I watched and waited for two nights in vain as the Democratic Party candidates debated everything from health care to climate change and not once in the more than eight hours of chatter did the crisis in Puerto Rico come up. This erasure was not only infuriating and unfortunate, it was also a slap in the face to every Puerto Rican voter, especially to the hundreds of thousands who are peacefully protesting corruption and democratic reforms. During the last debate, one candidate, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, did mention Puerto Rico but only in passing during his opening statement, and not to seriously offer a proposal or policy plan. By all indicators the island is in flames and Puerto Ricans, myself included, know exactly who set the island on fire. Whether or not reporters asking questions and aspirants to the White House understand it or not—Puerto Rico is a fundamental presidential issue that must be addressed.
Underneath the conversation about Puerto Rico is the elephant in the room—American imperialism.
What the world is witnessing in Puerto Rico is democracy in action. Colonial subjects tired of the abuse —since the island was handed over from one losing empire Spain, to a rising one, America— took to the streets starting July 13 and have not stopped. They are demanding structural changes and real democracy which has been absent since Spain arrived in 1493, and since the Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898 handing over the territory.
American voters, including the 8 million Puerto Ricans, deserve and want to hear what presidential candidates have to say about the island. Core issues affecting the island such as the need for economic development, fixing infrastructure, educational and healthcare institutions, eradicating corruption, and climate change to name a few—need to be addressed at the highest levels of government in Congress and at the White House.
Anyone who is paying attention knows that Puerto Ricans, born U.S. citizens since 1917, are suffering. They have been for a while, but especially after the devastating hurricanes Irma and María in 2017. For too many, living on the island feels like being inside a pressure cooker. It’s not just a political and economic crisis, it is a looming humanitarian emergency.
Everywhere you look, there are catastrophic indicators.
Suicide rates continue to skyrocket. According to the Puerto Rico Department of Health, every 24 hours, a Puerto Rican commits suicide. By way of comparison, the world suicide rate is every 28 hours. And it’s not just suicide that is alarming, gender violence is also just as shocking. According to a report by the ACLU in 2012, per capita, the island leads the world in the number of women murdered by a domestic partner. According to feminist group Colectiva Feminista en Acción, one of many women’s organizations pushing for a declaration of a state of emergency due to gender violence, every 14 days a woman is killed by her partner. One of the last victims was a 13-year-old girl whose boyfriend doused her with gasoline then set her on fire.
When you consider that the Caribbean archipelago is tinier than Rhode Island and has a population of three and half million people—these numbers are unforgivable. Now citizens aren’t just pointing the finger just at La Fortaleza —where the governor lives— but they are beginning to point to Washington D.C.– where the island’s affairs are managed. They are accusing the U.S. government of methodical genocide. Given the alarming numbers, how could they not?
“What we are living is a systematic and deliberate killing of our people,” bristles Ruth Figueroa, a 25-year old university student and one of the millions of protesters demanding radical change.
The young feminist is from the Carolina neighborhood where Baseball Hall of Famer and humanitarian Roberto Clemente was born and raised. Since 2016, she and thousands of others have been protesting the Puerto Rico Oversight and Management and Economic Stability Act Board (PROMESA) known as La Junta on the island. The board, which was created by President Barack Obama and voted on by Congress, has pushed for austerity measures. She says the cuts and also, oppressive nature of the systems in place and ratified by D.C., are affecting her intimately. She could hardly afford to pay tuition because of the high cost of living on the tourist island even though she is single and works full time. Even more devastating, she has lost four friends to suicide in the last year alone.
She rightly points to the overseer: the island of Puerto Rico is under the jurisdiction of the Natural Resources Committee in Congress, which also oversees Native American reservations. When you look at alcoholism rates, violence against women, environmental abuses, depression, and suicide rates in Native populations in the U.S. and you compare them to what is happening in Puerto Rico, there is a clear pattern of neglect and abuse.
“What more proof does the world need to see to understand our dire situation?” asks Figueroa who is of African and Indigenous ancestry, two of the most invisible and also, marginalized communities on the island.
When I tell her that the island of my birth feels like a plantation when I visit or talk to my mother, friends, and family who live there, she expands. “Actually,” she says, “Puerto Rico is a reservation that is run like a plantation and the master is America.”
Precisely because Congress and the White House are overseers of the commonwealth, Presidential candidates must answer questions and release policies regarding the U.S. territory, which is also on the verge of a constitutional crisis.
I want to hear candidates debate imperialism and its after-effects. I want to hear the positions on the emancipation of an island that has been under colonial rule for more than one hundred twenty years. And yes, I want to hear about reparations to the millions who have been used as guinea pigs in experiments—everything from agent orange, cancer, tuberculosis, the contraceptive pill and the latest in the 1990s: opioids.
And then there is the issue of corruption, which is in plain sight.
The Center for Investigative Journalism published nearly 900 pages of the private chats that forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign after two weeks of daily protests. But while the messages between the governor and his closest allies were filled with profane, misogynist and homophobic slurs, behind the texts, the Center also found a multi-million dollar corruption network. Two of the governor’s allies on the chats include lobbyists Elías Sánchez, Roselló’s former roommate and employer, and communication’s manager, Edwin Miranda. Between the two men, they either received and or arranged for their clients to receive more than $1.3 billion dollars in government contracts. Some of the clients awarded contracts include Walgreens and Microsoft, U.S. corporations that don’t pay taxes thanks to lucrative loopholes.
