ROAD TO SOMOS: Carmen Yulin Cruz Part One

Carmen Yulin Cruz was elected mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2012. Her victory was a shock to many. Supported by many politicians in America including New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Yulin defeated three-term incumbent Jorge Santini. City & State Editor-in-Chief Morgan Pehme and contributor Gerson Borrero sat down with Yulin at her office on September 5th, to discuss a host of issues from combatting poverty, the Diaspora and its impact on Puerto Rican politics, and her work with New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on participatory budgeting.  

This part one of a two-part interview. 


Morgan Pehme: Hello I’m Morgan Pehme, editor of City & State and I am here with my good friend and colleague, Gerson Borrero. We are on location at San Juan City Hall as part of our new series, “The Road To Somos”.  Today, we are very pleased to be joined by our guest, Mayor Carmen Yulin.

Gerson Borrero: That sounds so formal. City and State TV welcome the Mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulin. That's how everyone knows her. Thank you for granting this interview and this opportunity. This is part of the coverage that we are doing for The Road to SOMOS for the Fall conference that will take place here in San Juan, but to also talk about the diaspora. [Translated from Spanish]

I think that if anyone could speak, if there is any Puerto Rican in public life that can speak about the importance of it, about connecting back home to this beloved island of ours is you because you spent time in the States.

Carmen Yulin: I did. First of all, let me welcome you to San Juan. We like to think of ourselves as not only the capital of Puerto Rico, but also the capital of the Caribbean. We are delighted that you can be here, and you said my name perfectly, so I’m cool with it. I went to Boston University from 1980 to 1984; I got my bachelors there in Political Science. Then I went to Carnegie melon and I got my masters in public policy and administration. I am married and my daughter was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I stayed there 6 additional years. Altogether I spent 12 years in the States. I enjoyed every moment of it. I liked living in the States but that that you called Diaspora is something you can partially be part of or continually part of. I was partially part of that for 12 years. I often say to my friends that I felt too Puerto Rican to live in the States, then I felt too American to live in Puerto Rico. So when I settled back in Puerto Rico in 1992 I had to come to terms with all of that. There are certain things, even if you are having a great life, parrandas it is not the same thing. Caroling is so civilized and so formal and we’re all about the charismatic unorganized and organized at the same time, cherishing of those moments. There are things that you always miss and things that you have to remember. I’ve come to understand, I don't know who said it, but we are really one nation divided by one ocean. Those that are there, that are first generation Puerto Rican, are as much Puerto Rican as I am, haven’t been born here, brought up here, and haven’t moved back and forth. That is something as a nation that we have to come to terms with. We are Latinos, we are Centro-Americanos and we have a place there as we have a place here. These are not situations that have to fight one against each other--they compliment each other.


GB: One of the things that Morgan was, in our discussing prior to this interview and sharing some of the things I know about you, and its fascinating how you became Mayor of San Juan, You took out a really strong incumbent, but you also took on your party PPD who wanted to ice you because they had their own pecking order. But there was a question that I don't think that I as a Puerto Rican struggle with because of my political inclinations. But Morgan, you ask the Mayor the question that you asked me about the soberanistas.

MP: if you could explain the difference between your position as a Soberanista and the Conservadores within your own party. Because I think a lot of non Puerto Ricans, particularly in the states, have a misconception of the interests of Puerto Ricans being a monolithic entity, but there are deep political divisions in your party.


CY: Too many political divisions that usually drive us not to work together, which is awful. At some point it has to stop. One thing I admire about the United States is that Republican or Democrat, when the president of the United States, no matter he or she is, that person comes into the capital building and says “ladies and gentlemen the president of the united states” and everyone stands up, because it isn’t the person, it's the office. One of the things that we need to do is respect the office more. I am a Soberanista. Let me tell you what that means. It means I believe in the development of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States outside of the territorial clause. Right now Puerto Rico is the territory of the United States. What that means is that there are certain legislation that apply to Puerto Rico and unilaterally, the congress can decide whether it applies or does not apply. I will give you an example: section 936 of the U.S IRS code was used in the 70s and 80s to heighten the economic power of Puerto Rico. It was given to national industries that were in Puerto Rico and they could take their gains from Puerto Rico into the U.S and not have to pay any federal income tax. So that was great. Because of political issues, the right conservative wing outside of my party, decided that we have to be like one of the fifty states, so they worked very hard and this thing was taken away from us.

