Ninety years ago, labor leaders and legislators in Puerto Rico put forth an ambitious proposal that would begin significant improvements to many of the Island’s public services, including a sizable investment in energy independence. Driven in large part by the need to recover from a devastating hurricane, the plan quickly gained momentum and the much-needed changes, which would come in the form of a generous interest-free loan from Congress, were on the horizon.
We are still waiting on that loan.
The proposal, drafted in 1929 by the Puerto Rico-based affiliate to the American Federation of Labor, the Federación Libre, sought to break up local monopolies, empower workers, build a competent public education system, invest in renewable energy, and cancel the U.S. territory’s public debt. The Island was recovering from a devastating hurricane, San Felipe II, and was soon to be hit by one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in its history, 1932’s San Ciprián.
The Federación Libre’s political arm in Puerto Rico, the Socialist Party, had nearly ended the Liberal Party’s stranglehold over local politics in the 1928 elections. It would go on to achieve a legislative majority, together with the pro-statehood Republican Party, in the 1932 elections. Back then, the U.S. decided who governed its territorial possession, though it allowed for the direct election of a local legislature.
Despite years of lobbying Congress for that interest-free loan to fund the Federación’s proposal, the loan never came. It is entirely possible that it would have helped bring about changes that would have revamped key public services in Puerto Rico and made us more resilient in the face of natural disasters like Hurricane María in 2017.
But we will never know.
When it comes to Puerto Rico, forever my home and forever a bargaining chip for empires and foreign capital, I have always taken the long view. The climate crisis has made it so that I cannot afford to take the long view any longer. We simply would not survive it.
The urgency that the Sunrise Movement and emerging leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are bringing to a Green New Deal is nothing less than the absolute bare minimum. As I see it, a Green New Deal could bring about the rebirth of a labor movement in Puerto Rico, and the achievement of a form of economic independence long sought by its people.
Everyone in Puerto Rico agrees we should be at least as sovereign as a state of the U.S. We may not all agree on the value of total political independence for Puerto Rico, but I don’t know a single Puerto Rican who would object to higher incomes throughout the Island. This is especially true if it would eliminate our reliance on retail giants who pay poverty wages while taking their profits elsewhere and bring a much needed boost to our economy. The labor movement has as proven a record in achieving higher incomes as any alternative. There are few areas in the United States so sorely in need of a Green New Deal, but as often happens on issues that affect us, we have not been asked to the table or considered as part of this campaign. Hopefully, we will fix that.
Back in 1920, when the AFL sent a pair of researchers to survey working conditions on the Island, they described what they saw as a “living graveyard.” They reported back to the mainland that sugar barons like the Lafuentes, Giorgettis, and others, had successfully bought the local government and intimidated anyone sympathetic to the plight of workers under their domain. In their estimation, the governing Liberal Party and its cronies were responsible for working conditions because they stood in the way of sorely needed reforms. They compared the local establishment’s treatment of the working poor to pirates who once raided the seas of the West Indies. A leader of that Liberal Party, Luis Muñoz Marín, would go on to become Puerto Rico’s first democratically elected governor. The Socialist Party and its ideals would wither and die, as would the AFL’s interest in Puerto Rico. We have been a playground for American capital ever since.
Puerto Rico is 16 months into a sluggish hurricane recovery process. Of the $18.5 billion that Congress set aside for long-term rebuilding in Puerto Rico, we are yet to see a single goddamn penny. I, like many other Americans, am hanging my hopes on the House majority and its ability to make viable a Green New Deal and force Senate Republicans to go along or produce an alternative. It may well be the last chance Puerto Rico gets to honor the promise of justice long forgotten.
We’ve been waiting long enough.
Eduardo Soto is a former Hill staffer and current advocate for a transparent and participatory rebuilding process in post-María Puerto Rico. Born and raised in Cupey, Puerto Rico, he has lived in the District of Columbia since 2009. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of his employers, past or present. You can follow him on Twitter at @barelyamericano.