Puerto Rico: a Colony or a Country?

Colonialism is still true in Puerto Rico.
Photo by Sarah Emma Urbain

It appears that the legacy of colonialism has not been completely exorcised from Caribbean society. Puerto Rico has been under the rule of the United States (US) since 1898, and today, Puerto Ricans are rising up against what many consider a blatant attempt at neo-colonialism and furtherance of systemic inequalities through the continuation of total political and economic dependence. Struggling to assert sovereignty, even after having it denied of them, citizens are resisting the imposition of the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act,” or the PROMESA law.

What is the PROMESA law and why is it inciting such strong opposition?

The PROMESA law, which translates to ‘promise,’ is a plan by the Natural Resources Committee of the United States House of Representatives for the establishment of a Fiscal Control Board to manage Puerto Rico’s public finances. For Puerto Ricans however, one problem lies in the fact that PROMESA grants that board the powers of a super government over the Constitution of Puerto Rico, along with general authority to restructure public debt. It is forecasted that the board will work for a minimum of five years and would consist of seven members, all selected by the President of the United States.

Anti-PROMESA advocates, from students and labour unions to pro-independence organisations, socialist organisations, LGBTTIQ activists, feminist groups, and environmentalists, are standing their ground against the perpetuation of colonialism and oppression enforced by the PROMESA.

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Words in the Bucket (WIB) spoke with Victor Torres, a member of the Media and Public Relations Committee of one of the major resistance groups against the PROMESA law in Puerto Rico, the Campamento Contra la Junta (CCJ). The CCJ was born out of protest, as discontented young people rallied against austerity policies and camped to demand inclusion, crying out that people be prioritised above debt.

Victor informed WIB that the form of colonialism Puerto Rico faces expands into psychosocial control and suppression at the hands of the US Government.  The very fabric of Puerto Rico’s society is being sewn by external factors and this is negatively affecting the people, as decisions are made with the geopolitical and multinational interests of the US at the fore, leaving citizens disenfranchised and in a constant cycle of dependence which yields nothing back to them.

Victor stated that “for the last 118 years, the socio-economic development and public policies in the island have been submitted for the approval and guardianship of the US military. There is a complex of inferiority, meaning that there is little belief from the US that Puerto Ricans are capable to self-governance. This has contributed to the formation of a mental state of subordination common in people living under colonial regimes.”

Indeed, although Puerto Rico is also known as ‘Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico,’ this title may just be a euphemism as Puerto Rico is not truly free, being an unincorporated territory of the US. The concept that Puerto Rico is “libre” or “free” is a myth and according to the CCJ, the dream of freedom is in crisis because the Fiscal Control Board is another chance for the US to rearrange and reinstate colonial rule.

One politician against PROMESA is Puerto Rican Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who has stated that the members of the Board “will not make a call to prosperity but to austerity,” and that they will “respond to big capitalist interests and the great interests of Washington.”  Also, Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat has criticised the bill, saying that it provides “little more than a Band-Aid on a bullet hole with regard to Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt.”

The debt crisis needs to be dealt in a more meaningful way which is best for Puerto Rico in the long run.  

Proponents of the anti-PROMESA movement believe the Board will continue the governance practices of the last 10 years: austerity. Will Puerto Rico then fare as badly as Greece, who is still reeling from strict austerity measures which lead to an 18 percent decline in Gross Domestic Product from 2010 to 2015 and a 25 percent increase in the unemployment rate?

This paints a grim outlook for the young people and future generations of Puerto Rico.

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According to the CCJ, pushing austerity measures will lower the minimum wage, cut into social services, deregulate environmental standards, eliminate the right to strike in the public sector, and encourage the implementation of ‘emergency projects’ without public consultation. It is as though that the destiny of an entire generation of Puerto Ricans is being handed over on a silver platter to capitalist America to dismember and decide who receives which portion.

“Most young people see leaving the island as the best option,” Victor says, “to escape the Board, which is basically a ‘financial junta’ for neoliberal dictatorship in the 21st century.”

This will not only weaken the economy further, it blocks youth participation in the development and transformation of Puerto Rico going forward.

“Colonialism is a crime against humanity. By no means can it be justified. You don’t combat lack of sovereignty with dictatorship. You don’t combat austerity with more austerity. You combat lack of democracy with power to, for, and from the people, not with a Junta (the Board) that will deepen colonial rule.”

For these reasons, the people of this Caribbean country are coming together against colonialism. The protest is now spreading throughout the Puerto Rico as more people declare “No A La Junta,” “¡Viva Puerto Rico libre!” and ““Make the rich pay their debt.” The CCJ hopes to build a mass movement for prolonged resistance against the Board, austerity, and the colonial mentality. Through occupying spaces and civil disobedience, the CCJ is determined to educate the population about their right to a better, more independent life.

Puerto Ricans do not want to be a colony. They are making it known that they have a heritage and a nation to be proud of. As the insightful discussion came to a close, Victor informed WIB that what Puerto Rico as a country needs is “a horizontal and participative approach at creating democratic alternatives which contribute to decolonisation of society. We need this particularly in an age where everything seems to work in favour of the settlers and the multinational corporations.”

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Caribbean Connections

Dizzanne Billy is an environmentalist and the President of the Caribbean Youth Environment Network in Trinidad and Tobago. She graduated from the University of the West Indies with an M.Sc. in Global Studies, focusing her research on the effectiveness of global environmental governance. Dizzanne is also a Climate Tracker and is passionate about writing, climate advocacy, and travelling.
2 Comments on this post.
  • PUERTO RICO: A COLONY OR A COUNTRY? – Write It Down
    23 August 2016 at 4:21 pm
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    […] This article was originally published on Words In The Bucket […]

  • Rose
    12 December 2016 at 9:21 am
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    Interesting article. It’s horrible to think that the future prospects of Puerto Ricans can be greatly reduced and controlled because of this ‘so called’ debt, dept that does not exist and was ‘lent’ on false grounds. “Viva Puerto Rico libre”!

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