The time is now for progressives and socialists around the world to recognise Puerto Rico as the nation and the country that it is.
Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. In fact, the ‘unincorporated territory’ of Puerto Rico continues to maintain the dubious distinction of being the world’s oldest existing colony.
Over 500 years since Christopher Columbus himself first claimed the island of Borikén for the Spanish crown, Puerto Ricans still have essentially no control over their economy, no control over their borders and no ability to represent themselves in important regional organisations such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Latin American Community (CELAC) or the United Nations. This colonial status has been put on full display throughout the pandemic as Puerto Rico has been forced to open its borders for US tourists who flagrantly flout local health regulations, while the island’s pandemic response has been undermined by the inability to negotiate directly with its Caribbean neighbours. Puerto Rico’s colonial challenges are centuries old, but the island is beginning to imagine new futures.
The Puerto Rico of today is radically different from the island where my father was born. My father has been separated from his island for over four decades. And yet, like most Puerto Ricans who are forced to leave, he has remained fiercely proud of his Puerto Rican roots and his Boricua identity. My father was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1959. It was not even ten years prior to his birth that, on 30 October 1950 in the neighbouring municipality of Jayuya, Puerto Rican nationalists, led by the incomparable Blanca Canales, rose up in defiance of US colonial rule and declared independence for Puerto Rico. It did not take long for the colonial government in San Juan, at the time led by liberal icon Luis Muñoz Marín, to send in aircraft with the express purpose of pummelling the town into submission. This revolt, and subsequent bombing, of civilians would become known as the Jayuya Uprising, or El Grito de Jayuya, and was one of the key events that forced the Puerto Rican independence movement underground once again. Now, almost 70 years later to the day, Puerto Rican independentistas continue to struggle for sovereignty and still dare to wave the Puerto Rican flag despite relentless efforts by the United States to repress them. It was only 15 years ago that the FBI killed Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos in a ‘shootout’ that would draw condemnation from across the island. And yet, in the last decade, Puerto Rico has undergone some of the most significant challenges of its entire history as a US colony, with that very same colonial status at the root of it all.
This colonial status has been at the centre of all of the major crises that have engulfed the island and its people within the last decade. The accumulation of staggering public debt, over $70 billion, was a direct result of the very same policies that saw US corporations thrive in Puerto Rico during the 20th century. After the 1990s and the onset of neoliberalism, the removal of tax exemptions for US corporations in Puerto Rico and trade deals such as NAFTA, which encouraged corporations to exploit countries like Mexico instead of Puerto Rico, led to the shrinking of the economy and the destruction of social services for the Puerto Rican people. The Puerto Rican debt crisis was and continues to be driven by Wall Street vulture funds that pick clean the bones of what was once a thriving economy. These vulture funds have helped bring colonial rule in Puerto Rico full circle as President Obama and a bipartisan US Congress passed the PROMESA Act in 2016. The resulting US-appointed fiscal control board or la junta, as it is known on the island, was tasked with administering the Puerto Rican economy on behalf of the United States. This fiscal control board can only be interpreted as a step backwards in the colonial relationship and a further acknowledgment of what the US has already asserted time and time again through its courts: that Puerto Rico is a possession of the United States and, therefore, the US can do with Puerto Rico whatever it desires. Under la junta, the federal government proceeded to prioritize bondholders over the Puerto Rican people. As social services declined and unemployment became endemic, Puerto Ricans continued to leave their country in increasingly high numbers (the US-based diaspora now exceeds the population of the island itself), though none could have realised that this was merely the tip of the iceberg.
Only a year after the adoption of PROMESA, Hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked devastation on the island. While Cuba demonstrated how a fully independent country can properly deal with hurricane season in the Caribbean, many Puerto Ricans were left simply trying to survive. Plagued with blackouts and broken infrastructure, the people were abandoned by the federal government in Washington as well as the colonial government in San Juan. Walled off from the rest of the world, the people could not appeal to the rest of the world without Washington’s permission. In these dark times, the people on the island only had each other. Despite the severe damage that Hurricane Maria inflicted, much of which has still not been fully repaired due to the inefficient and deeply corrupt island government, the Puerto Rican people overcame one of the most trying times in their history and glimpsed new possibilities. The 2010s tested Puerto Rico, but the decade also allowed the people to rediscover their own power.
This November opens the next chapter in the history of Puerto Rico’s peculiar relationship with the world’s largest superpower. The upcoming election will be the first held since Hurricane Maria. It will also be the first election in the wake of the protest movement that forced the resignation of governor Ricardo Rosselló (PNP). The island has endured decades of false promises and soon to be six dead-end plebiscites, and yet Puerto Ricans continue to seek a tangible solution to the status of Puerto Rico, a solution that provides more than pandering while withholding any real exercise of self-determination. ‘Self-determination for Puerto Rico’, within US political discourse, has become about as meaningless of a phrase as ‘comprehensive immigration reform’. This peddling of senseless phrases from both liberals and conservatives has produced the great levels of dissatisfaction that Puerto Ricans have with their local elected officials.
Now, for the first time in decades, power will not simply be contested by the two ruling parties. The conservative New Progressive Party (PNP), commonly referred to in English as the Statehood Party, and the liberal Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which most would refer to in English as the Colony (or Status Quo) Party, have been the two historical challengers within Puerto Rican electoral politics since the 1970s, while the independence movement has more often than not been relegated to the sidelines or forced completely underground as clandestine organisations. However, this time things appear to be different. After the massive ‘Ricky Renuncia’ protests forced the former PNP governor to resign, Puerto Rico has been in a continued state of political turmoil and uncertainty. With the Statehood Party delegitimised by its comically nefarious corruption and misuse of hurricane relief aid, and the Status Quo Party continuing to delegitimise itself with its persistent defence of the colonial status, two new options have presented themselves.
