The people of Puerto Rico are marching today. Twenty-five thousand are marching through the streets of the capital city, joined by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. (“We have a moral obligation to stand with our fellow Americans as they call on the Federal Government to help the island’s economy,” reads a statement released by the mayor’s office.) The protest is the same, age-old protest of Puerto Rico: the one against economic injustice and political servitude.
Puerto Rico has been in crisis for a long time — not since the start of its recession in 2006 as the newspapers claim, or since its tax exemption laws began to be phased out in 1996 as its politicians argue. Its troubles didn’t begin with the U.S.-controlled industrialization during the middle of the last century, or the U.S.-revised constitution of 1952, which makes a mockery of the word commonwealth. It didn’t start when sugar barons made much of the island their private property, or when the Supreme Court deemed Puerto Ricans “savage” and “uncivilized,” and thus not suited for American democracy. Puerto Rico’s woes began with the invasion of its rights — first by Spain in 1509, and then by the United States almost 400 years later.
Now the people of Puerto Rico suffer under a rate of poverty twice as high as the poorest U.S. state. The official unemployment rate is above 12 percent (though it’s probably double that figure), and the island faces $73 billion in unpayable debt. Unequal treatment by Washington sees Puerto Rico receive only a fraction of federal spending on health care compared to what the states are given, and that spending is set to be slashed next year just as federal spending for the states is scheduled to increase.
But instead of pressuring the U.S. government to clean up the mess it has made in Puerto Rico, colonial leaders have decided to saddle the Puerto Rican people with the burden by closing schools, firing public employees, raising taxes and cutting services. Ultimately, while the U.S. government and Wall Street have profited from the colonization of Puerto Rico, it’s the people of Puerto Rico who are forced to foot the bill.
As an independentista born and raised on the mainland, I always placed Puerto Rico’s political status question above all else. I was wrong. Though I’m still convinced that Puerto Rico can only resolve its many issues once and for all through independence, that’s merely a long-term goal, out somewhere along the horizon. The people of Puerto Rico need to see changes now.
On Tuesday the renowned Puerto Rican scholar and 2012 gubernatorial candidate for the island’s Working People’s Party, Rafael Bernabe, appeared on Democracy Now! to discuss the current (centuries-old) crises. When asked by host Amy Goodman about Puerto Rico’s political status, Bernabe said:
I favor independence. In fact, I am a socialist. I think that, ultimately, the solutions to the problems of Puerto Rico, and not only Puerto Rico, require transforming our society in a radical transformation. But the workers’ party, the Working People’s Party, is not for independence or a socialist party, because we think, at this stage, working people in Puerto Rico — whether you are for independence, you are for statehood or you are for autonomy — we have to get together, as working people, in order to stop these austerity measures … We cannot wait ’til independence or statehood or any change of status. And these austerity measures are going to affect working people regardless of their status preference.
Puerto Rico’s main problems — the debt crisis, the economic crisis, the health care crisis and colonialism — are all working-class issues. And they always have been. (I’d say I hate sounding like a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, but I don’t hate it in the least.) The extraction of crops and the creation of special tax laws have mostly benefited the elites in San Juan and Wall Street. The rapid industrialization and urbanization of Puerto Rican society have depressed wages and, because there were not enough factory jobs to go around on the island, have flooded mainland cities with cheap labor, which in turn has helped to keep wages low in the States. It’s just like those goddamn Commie bastards have been telling us all along: you can’t screw workers over there without screwing workers over here.
Puerto Rico’s working class must stand together to confront the corporate elites looking to make money off Puerto Rico instead of for Puerto Rico, a small group which so far has combined its forces to exploit the island’s natural and human resources. Puerto Ricans must also call on their elected leaders to do everything in their powers to defend the rights and interests of the people. The government in San Juan can no longer simply throw up its hands and kowtow to colonial mandates. If Puerto Rico’s two ruling political parties refuse to fight for the people of Puerto Rico, then the people must fight them.
The people of Puerto Rico are marching. So, to quote an old pinko ballad, “which side are you on?”
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.