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A Revolutionary Perspective for Puerto Rico

The resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló marked a victory for Puerto Rico’s popular uprising. Yet the Fiscal Control Board and the colonial regime remain. How can the island throw off the yoke of U.S. imperialism? What role could a Constituent Assembly play?

Jimena Vergara

August 3, 2019
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For 12 days the streets of Puerto Rico were flooded by a tide of angry people demanding the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. The protests culminated in a general strike that paralyzed the island. The nearly 1,000 pages of leaked Telegram conversations between Rosselló and his inner circle put the rottenness of the ruling class on display. The popular uprising demonstrated the profound contradictions of the colonial regime in a country ravaged by economic crisis, austerity, and Hurricane Maria.

Now the powerful mass movement stands at a crossroads. Either the parties that administer the colonial regime will manage to impose a peaceful transition—coordinated with the U.S. government—or the workers and the poor masses will find a way to get rid of the island’s hated political caste and the U.S.-appointed Fiscal Control Board (FCB).

Chronicle of a Popular Uprising

The movement in Puerto Rico developed rapidly. On July 13, local and international media published almost a thousand pages of Telegram chats in which Rosselló and his inner circle exhibited their misogyny and homophobia, mocking the victims of Hurricane Maria and bragging about his administration’s corruption.

The first to take to the streets were students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and the women’s movement. These were young people whose teenage years were marked by attacks on public education, austerity measures and the terrible consequences of Hurricane Maria. Popular rage exploded.

These young people were 10 to 13 years old when, a decade ago, Governor Luis Fortuño raised college tuition, laid off thousands of public employees and built a gas pipeline against public opinion. They are the generation that came of age with President Trump in power and grew up under the rule of the FCB. Their generation’s only viable future is to migrate to the United States to work or study as second-class citizens. This means joining the Puerto Rican diaspora, which already consists of more than 5 million people (the island’s current population is 3.2 million). This is the “ya no me dejo” generation, the generation that won’t put up with it anymore, as sung by the musician Bad Bunny, one of the popular icons of the demonstrations.

At the mobilization of July 15, where the first clashes with police took place, most of the contingents were made up of young people. They arrived in San Juan in “guaguas” (buses) coming from Mayagüez, Ponce and Río Piedras to express their rage against Rosselló and the FCB. The women’s movement and feminist organizations were also on the front lines, denouncing the political caste’s misogyny and homophobia.

These young men and women are the ones who remained in Old San Juan on the night of July 15, wearing wrestling masks and facing tear gas. The mainstream media has attempted to hide the radicalism of the confrontations with the police, as well as the hatred expressed in the slogans against the FCB and the PROMESA law. PROMESA was enacted in 2016 by the Obama administration to create the Fiscal Control Board which holds the island’s finances in an iron grip in order to guarantee the payment of the debt. The protestors’ slogan was not only “Ricky renuncia” (Ricky resign), as the media has claimed. It was “Ricky renuncia y llévate la junta”—Ricky resign and take the FCB with you!

The mobilization grew in the following days. Teachers, housekeepers, public employees and professionals joined the tide of people who for 12 consecutive days filled the streets of San Juan and besieged La Fortaleza (“The Fortress,” as the governor’s residence is known). They were determined to get rid of Rosselló: As the police advanced with tear gas, they chanted, “There are many more of us and we are not afraid!”

On July 19, the labor movement entered the scene. At least 14 unions marched from the Bahía Urbana district to La Fortaleza and announced a general strike for July 22.

Finally, on July 22, the mass movement gave Rosselló the coup de grâce: a general strike. According to a local press report,

The island has been paralyzed this Monday. The cruise lines have announced the cancellation of arrivals at the San Juan harbor. A general strike backed by unions, universities and activists of all ages has broken out, the doors of the main business district have closed and the three largest universities have cancelled all classes. The demonstration was so large that one of the capital’s main highways was closed. [our translation]

These days of rebellion are historic. Not since 2000 has the mass movement in Puerto Rico organized actions of this magnitude. In October 2000 the population took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, after a local security guard been killed by a stray bullet. The spirit of the Vieques rebellion could be felt in the recent demonstrations, according to the local media.

