What next for Puerto Rico?

By Mike Phipps

Last month, US Congressional Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia  Velázquez, joined by Senator Bob Menendez, introduced the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021. The measure seeks to establish a process for Puerto Ricans to determine their relationship with the United States, which for more than 120 years has colonised the island.

Tensions about the status of the island have intensified since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing up to 6,000 and wiping out 80% of the island’s agriculture and its entire power grid. Many Puerto Ricans remained without power for nearly a year.

But the real disaster was the vulnerability of the islanders resulting from government corruption, forced privatisations and the abandonment of vital infrastructure imposed on them by the US. This, as Naomi Klein pointed out in her book The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico takes on the Disaster Capitalists(Haymarket 2018), was “all to pay bondholders a $73 billion debt that was patently unpayable, illegal and illegitimate.”

The US’s colonial treatment of Puerto Rico is much older. For over a hundred years, US colonial control of the economy meant there was little re-investment of the profits extracted. Wages are the lowest in any US jurisdiction and half the population live in poverty.

Napalm, depleted uranium and Agent Orange were all trialled there in areas still contaminated. Free trade policies in the Americas have worsened the economic situation in recent years, leading to an acceleration in emigration.

The crash of 2008 led to more than 20,000 public sector workers being fired. With a mounting unpayable debt, the US Congress acted to ensure that as much of it as possible would be paid, at the cost of increased sacrifices by the Puerto Rican people.

An unelected board of US-appointed officials was empowered to monitor Puerto Rico’s finances – and effectively veto anything the island’s elected representatives wanted to do. The board imposed strict austerity, cutting pensions and healthcare and closing hundreds of schools.

Over 100,000 people demonstrated against austerity on May Day 2017. After Maria hit, a fiscal plan to close two thirds of government agencies and 300 schools – in preparation for opening the entire education system to privatisation – was announced. 

Insult was added to injury when President Trump suggested the US sell Puerto Rico, which he characterised as “dirty”. Trump withheld $18 billion of disaster relief that Congress mad made available after Hurricane Maria struck.

Sporadic resistance to the attacks on living standards grew into a movement in the summer of 2019 following the FBI’s arrest on corruption charges of former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, who had presided over the closing of hundreds of schools. Daily and nightly protests attracted thousands of participants. More than 200,000 marched demanding Governor Rosselló’s resignation. A week later he announced his resignation – the first time in Puerto Rican history, under Spanish or US colonialism, a ruler had been removed from office through mass mobilisation.

His successor lasted just over a year. Her administration was beset by a criminal investigation into her handling of emergency supplies after a series of earthquakes devastated Puerto Rico’s southern coast. In addition, the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was characterised by negligence and authoritarianism, in the form of dozens of executive orders which eroded the Puerto Rican democracy and exacerbated existing inequalities.

In elections in November 2020, the two dominant parties lost support and progressives made significant gains. In particular, there was an unprecedentedly high level of support for the third- and fourth-placed Citizen’s Victory Movement (MVC) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), both of which publicly supported the 2019 street protests against Rosselló.

But the ‘status’ of Puerto Rico remains a central issue. A non-binding referendum in 2020 on whether the island should become a state of the US or not was carried by 52.5% to 47.5% on a 54.7% turnout. Electoral irregularities damaged the integrity of the process, however, and local media largely ignored the No campaign.  In practice, opinion on the issue is fairly evenly divided.

At first sight, support for statehood for Puerto Rico seems logical: Puerto Ricans are US citizens, federal legislation and presidential decisions apply to them, yet they have no vote in US elections.

But as the Ocasio-Cortez-sponsored bill makes clear, other options should be on the table if Puerto Rico is to escape its colonial status. This includes independence.

As one long-time supporter of Puerto Rican independence argues, “Puerto Ricans can never really hope to be full citizens. We are ruled by a doctrine of separate and unequal. The United States has used Puerto Rico as an experiment for so many of its policies… I don’t know how anyone would want to be part of a country that has treated us like objects.”

In motivating the Congressional bill, Ocasio-Cortez, who is also of Puerto Rican descent, explained, “”The principled position… is to say that people should have a process of self-determination and to not put your thumb on the scale of one direction or another.”

Self-determination for the Puerto Rican people is clearly the way forward. Whether the US will grant this remains to be seen.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: San Juan street sign after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/26786512379/in/album-72157687505819412/.Author: Lorie Shaull,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts