Puerto Rico: The people rise up against oppression and exploitation

Half a million protesters mobilised on July 22.

One of the largest mass mobilisations in Puerto Rico’s history exploded on July 22, after almost 900 pages of transcripts of leaked online chats between former Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his cronies were published on July 13.

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CIJ), an award-winning independent news outlet on the island, published the documents.

The vulgar, violently misogynistic and homophobic chats included Rosselló mocking the dead victims of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. More than 3000 people died — estimates go as high as 8500. Rosselló minimised the death toll and tried to cover up his government’s culpability, due to its poor response in coming to the aid of the injured.

CIJ executive director Carla Minet said on Democracy Now!, “We covered the story about the death toll [after the hurricane] … It was a very deep feeling for the people, that its government didn’t take into account and didn’t address this issue in an effective and sensitive way.

“So, seeing these jokes about the bodies of the hurricane victims … was truly an insult to many people, [who] were aggravated in the first place because their loved ones were not buried correctly after the hurricane, but now hearing this on top of that? I think people will not forgive that.”

The transcripts also confirmed rampant corruption in the government, further fuelling anger.

The chats included jokes about shooting San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. Cruz became famous for denouncing United States President Donald Trump for Washington’s deliberate and cruelly meagre aid after the hurricane.

Another chat attacked Melissa Mark-Viverito, former speaker and the first Puerto Rican to lead the New York City Council. She was called a “whore”.

Various LGBTI people, including a popular singer, were mocked.

Following the release of the transcripts, protests began — at first small — and quickly mushroomed. The protests demanded Rosselló immediately resign.

Four days after the release of the documents, 100,000 people marched in San Juan. Five days later, on July 22, a truly historic mobilisation of half a million people swept through the capital, shutting down a major highway and paralysing much of the city — a huge protest, given 3.2 million people inhabit the island.

Many people left work to join what became, in part, a political strike.

The New York Times reported, “Puerto Ricans streamed into the capital on buses — and some from the mainland — in a spontaneous eruption of fury over the years of recession [since 2005], mismanagement, natural disaster and corruption that have fuelled a recent exodus [to the mainland].

“Demonstrators launched impromptu line dances, banged pots and carried banners along several miles of highway, many shouting ‘Ricky, renuncia, el pueblo te repudia!’ — Ricky, resign, the people reject you!”

Live coverage showed a sea of Puerto Rican flags in the march, but no US flags.

Democracy Now! reporter Juan Carlos Dávila interviewed some of the demonstrators. One protester, Jocelyn Velázquez said: “This struggle is not only to remove Ricardo Rosselló. Rosselló is the decoration.

“We need to remove the group of corrupt thieves who demonstrated that, beyond being thieves and corrupt, they are inhumane, making fun of people’s suffering to enjoy themselves. This cannot be forgiven.”

Another, Vivian Hernandez, said: “I am here with other Puerto Ricans so that the governor resigns. We don’t want him here anymore. As we put him in power, we can also take him down. We are tired of the abuse, and we are tired of the corruption.”

Luis Dávila, a third protester, said: “I am here protesting against the governor, who has betrayed us. I was from his party, but not anymore. I gave him my vote, and he betrayed us.

“We’re here fighting to get him out of office, because what the governor did cannot be done to the people. If he doesn’t leave, there’s going to be stronger consequences.”

Many of Puerto Rico’s well-known performers have been out in the streets. Singers Residente, iLe and Bad Bunny released a song during the first days of the protest entitled “Afilando Los Cuchillos” or “Sharpening the Knives”, which quickly became the movement’s anthem.

Resentment rooted in colonialism

The publication of the online chats alone cannot explain the power of this mobilisation — it was the spark that ignited the accumulated resentment and grievances of the Puerto Rican people. These are rooted in the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony, exploited by the US.

Puerto Rico, which had been a Spanish colony, became a US colony when the US defeated Spain in the war of 1898.

Soon after, the US Supreme Court ruled that the US Congress can decide which parts of the US Constitution apply to Puerto Rico —and this is still in force today. The court also ruled that Puerto Rico “belonged to, but was not part of” the United States.  All major decisions involving the island are dependent on acts of Congress as interpreted by US courts.

Since then, Puerto Rico and its people have been economically exploited by US corporations and financial institutions. The latest stage in this exploitation throws light on what underlies the protests.

Up until 2005, US corporations built industries on the island, exploiting low wages and enjoying special tax breaks from Washington. Beginning in 1996, under former president Bill Clinton, these tax breaks began to be withdrawn, as corporations sourced cheap labour in countries such as China, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

By 2005, most of these enterprises had left Puerto Rico, which resulted in a depression that has lasted ever since. Gross national product fell 13% by 2015, and has continued to fall. Unemployment rose sharply and remains high.

The pro-imperialist capitalist politicians in the island’s government turned to borrowing from US financial capitalists to keep the country afloat. More loans were then necessary to repay earlier loans, in a vicious cycle that led to a crisis in 2014, when Puerto Rico could no longer repay its loans.

The island was in debt to the mainland lenders to the tune of US$73 billion. As the debt could not be paid, its price fell. Vulture capitalists moved in, buying up the cheap debt and then demanding it be paid at its full, face-value price.

Puerto Rico’s government instituted a policy of austerity, including huge cutbacks to social services, education and healthcare. The government-run power company could not pay to modernise equipment or even make repairs.

For some time the US has denied that Puerto Rico is its colony, using terms like “territory” and “commonwealth” to describe it.

Taking advantage of the crisis, former president Barack Obama, Congress and the judiciary took direct control of Puerto Rico in 2016, dropping the fig leaf. With bipartisan support, a law was passed called The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). It created an un-elected, seven-person financial board, appointed by the US administration, which has sweeping powers over Puerto Rico’s economy.

The Supreme Court made two rulings that underscored the point. One, concerning criminal procedure, explicitly stated that Puerto Rico is not “sovereign”. The other voided a law passed by the Puerto Rican legislature that allowed the island to use bankruptcy to reduce debt and to extend the time for loan repayments until its economy recovered.

Fifty states and US cities have the right to access bankruptcy, and some did after the Global Financial Crisis.

At the time Cruz said: “What the Congress has done, what the president of the United States has done, what the judicial system has done, is that they have unveiled to everyone, the international community and everyone in Puerto Rico, that we are a colony of the United States.”

She added: “While the US people are fighting to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, this colonial control board will lower the minimum wage in Puerto Rico for people 25 or under to $4.50 an hour.

“It could sell our natural resources … and [has] sovereign power to revoke anything our next governor, our next legislature or any public official of the Puerto Rican government … will do.”

The board, with the connivance of the Rosselló-led government, has since intensified the austerity drive, prioritised paying off the vultures and driven privatisation.

Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy De Vos, is on a campaign to privatise public education in the US, and has viewed Puerto Rico as a test case. The board has virtually destroyed the public school system.

The island’s emaciated infrastructure could only partially cope when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. The rickety electricity system failed, adding to the death toll, as hospitals lost power. It remains in a weak condition to this day.

The Trump administration purposely withheld adequate recovery aid. Trump even said there was “no catastrophe” as a result of the hurricane. This added insult to injury. The island still has not completely recovered.

The people of Puerto Rico have suffered a lot from the policies of Washington and their own comprador government. Opposition to many of these policies was reflected in many banners and signs on the huge march.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the CIJ’s revelations. All the pent-up grievances exploded in the streets.

Two days after the great strike and mobilisation of half a million, Rosselló resigned.

We wait to see what comes next, as many people, especially young people, have flexed their muscles and experienced their power when they stand together.

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