A municipalist alternative for San Juan and Puerto Rico: An interview with Pablo Benson
While this past November 3rd all the world’s attention was fixed on who would end up with the keys to the White House, another set of elections was taking place over 1,500 miles away. Municipal, legislative, and gubernatorial races were being held in Puerto Rico; a territory, it should be added, still subject to the plenary powers of the United States. Across the archipelago, the recently formed Citizens’ Victory Movement (MVC) emerged with force. In particular, the mayoral candidate for the capital of San Juan, Manuel Natal, with hardly any financial means or media support, fell just shy of victory. The margin was so narrow between him and Miguel Romero of the New Progressive Party (PNP) that post-election scrutiny was pivotal. This arduous process—to verify each and every last vote—has been marked with as much bureaucratic obscurity on the part of electoral authorities as mass mobilization of MVC volunteers. Although Romero was ultimately sworn in, that post-election scrutiny was pivotal. In any case, the dramatic impact of Natal’s campaign and the emergence of MVC as a legitimate force in Puerto Rican politics represent a shift in paradigm. The traditional duopoly between the PNP and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) was at last fractured.
In February, we spoke with Pablo Benson, activist, organizer and field director for the Natal campaign. The following conversation maps out the social and political context of Puerto Rico in recent years, the debates among and within the grassroots movements from which the MVC later emerged, and the genesis and evolution of Natal’s municipalist candidacy. The challenges, methods, and achievements of the latter point towards a new horizon for San Juan.
VRP: Perhaps we could start from the end… What happened with the votes?
PB: Let’s start from election day. November 3rd was intense and emotional after a campaign in which we gave our all. Resources were scarce, and we were up against the sophisticated machinery of the traditional parties. Defying the odds that night we saw ourselves in the lead, but the narrative circulating in the media said otherwise. It was bizarre to watch as one news channel declared victory for our main opponent. Natal came out publicly to state that this couldn’t be true. So it was: by end of day, Natal had won by 4,000 votes.
Slowly, though, since the week before, the State Election Commission was still counting the early votes. MVC was crucially understaffed there, and this lack of accountability could very well be the reason we lost. Despite our lead, we fell short by 2,000 votes. The early voting unit was aberrant, yielding eight votes to Romero for each one Natal received. Our suspicions only grew once the total count came out—it exceeded the number of voters who even applied for early ballots! That is a major irregularity, anywhere. At the very least, a recount would be in order; at the most, a repeat election would be held.
The Commission, which is chaired by the PNP, certified Romero’s victory regardless; never mind that it ignored its own regulations requiring such discrepancies to be investigated. Natal quickly challenged in the judiciary, but the case was dismissed on a technicality. With the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico being controlled by the PNP, and several of its judges having previously opined on their contempt of him, our chances of receiving remedy were slim. However, without a doubt, we won in the court of public opinion. Many deem Romero illegitimate and the process that certified him hasty and shady. It didn’t help that the press failed to duly cover this story. Only our limited MVC platforms were reporting on this breach in democracy.
At the risk of sounding paradoxical, I believe all this bodes well for us organizationally. People now understand that politics isn’t simply a spectator sport. That the only way to prevent and intercept any cheating is to commit yourself, to get involved. The outpouring of support we received in the counting process speaks to that. Natal sounded the call via social media the following day. We were in urgent need of volunteers willing to defend the votes: 200 showed up on the first day, 500 the next, and nearly 1,000 the day after that. It was incredible. Thanks to them we discovered the issue that still enshrouds the early voting unit. If only we had been able to organize this before election day… At least now we have a vigilant movement for the current term.
VRP: Beyond the contentious vote count, what do Natal and the other MVC candidates make of the results?
