By WYATT MUND
The island of Puerto Rico has been the site of massive unrest and protest for over the past two weeks. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in the largest demonstrations in the island’s history.
After a fierce struggle, the initial call from the streets for the resignation of Ricardo Rossello as governor of Puerto Rico has been won. Despite much push-back, by July 24, Rossello announced his resignation, finally conceding to the overwhelming force of the movement.
However, the protest movement has not ended; nor has it faltered in momentum. It is clear that the roots and tensions at work in these protests have not yet come to the surface, and indeed the deep crises facing Puerto Rico go far beyond one scheming politician.
The protests began on July 14 in outraged response to leaked documentation of private messages between Rossello and nine other members of his administration. The messages, filling almost 900 pages, were riddled with crass misogyny and homophobia, targeting many politicians and celebrities, and ridiculing the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Thousands died in the hurricane, and the effects are still acutely felt on the island. The messages not only ignored the depths of the tragedy, but they cruelly mocked the dead.
Some jokes mentioned attacking oppositional politicians with violence—including “shooting” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who had denounced President Trump for the meager aid that his administration sent to the island after the hurricane.
Trump was quick to throw his support to the governor, tweeting on July 18: “A lot of bad things are happening in Puerto Rico. The Governor is under siege, the Mayor of San Juan is a despicable and incompetent person who I wouldn’t trust under any circumstance, and the United States Congress foolishly gave 92 Billion Dollars for hurricane relief …”
In many ways, the publication of the vulgar conversations by Rossello and his close associates was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rossello’s administration was already embroiled in a corruption scandal, with two former officials arrested on July 10 for funneling some $15.5 million in contracts to businesses with which they had personal ties. Protests grew rapidly, with ferocity, demanding the resignation of the governor. The movement became known as #RickyRenuncia, echoing the #MeToo movement’s self-designation. This could be said to reflect the queer and feminist character of a layer of the protests, with many protesters working to have a visible queer presence.
Quickly, the force of the continuing protests became overwhelming. By July 21, Rosello announced he would not seek re-election, hoping to deescalate the situation that had already developed out of his control. But the pressure and mass protests did not let up, and though initially the Rossello proclaimed he would not give in, the governor soon officially resigned. He is scheduled to leave office on Aug. 2.
The protests have been on an enormous scale in the capital of San Juan. Nearly a third of the island, over half a million Puerto Ricans, joined the demonstration on July 22. Many people walked off their jobs to participate, and much of the city was paralyzed.
The Puerto Rican diaspora has responded with strong enthusiasm and support, organizing solidarity protests around the mainland United States, and with many people going directly to the island to participate in the streets.
The anger and resentment that have boiled over into these mass protests, however, are a response to more than just Rossello’s and his cronies’ actions. As the protests have continued past Rossello’s defeat, the focus has begun to shift. Calls for radical change and opposition to the entire line-up of succession for the governorship have become loud and vocal. Puerto Rican protesters have had enough with the entire government of the island.
Puerto Rico’s colonial status and subjugation to U.S. imperialism is the fundamental root of the tensions plaguing the island. The aims of the protest movement can only be effectively resolved if they deal firmly with this fundamental injustice.
For over a century Puerto Rico has been an open colonial holding of the United States, subject to all the crushing stages of changing capitalist exploitation from the days of early monopoly capital rule through the rise and decline of neoliberal projects. The colony has always been denied any semblance of democratic representation in the U.S. federal government. And in 2016, the PROMESA authority board (the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act), a completely unelected and undemocratic apparatus, managed in Washington, was foisted on the island—with the power to revoke any acts of the Puerto Rican government.
Political control has been entirely removed from the colonized peoples of Puerto Rico in the interests of ensuring that the big banks and capitalist speculators can efficiently recover payments on the island’s $74 billion bond debt.
The management of Puerto Rico under American capital has provided decades of ruin and a stranglehold for the working people of the island. Until the 1950s, the island was kept underdeveloped as a vast sugar plantation. During the postwar boom, special tax breaks and the prospect of ultra-cheap labor caused U.S. businesses to swoop in and set up light manufacturing and textile shops—devastating Puerto Rico’s agricultural base in the process. Beginning in the 1990s, however, most of the capitalist enterprises fled the island for even cheaper labor in Asia, and Puerto Rico was plunged into a lasting depression with high unemployment.
The island’s pro-capitalist politicians resorted to obtaining large loans in the form of bonds to keep the economy afloat. Imposed debt to the U.S. government has only mounted since then and has become a primary source for the economic death spiral. Widespread unemployment and lowering wages have and continue to be the rule of the day.
The modern neoliberal era has been particularly devastating. Austerity policies aimed at paying the debt have seen the gutting of social services and education, and ever shrinking revenues for the island’s government. Unpaid debt has become a market for capitalist investment, with further attempts to squeeze Puerto Rico. Debt has become the main leash of U.S. imperialism around the island, ever used as justification to cut back on any democratic control or aid.
The calls and dreams of a free Puerto Rico cannot be fulfilled without a full break with the humiliating and lethal relation of the island to its imperial ruler. The illegitimate debt must be abolished as a crucial step on the path to true self-determination in Puerto Rico.
Though the demand to abolish the debt has not yet been widely articulated by the massive but unorganized movement, we must raise the call clearly while standing in solidarity with the developing struggles in Puerto Rico. Self-determination for Puerto Rico! Abolish the debt!