Time for Puerto Rico to Fly and Be Free

Apr 15, 2016
9:16 AM

“I suck the blood of your economy, drain your natural resources, make you a beggar poorer in thanks—make you defenseless, powerless, homeless, useless, speechless, foreign, more foreign, so foreign that you’ll lose touch with families and familiarities so that you’ll lose control of reality so that you’ll start hallucinating, wandering with no return address, nowhere to go, boundless, without a chain to your collar, worse than a house pet, a stray dog, in the air, like a bird, spaceless and without wings to fly.”
—Giannina Braschi, United States of Banana

Puerto_Rico_departamentos_1886I’m not Puerto Rican, not like my father’s parents were. I wasn’t born over there. I was born in Chicago, raised in Humboldt Park for a bit, then shipped out to the suburbs—the diaspora of the Diaspora. I’ve never been to the island. I don’t know all the words to La Borinqueña, though I’m much more familiar with the original (“¡Despierta, borinqueño/ que han dado la señal!/ ¡Despierta de ese sueño/ que es hora de luchar!”). I’ve never explored El Morro, never climbed El Yunque, never heard a coquí’s chirp. I don’t know what it’s like to be carolinense or ponceño, to grow up there, go to school there, work there, live there. I don’t know a lot of things about Puerto Rico, but I do know what’s arguably the most important fact there is to know: Puerto Rico isn’t free.

Puerto Rico is a colony. Everyone knows it, and yet everyone doesn’t know it. Or at least they choose to forget it. Puerto Ricans are the sleepwalkers of Latin America.

But Puerto Rico has its own government! cry most people.

Puerto Rico has its own government like a dog has its own bed (though Puerto Rico’s government has twice as many fleas).

The people of Puerto Rico are under the ultimate authority of the U.S. Congress, in which Puerto Ricans don’t have full representation; the U.S. government made that callously clear for over a century now.

But Puerto Rico has its own constitution!

It’s confusing, I know, but the 1952 constitution didn’t end Congress’s colonial rule over the island. This has been explained a thousand times by the likes of José Trías Monge, whose long résumé made him eminently qualified to sort out the mess: not only was he attorney general of Puerto Rico before he became chief justice, as one of the authors of the constitution, he’s one of the fathers of the so-called “Free Associated State.” But if you don’t believe him, then you have to believe Nicole Saharsky, the Obama administration lawyer who corrected Justices Sotomayor and Breyer on the nature of Puerto Rican self-government—which, as it turns out, is little more than that of a teenager who still receives an allowance.

Justice Sotomayor: Before 1952, Congress could veto Puerto Rico’s laws. It has relinquished that right.

Ms. Saharsky: I don’t think that that’s right, and … it’s just not consistent with the Territory Clause of the Constitution. …

Justice Breyer: It’s very interesting what you’re saying. Remember, though, one of the provisions of the Puerto Rico Constitution, which Congress approved and said it was a republican form of government, is that criminal actions shall be conducted in the name and by the authority of the people of Puerto Rico. Now, that sounds like a delegation of authority as to source, to go back to the Spanish system if they want. Now, if I take your view, then I guess you have to say ­­– and it has considerable implication ­­– that that doesn’t matter because Congress can take back what they gave. Now, is that the position of the government or the executive branch? Because that has tremendous implication. …

Ms. Saharsky: Well, two responses to that question. The first, I think, is the first part of your question: this statement in the Puerto Rico Constitution that the authority to prosecute comes from the people of Puerto Rico and that it’s in the name of the people of Puerto Rico. That’s been true since 1900. That was in the 1900 Organic Act; that was true in 1917. Puerto Rico is not claiming that it was a sovereign then. So I would not rely on that. But the second and, obviously, more weighty question you raised is the question of could ­­Congress revise the arrangements it has with Puerto Rico? And we think the answer is yes.