Although the feminist movement and the student movement played an important role in initiating these huge mobilizations, they were largely spontaneous. There is, therefore, a real danger that the movement will now retreat. But this is not a given. The participation of the labor movement and the organized student movement is auspicious and can help keep the masses keep going, even after the fall of Rosselló.

Puerto Rico Isn’t a “Commonwealth.” It’s a Colony.

In both Puerto Rico and the United States, Puerto Ricans are second-class citizens. They have only one nonvoting delegate in the U.S. Congress. In the 1950’s Puerto Rico was made a U.S. “commonwealth,” with its own constitution, as opposed to a a U.S. colony. Only the U.S. Congress can declare the island independent or annex it as a new state. Moreover, the U.S. Congress has veto power over any action taken by Puerto Rico’s legislature and retains control over economic and fiscal matters in cooperation with the FCB.

Although Puerto Ricans on the island have Social Security numbers, they only have access to very limited social programs. They do not have the budgetary support of the U.S. Treasury, which the 50 states enjoy. Although Puerto Ricans can vote in primary elections, they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections.

Residents of Puerto Rico are required to pay U.S. federal taxes, import and export taxes, and Social Security taxes, among others. In addition, Puerto Ricans have historically been recruited to fight in the wars of American imperialism. In fact, more than 400,000 have served in the armed forces and participated in every war the United States has waged since 1898.

All this means that class struggle on the island tends to confront the colonial regime. Although pro-independence sentiment in Puerto Rico has diminished over the decades, hatred of the colonial regime has not. Since 1952, when the Puerto Rican constitution came into effect, there have been five nonbinding referendums on the island’s political status: in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017. Each time, the options given were (1) annexation to the United States as a state, (2) permanent establishment of the island’s status quo as a “free associated state,” or (3) national independence. In the first four referendums, most voters supported the first two options. In the 2017 referendum, in which the participation was very low, the big winner was the option for statehood.

These referendums are used by the United States to obscure the harsh reality of the Puerto Rican masses, whose must migrate to the United States to escape the suffocation of their economy.

It is no small fact that 5 million Puerto Ricans are currently living in the United States while 3.2 million remain on the island. Aspirations for national independence thus take a further hit, since independence would entail losing the only “advantage” of colonial status: the right to migrate to the United States without a visa. After 10 years of economic recession and a devastating hurricane, the situation has become increasingly pressing.

Puerto Rico’s ruling parties represent the bipartisan consensus of the U.S. ruling class. Rosselló’s party, the New Progressive Party, represents the annexationist wing of the Puerto Rican elite, supported by the Democratic Party establishment, whose program is to integrate Puerto Rico into the United States as the 51st state. It is no coincidence that Tom Perez, the chairperson of the Democratic Party, expressed his “disappointment” with Rosselló once the Telegram scandal exploded. The Popular Democratic Party, in contrast, defends the “commonwealth” status, which seems to be the hegemonic policy of the Republican Party at the moment. Both Puerto Rican parties share the strategic goal of blocking any path to self-determination, and managing the colonial regime.

Both Democrats and Republicans have led the Puerto Rican people to the extreme situation in which they find themselves. Puerto Rico was targeted by President Obama, who imposed the FCB on Puerto Rico to guarantee debt repayment and maintain strict fiscal, economic and political control over the island. The FCB is nominated by the White House and linked to Wall Street, as a de facto governing body above the island’s legislature.

Trump, for his part, in the face of the disaster caused by Hurricane Maria, refused to hand over the necessary funds for reconstruction, after calling Puerto Ricans “lazy.”

