30 July 2019 — Internationalist 360°
The popular insurgency in Puerto Rico overthrew a corrupt, reactionary and servile government, which bowed its head and tolerated Donald Trump’s contempt and insults on the occasion of Hurricane Maria in September 2017 and the “humanitarian aid” that the New York tycoon personally went to distribute. Given that the Puerto Rican Constitution of 1952 does not provide for the call for elections in cases such as the current one, the resigned president must appoint his successor before August 2. Renewed popular pressure could overturn colonial regulations and force the installation of a transitional government, but it seems very unlikely that such a thing could happen. Other alternatives, such as a call for a Constitutional Assembly, seem closer to reality, as will be seen below. The unifying factor in the imposing street protests was the blatant corruption of Governor Ricardo Rosselló, the phenomenal indebtedness into which the island’s government has fallen, and the leaking of his revealing homophobic conversations, his misogyny, and his contempt for the main opposition figures and even for the victims of the hurricane.
The aforementioned exacerbated the chronic social problems affecting this wonderful country, which managed to frustrate the U.S. project to destroy its cultural traditions, its forms of sociability, its language, its art, its cuisine, its music and its dances and turn it into a Caribbean replica of Atlantic City. A strong national identity was needed to withstand imperial pressures for more than a century. The Philippines, another of the trophies of the Spanish-American war, despite being much more populated and extensive than the “Island of Enchantment” did not resist the cultural, political and economic onslaught of the United States. Puerto Rico has, and that is why it is as “Latin-Caribbean” as any other nation.
That said, one might wonder why the large mobilizations of recent weeks did not have the question of Puerto Rico’s colonial status on their agenda. There are many reasons for this. The issue was submitted to popular plebiscite on five occasions: in three of them 1967, 1993 and 1998 the majority tended to maintain the condition of “Commonwealth”, a misleading phrase if there is one for a country that is a colony of the United States and none of the three things that the commonwealth formula proclaims, designed by the Americans and their allies on the island, mainly Luis Muñoz Marín, who was the first governor-elect of Puerto Rico. In a new referendum called in 2012, the supporters of “statehood” triumphed, that is, annexation to the United States, but the irregularities in the electoral process and the icy indifference of the Obama Administration to this result condemned the matter to oblivion. In 2017, the fifth statehood referendum, obtained an overwhelming victory: 97 percent of the votes, but with a very low participation rate that did not even reach 23%, which seriously damaged the legitimacy of the verdict of the ballot boxes. As in 2012, irregularities in the preparation of the census and now Trump’s militant contempt consecrated the futility of that popular consultation.
How to interpret these surprising results? First, we must remember that colonial status grants Puerto Ricans the status of U.S. citizens and, consequently, the possibility of entering and leaving U.S. territory without visas or obstacles. In a part of the world where migration to the imperial metropolis mobilizes millions of people every year, even putting their lives at risk, precisely as a consequence of the neoliberal policies that Washington imposes on the countries of Our America, the citizenship, although incomplete, of the Puerto Rican population becomes a powerful attraction to maintain the status quo and preserve for better times the aspirations for independence, wherever there are them. Simón Bolívar warned early on the nefarious role that the United States played in the region and left his message sealed in a phrase contained in the letter he sent from Guayaquil to Colonel Patricio Campbell on August 5, 1829, in which he said that “the United States seems destined by Providence to plague America with miseries in the name of freedom“. History proved the Liberator right and Washington’s policy towards this region since the beginning of the twentieth century was to sustain through bloody dictatorships a neocolonial order furrowed by the ancestral exploitation of our peoples and the centuries-old injustices and oppressions inherited from the colonial era, which was only aggravated by the “modernization” introduced by dependent capitalism favoured by U.S. imperialism and thereby fuelled a tumultuous and endless migration to the United States as the only real alternative for survival for the impoverished regions south of the Rio Bravo.
Submission to the American Rome was effected through its permanent support to the bloody dictatorships that devastated the region and in the endless succession of invasions, coups d’état, assassinations, destabilizing operations, sabotages and economic blockades ordered by the White House or, more recently, through the most refined but equally lethal “soft coups” such as Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil and others, with very sui generis peculiarities in Ecuador- or in the imposition of policies inspired by the Washington Consensus, in the last decades of the last century, and reactivated recently when the progressive wave that marked Latin American politics since the assumption of Hugo Chávez to the presidency of Venezuela, at the beginning of 1999, experienced an important setback that the late incorporation of López Obrador’s Mexico to the so-called “progressive cycle” is not sufficient to compensate. In such a situation it is understandable that the millions of victims of “capitalist development” on the periphery are trying to find a future in the imperial metropolis.
I said “incomplete” or “low intensity” citizenship because, unlike other U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans lack the attributes that make up popular sovereignty: they cannot elect members of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress, nor are they qualified to participate in the U.S. presidential elections. They are second-class citizens, but they retain the dubious privilege of serving – as they repeatedly did – in the U.S. armed forces. It is estimated that just under 10 percent of those who stood out in Vietnam were Puerto Ricans, while in the total population Puerto Ricans accounted for just 1.5 percent. It is obvious where Washington went to look for its cannon fodder.