A colony, by definition, cannot be said to have proper control of its economy and finances, and it’s no different with Puerto Rico, an island which has to import and export all of its goods on U.S.-built, U.S.-owned and U.S.-operated ships. In the beginning, following the invasion at Guánica, Puerto Rico was almost exclusively the realm of sugar barons. Charles Herbert Allen, a Massachusetts politician and former prison commissioner, became the first civilian governor of Puerto Rico in 1900, and for the next 16 months dedicated his efforts to transforming the island into cash cow by cutting expenditures, raising taxes on the people and giving concessions to the sugar monopoly. Education and social services were slashed and the overall plight of the people went ignored by the colonial government since, as Albizu Campos put it, “the Yankees wanted the birdcage without the birds.”

Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist Party, speaks to striking sugar cane workers in Guyama, Puerto Rico in 1934 (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños/Hunter College/CUNY)

Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist Party, speaks to striking sugar cane workers in Guyama, Puerto Rico in 1934 (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños/Hunter College/CUNY)

The pilfering of Puerto Rico was abetted by an 11-member Executive Council, six of whom were North Americans. All six were department heads —including treasurer, the attorney general and the secretary of education— while the five Puerto Ricans played only token roles on the council. Upon resigning, Governor Allen became a Wall Street financier for the infamous House of Morgan and, by 1913, was president of the American Sugar Refining Company, controlling 98 percent of the U.S. sugar refining industry. By 1930, the “Sugar Trust” owned a quarter of all arable land in Puerto Rico, as well as its postal service, most of the railroads and the puerto rico of San Juan.

(Allen in Lowell, MA)

(Allen in Lowell, MA)

Sugar’s dominance combined with the other various monopolies placed Puerto Rico’s economy on a precipice, and when the price of sugar dropped at the start of the Great Depression, the Jenga tower came crashing down. The tower had never been very towering to begin with, as a number of hurricanes struck the island in the three decades preceding Black Tuesday, causing severe losses in terms of property, crops, infrastructure, and that other asset—human lives.

The collapse of the sugar market and the lead-up to World War II brought industrialization and urbanization, and later, Operation Bootstrap. A lack of jobs was interpreted by the elite as a population problem, requiring the forced sterilization of at least a third of all Puerto Rican women of childbearing age by 1965. This coincided with a mass exodus from the island, with as many as 75,000 Puerto Ricans fleeing their homeland in 1953, when the island’s population was a little over two million. The loss of so much human potential has amounted to a second robbery committed against Puerto Rico, one which has been more devastating than the economic theft. First they emptied Puerto Rico’s wallet, then they siphoned off its soul.

The year 1953 is doubly significant as it’s the same year in which the U.S. government affirmed to the United Nations that, due to its newly granted constitution, Puerto Rico was now self-governing and no longer a colonial possession. This was a lie, as Ms. Saharsky explained before the Supreme Court earlier this year. Approved by Congress, which maintained control over the island, the constitution wrapped Puerto Rico in the terms “Commonwealth” and “Free Associated State,” though these were merely euphemisms disguising the same old colonialism. There’s nothing “common” about the wealth generated in Puerto Rico, and to describe Puerto Ricans as “free” in any sense is an abuse of the word and the people. The political status of Puerto Rico is pregnant with such pretenses: citizenship, self-government, elections, governor, democracy.

Even the term Puerto Rican is a misnomer, since everything and everybody on, under and around the island belongs to the United States. Nothing in Puerto Rico is Puerto Rican.

Washington’s Bootstrap program failed to lift Puerto Ricans out of poverty. Manufacturing, which had replaced agriculture as Puerto Rico’s main economic sector, failed to live up to the hype, causing another wave of job losses. But instead of strengthening the social safety net and retooling the economy of Puerto Rico so that it benefited the people of Puerto Rico instead of the profiteers, the U.S. government did the exact opposite, applying even more “free”-market reforms to attract outside investors. The elimination of corporate taxes and others —except those applying to the vast majority of the population— signaled a renovation of the Wall Street playground that was and is Puerto Rico. In this way, the colonizers looked to ensure that, if anyone were taken care of in Puerto Rico, it would be the business elites.