We have lost more than 150,000 jobs to that and that spiraled us into an economic situation that we are struggling to get out of. If that section 936 was given it was because the U.S congress could, if it was taken away it was also because the U.S.  Congress has that power. What we [Spanish] are talking about is the relationship similar to the one the U.S. has with the [Spanish] islands. Where there is certain legislation that applies to Puerto Rico, but we would have to sit down with the United States and talk about it first so it would be mutually beneficial. One of the things we’d also like to have is more economic power. We don't want to add to the economic burden to the United States, as the rest of the world is heading on. We want to have instruments in our power, in our hands, at our own volition so we can say this works for us, this doesn't work for us. Many people say that Puerto Rico enjoys many of the benefits from the states without being a state. This is true but they forget to tell you that Agent Orange was tried in El Yunque, the only rainforest in Puerto Rico, the contraceptive pill was tried in Puerto Rico in the 1960s. They forget to tell you that we can only purchase goods and services from the United States. So we are 100 by 35 and we are the fifth or sixth market for US goods and services. I’ll give you a perfect example; I used to work for a manufacturing company. We used to manufacture the goods and put them in a little bag that says distributed in New Jersey, pack them up in a us ship, take them to new jersey and then bring them back to Puerto Rico. Would cost 25 cents, we have to pay a retail price of 4 dollars. Out of the 21 medications most widely sold worldwide, 13 are made in Puerto Rico.. They cost 20-25 cents a pill; we pay them 5 or 6 dollars a pill. So you have a consumer market that is really held hostage. We cannot use a ship that does not have a US flag.  If a foreign ship comes into I Puerto Rico and does business in Puerto Rico It is forbidden to move on to a US port. Even with the breakage of a relationship with the United States and Venezuela, the US still buys 700,000 barrels of oil from Venezuela. We cannot buy oil from Venezuela. How come CITGO is over there in the US and they cannot come to Puerto Rico. SO there are goods and services that we are prohibited to buy we are prohibited to buy at a lower price and are more expensive just because of the conditions that are put upon us. What Soberanistas want to do is, with the continued link with US citizenship. Why is that? My daughter was born in the U.S. - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She can be president of the United States, I can’t. I don't want to be president of the United States but it is as it should be, a different type of citizenship. Now, if my daughter gave birth today in Spain, she would just go to the US embassy and write her grandchild…. That's it! What has happened with the US with other treaties it has signed with other smaller nations, those nations did not have US citizens. We were granted the US citizenship in 1917, just in the nick of time to help with WW1. What a coincidence. Now there [are] a lot of things that our relationship with the united states provides us, that are excellent opportunities. In this world of interdependence, we don't see anything wrong in having that relationship where the economic power is in Puerto Rican hands. Where we both agree, not unilaterally, but in a bilateral fashion in what is going to apply or not and keeping the transmission of US citizenship as it was in posed on us in 1917 when nobody had asked for it. How does that differ from the …what did you call it? I want to use your phrase.


MP: I was trying to say Conservadores but I couldn't. 

CY: That’s fine; I want to use the same term that you used. They believe that the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US can change within that territorial clause. That we can go to the states and we can say you know what, we don't want this law to apply we want this law to be done in a different way. And ill tell you section 936, the use of US ships to transport goods and services. Virgin islands does not have that requirement and they are still part of the United States. The problem is, in my view is, the golden rule. He who has the golden rule, rules. If you give me something you can take it away. As long as it is in the territorial clause, it can be given and taken away. Frankly what we need to do is do more things that are more conducive so our economic prosperity depends on us and does not depend on that much on money that comes from the United States


MP: I’m sorry if this is the gringo perspective on Puerto Rican politics, but even though governor García Padilla is on the same party as you, he is on a different side on how to interpret and move forward on defining the territorial status. Is this a friendly disagreement with the governor? Or are there deep tensions and divisions with your own party? 

