Interview: Rising hopes for Puerto Rican independence

Damage in Puerto Rico following Hurricane María in September 2017. (Photo: Hector Retamal/ AFP / Getty Images)


“Every day, folks now more than ever wake up daily with a new notion of politics that is not bound to a vote every four years but to direct action.”

The recent protests in Puerto Rico, taken in the context of uprisings across the globe in Sudan, Hong Kong, and Algeria, paint a picture of mass working-class discontent with capitalism. However, we have yet to see any of these uprisings coalesce around a revolutionary leadership that is able to deal a decisive blow in favor of the workers and farmers. In the case of Puerto Rico there exists the added unbearable difficulty of direct colonial rule, which has drawn wealth and human resources from the island and left misery in return.

Below, Socialist Action reporter Ernie Gotta discusses the recent protest movement in Puerto Rico, U.S. colonial rule, and winning independence with Francisco Andrés Santiago Cintrón, co-president of Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano (MINH).

The struggle for independence and self-determination from U.S. colonial rule is a pressing fight that Socialist Action fully supports. The only way to consolidate independence is complete independence from foreign and domestic capitalists. We therefore also recognize the urgent need to develop a revolutionary socialist wing of the movement to carry out the revolution, as the Cuban leadership did.

 Ernie Gotta: In your own words, can you briefly describe what the current movement in Puerto Rico has meant to working people and students? Now that Ricardo Rosselló has resigned, what is the political mood on the island?  

Francisco Santiago: Right now there is a general feeling that the future runs a different course than what we were accustomed to. As with all political processes, the context of the situation sheds light on the reasons why these protests erupted and to their demands. The reality is that Puerto Rico, a direct colony of the United States since 1898, has undergone a deep economic depression since 2005. More so, the two leading parties, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), have undergone a serious erosion of political legitimacy as a byproduct of massive corruption scandals and their implementation of neoliberal policies. It is in this context that the protests exploded. We must emphasize that the protests are not only because of the chat messages on the Telegram app [by former Gov. Rosselló] but because of the whole compounding situation.

With that said, these protests have signified, in my opinion, a qualitative change in what we think is possible in the political scenery in our island. Never in the written history of our island have we as a people forced an “elected” governor out of office. Some people might say that that really does not change the institutional structure represented by colonization and neoliberalism, which is completely true, but in terms of political imagination, of what is possible, it is a completely different scenario now than before. So, to summarize both questions, the political significance and mood in the island right now is a mixture of rage and hope.

Rage, because as we all know the institutional framework is designed to maintain institutional power under the control of the governing parties and the U.S.A.

Hope, because there is a new sense of what’s possible in the political realm that wasn’t there before. That is very powerful and it opens up the political possibilities to other options. Every day, folks now more than ever wake up daily with a new notion of politics that is not bound to a vote every four years but to direct action. Obviously, this notion of politics is not new in the island, but the novelty is the way that now it is a notion massively understood as true.

EG: What groups or sectors of Puerto Rican society are playing a leading role in the demonstrations? What role did students play in this movement? What role did the labor movement play? Popular musicians and artists?

FS: Well, the reality of the situation is that these demonstrations have been characterized by an intersectional and interclass role. Not since the protests for the expulsion of the U.S. Navy from the island municipality of Vieques have we seen such massive popular opposition. In that sense there is a strong element of spontaneity in the whole situation. This brings us to acknowledge some positive characteristics and also some worries. First of all, it is important to clarify that even though the call to manifestations were spontaneous in a general sense, there was an important input organization wise by the student movement, unions, left, and pro-independence movements. In a general sense, the massive mobilization completely overwhelmed the left-wing or community organizations even though the general strike and the massive marches were made possible thanks to organized sectors and new actors that started to get organized as the days passed on.

In that specific sense, the role that students played can be twofold: in the traditional student movement that has its roots in the public university and broader layers of students as a whole represented by our youth. In terms of the labor movement, as I said earlier, besides participating as individuals the labor movement actively invested their resources in organizing the massive marches.

In terms of popular musicians and artists, there is something that must be said. It is evident that they, as a sector, played a crucial role in the call for mass protests. There are various factors that come to mind that give rise to this phenomenon. In my opinion, besides the obvious good intentions of the majority of artists, like Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, and Residente, their influence is a direct outcome of the neoliberal penetration of our ideals, as a community, in the island. People have grown accustomed to thinking of politics as an act of voting and associate governance and public decisions as part of the corrupt party politics that gave rise to the crisis we live in day by day.

In that sense, there is a deep distrust to collective political mobilizations and new electoral alternatives. Consequently, these artists give rise to much more sympathy and move more effectively public opinion because of their reach and their distance, at least in appearance, from politics. It must be said that there are exceptions and that many people in the last years have organized collectively for pragmatic demands, but in terms of the size of the mobilizations of this historic movement, that is one key element to understanding the importance of their role.

Another important factor is the mobilization of marginalized and impoverished sectors, represented by the historic motorcycle caravan leaded by “Rey Charlie,” the rapper Ñengo Flow, and others. Not only did they help in the mobilization in social media but they made sure that, before reaching Old San Juan, the caravan passed through many of the marginalized communities and public housing in the capital city. Historically neglected communities had a voice and were crucial in creating pressure as part of the protests.

Lastly, I cannot conclude this section without acknowledging the profound impact, and role, that the feminist and LGBTQI movements played in terms of organization and combatively in these past historic 14 days. It was the feminist movement that first called for the march of Wednesday, July 17, 2019, before Residente and Bad Bunny joined in the calling, and many in both movements were in the front lines when the police started to confront violently the manifestations.

