Upon discovering an online forum in which myriad government officials employed sexist and homophobic language, the people of Puerto Rico took to the streets this weekend to demand the removal of Governor Rosselló.
On Monday evening, the State responded with thugs in riot gear launching tear gas into the crowd that had amassed at the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza. While some scattered, others continued to resist, chanting “¡Somos más, y no tenemos miedo!” (“There are more of us, and we are not afraid!”). The State clamped down even harder, deploying pepper spray and– when that, too, failed to break up the crowd– firing rubber bullets.
Still, many demonstrators held their ground, spraying graffiti, setting fire to trash bins, and clashing with police while pushing closer and closer to the mansion. Posters and signs displayed the number 4,645: the number of people, according to a Harvard study, who may have died after Hurricane Maria of causes related to the storm’s chaotic aftermath.
While two of his underlings, Secretary of State Luis Rivera Marin and Chief Financial Officer Christian Sobrino, have resigned since the forum was discovered, Rosselló refuses to leave office and instead asks demonstrators for “forgiveness.”
The infuriating fact of the matter is that this is but the latest in a stream of offenses that the people of Puerto Rico have been expected to forgive. Even while limiting oneself to the period of time in which Rosselló has served in the Puerto Rican government, one finds that the people have had to endure his callous approach to the recovery effort after two devastating back-to-back hurricanes– first Hurricane Irma, then Hurricane Maria about two weeks later– ravaged the island in 2017. Rosselló undertook austerity measures that deprived communities of millions of dollars and wreaked havoc on education, housing, agriculture, and other essential programs and services.
The previous year, as Puerto Rico’s debt crisis (which is due, in no small part, to the actions of the U.S. Empire, as will be explored shortly) reached a fevered pitch, the people of Puerto Rico suffered the indignity of the passage of PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act). This act handed a despicable amount of authority over the island’s planning and use of resources to an appointed board based on the mainland U.S. and comprised mainly of non-Puerto Rican bankers and financial consultants. Seldom are colonial institutions of the twenty-first century installed so brazenly, without even a semblance of cooperation with the indigenous population of a colony being offered. The best such semblance the U.S. Empire could muster in this case was to appoint several people with Hispanic/Latinx surnames to this board.
There exist both a symbolic and a pragmatic facet to the horror that is PROMESA. Symbolically, it sends the message that the people of Puerto Rico cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves; they are too corrupt and too irrational to get anything done, and so it is up to a council of benevolent settlers to help steer these poor, lost natives in the right direction. Pragmatically, it results in ruthless budget-slashing designed to facilitate the swift repayment of Puerto Rico’s debt without any regard whatsoever for the consequences such actions will force upon the people of the island. A staggering 179 schools were set to close on the island in May 2017, with decisions about which schools should stay open and which should close being made by people who have never once set foot in any of them. Funding for Puerto Rico’s main public university has been thoroughly gutted, while critical health services for Puerto Rico’s poorest residents perpetually face the chopping block.
The socioeconomic circumstances that ultimately brought about this weekend’s confrontations are symptoms suffered by the very frog who has been boiling since at least the late twentieth century, when Puerto Ricans fought to end the U.S. military’s presence in, and experimental use of, Vieques. Off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, the island of Vieques, known to Puerto Ricans as “la Isla Nena” (The Little-Girl Island), was used by the U.S. Navy for bomb testing from the 1940s through 2001. The consequences of this testing have been at once far-reaching and devastating. For starters, in acquiring the land, the U.S. government displaced 9,000 residents, squeezing them into the middle quarter of the island while occupying the remaining three. This takeover disrupted the economic life of a largely self-sufficient island and created economic dependency on the Navy.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. began to reassess its presence at various bases around the world. The people of Vieques hoped that the two Navy sites on the island would be among those closed. When Vieques was not included on the list, the grassroots movement was revitalized in its fight to evict the U.S. Navy and return control of the island to Puerto Ricans.
People acting as human shields were able to stop military maneuvers for a year by scaling fences and traveling by boat to occupy military sites.
Although the Comite por Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques (Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, CPRDV) and others protested the U.S. Navy’s presence on the island throughout the 1990s, it was not until a major accident in April 1999 that the campaign began to gain wider support. On April 19, 1999, David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian security guard, was killed when two F-18 jets misfired two 500-pound bombs. Within a year of his death, fourteen protest camps had been established in Vieques and at other naval sites in Puerto Rico. People acting as human shields were able to stop military maneuvers for a year by scaling fences and traveling by boat to occupy military sites. The Alianza de Mujeres Viequenses (Vieques Women’s Alliance, AMV), which had formed in May 1999 in response to Rodriguez’s death, organized demonstrations at the gates of the Navy bases on Vieques, banging pots and pans and distributing white ribbons.
It was a series of escalating direct actions such as these, coupled with solidarity actions taken on the U.S. mainland, that ultimately compelled President Bush to order the U.S. Navy out of Vieques in 2003, after which the federal government began clearing the three-quarters of Vieques that had been occupied by the Navy. As of 2013, ten years into the effort, over $180 million had been spent, while the Navy admitted that it will take until 2025 to remove all of the environmental devastation caused by its occupation of the island.
Between 1990 and 1992, the Navy dumped approximately 1,100 barrels of toxic waste in the coral reefs off the southern coast of Vieques. In August 1999, the EPA declared that the Navy had committed 102 violations of the Clean Water Act for releasing pollutants into Vieques waters. More than 80 million pounds of chemical weapons, bombs, and ammunition were dropped on the eastern portion of the island during the U.S. Navy’s sixty-plus-year occupation.
As of 2011, Viequenses still struggled with 30% higher cancer rates, 381% higher rates of hypertension, 95% higher rates of cirrhosis of the liver, and 41% higher rates of diabetes than other Puerto Ricans. Studies by Puerto Rican scientists have found 34% of residents with toxic levels of mercury, 55% contaminated with lead, and 69% with arsenic. In an interview in October 2012, Myrna Pagan, a long-term resident of the island whose husband was battling cancer, said, “I have nine grandchildren, and all of them have respiratory problems.” The situation is so dire that an editorial in Puerto Rico’s main daily, El Nuevo Día, called it a crime against humanity.
High rates of disease and illness in any population naturally yield negative economic consequences. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that 73% of Viequenses live below the poverty line, while wealthy white Americans who only live there for part of the year are counted among those above that line. In the midst of few employment opportunities, the young and educated often leave Vieques to find work elsewhere, while the cost of basic goods on Vieques ranges from 15-33% higher than on Puerto Rico proper. The Report of the Special Commission on Vieques, published in 1999, declared that after environmental impact, the restriction and stagnation of the island’s economic development has been the greatest impact of the Navy upon the island.
Colonialism is a malevolent practice that must be abolished.
Thus, the seeds of the current debt crisis, for which the U.S. Empire now deploys words like “corruption” and “mismanagement” to blame Puerto Ricans themselves, were sown. The U.S. Empire, in myriad ways, created the very poverty for which it now seeks to punish Puerto Rico– just as it has in every other region within reach of its colonial clutches.
Rosselló, ever the loyal stooge, is unabashedly in favor of Puerto Rican statehood. He has said that “Colonialism is not an option…It’s a civil rights issue…The time will come in which the United States has to respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy.” When divorced from his political position, these words hold a fair amount of truth: colonialism is not an option, but a malevolent practice that must be abolished; the time will come for the U.S. to reckon with Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million inhabitants, but will they all seek to become a part of U.S.-style democracy?
This weekend’s events suggest otherwise.