CY: I would not say its friendly; I would say it's a division. There are serious and deep-rooted opinions. Which are based equally on different political strategies and judicial strategies. The governor and I have an excellent working relationship. I have to say he has never asked me, he knows better, but he has never asked me to say or do anything that I wouldn't do. He is a very respectful and honorable person. We have had very ardent discussions, very friendly discussions, but discussions nevertheless deeply differentiated by our different trend of thought; I think he’s wrong, he thinks I’m wrong. But in the middle we have been able to work. While this is taking place, there are people out there without homes, without enough money to put food on the table, dealing with issues of health of crime and that cannot wait. That is the imperative of why we both came to government and both came into power. So his right is in the right place.


GB: You mentioned something that as I am looking at this, which I would like for you to explain las casitas del caño - this replicas of a particular area...

CY: Its simple. Maintaining a relationship with the United States outside of the territorial clause.


GB: Some people don't understand because they don't even understand how the United States maintains this territory. Bringing back the way you got into government, I know that you want to serve. I just want to give the readers and viewers of city and state. You not only beat an incumbent - a 12-year Republican incumbent. You not only took on the structure of your party, a machista structure; male dominated. You really included everyone in your coalition. What is it that you understand as a person that wants to be inclusive.

CY: I think it has to do with a perspective of what you think government is for and what you think power is for and what is power. I went to the (inaudible) foundation last year and I read something that said, “In the end, political relationships are people relationships”. So it had nothing to do with power, it has everything to do with people and how people come together. If you look at churches, if you look at little league teams, if you look at unions, if you look at any organizations of any kind. People come together for one purpose only and they forget about their differences. I came to understand.. I was a member of the house Four years ago… that power truly, truly is the power of the people. In fact I wrote a book - El poser esta en la calle -  the power is in the streets. People don't realize they have the power, people don't realize that if they come together there are more of them than those who occupy the seat that I’m in right now. So one was the LGBT community, the other one was the student community, the other one was a coalition called [Spanish]. A lot of people were included. There was a community of Dominican immigrants. One interesting alliance I had was with taxi drivers. So we redefined community in our campaign and we do it in our government now. Not as a geographic location only, but as a group of people coming together for a common purpose, which seems to be like the oldest definition in the book, but somehow it wasn't. Communities aren’t only the low-income communities they are also the high-level income communities. Everybody needs their garbage picked up; everybody has gas and electrical issues. At the beginning I thought, you know what? Even if I don't win office, being just in the running gives me a platform for all of these voices to come together. And truly it sounds like a lot of kumbaya, but it works. Power isn’t for me to keep, it’s for me to help distribute. If you really believe that power is in the people, you have to help people get organized. That's not easy, we signed 21 agreements with 21 different communities. It is the people in these communities that no one understands what they need and what they want. [Spanish] they weren’t for us, to make sure that the protection of domestic violence laws and ordinances fell on everyone. It didn't matter if you didn't have the papers to legally be in Puerto Rico and San Juan, it didn't matter if it was a lesbian or gay couple, and everyone had the right to be protected under the law. So we started little by little and we were laughed at, the opposition made fun of me. There are still people who don't believe, little by little, one by one, we are making sure that we deliver on each one of those commitments. They were not campaign promises. They were commitments. We are going to make sure that they are 100% , not 98% not I couldn't do it because I didn't have any money. What happens is, as we deal with communities say “you know what, what I asked for before is not such a priority anymore, lets change it with another one”. So these are documents there in the lobby of my office, so everyone knows, understands, and remembers that we are really here because the people put us here. We are the people, we are part of the people, we are not different. The issue is that sometimes people treat politicians differently and they want politicians to act the same. I am specially dressed today for your interview.


