Puerto Rico: between the exception… and a real promise

There is no telling what the people of Puerto Rico have been through in the last five years, but neither are there limits to their response capacity.

Lea aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

There is no telling what the people of Puerto Rico have been through in the last five years, but neither are there limits to their response capacity. During this period they saw the imposition of a proconsular board in 2016, two devastating hurricanes in September 2017, and the terrible disappointment and frustration that followed the popular uprising leading up to the resignation of the colonial government in the summer of 2019. Add to this the earthquakes in the south-southwest of the Island since late 2019 and the worldwide pandemic that still keeps the archipelago at a standstill well into this dreadful 2020. All of it has elicited a diversity of reactions from a population that has specialized in fighting marginalization and colonialism in many ways, and in living to tell the tale.

It’s tempting to look at the contemporary experience of our Caribbean countries from this episodic perspective; that is, at the most noticeable and shocking events. However, this could cast a shadow over their connection with the processes that preceded and currently underlie those circumstances and which eventually caused profound division. Such is our argument: Puerto Rico is undergoing a major transformation.

The most significant feature of this metamorphosis is the internal social solidarity found at the core of the disagreements about the [country’s] so-called “political status”—to wit, its legal-political relationship with the United States. What we propound here is that lurking in the midst of so much adversity is increasing awareness that we have one another as a nation and that solidarity is not an empty word. Something new, better and revitalized can sprout therefrom.

As the perception of a crisis grows deeper, society loses faith in the electoral processes to the realization that joint social action seems to be its safest chance to survive. The willingness to cooperate from the communities becomes stronger despite the incredibly predictable succession of cases of legal and illegal corruption at government level. Each crisis gives the businessmen associated with the ruling party or the U.S. federal government new ways of profiting from a disaster.

The most recent case of corruption in Puerto Rico is particularly dramatic: weeks ago, a scheme was uncovered where a number of businessmen associated with the governing New Progressive Party (P.N.P.) would make millions by overpricing COVID-19 case-finding tests. They may even be held criminally liable. One of those involved in the shady deal wrote to another: “The virus was productive”.[1] Nothing is immune from the logic of the market when it comes to the government’s contract decisions, not even a spine-chilling pandemic that keeps many of us confined to our homes.

Several simultaneous processes

Various processes underlie the events, as we have come to notice. Add to them the exponential exhaustion of the economic growth model of the last fifty years. The end of the main incentives to manufacturing has caused economic stagnation and recession. Figures provided by the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF), Puerto Rico’s fiscal administration office, the country’s Gross National Product decreased by 20.8% between 2006 and 2019. Puerto Rico has lived through a sort of “special period” which has shot up emigration, as happened during another one of these periods.

As we can see, the Cold War didn’t happen in vain in this Caribbean archipelago. Some tax exemptions that Puerto Rico-based U.S. manufacturing companies enjoyed are no longer in effect. A U.S. President like Donald Trump believes that he scores good with his political base every time he refuses to send economic aid to the Island. This is virgin territory for us; never within living memory has the metropolis governing Puerto Rico been led by a president so cruel to the population of his main overseas possession.

With fewer jobs, a segment of the population says that the only choice is “the visa [or the passport] to a dream”. Depopulationthe reason that the number of Puerto Rican inhabitants has dropped to three million two hundred thousandis not a government strategy anymore but the result of a lack of economic opportunities. The so-called Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States already exceeds five million people, most of the islanders, who identify themselves there as Puerto Rican and without whose help the humanitarian crises caused by hurricanes and earthquakes would have been even more critical.

The imposition of the so-called Fiscal Control Board (FCB) in 2016 through a federal law paradoxically called PROMESA Act has been extensively and intensely debated in public and studied in intellectual and academic circles.[2] Suffice it to say that the exhaustion since the late 20th century of the economic growth model—intensified by the economic recession since 2006—led to the issuance of public debt to defray budget deficits caused by the two parties that take turns in office since 1968.

Faced with the fall of the government’s borrowing capacity to “junk” levels, the insular ruling elite tried to place the so-called Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in a state of bankruptcy. “The debt is not payable”, Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla admitted, “and this is not politics, this is math”.[3] But the U.S. Federal Government demanded a price for the debt renegotiation: further reduction of the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s” so-called autonomy.

