The first debate between Puerto Rico's six gubernatorial candidates turned into an accountability on the positions they took in the past. Ahead of the November 3 elections, the six candidates met for the first time face to face in a televised debate that set the tone for the remainder of the campaign.
Pedro Pierluisi, candidate under the New Progressive Party (NPP) was asked to respond for his participation in the Luis Fortuño administration (2009-2013), when he serves as resident commissioner and thousands of public employees were laid off over Act 7 of 2009. Before a panel of journalists from Wapa TV, NotiUno, and El Vocero, THE WEEKLY JOURNAL's sister publication, he justified those dismissals, saying it was the right decision at that time.
"Back then, there was a severe fiscal crisis. Yes, there were some layoffs and they were justified. Since then, everything changed because the government ended in bankruptcy because of the Alejandro García Padilla administration and we earned a [Financial Oversight and Management Board]," Pierluisi said.
Alexandra Lúgaro, candidate for the Citizen Victory Movement (MVC by its Spanish initials), also had to answer for past stances. As an independent candidate in 2016, Lúgaro favored merging and closing campuses from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), as well as privatizing some government services. Now, she said that she "made some mistakes" and changed her position, this time as a candidate under a newly-formed party.
"I think it is important to acknowledge that in the past years I have learned a lot, including things in which one has evolved. There are essential services that must be protected and among those is the UPR, the Electric Power Authority (PREPA), and the Education Department. We are against privatizing any essential services in the country," said Lúgaro, who also had to respond to lawsuits filed against her and her family.
The candidate sought to address this from the serve and reiterated that she has changed. "I have walked, I have listened, I have been wrong, and I have also learned," she said. "Today I am not presenting myself as an independent candidate, but as part of the Citizen Victory Movement."
Carlos "Charlie" Delgado Altieri, candidate under the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), was confronted on the fact that, as mayor of Isabela, he maintained a surplus in the municipal coffers while maintaining a high level of poverty in the coastal town.
"I have achieved one of the largest surpluses, of $35 million and we have used it to respond to the people. That makes a good manager. Run on a budget and improve the quality of life for all citizens," he stated. "We have seen how the government has turned its back on municipalities."
The only independent candidate in this electoral cycle, Eliezer Molina, was asked how he would implement a government program without backing in the Legislature or from mayors. He responded on several occasions that the power to implement public policy comes from La Fortaleza and that it will have offices to ensure that no corruption cases are reported.
"We are precisely outside of these ties that destroyed this country. I am an engineering graduate, I have my coffee farm, we know the economy because Puerto Rico has an economic problem and we know it fully," Molina said. "Puerto Rico has an economy and we will create an economy of production to begin exporting because if we don't do that, the State's revenues are limited and we fall into public debt. We have studied this model extensively."
Moreover, Dr. César Vázquez, candidate under Proyecto Dignidad (Dignity Project), was asked about the party's conservative stances, with emphasis from the press on education with gender perspective and the LGBTT+ communities.
"We have a problem in Puerto Rico and that is that when people expose what they believe, those who differ refer to that exposition as hate speech. True hate speech is denying others to think differently," Vázquez said. "In the Dignity Project, the first thing that encourages us is that we believe in the dignity of everyone, regardless of what they believe or what their behavior is. It is one thing to disagree with a behavior, it is another thing to attempt against those people and it is not like that."
Political Status on the Table
The debate brought to the table four of the main issues that affect the country: vision of government and corruption, the island's political status, economic development, and education.
On the status, Juan Dalmau, candidate under the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), reiterated that the main concern is who will govern the island.
"The status is the issue. I am not neutral on that matter. I believe in independence, not to separate us from the United States, but to join the word, to prosper. But that process that my project for the country contains is a decolonization assembly where the country can vote democratically and can express itself and force Congress to express itself," he said. “That is not what is proposed on Nov. 3. What you are going to vote on is who you are going to delegate the responsibility of directing the destinies of Puerto Rico and I make myself available for that. "
Neither Molina nor Vázquez said clearly what status they favor for the island. Lúgaro, meanwhile, reiterated that she believes in independence, but underscored that the position of the MVC is to hold a Constitutional Status Assembly.
The panel of journalists also questioned Delgado Altieri for his stance on the status. In the past, the now-president of the PDP has identified with the sovereign wing of the community. During last night's debate, he clung to both positions: he said on the one hand that the Commonwealth has life and also stated that the “colonial commons” needs changes.
“We must ensure our citizenship and strengthen the relationship with the United States so that it is a dignified relationship. It is important that the Federal Relations Act, specifically in its Section 9, we can amend it and ensure that Puerto Rico, every time Congress goes to legislate, Puerto Rico has something to say," he said, adding that "the colonial Commonwealth obviously needs changes." He finally identified himself as pro-sovereignty.
Mixed Views on the Public Debt
In the discussion on economic development, Pierluisi was again questioned about his role as a lawyer for the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB). For him, this implies a work “experience” that favors the island.
On the debt payment, he stated that it must be "sustainable and must be payable" and affirmed that the matter is in the hands of the Federal Court.
"There is the Promesa Act that Puerto Rico earned with non-payment and establishes a system to restructure the debt and some amount of debt has to be paid, but it has to be negotiated and the court has to approve it," Pierluisi said. “It doesn't necessarily have to cause a rise in the cost of living. Sustainable debt has to allow the government to operate."
Delgado Altieri questioned the public debt raised in the Fortuño administration and Lúgaro defended that it be audited and not paid.