PB: Whether we won or not, the results have been historic. Our goal of effecting a political realignment was achieved, and the fact that it took just one cycle to get underway is promising. As far as the legislature is concerned, it’s the first time a third party has ever succeeded in electing as many senators and at-large representatives. You have to remember that MVC didn’t exist prior to this electoral cycle. No base, no track record, no organizational structure, nothing. These results indicate the degree to which Puerto Rico is transforming. We are atop a new political board with a plethora of opportunities—that is, if we make the right moves. All the more important as we observe a rise in progressive forces, at the same time that a far right is consolidating. This latter point is made clear with the newly founded party called Project Dignity. The status quo can be disrupted from either side, hence the urgency of MVC. We can’t yield any space.
VRP: Amid the financial, political, and natural disasters Puerto Rico has endured in recent years, how did MVC, and in particular the Natal candidacy in San Juan, emerge?
PB: The MVC and Natal’s mayoral candidacy are parallel processes. Let’s look at the trajectory of the first. In 2010, the Working People’s Party (PPT) was formed, best known for its socialist proposals and unique strategy to circumvent “the status question.” Like Podemos in Spain, it sought to broaden the language and political work of the traditional left. Also taking shape was the Sovereign Union Movement (MUS), with constituents in favor of independence and those who believed that a compact with the U.S. could continue but only through greater sovereignty. It was an attempt to bring together non-annexationists around a new status axis. Neither of these parties got very far in 2016. It did, however, mark the first time in decades that the left reformulated its insertion into electoral politics. The question remained: How to bring the pillars of labor and decolonization together? The answer: A transversal project, one that included all status options.
This solution goes hand-in-hand with the formation of a broad anti-neoliberal front. The economic model of the so-called Commonwealth is in deep crisis. Puerto Rico has been plagued by recession since 2006, and austerity policies in the wake of the Great Recession have caused immeasurable social harm. Problems only grew more acute after Congress’ PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act) in 2016. Then came Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
One of the main obstacles in building a coalition against neoliberalism is the way in which politics here is dominated by the status question. Rather than traverse the spectrum from left to right, debate gets stuck on Puerto Rico’s political status vis-à-vis the U.S. That was precisely what was beginning to break—so we drove a wedge through it. It was time to involve all progressive citizens, be they in favor of autonomy, sovereignty, independence or, yes, even statehood.
Those assessments were articulated throughout 2018, but the uprising of Summer 2019 changed everything. Massive waves of protests, people flooding the streets. New things became possible. A new majority rose up, fed up with the two-party system. “Neither reds (PPD) nor blues (PNP)” was the call that rang out everywhere. It was like adding armament to the movement. We began to articulate ourselves. MVC chose to develop a decentralized organizational structure, taking inspiration from Summer 2019 itself. More than founding a political party, this network-of-networks was set on creating a movement. People are heartened to participate in the political process when they have a hand in the making of it.
One of the most fascinating developments that summer was the sprouting of neighborhood assemblies across the entire archipelago. Neighbors—even celebrities—participated in ways that were both direct and sincere. July was like this spectacular flash, to the rhythms of reguetón and trap. All that magma, all that desire to take action precedes any strategy. And that was precisely what we hoped to harness in San Juan.
VRP: So how does the San Juan candidacy fit into this broad-based movement? Where does municipalism meet MVC?
PB: Natal himself was active in the student movement. He started to build a name for himself when the University of Puerto Rico went on strike in 2010. A few years later he got elected to the legislature as a member of the PPD, where he became something of an insurgent favorite. Corruption, mismanagement, and inequality were his main targets. He made some enemies in the establishment for it. Natal was on his way to becoming the next gubernatorial candidate, until one day he discovered corruption within the party. At that point there was no turning back. He broke ways with the PPD, disaffiliating himself completely. He was on his own. But not for long.
Natal’s run for mayor was a product of the protests, with momentum spilling over into the Fall. Soon he had a team, and they introduced him to municipalism. His vision from the start was to construct a political program jointly with communities, but now he had a framework. The pandemic creeped in a few months later. Strategy shifted from neighborhood assemblies to door-to-door outreach. Every day was a new community, a new barrio. Four, five hours talking to neighbors: listening, noting, inputting. What we call the San Juan Model was designed from that feedback loop.
