Operation Bootstrap Redux

May 18, 2016
10:03 AM
A homeless man on the steps of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Hernan Bustelo/Flickr)

A homeless man on the steps of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Hernan Bustelo/Flickr)

A version of this article first appeared on Gozamos.

On Monday Chicago’s WBEZ told the story of Alex Sierra Negrón, a 35-year-old opiate addict who died homeless and alone on the city’s West Side less than two years after being sent from his native Puerto Rico with the promise of kicking his addiction. It’s the first follow-up in months to the station’s report on the practice of shipping addicts from the island to Chicago where they’re dumped into shady rehab centers providing little except rat-infested rooms and smelly mattresses.

Negron’s story in Chicago began at a 24-hour group therapy residence on the West Side, like the ones WBEZ  reported on last year. These programs, housed in storefronts or other buildings, function as unofficial treatment centers and temporary shelters for addicts, unlicensed and out of the regulatory eye of state agencies. Many people who’ve gone to these programs have told WBEZ that the people in charge were often ex-addicts, who did not provide medical treatment, confiscated their identifying documents, abused them verbally and forced them to crowd into dirty rooms where they slept on mattresses on the floor.

Back in April of last year, WBEZ ran an exposé by Back of the Yards journalist Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, who was first tipped off by an influx of homeless people in her neighborhood, many of whom she discovered had been sent from Puerto Rico for treatment.

They were promised a great rehab place, with over-the-top services and plenty of medical staff. One of them is Angel, a short and dark-skinned man. He’s missing most of his top teeth. He said he came to Chicago from Puerto Rico seven years ago for help kicking a heroin addiction.

‘Somebody told my family is one rehab in Chicago got nurse, got pool, got medication, when I get here I no see nothing,’ he said.

Angel said that when he landed in Chicago he was met at the airport and taken to a place that definitely had no pool. That place didn’t have social workers or doctors. Instead, it was just a rundown building with other addicts trying to stay clean, sleeping on dirty mattresses on the floor, going cold turkey.

Other guys told me something that was hard to believe. They said that it was the police in Puerto Rico who had driven them to the airport and put them on the plane to Chicago.

And the one-way plane ticket? Some of the men said if someone didn’t have the resources to travel, their mayor or some other local official would help buy them a ticket.

It seems fitting that Puerto Rico would export its sick and destitute to the mainland, considering it has already been forced to offload many of its most educated and skilled citizens, along with the lion’s share of its dollars. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, after all, and has been for nearly 118 years (or a little longer than the Cubs’ last World Series win). During that time, the U.S. government has facilitated what amounts to the physical, economic and spiritual plunder of Puerto Rico — at the behest of U.S. business interests — by employing bureaucratic minions on the island to ensure the transfer of as much of Puerto Rico’s riches as can be siphoned through the once rich port of San Juan. If the colonial government wants to prop up an elite circle of winners in Puerto Rico, then it should be made to confront the vast ocean of losers into which its policies keep pouring buckets.

Plus Puerto Rico has well known history of shipping its human wealth to the mainland. When the U.S. government shifted shifted the island’s economy from agriculture to industry beginning in the 1930s, the newly defunct jíbaros flooded cities like San Juan and Ponce in search of good-paying, American jobs of the future. What they encountered, however, was rampant jobless and homelessness, both endemic to the urban garden tended by capitalism. “Operation Bootstrap had two goals — modernizing the island and addressing the putative ‘overpopulation’ problem,” writes Professor Lilia Fernández, author of Brown in the Windy City:

As U.S. economic policies failed to solve the unemployment problem, focus soon turned to the population itself. Officials began conjecturing that it was not a lack of employment but an oversupply of people that caused the island’s problems. Puerto Rican women were held largely responsible for high fertility rates. The population needed to be dispersed in some way and population growth controlled. The temporary migrant of workers (i.e., the separation of families) could theoretically slow population growth by delaying marriage or reproduction. Their migration as well as widespread sterilization campaigns promised to control the island’s alleged overpopulation. … Siphoning off some of the island’s unemployed assuaged the problem of providing jobs for so many.

Perhaps a similar solution should be carried out in every other Latin American country victimized by U.S. capitalism, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Just as the Clinton administration deported known gang members back to their home countries in Central America without notifying their governments, maybe an effort should be made to ship to the United States every Latin American who can blame most of their existence on U.S. machinations in the region — every man, woman and child who is homeless or jobless, or without food or medicine; every maranarco or transportista kills for money; every crooked police officer, soldier or politician who kills for order; every money launder; every guilty banker or lawyer; and every agro-industrialist who attacks indigenous communities in order to further destroy the paradise. It’s only fair, since the United States gets all of the benefits of imperialism — the money, the goods and services, the drugs — while avoiding many of the unwanted social byproducts, namely fear and hopeless.

I realize such a solution would only confirm the claim made by Donald Trump and others that Mexico and the rest of Latin America are “not sending their best,” but instead “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems” in the form of “drugs,” “crime,” and even “rapists.” Yet, where do the “drugs,” “crime” and “rapists” come from? There’s nothing unique about the people in Honduras or the air in Mexico to suggest Hondurans and Mexicans are natural born killers. But there is something unique about how Honduras and Mexico have been treated by their large, powerful, rich, greedy, scheming neighbor to the north which leads at least this observer to conclude that the epidemics of violent crime and drugs in Latin America are largely the result of systemic instability created and maintained by over a century of U.S. policies. Latin American countries sending poor addicts to the United States isn’t them sending us their problems; it’s them sending us the problems the U.S. government has made for them.

I’m not seriously proposing that the governments of Latin America start purposely shipping over members of the “surplus population” (as Dickens’ notorious miser puts it). For one, removing a destitute addict from his homeland only adds to his misery. If you’re going to be a broke junkie, might as well stay in familiar surroundings. Few people are willing to board a plane and leave home for some foreign land — especially when home is a tropical island with a vibrant culture like Puerto Rico.

But having the still colonized areas of Latin America send north their citizens whom they don’t have enough resources to provide for is a much fairer policy than simply leaving Latin America to clean up the messes constantly furnished by the United States. The addicts in Puerto Rico and the maras in Honduras are Made in the U.S.A. as much as any fleece hoodie from American Apparel. Borders matter little to the multinational corporations when they exploit labor and natural resources regardless of political, cultural or natural boundaries, or when massive profits are funneled into offshore bank accounts. Borders don’t matter when it comes to corporate profits, or drone strikes. So why do borders still matter when it comes to the social costs of empire?


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