The “Manifest Destiny” of the Puerto Rican People

Immediately after gaining independence from the Spanish Empire at the end of the 19th century, Puerto Rico fell under U.S. control. By 1930, the island’s economy was entirely in the hands of U.S. financial capital, which, in addition to having control of the island’s finances and banking system, owned its postal system, railroad and international harbor. Domino Sugar and the United Fruit Company owned the overwhelming majority of fertile land. By 1940, the U.S. Navy controlled two-thirds of the territory of Vieques.

The American regime used the force of arms to guarantee the economic dominion of its corporations, although it met fierce resistance. The Puerto Rican independence movement carried out important struggles from the 1930s to the 1970s. The tenacity of this movement forced the United States to proclaim the Puerto Rican “commonwealth” in 1950. Only two days after the commonwealth’s creation, two nationalist militants attempted to assassinate President Truman and were sentenced to life imprisonment. Far from diminishing, the independence movement gained new strength. The Puerto Rican masses rebelled throughout the 1950s, with uprisings in Peñuelas, Jayuya, Mayagüez, Naranjito, Arecibo and San Juan. During the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by the Cuban revolution, political organizations proliferated. Pro-independence media and guerrilla groups emerged, built up by radicalized youth and day laborers.

Puerto Rican youth in the diaspora, inspired by the Black Panthers, formed pro-independence organizations such as the Young Lords. The response of the American state was repression. From 1952 to 1971, COINTELPRO (the Counter Intelligence Program created by the FBI to infiltrate and dismantle organizations considered subversive by the American state) operated against Puerto Rican organizations.

Pro-independence sentiment resurfaced again in 2000, when the Todo Puerto Rico con Vieques (All of Puerto Rico Stands with Vieques) movement exploded after a local security guard was killed by a stray bullet from the U.S. Navy. This movement won a historic victory with the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

But the struggle for self-determination has been obstructed by imperialism. Besides repression, the U.S. regime, aware of the pro-independence sentiment that has survived for much of the 20th century, used the trap of referendums to legitimize the island’s colonial status while punishing the most active sectors of the movement. Those who fought for the island’s independence were persecuted, tortured and assassinated by the FBI, which operates in the territory of Puerto Rico with absolute impunity. In 2005, the Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was assassinated in his home, which was widely condemned by the Puerto Rican people.

During the neoliberal offensive of the 1990s, the diaspora tripled in size as a result of the economic crisis and austerity. In this situation, the only way out for millions of Puerto Ricans was to migrate to the United States.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt declared that it was “a manifest destiny for a nation to appropriate islands bordering its coasts.” This is how the 26th U.S. president summed up what would be the American colonial project. But Puerto Ricans challenged the “manifest destiny” of their oppressor over and over again and have ignited the flame of rebellion in the Caribbean.

Down with the Fiscal Control Board!

Rosselló has been ousted, but the colonial regime and the FCB were not. Both the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party have been the guarantors of colonial rule, austerity plans and “governability” for the FCB.

The “Junta,” as Puerto Ricans call the FCB, was created by President Obama to guarantee the payment of the 124 billion dollar debt to U.S. banks. The FCB is composed of seven people, selected by the White House and all linked to Wall Street. Carlos Garcia, one of its “honorable” members, was the person responsible for the austerity program under the administration of Luis Fortuño, promoting the so-called Law 7, which fired tens of thousands of public employees. He is director of BayBoston Managers LLC, a private equity firm.

The left and the workers’ movement in the United States must be on the front line of defending the self-determination of our Puerto Rican siblings, demanding the cancellation of the debt and supporting mobilizations in the diaspora. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is correctly calling for Puerto Rican self-determination and has supported the mobilizations, her party has been part of the colonial regime and also has an annexationist policy.

The FCB guarantees the colonial regime. This domination has gotten worse in recent decades as a result of the neoliberal offensive that led to the privatization of strategic sectors such as electricity, telecommunications, health care and education. The FCB also guarantees the chronic indebtedness of the island, which keeps the economy stagnant and dependent on continued negotiations with the White House.