Children who were begging for pennies in the market in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1942 (C. Thomas Anderson/Flickr)

Children who were begging for pennies in the market in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1942 (C. Thomas Anderson/Flickr)

Despite what most people would have you believe, Puerto Ricans pay taxes—a lot, actually. In 2009, three years into the island’s depression, the U.S. Treasury Department filched more than $3.7 billion from Puerto Rico’s taxpayers. Puerto Ricans pay into Social Security and Medicare, while receiving only a fraction of what they would were Puerto Rico a state. At 11.5 percent, Puerto Rico also has the highest sales tax in the United States. Imposing obscenely high taxes on a people who then aren’t provided the services to which their taxes entitle them amounts to yet another, double-robbery: not to mention the fact that, since Congress has the power of taxation and is the supreme authority in Puerto Rico, the people of Puerto Rico are being taxed without representation.

In the midst of the current crises, there’s a tendency to place most, if not all of the blame on the Puerto Rican people and the Puerto Rican government. But, again, there is no such thing as a Puerto Rican government. Alejandro García Padilla is the colonial governor of Puerto Rico much as John Winthrop was governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: elected by his fellow citizens, but answering to a higher, unelected power across the sea.

Critics claim the insular government precipitated the collapse of Puerto Rico through corruption and general mismanagement, but keep in mind that the governors and legislators of Puerto Rico work under the auspices of the U.S. government. The insular government can do nothing of which the federal government disapproves, and the only thing the feds sanction is the draining of Puerto Rico’s resources. Puerto Rico’s politicians are merely colonial overseers, a cadre of accomplices, bagmen, taskmasters and getaway drivers whose sole function is to make sure the decades-long plunder continues unabated. They administer the anticoagulant that allows Wall Street’s bloodsuckers to have their fill.

Enter Congress’s proposed oversight board. Just hours before it honored Puerto Rico’s famed 65th Infantry Regiment, the U.S. House dishonored the Borinqueneers and their people by introducing the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, otherwise known as PROMESA (as in, “I promise this won’t sting too much”). The act would create a federal oversight board that would effectively usurp whatever responsibilities Congress has delegated to San Juan. The board —whose seven members would be appointed by the president and leaders in Congress, and of which only one member would either have residency or a business headquartered on the island— would be in charge of Puerto Rico’s economy and finances. Governor García Padilla, nominally the head of government in Puerto Rico, would be an eighth, non-voting observer on the board (just as Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi is a non-voting member in the House).

Alejandro García Padilla (Photo via US Dept of Labor)

Alejandro García Padilla (Photo via US Dept of Labor)

The board’s primary goal will be to pay back Puerto Rico’s debt—or, more accurately, the debt created in Puerto Rico by the U.S. government. Any law or action taken by the Puerto Rican government that conflicted with the board’s mandate would be automatically scrapped. Mainly the board will function as example for the Puerto Rican people on how to effectively and efficiently govern, since, as one House speaker candidly averred, “the people of Porto Rico have not the slightest conception of self-government.” (I omit the specifics of who uttered this and when on purpose; such details are trivial.)

This is what colonialism looks like. A distant power subjugates an entire society, passes laws that increase corporate profits made on the backs of the people in the form of public debt, and when the people collapse under such a heavy load, the distant power makes the people pay for the load before they can even attempt to stand. Thus, the birds are forced to pay for their cage.

I may not be a real Puerto Rican in the eyes of many islanders, but I’m thankful every day I’m not in their shoes. As a black Latino living in the United States, perhaps I’m no freer than them, but at least I can pretend. The Puerto Rican people are afforded no such illusions, however. They feel the yoke constantly around their necks and the lash of the whip on their backs; their chains are unadorned and cold. Where as actual U.S. citizens follow federal elections anxiously, to a Puerto Rican, which party controls which branch of government in Washington is of little importance (as well it should be for U.S. voters, but I digress). Such matters being beyond their control, Puerto Ricans no more worry about who will be the next president than whether the sun will rise in the morning. In fact, there is no morning for a Puerto Rican—only night.

