The White Man’s Burden in Puerto Rico

Dec 28, 2015
12:16 PM
San Juan, Puerto Rico (vxla/Flickr)

San Juan, Puerto Rico (vxla/Flickr)

This is how Peter Schroeder at The Hill summarizes Puerto Rico’s debt crisis:

Puerto Rico first raised the warning flag in June, when [Governor Alejandro] Garcia Padilla said publicly that the island would not be able to pay back all its debt. Years of a struggling economy, a shrinking population, and heavy borrowing has left the territory with a debt load of roughly $70 billion, and little revenue to pay it back.

Notice no mention is made of the more than 100 years of colonialism — not some minor detail. It’s as though Puerto Rico’s inability to decide its own fate were of no consequence and had no bearing on the current fiasco. Despite the fact that you cannot talk about Puerto Rico’s economy or its politics without using the word colony or colonialism, those words never make an appearance in this cute little report.

The article predictably uses the term “U.S. Commonwealth,” which is a lethal euphemism giving the impression that Puerto Rico is similar to modern-day Massachusetts, when in fact it’s more like its predecessor, Plymouth Bay Colony. The Obama administration continues argue that island’s official designation as a “commonwealth” since 1952 means absolutely nothing in terms of its sovereignty (or lack thereof). The mainstream media has decided never to use such a primitive word as colony when referring to Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands or the U.S. Virgin Islands, which would imply that the United States engages in primitive behavior and may be itself a primitive country — an impossible thought for citizens to have when they’re living in the greatest nation the world has ever had the privilege to know.

Plus calling the crisis in Puerto Rico by its proper name would require identifying the true culprits: the U.S. Congress and its bosses on Wall Street. The federal government, at the behest of hedge funds and other monied interests, has enacted laws meant to maximize profits for Wall Street while draining Puerto Rico of its natural and human resources. The past 117 years has seen Congress pass reforms seeking to increase the amount of wealth generated for bankers while shrinking the amount of power wielded by the people of Puerto Rico. It’s like tying a man’s hands to pick his pocket. In Puerto Rico, the United States has all the benefits of a populous and industrious 51st state, but with almost none of the costs of keeping its inhabitants happy and healthy. This, as any third-grade social-sciences teacher will tell you, is called “colonialism.”

There’s another word for colonialism, too: infantilization. The mainstream media loves to paint Puerto Ricans as immature adolescents incapable of managing their own finances. Sites like The Hill (but not only The Hill) mention “heavy borrowing,” inept leadership, and Puerto Rico’s inability to repay its debts. And while it’s true that the government of Puerto Rico seems to be run by children, a long series of U.S. policies have made it so. The United States — or, more accurately, its owners — have kept Puerto Rico in a state of childlike dependence in order to maintain the island’s defenselessness. It has never been part of U.S. interests to develop adequate government in Puerto Rico, because a Puerto Rico that could properly govern itself could then also free itself. And who wants that?


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.