VRP: I imagine some sort of mapping was conducted to identify organized collectives with which to associate. What role do social movements play in the San Juan candidacy?
PB: That’s one area we could improve on. Here in Puerto Rico, whenever you want to mobilize the grassroots, “leaders” usually mediate. Sometimes it’s helpful, but other times these figures are self-proclaimed and like to gatekeep. Top-down dynamics end up being generated that undermine collective action. Then there’s the intractable suspicion of many on the left to electoralism. Predominantly pro-independence, they’re averse to getting involved in a political project that doesn’t exclusively espouse that option. That’s despite the fact that MVC is, to a large extent, originally constituted from people in the social movements. A tension is there. But since the election things have changed, and some collectives see us as a tool they can use. Let’s see how this thesis plays out over the next four years.
VRP: Jumping back to the San Juan Model, what is that?
PB: While MVC’s network-of-networks has a national scope, we designed a parallel program for the municipal level. Both revolve around the same axes; namely, policies that expand democratic participation and social rights and combat austerity. Throughout the campaign we sought to demonstrate, in practice, the kind of participatory politics that we would cultivate once in office. Take the San Juan legislative elections for example. Usually contenders are handpicked by the mayoral candidate of the same party. In our case, assembly members were selected through, literally, assemblies—open forums. We broke with tradition even further. Instead of simply “at-large” legislators, MVC proposed that each be linked to a region of the city. Specific communities could then hold lawmakers more accountable.
Public policy can be drafted by going door-to-door. Thanks to that strategy we were nourished by feminist demands, like the declaration of a State of Emergency over gender violence; by union demands, like to limit subcontracts and refrain from massive layoffs of government employees at the turn of the term; and by broad-based demands, like to pilot universal health care in the capital. Another key issue is public transportation. Sidewalks are insufferable, especially for people who are differently abled. Bike lanes are non-existent. Without a car it’s virtually impossible to get around. Access to the city is high on our agenda. Perhaps the most transformative aspect of the San Juan Model though, is its commitment to developing a solidarity economy.
So we had a truly ambitious agenda. The previous mayor, Carmen Yulín (PPD), cut San Juan’s budget by nearly half. Fiscally, things are complicated: bond markets are inaccessible, Hurricane Maria was disastrous, the Financial Oversight & Management Board is merciless; the list goes on. It didn’t help that the governor and mayor were from opposing parties. That’s how you get such a drastic reduction from one term to the next. Budgets are tightening, and it doesn’t seem to be easing up anytime soon. Our agenda had to resist this trend no matter what. People know there’s another way—there has to be.
VRP: As concrete as these problems are, it sounds like the task is also imaginative. You’re constantly integrating what people tell you on the street about their community’s most immediate problems into a broader vision. It sounds like you’re saying that both a beautiful and just city is possible.
PB: Yes, and maybe the two aren’t separate. People want a range of things, a system that treats them with dignity but also solves the small problems. So far as we’re concerned, a government focused on the common good can fulfill these expectations. If we could make it evident that daily life is palpably improving, then we could garner the mass support needed for higher aims. Hence the San Juan Model. It sets forth a 10-year program with the intention of lifting the city above its current minimal operation, towards a radically new horizon. Ultimately, we want to engender a sense of belonging within each and every resident.
VRP: That sort of articulation is especially important in combating established media narratives.
PB: Exactly. Social media was our lifeline, but it was also a crutch. Too many of the elderly were left out because we simply lacked the funds for major advertising. Romero’s campaign, on the other hand, raised three-to-four times more money than Natal’s. His TV ads were in all segments at all available times. “San Juan Shines” blared everywhere ad nauseam. It hit like a media carpet bombing.
We needed to find routes other than traditional media to broaden the political imaginary. The mere fact that we were running for office was already a historical feat. Coverage of the campaign was next to nil, and the number of invitations we received to participate in panels or talks could be counted by hand. MVC was painted as a dead end. Still, many on the center-left who generally voted PPD saw straight through the charade. They knew we meant serious.
