As news of the complete devastation across the island of Puerto Rico is released, I find myself incessantly hitting refresh on my Internet browser. With each click, my emotions and tears overwhelm me. A deep feeling of desperation follows. This has become an unintentional daily ritual since "natural disaster" Hurricane Maria struck the island. I know I am not alone.
Over 500 years of colonization and exploitation have left the island of Puerto Rico (Borikén) reeling and in desperate need of a new direction
with Foreword by Eroc Arroyo-Montano
“What am I driving at? At this idea: that no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization.” —Aime Cesaire
As news of the complete devastation across the island of Puerto Rico is released, I find myself incessantly hitting refresh on my Internet browser. With each click, my emotions and tears overwhelm me. A deep feeling of desperation follows. This has become an unintentional daily ritual since “natural disaster" Hurricane Maria struck the island.
I know I am not alone.
As 3.4 million Boricuas on the island are working to survive in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, over 5 million Boricuas across the Diaspora wait to hear from family and friends, while trying to simultaneously figure out how we can be the most helpful. Many have identified three specific ways to help the island progress.
1. Donating towards humanitarian efforts. We trust and highly recommend giving to these grassroots organizations on the island: AgitArte, Defend Puerto Rico and CEPA.
2. Calling for the elimination of the exploitive debt that strangles the Island.
3. Organizing and fighting for a full repeal of the Jones Act.
Meanwhile, we are willingly or unwillingly participating in a collective mourning, a grieving of what has been lost. Deep down, we know that Puerto Rico and its people will never be the same again.
The entire island has lost electricity and won’t have it back for at least six months. A curfew is currently being enforced by the National Guard. People have lost their lives as the government failed to supply hospitals with diesel fuel for their generators. An estimated 44% of the Island is without clean drinking water. Over 80% of the island’s crops have been wiped out. Most schools across the island remain closed, leaving 700,000 students without access to formal education. Flooded towns across the island will have to deal with diseases that are common in contaminated drinking water and from mosquito breeding grounds in still water. We are still learning more about the devastation by the hour.
In the midst of all this hardship, empires twitter happy, white supremacist, misogynist, colonizer-in-chief managed to attack San Juan's Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz from his golf course. Eventually making it to the island two weeks after the hurricane first hit, where he continued to insult the Puerto Rican people by insisting that they were not experiencing a "real catastrophe."
Many Boricuas on the island and in the Diaspora are engaged. They are asking questions, the whys and hows, and many are immersed in the work. The multitude of challenges Puerto Rico faces today are symptomatic of the ongoing theft of the island's resources, a neglected infrastructure, and widespread poverty. What is happening today is a direct result of 500 plus years of colonization. What is happening today is a direct result of the Jones Act of 1917. What is happening today in Puerto Rico is a direct result of the exploitative economic policies forced upon the island.
The people creating these economic disparities and creating deep debt are exploiting poverty and hoarding our resources. These vulture capitalists bank on our oppression. In essence, they have been squeezing the juice out of the island and its people, and then have the audacity to charge the people for a sip.
In the following essay, my brother, a Public Defender and community activist, Ricardo Arroyo-Montano, makes the clear connection between the policies and actions of the past and the continued colonization of Puerto Rico. Corporate mass-media coverage would have us believe this is all happening in a vacuum, that this disaster and its effects are only about this hurricane. We hope that this piece can serve as a resource for those who are interested in learning more about Puerto Rico and its deep history of resistance.
In the midst of the devastation, I remember the words of Sufi poet and mystic, Rumi, "the wound is where the light enters." Puerto Rico has suffered at the hands of U.S. imperialism and capitalist greed long before Hurricane Maria appeared on the forecast. I am not sure that any work on the decolonization of American Empire could be successful if it ignores the plight of Puerto Rico. While we grieve and rebuild, we must pursue radical hope and LOVE. We must prioritize healing justice as we find a way to build bridges between Boricuas on the island and Boricuas on the continental United States. We must radically imagine a new way forward. The diaspora must be engaged in the process. I have faith that another world is possible.