That explains the establishment in 2016 of a proconsular board appointed by the Barack Obama Administration and the U.S. legislature. In order to ensure the payment of loans, both U.S. parties reached a rare agreement largely based on the notion that direct control on the territorial government’s finances was inevitable. The top leaders of the two Puerto Rican local parties were forced to accept a non-elected entity with budget control authority, and were then badgered into enforcing an austerity plan in the “territory”.

The Island paid a very high price for the board thus imposed. To cite but one instance, the University of Puerto Rico suffered a budget cost of almost three hundred million in those years. Not long ago the pension fund of young professors was drastically reduced so that the option of joining the system was not attractive anymore to new prospects. The teaching profession’s retirement pension will no longer guarantee minimally acceptable living standards. The blow dealt to the main public university was so severe that liberal Congress members such as Raúl Grijalva [D-Arizona] recently introduced legislation to re-establish the funds snatched out of the UPR. The whole situation has endangered one of the most successful social projects in Puerto Rico’s capitalist modernity.

“… there comes the storm”

A little more than a year later, in September 2017, we had two consecutive hurricanes: Irma and Maria. The second one was the strongest to impact the Island since last century. Hurricane Maria crippled the national power grid and drinking water supply system. Most people lived without electricity for weeks, many for months, and some for almost a year, with the resulting delay in the provision of water and ensuing health problems among those whose special treatment needed electric power. Heavy rainfall caused floods and landslides, leaving many people homeless to the point that they lived in shelters for over a year and in houses still in need of roof repair.

Someone whose words are often quoted since said: an atmospheric phenomenon is a natural occurrence but, more often than not, a disaster is human rather than “natural”. A natural phenomenon was and still is at times corrective and other times renovating, but always a reminder of the ever-changing forces within and on a planet’s surface. In the case of hurricanes, a disaster is the product of unbridled housing development policies, deforestation and changed streambeds. It’s also reminds us that climate change is not a crazy invention but a scientific fact bound to have unequal effects on poor countries with no response capacity in the aftermath.

Our (very Latin American) “debt crisis” exposed the exhaustion of the economic model, but the hurricanes also disclosed—in addition to the vegetal layer covering the archipelago—other underlying processes. The economic and political bankruptcy came into view at once with the collapse of the power and water supply systems and the flawed distribution of food and medicines. The extremely slow and gloomy actions to restore them revealed the level of incompetence and legal and illegal corruption prevailing in the country.

The increasing socioeconomic inequality became dramatically visible: the poor and middle-class wage earners were the most affected by floods that flattened their homes and falling trees that destroyed their roofs. They suffered the consequences of shortsightedness, the violation of the most basic planning rules, and the denial of global warming, all of which add to the impact of these events. And it’s all the result of the wealthy’s greed and insensitivity and the irresponsible corrupt policies that they buy with impunity.

Nevertheless, nothing, absolutely nothing brought to light the underlying processes like emigration and the deterioration in relations with the metropolis. Paradoxical, because the other side of the coin shows an undeniable reality: the islands are becoming depopulated as a result of a number of U.S. Government public policies and a certain inability on the part of the Puerto Rican Government to adapt to the new international context. A paralyzed economy expels people in seldom-seen ways, whereas mass migration also becomes, strangely enough, a form of protest.

While many said, “Yo no me quito” (I will not leave)[4] and made a rebellious act out of their decision to stay, others turned the departure facilitated by U.S. citizenship into a resounding “I will leave”, another way of challenging the colonial status quo. Both choices, staying or leaving to join the diaspora, are equally intended to help Puerto Rico (“I will not forget”) fall within a complex strategy of resistance, as Frances Negrón Muntaner suggested in recent writings.[5]

Nearly half a million Puerto Ricans have emigrated in the last decade. This 21st century emigration has already surpassed the so-called great migration of the mid-twentieth century. This second wave was sponsored by the insular government inasmuch as it was incapable of avoiding it.