The combination of the migratory facilities and the permanent and crushing propaganda of the empire penetrated deeply into the consciousness of the popular masses. Add to this the fact that as politically impotent citizens they still have access to a broad repertoire of federally funded welfare policies administered in a clientelistic manner by both the New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party that ruled in the past. This includes free education, food stamps, subsidized or otherwise free housing and under certain conditions in perpetuity, a large unemployment insurance program and health care like “Medicare” and “Medicaid,” which are conspicuous by their absence in much of the Caribbean with the exception of Cuba. This fact is crucial to understand the concerns that a possible independence of Puerto Rico -and with it the loss of the “benefits” granted by U.S. citizenship- provokes in broad sectors of the popular strata. In other words, the rejection of “statehood” has been bought with those policies that U.S. governors and high officials would call “populist” if they were applied in some other Latin American country. Policies that, managed in a clientelistic way, have resulted in a significant destruction of the social fabric. An example: sociological research shows that in some homes there are three generations of people who never worked in their lives and who have lived through decades on the welfare of the American master. Finally, it should not be forgotten that the empire, through its monopoly control of the media, has systematically and effectively fed the racist idea that Puerto Ricans are incapable of self-government and that to do so would lead Puerto Rico to a debacle equivalent to that of Haiti.
In addition to all the above considerations, Washington never expressed the intention of granting “statehood” to the island. That would turn the United States into a plurinational state, Bolivian style, and that is completely unacceptable both for its ruling class and for broad majorities of public opinion, especially in the midst of the wave of xenophobia that envelops the country and that Donald Trump demagogically smokes. In addition, the White House, as it stands, effortlessly achieves what it most desires: to have a strategic point of support for the geopolitics of the Greater Caribbean with twelve military bases installed on the small island. Moreover, their companies benefit because they pay lower tax rates and can transfer profits to their matrices without any obstacle; and although federal aid to the Caribbean country is important, the truth is that Puerto Rico loses out and the United States wins.
The paradox, to be resolved in the future, is the construction of an independence movement capable of expressing fervent nationalism in the political-electoral arena -and the barely concealed anti-Americanism that characterizes the Puerto Rican nation. In the events of recent weeks, a new party has risen to prominence, perceived with hope by many of those who mobilized and took to the streets of Puerto Rico. Victoria Ciudadana is the point of convergence of diverse sectors and even of some old and respected minority parties that fight for independence. I have been informed that in this new political formation there are many people who believe in independence or in a limited national sovereignty, a sort of sovereign republic but still maintaining their “association” with the United States. The complexity of the composition of Victoria Ciudadana does not allow to simply raise the flags of independence, so there has been a commitment to promote the convening of a Constitutional Assembly to discuss the status of the Island. The issue, which of course, has found a favourable public response and could have unpredictable outcomes but which in any case would be the main -if not the only- point of coincidence and unification of those who constitute that political force.
An element that adds complexity to the already convoluted political situation is based on the fact that until now the large mobilizations have not significantly increased the adherence to independence. Moreover, there are not a few protagonists of those struggles that point out that there could even be an exactly opposite effect since some believe that with the triumph of “statehood” the Puerto Rican citizenship would enjoy the same rights and entitlements that are guaranteed for the other states of the American Union. There are even voices that say that in the face of the mistreatment suffered at the hands of the island equivalent of the Republicans (Rossello’s New Progressive Party) and the Trump Administration, an eventual victory for the Democrats in the next U.S. presidential elections would open the way to put an end to “unfinished citizenship”. The fact that the young U.S. congresswoman of Puerto Rican descent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortéz, a rising star in her country’s political firmament, declared this past Saturday, July 27, that “this (the triumph of the great popular mobilizations) is only the beginning of a process of decolonization, a process of self-determination in which the people of Puerto Rico begin to take their own self-government into their own hands” adds to the complexity of the situation because on previous occasions they had spoken out in favour of “statehood” with the argument that in that way Puerto Ricans would have the same rights as any citizen of New York or any other state in the Union.
In summary, we would not be mistaken if we concluded that Puerto Rico is a nation without a state (of course it is not the only one: there are the cases of the Basque Country and Catalonia, without going any further) and, allow me to add, a country with a solid national identity in search of a political instrument that organizes and represents it. But this is something that, for now, is not on the present horizon. Although no one should be surprised if the dialectic of the crisis – the great master of the peoples – produced a sudden rise in the consciousness of the Puerto Ricans, and what until yesterday seemed unthinkable today would become something feasible. It is clear that the clientelism of welfare and the panic of losing these advantages conspire strongly against the independence impulse. But if such a thing were to happen, if that Constitutional Assembly were to advance in that direction on the shoulders of a great popular mobilization, it would produce a real earthquake on the regional geopolitical chessboard and the reactions of the White House would be one of unbridled bellicosity. To conjecture on this issue is beyond the limits I proposed for this article.
* I thank Carolyn M Thomas, Esterla Barreto Cortez and Luz Miranda for the information they provided me in preparing this article. Of course, the factual or interpretative errors that may exist in this writing are my sole responsibility.