The first, is actually not so new at all. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) is one of the oldest active political parties in Puerto Rico. After years of earning around 5 per cent of the vote in gubernatorial elections, and almost losing official recognition, the PIP seemed to be headed for the dustbin of history. By 2016, the PIP had received less than 3 per cent of the gubernatorial vote in four straight elections. However, moving into 2020 with new and refreshing messaging from its gubernatorial candidate Juan Dalmau, the PIP is likely headed for more than 10 per cent in a divided field. For an explicitly pro-independence candidate to win a major portion of the vote would be an unprecedented development in modern Puerto Rican politics. The PIP has learned from its mistakes and is now keener than ever to deliver a future for Puerto Rico that isn’t mired in unemployment or dependence on Washington. Juan Dalmau has already issued a rallying cry for independentistas and delivered what was one of the most memorable lines of the first gubernatorial debate, ‘Creo en la independencia, no para separarnos de Estados Unidos sino para unirnos al resto del mundo’ (‘I believe in independence, not to separate us from the United States, but to join the rest of the world’). It is this sort of vision that puts the PIP on course for the greatest electoral showing in its history.
The three historical parties, the PNP, PPD and PIP, will also be facing a very new challenger for this election. The movement that has most identified itself with the recent protests and anger of the Puerto Rican people at the systemic corruption of the PNP and the PPD has been the newly formed Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC) or ‘Citizens’ Victory Movement’. The MVC started out as an alliance of various political figures and minor political parties within Puerto Rican left politics and has now become a genuine force. Most visibly identified with the political power couple of Alexandra Lúgaro, MVC candidate for governor, and Manuel Natal, MVC candidate for Mayor of San Juan, the party is a part of a new progressive wave of politicians demanding a serious conversation on the political status of Puerto Rico. Rather than engaging in the debates around plebiscites and referendums, or on which status option should be pushed to the US, the MVC has favoured a different approach. The idea of a constitutional assembly, formed with the express purpose of deciding Puerto Rico’s status, is the cornerstone of MVC’s approach to the status question. While derided by opposing parties as an attempt to dodge a firm position, the constitutional assembly option may very well be the first honest attempt to resolve Puerto Rico’s political status since the United States annexed the island in 1898. A binding constitutional assembly that involves all Puerto Ricans as well as a robust campaign of education regarding what statehood would mean (e.g. Would English be the sole official language?) or what independence would mean (What would happen to US corporations based on the island?) is infinitely more bold and productive than a referendum on statehood, or yet another non-binding plebiscite outlining three or four vaguely defined status options. For the first time in its modern history, Puerto Rico will have four viable gubernatorial candidates with four competing visions.
And yet, as some things change, some things stay the same. This year’s referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico may very well be the most farcical plebiscite yet. The PNP, dealing with the fallout of a disgraced governor as well as their various ongoing scandals, have very cynically put a ‘Statehood: Yes or No?’ referendum on the ballot in an attempt to drive turnout from their own pro-statehood base. Courts in the US have already recognised this referendum as nonbinding, thus revealing it to be a pointless exercise in party politics and deliberate misinformation by the PNP. The PNP has been pushing this line for years in the hopes that a plurality statehood vote can be used to shame liberals in the US into supporting statehood in Congress. What these US liberals often do not seem to realise or choose to ignore is that many Puerto Ricans will not recognise this plebiscite. Why? Because this will be the sixth status referendum in Puerto Rico’s history. Why should any Puerto Rican treat this plebiscite any more seriously than the previous five indecisive plebiscites? Recent polling done by Puerto Rican pollster Jorge Benitez showed 43 per cent favouring the ‘yes’ option, 41.5 per cent favouring the ‘no’ option and a whopping 17.5 per cent either being undecided or not planning to participate at all. In the past, results like these allow the PNP to repeat their line that a majority of Puerto Ricans favour statehood, despite the contrary being proven time and time again. However, this time, Puerto Rico has changed. Unlike in 2016, when opposition forces decided to boycott the status referendum, this time opposition forces have united into the No campaign in order to make a statement against statehood. If the No campaign is able to truly unite all opposing statehood forces on the island and defeat the Yes vote, it would be the firmest rebuke of statehood and the PNP in modern Puerto Rican political history.
Puerto Ricans may now be on the cusp of something special. After a decade filled with tragedy, the people have persevered. For many Puerto Ricans, colonial status is ubiquitous, an integral part of Puerto Rican government and society. But a new century has put that status to the test and exposed the deep faults inherent to a 20th-century colonial government navigating 21s-century problems. The world’s oldest colony is now faced with a genuine choice to chart a new course. While the governor’s office is virtually guaranteed to stay with either the PNP or the PPD due to their extensive political machines and patronage networks, a large number of municipal and legislative candidates from the PIP and the MVC now have a chance to enter Puerto Rican politics. They might begin to build a new party system that can be defined by an honest debate on Puerto Rico’s political status and end to the blatant pandering and corruption that define both the PNP and PPD.
From this November and beyond, Puerto Ricans have a chance to prove definitively that they are not merely an island to be annexed. Puerto Rico has its own flag, its own culture, its own music, its own food and its own language. The geographic and cultural gulf between Puerto Rico and the United States is not one that can simply be eliminated with a law or a vote. Puerto Rico is a nation and a country in its own right. No Puerto Rican would dispute this fact. Regardless of the results of the statehood plebiscite, the time is now for progressives and socialists – in the US and around the world – to recognise Puerto Rico as the nation and the country that it is.
This article was originally published in Progressive International and has been edited for style. Alborada is a member of Progressive International.