The post-Maria emigration—now concentrated mainly in central Florida—stepped up the process in such a way that the U.S.-based Puerto Ricans already outnumber those who stayed in the archipelago. As stated before, social solidarity and emigration have become strategies of resistance to the “shock” doctrine intended to reorganize life from a neoliberal perspective. Now a Puerto Rican who is forced to emigrate is also a solidarity asset (“I will not forget”).

Those forced to emigrate by the hundreds of thousands included this time the most vulnerable sectors of the alleged “middle class”. Besides, the contempt that Donald Trump and the “Trumpists” feel for immigrants and in general for Latin Americans was readily noticeable during his reluctant visit to Puerto Rico. After dragging his feet to acknowledge the magnitude of the disaster, Trump trivialized it by throwing “paper towels” into the handful of people chosen to cheer for him, which they did… The conditions to, and slow pace of, the implementation and allocation of aid made it even clearer that the metropolis has no trust in the present Puerto Rican ruling elite and that assisting a poor mulatto Caribbean population is hardly a priority.

But the big home run came off Ricardo Roselló government’s bat to mock our people’s sensitivity with his stubborn insistence—unsurprisingly endorsed by Trump and his cohort—on denying the deaths caused by the aforesaid natural phenomenons and their consequences. Despite overwhelming graphic and testimonial evidence to the contrary, and after claiming for almost a whole year that the number of deaths had stood below 100, academic studies and investigative journalists compelled the ruling elite to concede that the death toll had risen to a hair-raising 4,625.[6]

What made the disaster more palatable and even encouraging was the generous and ingenious response of the Puerto Ricans, both here and in the United States. Standing out from their multiform and varied reactions is the creation and strengthening of popular self-management projects and open or clandestine acts of resistance to the prevailing power regime. Still, it was not until two years later that society’s outrage at and repudiation of all of the above erupted in the popular revolt of the summer of 2019.

The Puerto Rican summer of 2019

The Puerto Rican summer was a unique event in the far-reaching process of citizen empowerment intended to overcome different forms of colonial entrapment. In light of its diversity and creativity,[7] some have described the movement that succeeded in keeping the Governor of Puerto Rico from being reelected as a model of citizen activity, whereas others highlight its non-violent character. What’s beyond dispute, however, is its deviation from the international human rights discourse and for a more participatory democracy.

What happened in Puerto Rico during that period is in line with the international human rights movement and its focus on the defense of dignity. In the words of the renowned German intellectual Jürgen Habermas, such protection, central to the fight for human rights, is an essential seismograph that registers the existence of multiple violations of the sustained struggle for the full development of human personality:

“Thus, the experience of the violation of human dignity has performed, and can still perform, an inventive function in many cases: be it in view of the unbearable social conditions and the marginalization of impoverished social classes; or in view of the unequal treatment of women and men in the workplace, and of discrimination against foreigners and against cultural, linguistic, religious, and racial minorities; or in view of the ordeal of young women from immigrant families who have to liberate themselves from the violence of a traditional code of honor; or finally, in view of the brutal expulsion of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. In the light of such specific challenges, different aspects of the meaning of human dignity emerge from the plethora of experiences of what it means to be humiliated and deeply hurt”.[8]

Puerto Rico’s summer witnessed a tremendous social response to the attacks on dignity launched by a sector of government. What already seemed unlikely to some finally happened: a giant plural movement of solidarity adorned with thousands of Puerto Rican flags in a swell of voices and claims.[9] As Boaventura de Sousa Santos warned, there seems to be some space to claim for human rights “conceived as an anti-hegemonic principle and practice […] which can contribute to reinforce the autonomy and self-determination of the peoples”.[10]

Puerto Rican researcher Félix Córdova Iturregui gave an accurate description:

“This summer mobilization has been unique in our history. It shook a governor off his chair. To that end it set in motion something stronger than an election organized in the colonial tradition. People took direct action, occupying and overflowing the streets day and night and setting new scenes for action, their voice thundering but evenly laid out as they shouted out their two main demands: Ricky, resign and take the Board with you”.[11]

It was on the basis of this approach to the defense of human dignity that a powerful social response broke out. The inclusion of demands for social justice by the human rights movement in the “Puerto Rican Summer” protests helped this principle take center stage as a key element to really enjoy human rights. It also had undeniable transnational fallout, as it gained permanent support from the large Puerto Rican community in the United States.[12]

The immediate trigger and its context

This social explosion was the immediate trigger for a number of simultaneous events which put the Governor and his closest support system in an untenable position. Same as with the commotion caused by David Sanes’s accidental death as a result of United States Navy training practice in the Puerto Rican island of Vieques at the end of last century, these events also marked a before and after.