-Un Abrazo. In love & faith, Eroc
*We encourage you to check out the hyperlinks embedded throughout this piece.*
“The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.”
I am a product of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
My motherland is a colony.
The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico resulting from Hurricane Maria is the peak in a long colonial relationship with the United States of America and an opening for a shift towards self-determination. Given that Puerto Ricans living on the island have no voting power in Congress, it is important for stateside Puerto Ricans and allies to understand key moments in this relationship, so that we may clearly and powerfully advocate on behalf of the island and its residents.
Colonialism everywhere is justified by racial supremacist ideology cultivated by colonizers for the purpose of economic exploitation. Puerto Rico is no different. The United States of America’s history of involvement with the island is full of examples of both, the effects of which led to the current crises.
One of the tools of oppression is to whitewash and erase the history of the oppressed. History textbooks in the United States are dominated by Eurocentric historical narratives, minimizing and even excluding the contributions and struggles of marginalized people. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, U.S. polls showed that nearly half surveyed were not aware that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
It is fair then to conclude that they know even less about why Puerto Ricans have citizenship, the long struggle for sovereignty on the island, the military abuse of the island and its people, forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women, or the long-term economic exploitation that has impeded the island's self-sufficiency. Further, it is safe to conclude that if U.S. residents do not know how these problems created the economic crisis the island faced prior to Hurricane Maria, they also do not understand how the U.S. response to the current humanitarian crisis serves to solidify U.S. power over the island.
PUERTO RICO: AN AMERICAN COLONY
What is less known is that prior to this, in November of 1897, Spain had granted Puerto Rico a Charter of Autonomy. The charter granted Puerto Rico a new electoral government and voting representation in the Spanish Parliament. The new government was empowered to suspend the publication and enforcement of any resolution of the Spanish government identified as harmful to the general interest of the island, allowed Puerto Rico to trade with other nations and enter into its own trade agreements. It was also allowed to frame its own tariffs and import duties. For the security of Puerto Rico’s autonomy, it was specifically mandated that no changes in island government could occur without the consent of the Puerto Rican legislature.
The Spanish-American war ended with the ‘Treaty of Paris’, which ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. By ceding Puerto Rico to the United States, Spain broke the provision previously granted to Puerto Rico. Essentially, Spain gave away a nation which it had no legal right to cede.
Puerto Rico was immediately subjected to martial law and a series of military governors. Then in 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated the island’s population and economy. The United States’ response to San Ciriaco has lessons for those seeking to defend Puerto Rico from further exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Maria. These events served as the opening salvo in the United States economic oppression of the island. The U.S. sent no financial relief, and instead froze long and short-term credit, devalued the Puerto Rican peso, conducted land price fixing, and in 1901 passed the Hollander Act which raised taxes. These economic assaults led Puerto Ricans to borrow money from American banks. With no laws limiting interest rates, these loans came with high-interest rates that today would be considered predatory. When Puerto Ricans inevitably defaulted on these predatory loans, American banks foreclosed and assumed ownership of their land. Puerto Rico was made a captive U.S. market with laws that prevent it from negotiating trade agreements with other countries.
Concomitantly, in 1900, the Foraker Act created a bicameral legislature with an elected lower body (House of Delegates). The upper house, governor and insular Supreme Court were appointed by the United States President. This was substantially less self-governance than Puerto Rico had under Spain and in 1914 the Puerto Rican House of Delegates voted unanimously in favor of independence. The vote was rejected by Congress and deemed a violation of the Foraker Act. The Foraker Act did have a provision that established Puerto Rican Citizenship for those on the island, until 1917 Puerto Ricans were citizens of Puerto Rico, though with none of the rights of a sovereign nation or people.
Congress’ approach to Puerto Rico was steeped in racial supremacist arguments about the island natives’ ability to self-govern and differed from its approach to the territories of Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, which all had fully elected legislatures. Hawaii, which had an Anglo ruling class before annexation, was also granted the ability to have fully elected legislatures in 1900.