EG: Almost immediately after Rosselló resigned, there were calls for the resignation of his replacement, Wanda Vázquez. Will Vázquez last? What next for the movement?

FS: Well, since the moment this question was devised and where we are right now, there have been several important events in between. Nevertheless, at least for the Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano (MINH, New Hostosian Pro-Independence Movement), the necessary political demand is the same: the only way we can move forward is through a constitutional assembly that goes hand in hand with a decolonization process for our country. The reality is that the institutional framework of the colony is designed to maintain the ruling parties and leave U.S. hegemony untouched. And so we are left with a quagmire where the colonial constitution doesn’t offer a real political satisfactory outcome as established by law, and this is united with a real push by the Fiscal Board and PNP to maintain control.

Right now, none of the possible candidates presented by the ruling party have any sort of credibility in the eyes of the general population. In that sense it is indifferent which person takes control: what will come as a necessary outcome will be sustained protests, albeit with lower mobilization, joined with a general discontent.

In terms of what is next for the movement, we in the MINH have worked with other organizations, as well as set a series of demands of our own that can be summarized as: The immediate resignation of Wanda Vázquez as governor of Puerto Rico, the necessity to audit the debt immediately and bring prosecution against the corrupt, the immediate declaration of a State of Emergency against misogynistic violence, the immediate drop of all charges held against protesters, and the necessary call for a new Constituent Assembly and a Status Constitutional Assembly to pave the way to new forms of governance.

EG: President Trump has repeatedly accused the Puerto Rican government of corruption, yet there’s no doubt that through PROMESA the U.S. government has seized the island economically with the fiscal control board. Can you briefly discuss the relationship between the government of Puerto Rico and the U.S.?

FS: The relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. government is best defined as a classical colonial relationship. Puerto Rico was acquired by the U.S. as war bounty, as a byproduct of the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898. Since that moment on, Puerto Rico as a territory, and Puerto Ricans as a people, have been subject to colonial exploitation up until this day. Typical of all classical colonial relations, U.S. colonialism has signified the continued cumulative suffering of Puerto Ricans. It has also signified a deeply colonial relation whereas Puerto Rico is shaped, institutional wise, to serve specifically the interest of the United States and the rich classes on the island that are aligned with U.S. capital.

In that sense, PROMESA was created by enforcing Congress’ plenary powers over Puerto Rico as a way to better shape and protect the financial sector’s interests regarding Puerto Rico’s debt. In terms of Trump, besides being the same xenophobic and ignorant idiot, it must be emphasized that his politics, and the ones of the presidents before him, have been more or less consistent in perpetuating the hold of Puerto Rico as a colony.

With that said, I want to use this opportunity to warn against the drive, presented by the pro-statehood movement in the island and echoed by the Democratic Party and some intellectual sectors for Puerto Rico statehood, standing by the argument in favor of “equal citizenship” and “rights as citizens.” The colonial situation in Puerto Rico is not a matter of individual rights compared to the rights of the U.S. citizens, but the subjugation of a nation, collectively formed, by the government of another collective. For that reason, the only possible outcomes must be thought as collectively framed; as the right of a collective, a people, to their self-determination not as a merely as an individual issue, as the neoliberal tendency might affirm.

EG: How has the lasting impact of the recent devastating hurricanes and the deeper colonial exploitation of Puerto Rico affected the thinking of the current movement?

FS: Well, in terms of the colonial exploitation, as I mentioned more exhaustively above, the accumulated suffering and the depreciating economic situation paved the way to PROMESA, which with its neoliberal policies deprived the government agencies with sufficient capability to maintain basic services, let alone manage a humanitarian situation as the one we lived after the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane María. What María did cause was a complete delegitimization of the federal and state government. The slow response, coupled with the way Trump completely disparaged our people in the middle of the crisis, with the acquiesce of the destitute Ricardo Rosselló leveled a general discontent that in great part was shown on these historic protests.

Of all the problems we faced, signified the deaths of more than 4000 people from the hurricane, the complete denial of the death toll and the continued debacle in the Forensic Institute are elements that are present until this day. Also, the political scandal of continued apparitions of water and food are now completely unusable. Then there are the possible deviations of funds and goods that came in the emergency for political gain contributed to the discontent that we saw in the streets. When some, good intentioned people, say that people in Puerto Rico protested because of a chat message they miss the point that it isn’t about a chat. The chat exemplified how rich people, with tradition in the political field, completely disregarded key problems in our society. What the chat did is lay in manifest what we knew to be true: that the deaths weren’t caused by the passing of the hurricane but by the negligence of the governing parties.

EG: What do you see as the way forward for Puerto Ricans? Is the question of independence on people’s minds?

FS: The status question is always on our minds as defined by the historical options presented to the Puerto Rican people: statehood, the same colonial status, or free association and independence. What I want to express with this is that depending on the sector, the question of independence is clearly expressed as part of the problem, but if we want to analyze the totality of the people that took to the streets, then it’s the big question of a true process of self-determination.

Now in an immediate sense, our organization, as well as other organizations in one way or another, have delimited the following demands that are crucial for a new path for Puerto Rico: We demand that the interim governor Wanda Vázquez resign, the immediate audit of the national debt, the need to declare a state or emergency against misogynistic violence, the need to create a Constituent Assembly and a Status Constituent Assembly to attend both the immediate constitutional crisis and the colonial situation.

EG: Thank you, Francisco, for your time.

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