A confidential chat session between the Governor and his closest and most trusted male aides was leaked on July 8. Its disclosure undermined forever the confidence between the Governor and the governed. As Dr. Raúl Cotto Serrano points out, that conversation between the Governor and his closest staff members was the straw that broke the Puerto Ricans’ back and also painted the whole Administration’s conduct in despicable colors.

Weeks before, on June 24, the press reported that Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado, the government’s chief financial officer, had denounced the existence of “a mafia” in his own administrative agency that was engaged in various forms of corruption. Days later, other press reports came in of federal criminal charges laid against two high-ranking officials and another four accused. These two officials, responsible for the agencies with the fattest budget assignments and biggest social impact, were Ángela Ávila, former executive director of the Health Insurance Administration (ASES), and Julia Keleher, former Secretary of Education. A federal grand jury charged them with “conspiracy to commit fraud, theft, wire fraud, money laundering conspiracy, and money laundering”.[13]

The Governor had invested a lot of political capital on Education Secretary Keleher, although opinion polls gave this official very low approval ratings. Keleher had ordered the permanent and somewhat rushed closure of a high number of schools in poor communities. The astronomical $250,000 that she received in compensation and her arrogant behavior also paved the way for plenty of popular requests for her dismissal. However, the Governor withstood the pressure from the citizens; Keleher finally resigned her position when federal criminal charges filed against her were already public knowledge.

The confidential chat session took place through the communication program Telegram because of a previous scandal involving the Roselló Administration’s use of the digital application WhatsApp. The content of the chat became known thanks to independent journalists and institutions such as the Center for Investigative Journalism.[14] One of the most objectionable parts of the conversation was a joke related to Hurricane Maria’s death toll. The butt of the joke was the suffering of thousands of families. Few expressions were more upsetting than the clinical references to the hurricane victims in the exchange that keeps the governor on the ropes: as they discussed the delays at the Institute of Forensic Sciences, Sobrino, one of his top advisors, asked, “Don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” [15]

Instead of a conclusion: the exception, the rule and the promise

It was at such a breakneck pace that Puerto Rico arrived in the electoral year 2020, amid great uncertainty about an election in times of pandemic crisis. It’s so much so that the parties will not announce their candidates until next August. The elections decide who will manage a consolidated budget of almost twenty-five (25) billion dollars. Not exactly peanuts, in addition to being the source of high-flying strategies and quarrels between those who live on politics and those who depend on their decisions.

Some experts on electoral behavior predict that the Puerto Rican summer mobilization will not sway people’s support for the anti-establishment movement but it will account for growing voter apathy. By the logic of the tight two-party system prevailing in Puerto Rico, it would be the Popular Democratic Party (PPD)’s turn to win the elections in this cycle. However, the PPD has been considerably affected by the federal hostility toward both the colonial entelechy of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and any demand for self-government springing therefrom. Neither have its own acts of corruption and lack of an effective leadership capable of lending a new meaning to “autonomism” in the 21st century been a great help.

On the other hand, there are new cards on the table now with organizations like the Citizens’ Victory Movement (MVC) and Project Dignity. The ruling party has not announced its candidate yet. To this we must add the celebration of a plebiscite on statehood to seek the support of half a million voters who favor Puerto Rico’s federal integration. The Puerto Rican Independence Party keeps a high profile in the public debate and counts on a strong leader under its banner. It’s very difficult to predict election results in such a context.