THE JONES ACTS OF 1917 AND 1920
The United States entered World War I the day after the Jones-Shafroth Act made Puerto Ricans citizens of the U.S. and therefore draft eligible, nearly 20,000 Puerto Ricans went on to serve in WWI. Additionally, the 1917 Jones Act also includes the provision that exempted interest on Puerto Rico’s government bonds from federal, state, and local income taxation in the United States, making the bonds attractive to tax-sensitive investors. The “debt” that led to PROMESA stems from these triple tax-exempt bonds.
In 1920 Congress passed The Merchant Marine Act also known as the Jones Act, which legislated that all imports and exports to the island are required to be transported on American ships, built in American shipyards, with American crews. Foreign flagged ships must pay substantial taxes and custom and import fines to the U.S. Merchant Marine. This protectionist policy has the effect of adding a 15-20% cost increase on goods shipped to Puerto Rico, a cost passed on to Puerto Ricans. Several studies have shown that this one law causes billions of dollars in losses per year for Puerto Rico. Every single political party in Puerto Rico has advocated against the Jones Act. However, with no political representation vis-à-vis the U.S., it remains the law of the land. This is just one event in a pattern of Puerto Ricans advocating for the best interests of the island and being overruled by the United States Congress, particularly in regards to economic self-sufficiency.
Economic policies forced upon the island, from the Jones Act to PROMESA, have been crafted to advantage American corporate interests to the detriment of Puerto Ricans. All of the major economic policies that the United States Congress has imposed on Puerto Rico have had the effect of lessening the island’s self-sufficiency while enriching America’s corporate elite.
ENTER DON PEDRO ALBIZU CAMPOS, FATHER OF THE PUERTO RICAN INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT
Pedro Albizu Campos was approached in the 1930s by struggling sugar cane laborers who were attempting to unionize. Campos would fight for them in court as their lawyer and continue to publicly attack American acts of imperialism. Los Macheteros, as the laborers were known, led an island-wide strike in 1934. Their success, especially in having their wages raised, was considered a huge victory against American interests. The victory was proof that a unified and organized Puerto Rico was a powerful force. The FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover took notice, targeting Pedro Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party, and subjecting them and Puerto Rico to the illegal COINTELPRO program, a surveillance state that led to 1,800,000 pages of FBI files, as well as a militarized police force.
AMERICAN CRACKDOWN ON NATIONALISTS AND INDEPENDENDISTAS
Not coincidentally, Law 53 was passed a year later. It is better known as the Gag Law and it was not repealed until 1957. The Gag Law made it a crime to own or display a Puerto Rican flag; sing a patriotic tune; speak or write of independence; or meet with anyone, or hold any assembly, in favor of Puerto Rican independence. Punishment for violating Law 53 included imprisonment for up to ten years. The law was used repeatedly to target Nationalists and the growing independence movement. In defiance of the law, Campos continued to publicly push for independence.
Puerto Rico’s push for sovereignty reached a boiling point by 1950. Congress authorized the creation of a constitution however they made clear true sovereignty was not on the table. The Secretary of the Interior at the time, Oscar Chapman, stated that the constitution could not “change Puerto Rico’s fundamental political, social, and economic relationship.” In case there was any confusion, U.S. Congressman Jacob Javits stated, “This bill does restrict, and let us have that very clear, the people of Puerto Rico to a constitution which is within the limits of the Jones Act, their fundamental status is unchanged.” Puerto Rico was finally granted the right to vote for its own governor and control its local political system after fifty years of unelected appointees. It made no change to the Jones Act as it concerned shipping, it made no changes to Puerto Rico’s inability to negotiate trade contracts with foreign nations, and it did not remove Congress's ability to veto any law passed by the Puerto Rican legislature. The constitution was approved in 1952.