(Ricardo Mangual/Flickr)

(Ricardo Mangual/Flickr)

And yet, the people of Puerto Rico continue to delude themselves by believing their precious little island might one day be the 51st state, or that becoming a state is something they should wish for, or that somehow they can make their oppression more tolerable in the interim by modifying the current status. That many slaves cling to their own shackles is a sad feature of the master-slave relationship, as the master’s justification for his authority leads the slave to justify his own enslavement. This is what Malcolm X described when he distinguished between a “Field Negro” and a “House Negro:” the first runs away from his master, while the second runs toward him; the first relies on himself, the second relies on his captor. For over a century, the U.S. master class has treated the people of Puerto Rico as the help, and implemented policies meant to foster an entire society of House Negroes. How will Puerto Rico succeed without the United States? it’s often asked. What will Puerto Ricans do with independence? The answer is simple: whatever they decide.

Still, if history shows us anything, it’s that the U.S. government doesn’t free its slaves without a fight. Puerto Rican Nationalists were beaten, imprisoned and killed for simply mentioning independence, and their leader, Albizu Campos, was tortured to death. Owning a Puerto Rican flag or humming a patriotic tune was made a treasonable offense in 1948. The towns of Jayuya and Utuado were bombed two years later. Oscar López Rivera and other leaders of the FALN were imprisoned for launching an armed struggle for liberation. In September 23, 2005, the anniversary of the Grito de Lares, the “Responsable General” of the Macheteros was killed by a hail of FBI bullets at his home in Hormigueros—just another dead terrorist in the eyes of the U.S. government. More terrorism has been committed against the Puerto Rican people, however, than by them.


Puerto Rican independence is no longer an option.

It’s the only option.

And if the U.S. government won’t grant Puerto Ricans the basic political, economic and social liberties that are the birthright of all human beings, if the Puerto Rican people aren’t allowed to govern themselves from the bottom to the top, if Congress insists on tightening the colonial chains by imposing an oversight board that dilutes the little self-government Puerto Rico pretends to have, then the people of Puerto Rico must do whatever is in their power to secure their liberation and establish a true democracy in their homeland. Theirs too is the right to insurrection, the right to overthrow unresponsive government, as outlined by the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, and the U.S. Declaration of Independence nearly two centuries earlier, which states unequivocally (absorb the words in bold, please):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness [emphasis mine].

The right to insurrection is a founding principle of the United States. Many a patriot has faced the executioner for exercising this right, from Nathan Hale to John Brown—who, on the morning of his hanging, wrote that he was “now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson and Douglass were early champions of Brown and his sanguinary campaign, and they certainly weren’t the last to consider Brown an American hero. Likewise, though the U.S. government has labeled Don Pedro, Lebrón, López Rivera and Ojeda Ríos as violent criminals, their names have long been committed to the Puerto Rican pantheon.

Now, after over a century of polemics, the time for talk is dead. While the pen may be mightier than the machete, it’s completely useless as a defensive weapon. An army of writers and debaters can easily be mowed down by a few well-armed Marines. The people of Puerto Rico are at war, one which they’ve tried to dismiss, but one which has been waged against them nonetheless. They’ve been invaded, robbed, extorted and silenced. They are a caged iguaca that has forgotten how to sing or fly—starved, plucked, rattled. But fly they must, or risk becoming helpless penguins, or worse: dodos.

The people of Puerto Rico are entitled to no more and no less than what is owed to all people—namely, the right to self-determination, to live under a government of the Puerto Rican people, by the Puerto Rican people and for the Puerto Rican people. It is the same right being fought for from Chiapas to Kurdistan. It is the right demanded by the people of Barcelona, Bilboa, Glasgow, Gaza, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Hong Kong, Bajo Aguán, Bluefields, Araucanía, São Paulo, Pu`uhonua O Waimanalo and Lakotah. It’s why citizens have gathered and marched in Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston, Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore and New York City, why the U.S. public is currently consumed by a contentious election season. Because people everywhere understand that, if you have no say in the governing of the society in which you live, if you aren’t an actor but are instead being acted upon, if you’re not a subject but are treated as an object, then you aren’t free.

You are a slave.

bandera de lares

I may not know much about Puerto Rico, but I know what its people must do.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and journalist. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.