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Puerto Rico Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz wins gubernatorial primary. Pro-statehood party still undecided
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Puerto Rico Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz wins gubernatorial primary. Pro-statehood party still undecided

  • PublishedJune 3, 2024



SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Rep. Jesús Manuel Ortiz defeated Sen. Juan Zaragoza in a gubernatorial primary held Sunday by their Popular Democratic Party, which seeks a return to power in the upcoming general elections.

Zaragoza, who was highly lauded for his work as the island’s former treasury secretary, conceded defeat after obtaining 38% of the votes to his rival’s 62%, even though only a little over half of the votes had been counted.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi was still locked in what appeared to be a losing battle with Puerto Rico congressional representative Jenniffer González in the primary held by the pro-statehood New Progressive Party. The two ran on the same ticket four years ago, but González announced in early December that she was challenging Pierluisi.

Running alongside Pierluisi for the position of congressional representative was Puerto Rico Sen. William Villafañe, while senior U.S. naval military officer Elmer Román, a former secretary of state for Puerto Rico, sought the position under González.

Attorney Pablo José Hernández ran unopposed to be the Popular Democratic Party’s candidate for resident commissioner, the first person in 20 years to seek that nomination.

As results trickled in late Sunday, the page of Puerto Rico’s elections commission crashed, frustrating many who were closely following the primaries. Officials said they were rushing to fix the problem, saying they did not know what caused it but that U.S. Homeland Security and other agencies were helping.

“If it were necessary to activate the FBI given the situation, we will do it,” said Jessika Padilla, the commission’s alternate president.

The candidates face disgruntled voters on an island still struggling with chronic power outages and awaiting completion of reconstruction projects following Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in September 2017.

Power outages were reported at more than a dozen voting centers, including one where Ortiz arrived to cast his vote, forcing officials to revert to a manual process. Heavy rains also pelted parts of the island, with flood warnings issued for nearly a dozen towns and cities.

Power outages remain such a big concern that the State Commission of Elections rented more than a dozen generators and a private power company identified 81 alternate voting sites with guaranteed electricity.

“It’s been years since I last voted,” said Benito López, a 66-year-old retiree wearing a T-shirt that read, “The Island of Enchantment.” He planned to cast a vote for a candidate he would not reveal “to see if there’s any improvement and change.”

Other voter complaints include the difficulty of obtaining business permits, a fractured education system, and the island’s lack of access to capital markets after the local government emerged two years ago from the largest debt restructuring in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, more than $9 billion of debt owed by Puerto Rico’s power company, the largest of any government agency, remains unresolved. A federal judge overseeing a bankruptcy-like process has yet to rule on a restructuring plan following bitter negotiations between the government and bondholders.

“They have broken Puerto Rico,” Cecilio Rodríguez, said of the current and previous administrations as he waited to cast his vote. “Economic development must be a priority.”

For other voters, stopping the exodus of doctors from Puerto Rico and improving the U.S. territory’s crumbling health system is a priority.

“The patients are the ones who have to stay here and endure this. It’s not fair,” said Dr. Alfredo Rivera Freytes, an anesthesiologist who left Puerto Rico for St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands because of the problems with Puerto Rico’s health system.

He returned two years ago with plans to retire, but found himself working again because of the need for anesthesiologists in Puerto Rico.

Ahead of the primaries, Pierluisi touted record tourist numbers, hurricane reconstruction and growing economic development among his successes. He pledged to prioritize projects targeting children and the island’s growing elderly population, among other things.

An event marking the end of his campaign held a week before the primaries was headlined by former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned in August 2019 following nearly two weeks of street touched off by a leak of crude and insulting chat messages between him and his top advisers.

Pierluisi’s opponent, González, did not hold a campaign closer. She pledged to crack down on corruption, award more funds to agencies to help victims of violence amid a surge in killings of women, and stem an exodus of doctors and other medical workers to the U.S. mainland.

Zaragoza had promised to prioritize climate change and renewable energy, decentralize the island’s education department and improve access to health. His opponent, Ortiz, pledged to improve the licensing process to retain doctors, simplify the island’s tax system and revamp health care.

Puerto Rico’s next governor will have to work alongside a federal control board that oversees the island’s finances and was created after the government declared bankruptcy.

Ahead of Sunday’s primaries, more than 4,900 inmates voted in prisons across the U.S. territory. The State Commission of Elections also received and counted more than 122,000 early ballots.

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Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america

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