On top of it all, fewer and fewer Puerto Ricans are going to the polls, a right which used to be a measure of their “democratic vocation” within the colonial structure. Puerto Rico is no longer one of the world’s jurisdictions with the highest voter turnout. Those who repeat the catchphrase prove themselves to be out of date with a Puerto Rican society that is always changing and reinventing itself. It’s all part of a dying mythology.

To make matters worse, there is also the impact of the earthquakes centered on the south-southwest of the Island since late 2019 and the worldwide pandemic that still keeps the archipelago at a standstill well into this dreadful 2020. Both topics have been the subject of and will deserve further examination. Both have also highlighted the continuing incompetent, politicking and, above all else, legal and illegal corrupt practices of the ruling elite in the two parties. The exhaustion of the economic model and their reluctance to give up the precepts of neoliberalism keep them bogged down in formulas, ever more unproductive, to encourage foreign investment, plunder budget management, and profit from U.S. funds transfers, more and more delayed each time and retained by a largely distrustful metropolis.

In 2019, according to the economist José Caraballo Cueto, all this halted a very brief economic recovery and, instead, sped up chronic unemployment:

On March 15 the local government decreed an unexpected and ill-conceived confinement which prevented hundreds of thousands of workers from receiving unemployment insurance. That is, some 392,000 workers plus another 93,000 already unemployed in February adds up to an unemployment rate of around 46%, almost five times higher than the 8.8% recorded in February.[16]

Furthermore, both the earthquakes and the pandemic have intensified, matured and diversified social solidarity in the last three years. However, although these events aggravated the aforesaid unemployment rate, the pandemic seems to have slowed down and even reverted, perhaps provisionally, people’s tendency to emigrate. All of this leads to the paradox that the title reflects: the dialectics between the exception and the rule.

Everything probably comes down to the risk of making generalizations. Seen through colonial eyes, Puerto Rico seems to be the exception to America’s increasing zeal for sovereignty and independence. From the viewpoint of the effects of neoliberalism and the hegemonic consolidation of the United States, it would seem that the exceptions are Cuba and Venezuela, if you like.

In the aftermath of the meteorological phenomenons and the pandemic, Puerto Rico looks exceptional vis-à-vis the United States and closer to Latin America and the Caribbean, to say nothing of the complexities of the uneven boom of social solidarity across the hemisphere. All told, the unpredictability that the pandemic and the rapid deterioration of the Trump Administration in the North throw into the picture makes us wonder about the risks of trying to envisage Puerto Rico in the near future. As stated before, those who claim to know what will happen are lying.

A big question mark hangs over whether these extreme circumstances will prompt the country to turn its back again on the electoral process in protest against the political class that let it down. The optimists trust in an electoral reactivation of the youth who demonstrated in the summer of 2019 in San Juan and several towns of the archipelago and the world. Seeing is believing.

However, the election, which has very real implications for public administration and the level of corruption, is not the important thing. What matters most is perhaps the ongoing emergence of pockets of resistance to traditional politics intended to build new socially empathetic capacities. It’s society’s mobilization to provide school lunch and prevent the most vulnerable groups from suffering hunger. It’s a protest in solidarity against the racism that prevails in the United States today. It’s about social solidarity in the middle of hurricanes, earthquakes and pandemics.

At the end of the day, it would seem that the Puerto Ricans say, “We have one another”. Even if we have to leave Puerto Rico physically in order to “breathe”, there’s a national attachment that always brings us back to the most profound loyalty to real patriotism. A new promise based on that social solidarity is in the making for Puerto Rico, a promise by no means consistent with the colonial entanglement which is always lying in wait. There are encouraging signs of its resurgence in twenty-first-century Puerto Rico.

[1] “El virus fue productivo”, El Nuevo Día, May 20, 2020, cover and pp. 4-5. See also: Notiuno, “Confirman Juan Maldonado y Robert Rodríguez serán referidos a las autoridades”. Available at: https://www.notiuno.com/noticias/gobierno-y-politica/el-virus-fue-productivo-revelan-mensajes-de-texto-tras-fallida-compra-pruebas-coronavirus/article_811bb85e-9a84-11ea-ace0-5740013d8125.html

[2] Edwin Melendez, “The Economics of PROMESA”, Centro Journal, Vol. 30, Issue 3. Rafael Bernabe, “El régimen de los acreedores y la crisis de la deuda: Aspectos del contexto general y el caso de Puerto Rico (2014-2016)”, REVISTA JURÍDICA UPR, Vol. 85, 832-856.

