Organizing against U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico

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Socialist Action reporter Ernie Gotta recently interviewed Francisco A. Santiago of Juventud Hostosiana (JH), a youth group for Puerto Rican independence affiliated with the Movimiento Independista Nacional Hostosiano (MINH).

This article continues a series that Socialist Action is publishing on the movement against the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). You can search for JH on Facebook and see photos and videos of the recent protests. A member of JH will also be traveling to participate in Youth for Socialist Action’s regional conference, “The Solution is Socialism” on Oct. 22 at Central Conecticut State University. Find out more at Facebook.com/CCSUYSA.

Socialist Action: What does PROMESA mean for the future of workers and students in Puerto Rico?

Francisco Santiago: The PROMESA bill is basically the culmination of the neoliberal economic implementation process in Puerto Rico, which goes side by side with the enforcement of the colonial relations in the island. First of all, it is necessary to assert that Puerto Rico never went through a decolonization process with the establishment of the Commonwealth since its position as a non-incorporated territory was maintained. This meant then, as it does now, that Congress has plenipotentiary powers over the island, its people and its future.

Puerto Rico is “owned by but is not part of” the United States, which means that it is just a piece of private property that is being used by the U.S. government as it sees fit at the expense of the opinion in the island. The PROMESA Act arrives as the U.S. government’s response to the Puerto Rican government debt crisis. This debt crisis had its first signs at the turn of the century and manifested itself with the start of the economic depression in 2006.

Since 1990, the Puerto Rican government under the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) and Partido Popular Democratico (PPD) have privatized the health system, the communications system, the only international airport, key highways and other sectors of the main government. It has fired thousands of government employees, raised tuition in the public university, begun cuts in services, and closed hundreds of schools, among other actions in detriment of the people.

In the meanwhile, it has liberated the movement of capital, lowered progressive taxes in favor of regressive taxes, and created a scheme of “economic recovery” exemplified by Law 20 and Law 22 of 2012. This law gives complete tax exemption to millionaires who move to the island and have a minimum of five employees hired by them. All of this was completed under great scandals of corruption under all levels of government by both parties. In conjunction with the cuts, depression, colonial limitations in government, and elimination of possible areas of fiscal resources, we have the government debt crisis.

And this is where PROMESA comes by. PROMESA is the neoliberal technocratic dream. Its main goal is the complete payment of the debt defended by vulture funds. Its members are appointed directly by the president of the United States. It can’t be judicially reviewed or prosecuted. It will have powers over all of the government and can receive political gifts.

If you combine these characteristics with the ability to change local legislation, be it labor themed or environmental, to sell all activities of government at will, you have the epicenter of the continuation of corruption in detriment of the people and in the benefit of vulture funds and big capital.

So how is this detrimental for the future of workers and students? First of all, as long as the colonial relation persists, Puerto Rican workers and youth will always have a limited stake in the economy and will be faced by an abnormal level of unemployment and underpaid jobs, [and] our inability to have relations with other countries and to decide our collective future based on our own interests. This limits our ability to develop in the future.

In terms of the PROMESA bill, by reading the preamble it can be quickly pointed out that its only reason for existence is the payment of the debt. Puerto Rican economic development is not mentioned, nor is the progress of the Puerto Rican people.

But it is necessary to emphasize that PROMESA is not the sole creation of the U.S. government, but also of local economic forces aligned with the U.S. government that want to use the situation in benefit of their own individual interests. In that sense there are big sectors in Puerto Rico that right now, even in the economic depression, are benefiting from the situation.

We must ask ourselves what type of development we want and for whom? In the Juventud Hostosiana, we stand for the only real development that comes with social justice and participatory democracy, which means that we will only construct alternatives that benefit the workers and the marginalized in our society.

S.A.: Can you briefly describe the protests?