GB: Does something happen to the elected official? Does something drive you to say, “ I got to look the part”, a temptation? Because I know we’ve seen that in New York State.

CY: I have not had that temptation, no.


MP: Mayor I wanted to ask you. I was talking to Louis our cab driver today and I was saying what the principle problem for you? And he said there is a divide between politicians who are predominately wealthy who don't understand the interests of middle class and poor people. Obviously in the United States, we don't have that problem because all of our leaders are men and women of the people. Apparently that's a problem here, you Carmen, your aide was saying that you work everyday with the people.

CY: I’m in the streets, and I have been highly criticized for that.


MP: And this is not a photo-op where you’re filling a pothole, but what is the importance for you for you to go out and actually do this work?

CY: I don't mean to be rude, but that's my job. Its my job to be out there on the streets and making sure that our citizens and visitors receive the services that we say they are going to get. This is the largest municipal government in Puerto Rico. 6,300 employees. I’ll give you a poignant example. We have 9 health services centers around San Juan. Usually you go there if you don't have health insurance. Well to me that do not mean that you have to get crappy service and that people have to treat you like things we cannot say on camera. So I walk into one of these and there is a doctor sleeping at 2 o clock in the afternoon. So when I said to the doctor, I didn't know she was a doctor because she was sin the nurse’s station, I said where is your supervisor? She said he’s right there. I went to the nurse and said you have your nurse sleeping on the job. She said mayor what do you mean? It’s only me and another nurse in another room. I said what about her? She said oh she is the doctor. That doctor was fired instantly. I did not leave the building before she left the building. There were people out there waiting for her. And why? Just because they’re poor? Probably most of them are black. Many of them are immigrants; they are not going to get good health service. That to me is totally unacceptable. Ill tell you where I get that from. My great-great grandfather was a sugar cane plantation worker. He made 50 cents a day working from when the sun came up and when the sun came down. My grandmother was the first one in my house to learn how to read and right and the first one to go to a university. So I am two generations away from having been in a plantation cutting sugar cane. You can never forget that. Because what she did, she went to Columbia University and NYU 1945. Women didn't even go to school here that much. She worked at a cafeteria [Spanish] at night, so my father could eat there during the day.  She became the principal at the [Spanish] founding director of the school of physical therapy at Puerto Rico. That woman had guts, and she drilled into me that you never feel satisfied unless everyone around you is satisfied. So that taxi driver Louis is telling you the truth. That is why I am out there on the streets. So I do not get tempted so I always see things from the side and point of view of the people that come to the government. Who plays my salary? Who pays everyone’s salary here? The services I provide? I am not giving it to them. They are paying for them they buy little jugs of milk and paying sales taxes on that. And it's the sales tax that should go back to them so they do not have crappy service, but excellent services. We’re not there yet. We’ve been in power 19 months and 12 years of neglect are very difficult. The city, when I took it at 157 million dollars in debt to people who provided services, we were 45 million dollars our budget was structurally unbalanced. So the first call that I get January 15th, “Mayor we don't have enough money to pay for the payroll at the end of the month”. So I did what anybody does, I called the local banker and I begged. I literally begged. I said you know what? You don't know me. I don't know you. But I give you my word that this will get paid up. That man took a gamble on San Juan and took a gamble on me. He’s gotten every penny back. There is no other way in my mind to govern, but for the people and there is no other person that knows better what they need that the person that is in the middle of the store. So I don't pretend to go into a community and say this is what you need. I may think that is what you need, but if you tell me uh uh. “Morgan you know what, I think what you need is a high rise with 129 families who can live here”. And you say, “ Uh-uh, what we need is three small buildings”. And I say, “ we can’t build three, but we can build two”. So we come to an agreement, because after all it is your house.