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Popular Uprising and the Fight for Independence in Puerto Rico

The massive protests that have rocked Puerto Rico are about more than Governor Rosselló. They are the product of a rising anger against decades of colonial rule and neoliberal disorder. 

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Hidden inside the walls of his keep, all approaches guarded by riot police and SWAT teams, the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló, holds to his chair like a besieged lord. The last man to acknowledge that all his power has crumbled around him.

It’s not just a metaphor: in San Juan, spontaneous daily protests have converged around the governor’s palace, a 17th century Spanish castle known as La Fortaleza (“The Fortress”) that has served as residence for colonial executives for centuries. This past Monday, July 22, hundreds of thousands blocked the city’s main expressway in a general strike, and afterwards thousands marched again on the palace. They assembled fearlessly and stayed out into the night. The demonstration only ended when the police responded with violent repression, dissolving the gathering through tear gas, pepper spray and batons.

Popular support—which Ricky never fully commanded, having been elected with just over 40% of the vote—has escaped him completely. The opposition is galvanized. And one-by-one even the leaders of his party have begun to desert him, and there is open talk of impeachment. Even Puerto Rico’s main newspaper, a bastion of reaction, now calls for him to resign.

As has been widely reported by now, Puerto Rico is in the midst of a massive and sudden popular uprising. The immediate cause of the movement is an (un)fortunate conjunction of two events: the simultaneous arrest of top officials on charges of corruption; and the revelation of leaked chat conversations where the governor and his advisers conspired against opponents and dissidents,made homophobic, sexist, and racist remarks, and even went so far as to mock the thousands killed by Hurricane María in 2017 and its aftermath of mismanaged anpd neoliberal disaster response. 

But everyone knows the protests are about much more than outrage over a chat: people are taking to the streets against austerity, against gender violence and violence against women, against a government that demonstrated absolute disregard for human life after the Hurricane. The chat provided a spark, but the kindling was there and dry.

It is hard to keep track of how many corruption accusations, schemes, or rumors have been revealed. The most prominent involves the recently-arrested former education secretary Julia Keleher. An American, not Puerto Rican, she was touted as “global talent” brought to fix the culture of corruption supposedly endemic to the “natives” in the education system. She spearheaded school closures and other neoliberal reforms, as well as costly campaigns to proselytize conservative and reactionary values. In fact, one of the signal aspects of Rosselló’s education policy was the elimination of gender perspective in the classroom. 

Now, Keleher stands accused, along with five others, of fraud in the concession of contracts in her department. Along with her, the ex-administrator of the health-insurance administration was also arrested. Together, these two officials were responsible for about half of the Puerto Rican government’s budget.

The most recent, and perhaps wide-ranging, revelation was published by Centro de Periodismo Investigative even as hundreds of thousands marched through San Juan on Wednesday July 17. The allegations are complex and wide-ranging, but show that Rosselló and several of the members of the now notorious chat ran a scheme to benefit corporations and earn money from contracts they could obtain through their direct contact with the governor.

In response to all of this and for about two weeks, protestors have come out consistently to demand one clear thing: the governor’s ouster. And since then the demonstrations have only grown larger: if by the 17th San Juan saw the largest concentration of people in its history, by the 22nd it had done so yet again. These are easily the largest protests the country has ever seen; the only comparable one having taken place about 20 years ago, as part of the movement to get the United States Navy to leave the island of Vieques— a movement that was ultimately successful.

Both times, police attempted to dissolve the gathered protestors late at night. Past midnight, with thousands of people still on the streets, the police declared that Monday’s gathering was no longer protected by the Constitution. A couple of minutes later, suspicious explosions were heard and the police began to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at point blank range. In response, street fighting and barricades went up, as hundreds of protesters resisted the police’s attempt to clear protesters from the capital. 

In the midst of that situation, three thousands motorbike-riding protesters showed up. They came from the poorest parts of the city, the barrios and housing projects, in a demonstration that, at any hour of the day, would have been impressive. Their participation in the protests represents the politicization of the most marginalized sections of the Puerto Rican working class. For far too long ignored and silenced, the arrival of these protesters demonstrated the organic character and radical potential of the present movement. 

Even though the largest and most publicized demonstrations have centered on La Fortaleza, they have also been reproduced in the plazas of dozens of towns across the island. A decentralization of protest on this scale is unprecedented. It is comparable to the student strike movements of 2010 and 2017 at the University of Puerto Rico. But at that time the pattern of mobilization followed the distribution of college campuses: where there were students, there were strikes. Now, there is a generalized dispersal of unrest, with thousands coming out both in secondary cities such as Mayagüez or Ponce and in smaller towns. And this dispersal goes even further. For the first time, the ever-growing Puerto Rican diaspora has come out en masse beyond historic centers like New York to places ranging from Florida and the Southwest to Europe and Latin America. Exodus, the primary form taken by the popular response to the austerity crisis and the devastation of climate change, has spread the geographical range of activism far beyond its conventional limits.

It is unjust to say that this massive protests are merely an expression of moral outrage at the foul language contained in the chat messages. This is not a movement spurred by pearl-clutching middle class sentiment. It is a genuine popular uprising in response to the miserable conditions to which generations of Puerto Ricans have been condemned by colonial-capitalism—conditions that were rapidly worsened by successive rounds of neoliberal austerity and completely laid bare by the devastation of Hurricane María.

For many Puerto Ricans, Ricky is the very image of privilege and elitism. He is a product of oligarchy and, ideologically, no matter how much he has tried to recast his crusade for annexing Puerto Rico to the United States as a matter of civil rights, the seams always show. He has been an enabler to the most reactionary and conservative elements in his party, as well as a creature of the neoliberal dead-end Puerto Rico finds itself in. 

For US-based observers, Ricky presents somewhat of a conundrum: his (otherwise irrelevant locally) affiliation to the Democratic Party leads them to think that he is some sort of liberal or progressive. However, in Puerto Rico, the pro-statehood movement has never been any of those things. Although astute politicians such as Rosselló have known to sell their annexation project as a question of “integration” to liberal elites, back home they have perpetuated the colonial-capitalist system, engaging in the most crude austerity programs, wide-spread privatization and the “liberalization” of working conditions.

Because of the profound differences in the political logics undergirding politics in the US and Puerto Rico, progressives and even radicals in the center have trouble dealing with the colonial periphery. Too many times, statehood appears to them as a logical solution. After all, it is commonplace to think that marginalization and “second class citizenship” can be fixed by integration. However, when cut through by the colonial difference, annexation and assimilation become a double injustice. What Puerto Rico needs is not the platitude of being treated justly as “fellow Americans” but a change in power relations that will permit self-determination. And in taking that determination, Puerto Ricans should choose to separate from the United States: only through independence could we for the first time in our history take our destinies in our own hands and build a democratic society in freedom and solidarity that corrects the injustices that underlie the present demand for Ricky’s resignation.

For these reasons, it is crucial to pay attention to Puerto Rico. The current events are surprising for everyone, but the expectation that its politics will follow the logic of the United States will only lead to incomprehension. 

It is a different country with a distinct tradition of struggle. It is still hard to know if this movement is going to move beyond the immediate demand of resignation. Nevertheless, what has been achieved so far, bringing a reactionary, colonialist, and sexist government to the verge of collapse through popular protests is no small feat. The crucible of hardships endured has set the conditions for the rising of a combative people, as proud as it is relentless in securing its dignity. 

The most important question for those who wish to resist the capitalist and colonial system is this: Now that the collective imagination is in overdrive, how can it take the direction of questioning and impeaching the very foundations of the systems of injustice that subjugate us all?

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