When Bad Bunny publicly endorsed us, all hell broke loose—I mean, the media lockdown was finally broken. Natal’s candidacy exploded. Mobilizing the youth vote was the only way, so we pushed hard to register as many as possible. The megastar posted his brand new voting card in late August, going instantly viral. Lines at the registration centers were kilometers-long up through the very last day. To top it off, Benito announced his support for Natal a week before the elections. The youth vote in the end wasn’t as strong as we had hoped. Strides were certainly made among people 30-50 years old. We learned that older folks should be engaged with more, since they tend to turn out on election day.
I want to highlight another novel aspect of our campaign. Traditional parties have an apparatus. Depending on how fervently one supports any given campaign, political posts are doled out in the winning administration. Decades-long incentive systems can’t be underestimated. We had none of that. It’s antithetical to a grassroots campaign, the first of its kind electorally. I’m proud of the tactical repertoire of our campaign. The field and territorial strategies used were innovative. Door-to-door visits, call banks, and text messaging landed so well with folks that even the other parties tried to copy it. But Natal had what they didn’t: an ocean of volunteers. So, the direct communications strategy merged with the decentralized organizational strategy. Integrating data and creating digital infrastructure will prove pivotal in the long run. Slow work builds the base.
VRP: Zooming out again, there were local MVC candidacies all over Puerto Rico. What’s your assessment of those races?
PB: Across the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico, MVC ran over 132 candidates in its first elections ever. Particularly successful were the assembly members. Eva Prados’ campaign for San Juan Precinct 3 is worth analyzing because it mirrors Natal’s. She came excruciatingly close to winning. Having fallen short by just a hundred or so votes, Prados too is contesting the results.
The elections for governor revealed a divided left. Alexandra Lúgaro (MVC) polled at 14%, which is significant but only slightly better than her previous run as an independent candidate. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) received its best results ever, with Juan Dalmau at 13.6%. It’s obvious that a coalition is the only way to win the governorship. But given that our electoral system is based on that of the U.S.—meaning, not a parliamentary democracy—forming coalitions is virtually impossible. That’s an entirely different challenge.
VRP: The campaigns are over, but what organizational structure remains? Specifically, how will it evolve in San Juan?
PB: Now the real work begins. Our organizational structure is designed from the bottom up. Each voting unit has a Captain who serves at the administrative level closest to the people. The San Juan district is home to approximately 120 units spread across five precincts, each of which has one representative. All the while, themed commissions are working on special projects. Let’s say a community is dealing with an eviction. A targeted initiative is then rolled out that leverages the entire MVC network in San Juan for that specific situation. These, at scale, feed into longer-term campaigns for public housing. The movement serves as a microphone, a platform to amplify community needs.
A few ideas are being workshopped beyond San Juan. One collaboration that we’re exploring is with the Movement School, the organizing arm of Justice Democrats. Their curriculum spans territorial, communications, and fundraising strategies. Since the vast majority of MVC assembly members had no previous electoral experience, training and empowerment was a priority. Next cycle we want dozens of Natals, strong candidacies that challenge the ruling two parties in every space. If you think about it, a couple thousand votes wins elections outside the capital.
VRP: Lastly, could you situate the San Juan race in a global context?
PB: Of course we’re hyper-focused on the local, but struggles to reclaim the right to the city transcend borders. MVC is actively forging ties closer to our reality, in the Dominican Republic, Latin America, the United States—oh, and Barcelona too! International solidarity was one of my favorite parts of this grueling campaign. I still remember the day when Ada Colau endorsed Natal all the way from Catalonia. Visibility like that is sometimes the deciding factor in battles for greater transparency.
Translated and edited by Francisco Dominguez
Featured image: Manuel Natal Albelo, former mayoral candidate of San Juan and member of the Puerto Rican legislature. He currently serves as the General Coordinator of the Citizens’ Victory Movement. Credit: Eduardo Martínez