The Federal Oversight Board for Puerto Rico: A Blatant Act of Colonialism

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the 16th-century citadel overlooking San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico (Harvey Barrison/Flickr)

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the 16th-century citadel overlooking San Juan Bay in Puerto Rico (Harvey Barrison/Flickr)

The House Committee on Natural Resources has officially submitted their bill on Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring and it is everything everyone hoped for. Conservative elements on the island are welcoming the Fiscal Control Board while progressive elements, like the Puerto Rican Independence Party, have been denouncing the imposition of the Board as a colonial act and have again demanded that any action taken by Congress come paired with a real decolonization process.

H.R. 4900, called “the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act” —cynically referred to by its acronym as PROMESA which means “promise” in Spanish— establishes by order of Congress an Oversight Board for the island’s finances. It does not come with any process for the decolonization of the island, although it specifically states that it will not interfere with any process the island uses to work to redefine their political status.

Among its major points:

  • The provisions outlined in the act prevail over any general or specific laws of the territory that are inconsistent with the act
  • It states that although normally Oversight Boards are established after a request from a Legislature and signature by a Governor, in this case it is being established by order of Congress based on the powers Congress retains over the territories
  • Its 7 members are designated by the President of the United States in the following fashion:
    • 2 members from a list submitted by the Speaker of the House
      • One of these should be an island resident or own a business there
    • 2 members from a list submitted by the Senate Majority Leader
    • 1 member from a list submitted by the House Minority Leader
    • 1 member from a list submitted by the Senate Minority Leader
    • The Governor of Puerto Rico is an Ex-Oficio and Non-Voting member of the Board
  • Term of the Board Members is 3 years
  • They are not paid a salary, only reimbursed for expenses
  • They shall establish an office in the territory and anywhere else they deem necessary, and can used federal facilities for their functions
  • Their staff is to be paid ; pay does not have to be in accordance with island laws and practices
  • Federal agency staff may be detailed to assist the Board
  • The OB can administer oaths, require reports and data, and can subpoena
  • The OB can ensure enforcement of island laws that prohibit public sector employees from conducting strikes and lockouts
  • Island officials that offer false information to the OB can be prosecuted
  • The OB’s budget comes from the island’s budget; the OB submits their budget to the Governor who shall approve it; its use is the OB’s sole and exclusive discretion
  • Neither the Governor nor the Legislature may exercise control, supervision, oversight or review of the OB
  • The OB must approve a 5 year fiscal plan
    • During this process the Governor submits a plan for OB review
    • It may be deemed insufficient and returned to the Governor who then amends it
    • If the Governor does not comply with the OB’s requirements, the OB can g o ahead and create the Fiscal Plan and send it to the Governor and Legislature who then must approve it
  • Island budgets are subject to the same process
    • Governor and Legislature submit budgets to the OB, who may approve or disapprove in accordance with the overarching Fiscal Plan
    • If they cannot come to an agreement, the OB can designate the budget and the Legislature is directed to approve it.
    • If the Gov or Legislature wish to reprogram their budget it must be requested to the OB
  • If the territory passes laws contrary to the Fiscal Plan the OB can direct the territory to rescind the law or can act to prevent its enforcement
  • The OB will make recommendations regarding creation of employee performance standards, pension funding levels, staffing levels, etc
    • If the Gov does not accept recommendations he must justify this to the President and Congress
  • The minimum wage in Puerto Rico is held to $4.25/hr
  • The Secretary of the Interior can pass lands of the Conservation Zones to the Commonwealth of PR
  • The Government of Puerto Rico is considered to be:
    • The directors and officers and employees acting in official capacity on behalf of the govt of PR
    • The OB, its directors, officers, and employees
  • OB establishes a Revitalization Coordinator who is tasked with, among other things:
    • Facilitate change in energy dependency from oil to natural gas
    • Promote the development and utility of energy sources found on PR
    • Promote privatized generation sources in PR
    • Lower energy costs
    • The OB will send 4 nominees to the Gov for his selection
    • If the Gov does not appoint one, the OB will appoint this person
  • Focus on Expedited Permissibility for Critical Projects
    • Expedited Process for Permission for Critical Projects
    • Environmental review process included (PR-agency-based)
    • Local laws cannot interfere with this expedited process, to be reviewed by the Revitalization Coordinator; local agencies will be directed to comply and facilitate

A brief review of the functions of this Oversight Board confirms what island critics have been voicing. Although it states that it does not interfere in local governance, it basically runs roughshod over the local colonial government.

The Oversight Board, of whom the Governor of Puerto Rico will be a non-voting member, will directly dictate island economic priorities and economic revitalization projects. Anti-colonial activists will be quick to note that this Oversight Board will be considered an extension of the Commonwealth government, a modification of local government directly implemented from Washington, D.C.

The priorities and necessities visualized by the Board will quickly formulate the priorities and policy of the Commonwealth, especially if the Governor and local legislature are opposed to any of its measures or budgets, as it will be authorized to name personnel and approve budgets over their opposition.  And the Board will be tasked with enforcement of measures designed to prevent strikes or other means of opposition that public sector workers may undertake to reject their measures. There are serious concerns about impacts to public sector workers, union rights and the environment.

The Oversight Board is exactly what it is meant to have been: a humiliating takeover of local government, an American declaration of Puerto Rican incompetence, and an extreme and arrogant act of colonial supremacy.

American colonialism

For the Puerto Rican Left, it is no surprise. After all, federal repression of their pro-independence movement has been well established and documented, and their vocal condemnations of the Oversight Board have been once again sharply accurate.

Sadly, as has happened with the status issue, many sectors of the population are expressing belief that their island has not the capacity to correct its path and needs the expertise of the United States, showcasing once again that the colonial mentality, at one time artistically derided by the great Bob Marley, continues to have a stranglehold on the Puerto Rican identity and collective spirit.

A more dignified response by the United States would have been to recognized the disastrous effects colonization has had on the island, and institute a true decolonization process geared toward building the sovereignty and independence of the island (as the United Nations Decolonization Committee has demanded) with an economic stimulus and recovery component included in the transition.

It will be interesting to witness, however, the development of dissent on the island, as independence advocates such as the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the underground revolutionary group Los Macheteros —as well as the newly organized student groups— continue to express opposition and wage public protests. Inasmuch as the dignity of a people is defended, the fate of the wretched of earth is not yet sealed.

bandera de lares

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Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera is a social worker, professor, activist and writer currently based in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. He has done activist work with various organizations in New York and Puerto Rico and has contributed articles to online media such as Latino Rebels, La Respuesta, CounterPunchNY Latino JournalSocialism and Democracy, and the North American Congress in Latin America.

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