F.S.: Taking in consideration the historical outline mentioned in the first question, we must assert that the process of the protests goes way back from the recent actions that have been taken. Many of the people that are now participating in the protests come from past experiences, and in the case of the movement in the capital area, these experiences are intertwined with the 2005 and 2010 public university students’ strike.

It has a starkly young demographic tone, which in part is product of the overwhelmingly bleak perspectives of the future. In terms of the fight against the PROMESA bill, protests started in early April with the announcement of the bill. Specifically, a group of organizations, which included Juventud Hostosiana (JH), Juventud Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (JPIP), Juventud Partido del Pueblo Trabajador (JPPT), Coalición Playas Pal pueblo, Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST), among other organizations, partially paralyzed the Federal District Court of Puerto Rico two times and completely paralyzed the Federal Court, the Quiebras, once. Also in the process, sectors of the civil camp organized in the Coalición Contra la Junta de Control Fiscal Federal.

With the signature of the PROMESA bill by President Obama in June, a group of protesters started a civil disobedience camp in front of the Federal District Court of Puerto Rico, which has served as a school for new people that want to get involve in the fight against colonialism and PROMESA. It has also signified a symbolized resistance against the newest act of imperialism by the United States.

In this process we also had protests in sections of Homeland Security and other federal government sites across the island. These actions gave way to the creation of other groups and the Jornada Se Acabaron las Promesas, which was the main coordinator of the protests that stopped the first PROMESA Conference for the rich on Wednesday, Aug. 31. They also stopped Grupo Ferrer Rangel Media (GFR Media) a few days earlier, which is the only daily newspaper in the island and is aligned with big corporate interests. This protest was of definite importance because of the tone that it set in the protests. The combativeness, the coordination, and the moral force that characterized the whole day has given way to the possibility of dreaming, and that is one of the most important aspects of any social struggle.

S.A.: How can Puerto Rican workers and students stop PROMESA and other policies of U.S. imperialism?

F.S.: There are a multiplicity of ways to combat and stop PROMESA and U.S. imperialism and the answers will vary in accordance to the organization or people you are talking to. In Juventud Hostosiana, we are of the idea that what is necessary in the present is a battle on all possible fronts. No matter what type of action a person takes, if it is politicized against the bill or U.S. imperialism it will find in us a friend.

We believe that our role, and the role of others, is not to homogenize the struggle or try to grasp only one way, but to serve as a connection between multiple “trenches” as to make a whole front instead of little defenseless and isolated castles. In that sense, we have outlined four actions to take in the coming months: the strengthening of the organization at all levels, civil disobedience, alliances with other sectors, and constant propaganda. We expect that in the next week [mid-September], with the names already confirmed and the process of accommodating a physical site for the Fiscal Board, we will have a qualitative upsurge on the struggle of a materialization of the law.

S.A.: What did Juventud Hostosiana learn from their recent experience in Cuba? How does it apply to the fight for independence?

F.S.: The Juventud Hostosiana, since its inception, has had ties with the Cuban youth in part because of the historical ties between our mother organization, the Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano (MINH) and the Cuban revolutionary government. Right now, the only thing close to a Puerto Rican Embassy is the Misión de Puerto Rico en Cuba located in La Habana.

Cuba and Puerto Rico have an unbreakable historical bond that will intertwine the history of both nations for years to come. More so, we who believe in an anti-capitalist independence for Puerto Rico also believe in the integration of the Latin-American region for the betterment of our different peoples. We believe in Latinoamericanism and in the dream of a bigger “Patria Grande” and a Confederation of Antilles, which was also the belief of many of the great Caribbean heroes of the 19th century.

In that sense I recite a passage of a Puerto Rican Poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió: “Cuba y Puerto Rico son, de un pájaro las dos alas, ambas reciben flores y balas, sobre un mismo corazón.” (Cuba and Puerto Rico are, of a bird both wings, both receive flowers and bullets, upon the same heart.)

Photo: Protester confronts a delegate to PROMESA conference in San Juan, P.R., on Aug. 31. Reuters.