Campos and the Nationalist Party saw these events as the end of the line for a political resolution to Puerto Rico’s lack of sovereignty. Nationalists led a series of uprisings and revolts against continued colonialism. In 1950 after Campos learned that federal authorities were raiding other Nationalist leaders en masse and were searching for him. Recognizing the timing was urgent, Campos ordered the revolution be carried out immediately.
PUERTO RICO REVOLTS
On October 30, 1950, uprisings occurred in Ponce, San Juan, Mayaguez, Naranjito, Arecibo, Utuado, and Jayuya. Blanca Canales led the Jayuya Uprising where she and other Nationalists stormed the police station and burned down the US Post office. Taking the town square they raised the Puerto Rican flag and declared Puerto Rico a free republic. Luis Munoz Marin, the first elected Puerto Rican governor, who had once campaigned as an Independentista, became the chief architect of the “commonwealth” status, also known as Public Law 600, which declared martial law. Consequently, the uprisings included an assassination attempt on the governor. The U.S. attacked Jayuya with P-47 Thunderbolt planes, land-based artillery, mortar fire, and grenades. Nationalists, under the direction of Canales, held the town for three days.
On November 2, 1950, after the fall of Jayuya, Olga Viscal Garriga, a student leader at the University of Puerto Rico and spokesperson of the Nationalist Party’s Rio Piedras branch, led, along with Carmen Maria Perez Roque and Ruth Mary Reynolds, a nonviolent demonstration in San Juan. The police fired at the demonstration and killed one of the demonstrators. In federal court she refused to recognize the authority of the United States government and was uncooperative with federal prosecutors. She was sentenced to eight years in prison for leading the peaceful demonstration.
Despite the significance of the uprising and the scale of the response, news of it was prevented from spreading outside of Puerto Rico. President Truman called it “an incident between Puerto Ricans.” Those comments in conjunction with the news blackout led Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo to quickly plan an attempt to assassinate President Truman. The attempt at the Blair House was unsuccessful in its goal but did effectively communicate that the uprisings were not simply “an incident between Puerto Ricans” but an act of rebellion.
In 1954, Lolita Lebron, a leader in the Nationalist Party, joined by Rafael Cancel Miranda, Ivan Flores, and Andres Figueroa Cordero, attacked the United States House of Representatives in D.C. The purpose of the attack was to draw national and international attention to the quest for Puerto Rican independence. So that there would be no doubt as to their cause, Lebron unfurled a Puerto Rican flag and shouted, “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” before the group opened fire.
Campos would be sentenced to 80 years in prison for his leadership role in the rebellion. During his time in prison, he would be tortured by being exposed to severe radiation. In 1956, Campos suffered a stroke and was on the brink of death when he was finally pardoned in 1964. He died the next year. More than 75,000 Puerto Ricans participated in his funeral procession. Ernesto “Che” Guevara memorialized Campos at a U.N. speech saying, “Albizu Campos is a symbol of the as yet unfree but indomitable Latin America. Years and years of prison, almost unbearable pressures in jail, mental torture, solitude, total isolation from his people and his family, the insolence of the conqueror and its lackeys in the land of his birth—nothing broke his will.”
ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION: OPERATION BOOTSTRAP TO PROMESA
Puerto Rico, a country with a population roughly that of Connecticut, has consistently been one of the top five largest markets in the world for US products; 85% of all products consumed in Puerto Rico are sold by US corporations. The cost of living is 12% higher in Puerto Rico than in the U.S. Yet the per capita income of Puerto Rico is roughly half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union. The island, which once was agriculturally self-sufficient before American multinationals concentrated the islands crops on sugar, now imports 85% of its food, a severe problem highlighted by Hurricane Maria which has devastated the island's food distribution networks and supply chains.
