After more than five centuries of subordination, Borinquen, Puerto Rico’s Taíno name which means Land of the Valiant Lord, is still riddled with contradictions and bad choices. It storms over the imposition of a Fiscal Control Board designed to take over the country’s financial squandering, and it takes to the streets in a passionate patriotic carnival-protest march to oust a governor for being both disrespectful and corrupt. And yet, it left everything unresolved with a substitute who is just a chip off the old block. Powerless to deal with basic matters, Borinquen focuses its energies on petty details, turning its wins in beauty pageants, sports events and show business into an ode to the flag. It excels in kicking up a fuss, but not in self-governance skills.
Trapped in a sort of existential confusion, it nevertheless clings to three major wishes: identity as a people, unsolicited self-governance rights, and access to the United States. It lives in a three-door cage, but each charges too heavy a toll. Independence would guarantee self-governance and national identity, but not access to the U.S. Accepting to be a state of the union would provide access to the North and participation in a sovereign government, but its identity as a people would become diluted. And living half-way down the road under its commonwealth status gives off glimmers of national identity and ensures access to the North but hides its non-empowerment behind a chimeric “bilateral agreement” and “self-governance”. Such a status allowed it to hoist its flag, but in the shadow of the other, and sing its national anthem, but with half-witted lyrics like “…a flowery garden of magical beauty”. Symbolically, it recovered the coat of arms with the lying-down lamb, the worst insult bequeathed by the Spaniards.
Where to go? We know now that independence was never an option as long as there were strategic naval and commercial interests at stake. We also know that joining the U.S. has always responded to a yearning for acceptance rather than love for a nation so alien to it. Furthermore, it overlooks the scorn of the spouse for which [Puerto Rico] was always a concubine, never a family member. And we know now that the intermediate regime granted to it was neither state nor free nor commonwealth status, but that of the classical courtesan, mollified with a new dress and a credit card she didn’t take long to overdraw.
Thus it entered the 21st century, hyper-indebted and tied with no bargaining power whatsoever to a long-term debt used for daily expenses, a flagrant breach of the rules of management. The financial crisis of 2008, which swept the world market away and blew any chance to refinance “junk” bonds, fell like a bombshell. It was left at the mercy of vulture investors who buy up financial papers at knockdown prices and demand in the courts to have its debts paid in full as per the Commonwealth’s constitution. The United States imposed the Fiscal Control Board to adjust public expenditures in order to balance the accounts and ride out a crisis serious enough to threaten the pension funds in that country. It’s the start of the bleeding.
Still unrecovered, September 2017 brought two hurricanes that steamrolled the island and, to cap it all, a string of earthquakes in 2019 squashed what little hope it kept cherishing of being bailed out.
And things grew worse. The fiscal, climatic and tectonic crisis caused the loss of legitimacy and the corrosion of the party structure, fueled even more blatant corruption, deeper contempt by the U.S., and the accelerated migration of young qualified Puerto Ricans. The departure of almost 25% of the population in the last two decades resulted in decreased economic activity and higher tax rates, all of which sped up the collapse.
Given the seriousness of the situation, the insensibility of their mentors, and the level of incompetence and corruption of their politicians, the Puerto Ricans themselves—spontaneously, without any gringos or politicians or anyone else telling them what to do—turned to their three historical wishes and unleashed a wave of self-defining solidarity. Some created and took the reins of a new economy based on self-management, while others left for the North.
The most tenacious redeemed old standards of economic self-sufficiency. Others who looked beyond the city walls, the beaches, the palm trees and the punctual post-disaster tourism, are now promoting an enterprising, scientific, medical and technological Puerto Rico eager to engage with the world. Meanwhile, the U.S., a traditional paradigm of balance and safety, copes with a crisis of bankruptcies of its own socio-political fabric, which confuses the Puerto Ricans who are neither part of nor understand this situation and unite both in a more tight-knit and renovated diaspora and in a more self-assured island. That’s how the exhaustion of the old centralist development strategies has paved the way for the prime source of innovation, emerged from an autonomous, democratic, groundbreaking and daring community organization reminiscent of a Borinquen unheard-of since the times of the Taínos. Hence the country ends up subjected to a Board unilaterally appointed by the U.S. Congress and dependent on an increasingly three-modal demography of senescent pensioners, enterprising youth and subsidized citizens.
Puerto Rico, its metropolis and its world have changed. The Empire no longer needs the naval bases that it once coveted. Indifferent to the concubine, it remains reluctant to make her part of its family as it shows signs of not knowing what to do about her. It is home to a diaspora of almost six million (versus some three in the island) with their own subculture, literature and music but who feel ferociously Puerto Rican. Next comes a Latin American and Caribbean context, still alien to them after so many years with their backs turned on it, and finally, a referent in Spain which is emotional rather than practical and a sentimental shelter from Americanization.
But in the meantime there are two immediate and in many ways comfortably complementary links to seize upon; others will follow. The Dominican Republic has been linked to Puerto Rico for a century since the former’s sugar cane interests cornered the latter’s economy. The other one is Cuba. Both islands kept economic and cultural links well into the 20th century after four centuries of relations interrupted by the 1898 raid.
The connection makes as much sense now as it did back in 1898. An example is their complementarity in agriculture and human and natural resources, as well as their common potential for tourism and their monitoring of trade routes from the Panama Canal to the Gulf ports, eastern U.S. and Europe. In light of the situation inherited from the 20th century, the dynamics of the 21st and the instrumentalization of the Caribbean diaspora, strengthening the Antillean fabric is not only appropriate but also indispensable.
Puerto Rico can become active within these contexts, unhurried as it decides in favor of Independence, annexation or free association. What it needs is courage, not permission. Because of the current threefold crisis (misgovernment, a burdensome debt, and natural disasters) its only choice is to lunge forward. When they stop it—if they ever do—then it will have to choose a side.