives (currently with 54 members) and a Senate (with 31 members).  Fortuño’s PNP currently controls both houses.

Although Fortuño will come to the Republican National Convention as a darling of the American right, he faces a significant amount of political trouble at home.

Fortuño is in a tough fight for reelection this year — his main opponent is PPD president Alejandro García Padilla, a senator and former secretary of consumer affairs from 2005 to 2009 in the Acevedo Vilá administration.  Fortuño trails García Padilla narrowly in the latest El Nuevo Día poll 41% to 36%.

Fortuño comes to the Republican convention hoping to turn the page from a recent rebuke on August 19, when Puerto Ricans opposed his push for two constitutional reforms: 54% of Puerto Ricans opposed a referendum measure to reduce the number of legislators in the House of Representatives to 39 and in the Senate to 17, and 55% opposed a referendum measure to give judges the right to deny bail in certain murder cases (Puerto Rico is the only jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere where everyone is entitled to bail regardless of crime).

While the PPD has traditionally supported the Democratic Party in the United States — García Padilla and Acevedo Vilá support U.S. president Barack Obama for reelection — the PNP often divides between two wings, one favoring the Democratic Party and another favoring the Republican Party —  while Fortuño’s sympathies lie with the Republicans, Pedro Rosselló, a PNP governor from 1993 to 2001, supported both Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and worked closely with Clinton on an agreement to remove the U.S. Navy from its controversial base and bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by 2003.

A San Juan lawyer, Fortuño served as the island’s first secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce from 1994 to 1996.  From 2005 to 2009, Fortuño served as the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, which is the island’s non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of nearly four million people, is one of the most populated islands in the Caribbean — if it were independent, it would be the fourth-largest country in the Caribbean, after Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Although English and Spanish are both official languages, Spanish is by far most widely spoken on the island.  Its GDP per capita of around $24,000 is about half that of the United States, generally — that’s a level more akin to Greece than to North America or Western Europe.  Puerto Rico has suffered weak GDP growth for over a decade, and Puerto Rico’s economy has contracted in every year since 2006, with the island yet to emerge from the recession that resulted from the 2008 financial crisis — it contracted at a 0.1% rate in 2011, which was an improvement on the prior four years. The unemployment rate remains just under 14%, but that has fallen from its high of just about 16% in 2010.

The United States acquired Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish-America War (which also resulted in the United States acquiring Cuba, the Philippines and Guam as territories), and the United States only slowly ceded self-government and sovereignty to the territory, which had previously been a Spanish colony since the beginning of the 16th century.  The United States allowed Puerto Rico the right to elect a governor in 1947, although until 1950, restricted pro-independence speech by law, including the prohibition of the display of a Puerto Rican flag or the singing of patriotic songs.  The heavy-handed tactic led to nationalists revolts in the 1940s and the 1950s.  In 1950, pro-indepedence activists Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola even attempted to assassinate U.S. president Harry Truman.

The early 1950s, however, marked a turning point in the U.S. attitude toward Puerto Rico and its self-government.  The United States initiated Operation Boostrap in the 1950s to industrialize the island, and it permitted Puerto Rico to hold a constitutional convention — in 1952, Puerto Rico adopted the constitution that sets forth its current status as a “commonwealth” of the United States.

Puerto Ricans are technically U.S. citizens, although they cannot vote for U.S. president (Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential primaries, however).  There’s a complicated jurisprudence as regarding which various rights and obligations attach to Puerto Ricans under U.S. law, but generally speaking, the U.S. Congress controls Puerto Rico’s external relations with other nations, and Puerto Rico’s rights to self-government are otherwise enshrined in the 1952 constitution, subject to U.S. jurisdiction and sovereignty.  Puerto Ricans are exempt from paying U.S. federal income tax, but pay most other U.S. federal taxes, including Social Security taxes (entitling Puerto Ricans to Social Security benefits at retirement).

Puerto Rico has held three referenda in the past on its status as a U.S. commonwealth:

  • In 1967, the island voted to maintain its status by a vote of 60.4%, to just 39.0% for U.S. statehood and 0.6% for independence.
  • In 1993, Puerto Ricans divided more narrowly with 48.6% in favor of the status quo, 46.3% in favor of statehood and 4.4% in favor of independence.
  • In 1998, in a slightly different formulation, Puerto Ricans voted 46.6% in favor of statehood, 2.6% in favor of independence, 0.3% in favor of free association (much like the U.S. relationship to Palau and the Marshall Islands) and 50.5% for none of the above (representing the status quo).

A fourth referendum on Puerto Rico’s status is scheduled for November 6, 2012 — the ballot measure will ask two questions: first, whether voters favor continuing the current territorial status and, second, regardless of their vote on commonwealth status, which of the three options — statehood, independence or free association — they most prefer.

2nd and 3rd photo credit to Kevin Lees — photos taken in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, September 2010.

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