With almost 1 million people participating, on an island of under 4 million inhabitants, the street demonstrations, highway blockades and national general strike have forced Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign. It did so in the wake of his scandal in which private text messages were published showing Rosselló and his colleagues insulting women and LGBT people, joking about murdering liberal San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, mocking the many people who died in the disastrous failed government response to Hurricane Maria and pointing to multiple forms of corruption and abuse. The uprising in Puerto Rico is of vital significance not only to people on the island and to the diaspora Puerto Rican citizens, but also to people around the United States and throughout Latin America.
This movement is spontaneous, in the sense that it is led by masses of ordinary, working-class Puerto Ricans, and it is not dominated by any particular pro-capitalist or pro-system leadership. Moreover, it arose suddenly and lacks an agreed-on politics or goal beyond forcing the governor to resign. This shows us in practice that the politics of fighting oppression and exploitation MUST focus on grappling with the capitalist state and its leaders and institutions.
Puerto Ricans used a general strike to successfully force the governor to step down. This included mass stoppage by Puerto Rican workers, who produced the largest protests ever seen in the city of San Juan and in other towns on the island. In addition to this, participants called for the movement to grow larger than the number of voters who elected Rosselló so as to delegitimize him. This all shows us, as U.S. socialists, the incredible importance of the strike weapon, whose centrality is only beginning to be relearned in the United States. We see this process of relearning in the strikes by teachers, airport workers, Wayfair employees (in solidarity with imprisoned immigrants) and employees at one of Amazon’s Minnesota shipping hubs, in a strike led by East African refugee workers.
As internationalists, we must show absolute solidarity with the people rebelling in Puerto Rico. We must initiate discussion about their uprising and mobilize actions in solidarity with it. We have a responsibility to support the right of Puerto Ricans to pursue independence if they so choose at any time—with complete maintenance of freedom of movement, temporary or permanent, cash transfer from relatives, etc., to and from the United States for Puerto Ricans.
In our solidarity with Puerto Ricans, we should call for the cancellation of the island’s enormous and unpayable debt. The interest on this debt is a form of permanent exploitation of Puerto Ricans by major U.S. banks and capital. The imposition of cuts to education, health care, the public workforce and pensions and salaries, together with totally inadequate disaster relief in Hurricane Maria, have severely impoverished huge numbers of Puerto Ricans. Throughout the Puerto Rican nation’s modern history, U.S. pharmaceutical, auto and other companies have used the island as a source of cheap labor and site of easy business conditions while sucking out profits, together with outrageous oppression: from the coerced sterilization of Puerto Rican women, to the legal ban on pro-independence organizing and speech in the 1950s, to the PROMESA debt repayment board set up by the U.S. Congress to control the nation’s government today.
The United States has failed to provide Puerto Rico with proper emergency shelter, regional preparedness, disaster relief, food and other aid, reestablishment of electricity, water and hospital systems, just public education and other reasonable and egalitarian responses to Hurricane Maria in 2017. As residents of New Orleans, we view this failure as a damning show of the U.S. government’s contempt for the Puerto Rican people—just as the federal and state governments’ refusal to seriously address the emergency of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reflected racist contempt for Black New Orleanians.
U.S. socialists should connect solidarity with the Puerto Rican uprising with another internationalist political effort: building solidarity with immigrants from throughout Latin America. As we join in protesting the concentration camps of the U.S. Border Patrol and ICE, we have seen racist attacks emerge in politicians’ rhetoric—on the floor of Congress, Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) told Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) to “go back to Puerto Rico,” and on Twitter, President Trump told “the Squad” of women representatives—including NYC-born Puerto Rican left-wing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Somali-American Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—to “go back” to their countries. We should learn from the struggle in Puerto Rico while demanding open borders and free immigration for all people coming to the United States.
Throughout the whole course of this mass movement in Puerto Rico, the police have been used to attack demonstrators and instigate violence. This repression has been continuous and unabashed since the beginning. The head of Puerto Rico’s police publicly said he would defend the governor “to the last drop of blood,” and the police attacks have gone on and been accepted by the establishment despite the rapid loss of almost all support for Rosselló, even by his own party and representatives of the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie. The police, in other words, repeatedly repressed the movement with tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests, orders to disperse, public threats and lies—even when this nonviolent movement was supported by a majority of the population against a discredited politician. We must learn from this and educate others on the role of the police, as we support anti-Rosselló demonstrators. In the current movement against ICE, we have seen how the police play a political role when, for example, the head of the New York police union called for cops to show solidarity with their ICE counterparts, when a large group of San Antonio police wore MAGA hats on the clock and when Los Angeles police were outed for surveilling earlier anti-Trump protest participants. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has at all levels shielded from prosecution the NYPD officer who choked Eric Garner to death in broad daylight. Socialists should put into greater practice a clear political knowledge that the police are a weapon designed and aligned for the oppressors and exploiters of people of color and in reality of all working people. In particular, we should openly demand the expulsion of all police, ICE, prison guard and related so-called unions from the AFL-CIO and the labor movement, without equivocation.
Finally, this uprising in Puerto Rico, like the movement to #CloseTheCamps, has found the U.S. socialist left as a whole, underprepared. We are not, as a whole, adequately engaged, coherent, educated, organized, sizable, mobilized or radical enough to give events like these the serious responses they demand. All sections of the U.S. left must seriously reflect on this. And we should endeavor to both show solidarity with and learn from the Puerto Rican rebellion. Clearly, the governor’s surrender is not enough, but the system has to be transformed. There has to be a fight against austerity, debt, impoverishment and disaster capitalism. The Puerto Rican general strike shows us what it looks like when the working class goes into the street for a political fight. It also shows us people aiming their fire at what is always the target: the capitalist state and, in the case of a country like Puerto Rico, colonialism. It remains to be seen how the immense numbers of working-class and oppressed people who have come out to fight can mobilize their political opinions and demands for the future. As Marx argued, political philosophy and the working class find their weapons in each other—working-class rebellion cannot succeed without socialist goals, and socialism is impossible without rebellion against the very real institutions of oppression that help to run society for profit. Adelante. ¡Aprendemos de la rebelión puertorriqueña! Onward—Let’s learn from the Puerto Rican rebellion!
Signed: Daniel W., Elizabeth C., Mike H.
July 25, 2019