Puerto Rico has been on many people’s minds lately. At least since September 2017, when Hurricane María swept Puerto Rico into the forefront of international media outlets. This sudden surge in interest, however, remains limited in scope and understanding. Even the outrage and solidarity from the island’s allies remain limited in scope and understanding. As the Puerto Rican Diaspora has led the charge calling for recovery funding, it has done so by shaping the narrative, calling us “Americans.”
Puerto Rico has been governed under colonial status since 1493, when Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the island and began decimating its indigenous Arawak population, the Taínos. Since the 1700s, islanders considered themselves “Puertorriqueños/Puertorriqueñas”, having slowly established a distinct national identity, which expressed leaning towards freedom and independence, with notable pro-independence uprisings since the early 1800s.
This culminated in the fabled 1868 Grito de Lares uprising, and after the American invasion of 1898, the Nationalist Uprising of 1950, which was then followed by a series of clandestine revolutionary organizations that attacked American military targets as well as corporations from the 1960s until the 1980s. Puerto Rico clamored for the release of the jailed political prisoners from the 1930s through 2017 when Puerto Rican patriot Oscar López Rivera was finally released from federal prison. The island also witnessed major protests and disturbances, when in 2005 the FBI assassinated renowned clandestine independence fighter Filiberto Ojeda Rios, who was the leader of the Macheteros, a revolutionary organization waging armed struggle for the independence of the island. This after the already contentious struggle to liberate Vieques island from Navy bombings after the bombing death of civilian David Sanes in 1999, which led to the base closures in 2003.
There is a rich history of nationhood that exists in Puerto Rico, as well as a long history of radical political activism. The independence movement, however, has suffered severe repression from both American governmental agencies as well as colonial government police forces from the time of the invasion unto this day, according to many activists. This included a Gag Law in 1948, which made it illegal to speak of independence or even owning the Puerto Rican flag, leading to blacklisting and outlawing of activists, people losing jobs, homes, and later on, to activists being attacked, bombed and killed by right-wing death squads.
Bigotry Against Independence Activists
To this day, bigotry rears its ugliness in Puerto Rico against anyone identifying as pro-independence, and this is seen in its weak electoral support. Independence activists today complain that their access to media outlets is severely limited, and media reporting deeply biased against them. In fact, the fear and manipulation has led to an increase in support for statehood on the island, as many heed the claims of pro-statehood politicians who believe that statehood would mean an economic safety net provided by the United States.
Many have fallen for this undignified and twisted vision of the future.
While radical forces attempted to provoke a political change, other more mainstream forces also worked to change the island’s political status. Political parties, marches, meetings, referenda, Congressional hearings, and UN Committee hearings have all been held regarding the colonial status of the island.
Nothing has changed.
This history serves as a backdrop for many of the positions being adopted today regarding Puerto Rico’s debt and its political status.
More often than not, we continue to hear a growing chorus supporting the elimination of the island’s debt, as well as supporting other positions traditionally held by the pro-independence sector, such as the elimination of the Jones Act’s maritime statutes. Activists are also calling to protect the University of Puerto Rico from devastating budget cuts as well as a range of environmental issues and campaigns being waged on the island, including community struggles against:
- toxic carbon ash dumping in Peñuelas from the AES carbon burning facility in Guayama
- the privatization of beaches and shorefronts including the community of Rincón’s fight against a mega hotel and casino being planned for the waterfront in that town, despite the horrific destruction witnessed on those shores after Hurricane María
- the proliferation of cell towers in residential areas, especially the town of Aguada’s fight against a tower being forced upon the community of Barrio Cruces by the Innovatel/TowerSEc company
- the US Navy’s insistence on open-air detonation of bombs that are still being found in Vieques, which results in toxic material being blown over the island once again
Many other community struggles and campaigns being waged across the island, which has even provoked “Los Macheteros,” Puerto Rico’s underground armed revolutionary organization, to resurface with a statement on April 14, 2019, calling for massive protests against austerity measures.
Sadly, although more recent statements for self-determination are welcome, the growing calls for debt cancellation and congressional support for the island’s recovery are being made with a disturbing and racist tendency that will only erase the island’s identity and replace it with terms many people in the United States find more appealing: “Americans,” “fellow Americans,” “American residents in Puerto Rico.” We’ve seen this from American politicians and from Diaspora activists and organizations alike. Amazingly, even progressive activists and politicians (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) have demonstrated this hurtful tendency, which was borne of Puerto Rico’s extremely conservative right-wing: the pro-statehood sector, known to use public funds for lobbying efforts shaping this language and narrative.
Each day that goes by where we turn our backs on Puerto Rico + Hurricane María, we are choosing to starve American people.
We are choosing to starve our own citizens, simply because of where *in our own country* they were born.
If we do it here, where could it happen next? https://t.co/2pJt5Qi7R3
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 12, 2019
This trend towards erasing one national identity and replacing it with another which would be deemed more appealing in the eyes of Americans and Congress, as well as taking it one step further and supporting statehood for Puerto Rico based on those notions, is racist. It denies the validity of our own national identity, which precedes that of the United States. It also erases our cultural and linguistic identity, presumably because as Puerto Ricans we are not worthy of help, support and sympathy, but as Americans we would be. American exceptionalism is a racist notion in the colonies, even more today with a white supremacist presidential administration.
Puerto Ricans in the United States, or the Diaspora, many times refer to themselves as both Puerto Ricans and Americans.
However, Puerto Rico —the archipelago— is a nation It has been for centuries. It, sadly, has also been under the control of foreign countries during that time. Most of the world recognizes that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. The UN Decolonization Committee, tasked with decolonizing territories around the world, continues to call upon the UN General Assembly to take up Puerto Rico’s case once again and move us into a decolonization process marked by self- determination and independence.
The colonial status of the island is an international issue that requires the observation and application of human rights. We are not Americans clamoring for American civil rights, and hence statehood. That is not historically appropriate. To view it as such is to propagate and reinforce a colonial vision over the island.
Puerto Rico needs and deserves to enter into a process whereby its people are free to make their own decisions over their homeland, their future, and their economic well-being. These decisions should not come from Washington, D.C., but from a country that makes decisions based on its own well-being and prosperity. Evidence of this is its imposition of the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board, which is tasked with restructuring Puerto Rico’s finances in order to identify and preserve payments for the $72 billion debt holders without regard for islanders’ quality of life, education, environment, and safety. Austerity is a death sentence for Puerto Rico, a cruelty bestowed upon an already colonially exploited country.
It is time we recognize that the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico is part and parcel of its colonial problem. Any political status that relegates Puerto Ricans to a state of dependence and beggary —be it economic or political and which includes the commonwealth and statehood alike— are merely new versions of colonialism.
It is time for the United States to stop blocking the UN General Assembly from reviewing this case and allow it to supervise a correct and true process of decolonization in accordance with its Resolution 1514 and international law.
On the roads and mountains of Puerto Rico, you can still see broken utility poles and old power lines littering the roadways. The remnants of Hurricane María still haunt us. What is more haunting, however, is the impending devastation being wrought upon its people by a merciless austerity being imposed by a colonial power that does not recognize nor value their humanity.
It is high time we change the discourse, correct our perceptions of the colonized Nation of Puerto Rico, and advocate for true justice and international human rights for its people.
Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera is a social worker, professor, and activist based in Puerto Rico and has contributed to Latino Rebels, CounterPunch, and NACLA.