[3] EFE. “El gobernador de Puerto Rico reconoce que la deuda de la isla es ‘impagable’”, June 29, 2015. https://www.efe.com/efe/usa/puerto-rico/el-gobernador-de-puerto-rico-reconoce-que-la-deuda-isla-es-impagable/50000110-2651205

[4] The slogan was repeated in countless ways, from various non-profit trade advertising campaigns to hundreds of anonymous garments and posters in protest demonstrations.

[5] Frances Negrón-Muntaner, “The Emptying Island: Puerto Rican Expulsion in Post-Maria Time”, https://hemisphericinstitute.org/en/emisferica-14-1-expulsion/14-1-essays/the-emptying-island-puerto-rican-expulsion-in-post-maria-time.html. See also the interview that Frances Negrón Muntaner gave to Radio Universidad de Puerto Rico (WRTU), very revealing in this respect: https://www.mixcloud.com/radioupr/la-isla-que-se-vac%C3%ADa-conversaci%C3%B3n-con-frances-negr%C3%B3n-muntaner-200211/.

[6] Alfonso Fernández, “El huracán María causó en Puerto Rico 4 645 muertos, no los 64 ‘oficiales’”, https://www.paralanaturaleza.org/el-huracan-maria-causo-en-puerto-rico-4-645-muertos-no-los-64-oficiales/.

[7] Yara Maite Colón Rodríguez and Luz Marie Rodríguez López, “(O)ponerse donde sea: Escenarios combativos de la indignación”, 80 Grados, August 16, 2019. http://www.80grados.net/candidaturas-independientes-o-nuevos-movimientos/.

[8] Jürgen Habermas, “The concept of human dignity and the realistic utopia of human rights”, s» Diánoia, volume LV, No. 64 (May 2010): pp. 3–25. It’s a guiding principle of the Constitution of Puerto Rico and a central element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948.

[9] The shows of cultural nationalism, displayed this time through the deployment of single-star banners, sometimes included the multicolored flags of the LGTTBQ community and posters alluding to the fiscal crisis or the demands of various organized efforts such as the feminist movement. There was absolutely no presence of excluding nationalistic expressions.

[10] Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Derechos humanos, democracia y desarrollo, Bogotá: Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad, 2014. About the possible development of a movement opposed to ongoing neoliberal tendencies, see: Carlos Pabón, “Cómo gobierna el neoliberalismo: subjetividad y sentido común”, 80 grados, March 1, 2019. http://www.80grados.net/como-gobierna-el-neoliberalismo-subjetividad-y-sentido-comun/

[11] Félix Córdova Iturregui, “Un verano singular: la democracia en la calle”, Red Betances,

http://www.redbetances.com/component/content/article/51-en-portada/3354-2019-08-25-22-24-15.html. The Governor-elect’s name is Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, but he is also known as Ricky.

[12] This gave rise to the promising consideration in the United States of Puerto Rico’s national self-determination issue. See: Erin Cohan, “The Time Has Come for Progressives to Support Self-Determination for Puerto Rico”, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/news/2019/08/14/472857/time-come-progressives-support-self-determination-puerto-rico/.

[13] Yaritza Rivera Clemente, “Revelan cargos contra Ávila, Keleher y otros cuatro acusados”, El Vocero, July 10, 2019. See: https://www.elvocero.com/ley-y-orden/revelan-cargos-contra-vila-keleher-y-otros-cuatro-acusados/article_7e695a56-a31a-11e9-8f3e-3f833493e5b6.html.

[14] http://periodismoinvestigativo.com/.

[15] Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez, “Una ‘burla inaceptable’ lo que dijo Sobrino sobre los muertos de María,” El Vocero, July 16, 2019.

[16] Christian G. Ramos Segarra, “Puerto Rico sí experimentaba crecimiento económico”, El Vocero, May 8, 2020.


Traductor: Jesús Bran


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