That is why the cynicism of local officials ignited Puerto Ricans’ rage. These officials are part of a political caste that is subordinated to Washington. They administer the United States’ colonial regime and live in ostentatious luxury. Corruption scandals affect both parties and involve the entire ruling caste.

As a result of the political, economic and social crisis, the current conflict on the island could still develop into a revolutionary situation.

What’s Next?

As socialists, we believe that the only way to get rid of the FCB and rebuild the island’s economy in the service of the workers and the poor is a socialist revolution that creates a workers’ government, expropriates the capitalists and develops the perspective of revolution throughout the Caribbean.

But the political, economic and social crisis in which Puerto Rico finds itself has not yet led the masses on the road to revolution, Instead, they want to radically change the political regime. A favorable outcome for the masses of Puerto Rico cannot be the result of an agreement between the establishment parties and Washington. The U.S. government will try to organize new elections. The democratic aspirations of the masses are objectively questioning the colonial character of the political regime. It is necessary to fight for all the officials to resign, for the FCB to fall and for the workers and masses of Puerto Rico to take the resolution of the great problems of the nation into their own hands, without the yoke of the White House and Wall Street on their backs. It is no coincidence that last Sunday the slogan “que se vayan todos” (they all must go) went viral on social media, after Rosselló announced that it would be Attorney General Wanda Vázquez who would become interim governor. The hatred for the political caste is profound.

It is in this context that the question of who governs is posed. Perhaps a figure from the establishment parties will remain at the head of the country, or perhaps the FCB will assert even more control over the island. Vázquez, the next in line, refused to serve as interim governor, so Rosselló appointed Pedro Pierluisi, the current lawyer of the FCB, as his successor. All indications are that the Puerto Rican regime will try to impose a reactionary solution to the crisis. This is a trap for the working population. A third option is that the workers and the poor masses impose their own will, putting an end to the colonial regime.

The movement can only advance if workers’ organizations, students, the women’s movement and political and social organizations call on the mobilized people to organize a Constituent Assembly, with representatives elected by direct elections in all districts of the country. These representatives would need to be revocable and earn the wage of a qualified worker.

The potential of a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly would consist in reflecting the hatred toward the institutions of the political caste and fighting to impose the radical measures necessary to stop imperialist plunder. A truly free and sovereign Constituent Assembly can be imposed only through mobilization. The unions, which facilitated the fall of Rosselló, must continue to develop strikes as the most effective way for the open conflict in Puerto Rico to be won by the mass movement.

The call for a Constituent Assembly could accelerate the experience of sectors of the masses with representative democracy in crisis. This experience with representative democracy would allow the working class, in the heat of the struggle, to develop its own bodies of self-organization that question who should govern, the workers and the poor masses or Washington’s puppet regime.

A Constituent Assembly must discuss and make democratic decisions on the great structural transformations required by the country to win its national liberation, end imperialist plunder and rebuild its economy. A democratic convention could put forward an emergency plan to rescue the island and help the victims of Hurricane Maria—a plan managed democratically by workers themselves. The people must have access to financial reports to know how much money was stolen by former officials, and the entire budget destined for Hurricane Maria must pass into the hands of the workers and affected communities. This assembly would also fight for the renationalization of privatized companies under the management of their workers, as well as the nationalization of banking and foreign trade under workers’ control to prevent imperialist looting and capital flight. In a democratic body like this, the workers and the poor masses could immediately stop paying the debt.

It is in such an assembly that the Puerto Rican people could freely discuss their self-determination. Referendums are the “democratic” cover to legitimize U.S. extortion and colonialism. It is impossible for the masses to democratically decide their destiny if they suffer continuous extortion by the United States. Our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico cannot advance in their liberation if they constantly have to fear losing everything. The Puerto Rican people have the right to decide if they want their independence, without the weight of Washington’s boot on their necks.

published simultaneously in Spanish on La Izquierda Diario.

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Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.

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