Municipalities in the United States have the ability to restructure their debts under Chapter 9, which is the part of the bankruptcy code for insolvent local governments. Puerto Rico however, due to its territorial colonial status, was excluded from Chapter 9. In 2014, the Puerto Rican legislature attempted a workaround by creating and passing their own version of a bankruptcy law called the Recovery Act. The act was meant to address Puerto Rico’s exclusion from Chapter 9. The law would have allowed the public utility companies to restructure its debt, which totaled around $20 billion. It was struck down by the United States Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The decision reaffirmed that Puerto Rico’s elected body of government is at the mercy of Congress, in which it has no elected representation, for a solution to their economic crisis.
Congress passed PROMESA in 2016, in its latest attempt to ensure Puerto Rico’s crippled economy paid its bondholders. PROMESA enabled Congress to appoint a board of seven members to manage Puerto Rico’s finances. The members of that board come from the world of banking and private investments, including from some of the very institutions responsible for indebting the country. That board can veto any law from the Puerto Rican legislature that appropriates funds. It also empowers the board to circumvent local environmental and labor regulations. This has had the effect of allowing Puerto Rico’s elected government to remain in existence, but with increasing powerlessness and the loss of any semblance of autonomy.
The board has wielded its power to impose austerity measures so that Puerto Rico will pay its debts back to the Wall Street speculators who hold them. The board voted unanimously to order Puerto Rico to implement 10% cutbacks in its public pension system, lay off tens of thousands more workers, cut the University of Puerto Rico’s budget by millions, and cut public services. On top of previous austerity measures that included: laying off 30,000 workers; charging 67% more for water; raising electricity rates to the second highest in the United States; raising property, small business, and gas taxes; cutting public pensions and health benefits; raising the retirement age; closing hundreds of schools; and hiking the sales tax to 11.5%, the highest anywhere in the country. All of which has led to a mass exodus from the island.
WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO HURRICANE MARIA
Whether intentional or not, there is no disputing that the federal government's slow response in delivering aid to Puerto Rico has accelerated an extant economic exodus from Puerto Rico and will continue to do so. This has led to a devaluation of land prices. Billionaires like John Paulson and a growing class of wealthy land speculators had already been targeting Puerto Rico and the devaluation caused by slow relief has only made the market more susceptible to exploitation and land grabs.
There are ways we, of the diaspora, and allies can alleviate the humanitarian crisis plaguing the island and work with those there to right a history of economic exploitation.
- Currently, the island has roughly around thirty schools open, a growing health crisis, electric outages over the vast majority of the island, cellular outages over the majority of the island, and much of the population does not have access to clean running water. No one should be forced to live in those conditions. We can and must give direct aid to trusted community organizations on the island who are working to directly address the needs of those affected most by Hurricane Maria. We strongly recommend giving to AGITARTE, a radical grassroots org in Puerto Rico, run by folks in the community we love and trust.
- Puerto Ricans must be in charge of the rebuilding effort. Puerto Ricans should be given top priority on contracts, staffing, and leading the efforts on the island. Now is not the time to enrich offshore companies.
- The Jones Act must be repealed. It exists to the detriment of the Puerto Rican people, a fact that has been laid out for the world to see following Hurricane Maria. It has to go and we can make it happen.
- Puerto Rico must be permitted to negotiate its own international trade agreements. This will enable it to develop capital resources, an entrepreneurial class, and a diverse economy.
- The debt must be canceled. Canceling the debt allows for the billions of dollars currently being made in debt payments to instead be rerouted to the essential public services Puerto Rico needs to survive. Puerto Rico is struggling with the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the country and a humane recovery does not exist for Puerto Rico without the cancellation of the debt.
This is a pivotal time for those in Puerto Rico and the diaspora. It is clear they believe if they keep us focused on survival we cannot focus on sovereignty. Puerto Rico’s survival requires sovereignty.
We must heal. We must organize. We must fight.
Sovereignty is survival.
"For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity." -Frantz Fanon
For more info on PROMESA check out this report from Action Center on Race and the Economy by clicking here, or on the above image.
**This article is also shared on the blog of our Director of Cultural Organizing, Eroc Arroyo-Montano.
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