Puerto Rico is a changed place since it was shattered by two hurricanes, rolling earthquakes, a crushing recession and debt, the protests of the summer of 2019 that ousted a corrupt governor, an incompetent interim one, and now COVID-19. It is against this backdrop that San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has set her sights on becoming the island’s next Governor.

The biggest fight of her political life  

If elected, Yulín, 57, will be the second woman democratically voted into La Fortaleza. The words of her grandmother, Lutarga Vega, who rose from poverty through higher education, will have sustained her.

“She told me: never start a fight, but always finish one. As you are small, you only have one chance, so hit hard.”

Once again, Yulín is “La Pitirre,” the island’s national bird, delicate yet ferocious. Against steep odds and a cadre of male politicians, she hopes to win, as she did twice before in San Juan, ignoring the voices warning her that her political capital on the island is depleted.

“I’ll tell you honestly that I believe I am an example of a message, and that message is that the country – just like San Juan where people weren’t ready (for a change) – is now a different country,” 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. And I am convinced that I not only represent that message in word but also in my actions in my public life,” she said. “I do not need to reinvent myself. The consistency of my actions speaks for themselves.”

The challenge of leading a new country

Yulín became an international darling after facing off 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 tiny, bespectacled woman, dressed in combat trousers and a man’s open white shirt, lobbed Trump’s words right back at him. It played well and put Puerto Rico and Yulín in high profile. (And she is doing it again with the catastrophic failure of the Trump administration – calling the president The Incompetent In Chief – after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.)

Even before Maria, the litany of disasters that finally drove 3.5% of the island’s population to the streets of San Juan to oust pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) governor Ricardo Rosselló included a prolonged recession, Hurricane Irma and Maria, an unscrupulous debt, a Washington-appointed Junta, and a bitter colonial truth: the US really didn’t care.

But it was #Rickygate, when thousands took to the streets of San Juan demanding he leaves office, that made it clear that Puerto Ricans were fed up with government corruption and partisan politics, and wanted change.

The NPP rid itself of Rosselló like a syphilitic rash and, disregarding the message delivered via pots and ladles, stuffed its wolves into sheep’s vestments and sent out 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.

“These people (the NPP administration) feel they are superior in Puerto Rico, and because they feel superior in Puerto Rico, they believe they can fool their own – as Ricardo Rosselló said,” she said. “Wanda Vázquez is the Corín Tellado version of Ricky Rosselló.” Tellado was a prolific Spanish writer of romantic novels.

Yulín’s campaign slogan is “Sin Miedo” (Without Fear), words of Inés Mendoza, widow of the Popular Democratic Party’s (PDP) father, Luis Muñoz Marín, and Yulín’s party.

Yet, she faces a tough race to the finish, and the second-to last hurdle, the PDP primaries on Aug. 9, will be the hardest. It will hinge on her ability to return an ossified party to its roots of Pan, Tierra y Libertad.

Is courage enough?

In charisma and message, she is stronger than her opponent Senator Eduardo Bhatia, but will it be enough to pull in the dyed-in-the-wool Populares? If she does win the primaries, she will run for governor and the cupula of the PDP will grit their teeth because they know she has a fighting chance to win an election polarized between a corrupt party and the possibility of change.

“I think people have seen that what I have been saying all my life, now there is no veneer, there are no more palm trees for us to hide behind, literally,” she said. “You can now see areas of Puerto Rico that were always there, very poor areas, that people didn’t see before, and now you cannot look the other way.”

“I believe Puerto Rico will live four years of crisis in the next quadrennium – an economic crisis, a social crisis, without even factoring in what can happen – another hurricane, more earthquakes,” she said.

“In a crisis, you need someone with a vision and knowledge of what the people want.”

A central plank of her platform is the fight against poverty and the extreme inequalities on an island where “poverty is widespread.” At least 43% of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty line.

“Someone with connections in Washington, that is respected by Washington, and that can work with Congress,” she said. “Someone that is consistent and whose only loyalty is to Puerto Rico. And someone who will fight for Puerto Ricans, for their dignity and respect.”

“All these things have to be present in someone that can also forge alliances. I have demonstrated I have all these things. All of them,” she said. “No other candidate, from any other party, meets all of these criteria.”

Yulín will definitely benefit from the internal divisions that are cracking the NPP into two factions.

It’s time to change the film

“There is an internal battle between the two faces of the NPP government. The ones that are with Pedro Pierluisi and the ones that are with Wanda.” Pierlusi, ex-resident commissioner in Washington and with uncomfortably close ties to Wall Street, is running against Vazquez in that party’s primaries.

Vázquez has run an inept administration, fielding charges of corruption, an ultra-conservative evangelical dictum, and a muzzling of the press during a pandemic.  She also just signed into law a controversial Civil Code that curtails the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.

“In the government, the actors might have changed, but the film is the same,” she said. “It’s the same chat (that brought Rosselló down,) the same contempt for the pain of the people, the same personal enrichment on the back of the misery of others, the same seed of corruption and evil,” she said. And the same republican attitude of buying votes with handouts.

Pierluisi tried, by all means, to succeed Ricky in La Fortaleza but had to leave less than a week later and make room for Wanda. Now, in the face of civil unrest in the United States and the implosion of the Trump administration, Pierlusi promises statehood and more federal monies, all the while distancing himself from his Wall Street connections.

“The farse the NPP tries to pull over on the Puerto Rican people – making them believe the NPP leaders are respected in Washington when the nicest thing Trump has called them is crooks,” Yulín said.

The reality is the NPP does not have the elections in the bag and they know it.  “They may want to appear as if they think they have it in the bag, but their numbers are not there and they know they don’t have it in the bag,” Yulín said.  “That is why Wanda is doling out money.”

“But the question is, the question that the country must ask itself and answer – if you want a different government, if you want to be treated with respect, you have to look at what politicians have done, rather than what they are going to say,” she said.

 “They are trying to buy people because they are used to buying people because they think people are for sale. Puerto Ricans are not for sale anymore. That is what I am trying to say,” she said.

“Puerto Ricans are fed up with corruption, but more than with corruption, they are tired of a government that doesn’t work, that doesn’t listen to them, that doesn’t have the people’s best interest at heart,” Yulín said.

She said Puerto Rico changed after Irma, it changed after Maria, it changed after the summer of 2019, it changed after the earthquake, and it is different after COVID-19.

“Puerto Ricans woke up and realized, as Luis Muñoz Rivera said, that power lies with ourselves,” she said. “Then hope does not depend on what you are handed out, hope is born in you.” Muñoz Rivera was a Puerto Rican poet, journalist, and politician and a major figure in the struggle for political autonomy of the island.

“And when hope lies in you and is yours, and you put it in movement, there is nothing that can stand in your way,” Yulín said.

That hope and people’s desire for a different Puerto Rico are what Yulín believes will take her to the finish line. But the words of Eleanor Roosevelt are also fitting here.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”