By Wallice J. de la Vega
The closing of 438 public schools in Puerto Rico in 2018, followed by the disuse and deterioration of 365 of them, had its strongest impact on November 3, local elections day. The reduction of number of prepared schools caused long lines and delays in the electoral process held across de island.
In the case of the Aguadilla municipality, 19 deteriorated structures were opened for the almost 36,000 voters registered there. However, at urban school José de Diego, for example, only three classrooms were used as electoral “colleges”. The ensuing confusion kept the multitude moving from one line to another trying to decipher which of them was the correct one for each one, based alphabetically on the first letter of his or her last name.
“What a mess, given that we have so much new technology”, said a voter who asked not to be identified. “Shameful is what this is”. It took him more than two and a half hours to vote.
The school closings came from Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, who had been contracted by the Puerto Rico government in 2016 with an annual salary of $231,000. She ended up quitting in April 2019 after being arrested by the FBI charged with misappropriation of $15 million through contracts with “politically connected consultants” and using public property for personal gain. At that time also surfaced an almost $26,000 contract Education awarded to the then Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s brother.
In January 2018, the governor had accepted Keleher’s plan, which included 305 school closings, and firing some 700 teachers, thus producing fiscal savings of $300 million in four years. In July 2019 Rosselló was forced to resign from government facing massive protests by the people due to governmental corruption. This pushed the local House of Representatives to publicly say they “were ready to begin an impeachment process” against him.
From its side, the Fiscal Supervision Board, imposed by the U.S. government to manage Puerto Rico’s finances through Public Law 26-2017 for Compliance with the Fiscal Plan, wrote the Department of Education mentioning that “the closure of these schools was expected to generate significant administrative personnel and non-personnel operational savings for the Department. However, it has come to the Oversight Board’s attention that such savings have not been generated as expected”.
The closed schools were supposed to be transferred to the Public Works Department for maintenance. However, it is the majority of municipalities the ones that take on that responsibility. Following the “domino effect”, a bankrupt central government causes bankrupt municipalities as responsible for rapidly deteriorating buildings.
As to the electoral process, from several island places reported voting problems. “The long wait, mainly under the hot sun, and not having posted clear signs about which college was the correct for each voter was the worst of all,” said Deyka Iglesias about her experience in Aguadilla. Like her, most of those interviewed cited “kilometric lines” and “limited spaces” as this election’s worst factors.
When it comes to the general vote, the greatest surprise in this election was Pedro Pierluisi’s projected ascent to the governor’s office. Two important events pointed to a sure defeat: The bad taste left by the “coup” against Rosselló due to corruption and recent public claims against Pierluisi about supposed sexual harassment. Four days before the election a physical trainer made public a signed sworn statement claiming the candidate’s harassment against her.
“To me is very important to make clear that I always insisted that our relationship was strictly professional, despite Pedro Pierluisi’s continuous sexual advancement made me verbally, through text messages, and voice phone messages, of which I have evidence”, said trainer Yolanda Sánchez in her sworn statement sustaining her accusation.
The ensuing confusion kept the multitude moving from one line to another trying to decipher which of them was the correct one for each one, based alphabetically on the first letter of his or her last name.
This year’s voting didn’t reach the participants’ expected high number, showing the registered voters’ descending interest, from 2.8 million in 2016 to 2.35 million this year.
Another factor favoring Pierluisi was the number of governorship candidates. Traditionally, the competition had been limited to only three parties: Partido Popular (supporting the present colonial system), the Partido Nuevo Progresista (advocating statehood), and Partido Independentista (pushing for total sovereignty). But this year those were joined by Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (proposing an associated sovereignty with the United States), Proyecto Dignidad (religious-right wing based), and Movimiento Conciencia.
As of 3:00 p.m. November 4, electoral projections had Pierluisi winning the governorship with 380,704 votes (32.40 percent) counted, and Jenniffer González wining as Resident Commissioner (representative in Washington) with 461,401 (40.47 percent) counted. Voting in a non-binding plebiscite was showing statehood approval (Yes) with 592,242 votes (52.19 percent) counted, facing rejection (No) with 542,634 votes (47.81 percent) counted.
Wallice J. de la Vega is a Freelance Journalist based in Puerto Rico.
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