The grift was large and happened as 30,000 families are still living under blue tarps, and almost two years after Hurricane María devastated the island. To this day, hundreds of Hurricane María’s bodies are in refrigerated wagons waiting to be reunited with their loved ones for proper burial.
Last week, amid the protests, citizens woke up to videos of aerial views of hundreds crates of water —destined for desperate hurricane survivors— dumped and abandoned in Dorado, a coastal municipality, which is also home to the minted billionaire class, many of who have taken advantage of Singapore-like tax loopholes that allow the wealthy to legally evade paying taxes.
Outgoing Governor Roselló also created more chaos when he named a former foe and member of the controversial La Junta, Pedro Pierluisi, as Secretary of State. He became governor at 5:01 pm on August 2, setting off another round of protests and also lawsuits challenging the legality.
This might explain why the protests go unabated.
Which brings me back to the Democratic debates held in Detroit last week and why imperialism must be debated by those running for the U.S. presidency.
Any aspiring president, Republican or Democrat, socialist or capitalist, Blue Dog or progressive, neo-liberal or conservative, will have to explain the Puerto Rican position if they want the Puerto Rican vote—sizable in battleground states such as Florida, Texas, and pivotal in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Republican President Donald J. Trump has already tweeted his position—and for once, he did not lie when he called the island government corrupt. What he did not tweet however was that this corruption is at his doorstep. The chair of La Junta, Jose Carrión, is a high-ranking member of Latinos for Trump, and also the brother-in-law of the newly minted governor, Pierluisi.
So far only three of the twenty aspirants Democratic candidates have shown some interest in Puerto Rico—Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro. However, none have presented a Puerto Rico plan to be discussed and debated.
Power4PR, a coalition of sixty organizations, allies, and leaders in the Puerto Rican diaspora, is demanding Democratic candidates to release comprehensive proposals.
“No candidate to date has released a comprehensive policy platform on Puerto Rico. That is unacceptable to the sixty organizations backing #ShowUsYourPRPolicy campaign,” said Erica Gonzalez, the coalition’s Director. “The eight million Puerto Ricans on the island and stateside demand to be heard.”
This is not only about votes, it’s also about moral responsibility.
Puerto Ricans have shown the desire for fundamental changes in governance and many of these will require Congressional action and presidential leadership. There are two issues, among dozens, that have been pointed out by protesters—cancelation of the $72 billion U.S. dollar debt and the repeal of the Jones Act.
Protesters demanding the cancelation of $72-billion debt deemed unpayable by the previous administration are correct. Why should islanders —myself included as a homeowner on the island— pay for a debt that I have no idea how it was accrued? Islanders believe that bonds were issued illegally and have been demanding an audit.
So far the Federal oversight board has refused to audit the debt. Instead, La Junta began pushing cuts all the while paying bondholders and leaving the island to suffer even more catastrophic cutbacks. The same board is racking up exorbitant fees at taxpayer expense. The salary of La Junta’s executive director is $625,000. On an island that is in bankruptcy and where the minimum wage is $7 an hour, the salary is grotesque. Taxpayers are left holding the tab.
Puerto Ricans are also calling for the repeal of the 1917 Jones Act, which ensures that only American ships are allowed to enter Puerto Rico and these ships must be built, crewed, and owned by American citizens. This is how you strangle an island. If a neighboring Dominican farmer, for example, living a 45-minute boat ride away wants to sell a Puerto Rican plantains at 25 cents each, the Jones Act prohibits the Dominican farmer from directly shipping the plantains to a port in P.R. Instead, the Dominican boat must sail twelve hundred miles away to Florida where the boxes will be removed and then placed back on an American owned, made, and crewed vessel, to return to the Caribbean. This is a twenty-five hundred-mile ride back and forth that could have taken a morning. Not only does the climate suffer in this exchange, so do the pockets of islanders. Those same plantains that initially cost 25 cents will end up costing islanders one dollar. Economists have rightly argued for decades that the antiquated maritime law enacted by Congress and signed by proud white supremacist Woodrow Wilson, is a hindrance to long term and sustainable economic growth. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to see who benefits. And also, who looses.
Since Congress passed the law and a U.S. President signed it, the devastating collateral damage of the empire is at the will of Congress and the President to fix it. This ancient law should not only be revisited but repealed. And why not debated?
There has not always been apathy toward America’s territories. Anti-imperialism was the main issue in the presidential elections of 1896 and 1900 according to Northwestern University historian Daniel Immerwahr. In his searing book about America’s colonies, How to Hide an Empire: A History of Greater the United States, he includes passages from the Democratic Party platform: “no nation can long endure half republic and half empire. Imperialism abroad will lead quickly and inevitably to despotism at home.”
One hundred twenty years later, imperial despotism thrives on the island of Puerto Rico and is allowed and sanctioned by a country that touts democracy. Imperialism is having a deleterious effect on the citizens of the island, which have fought in wars, and contributed in myriad ways to the health, wellbeing, and economy of the empire.
It’s time that presidential candidates begin talking honestly about its territories, and calling them for what they are—possessions whose economies were set up to extract resources, use is citizens as guinea pigs, and to legally evade taxes.
I watched the debates with my 17-year-old son who will be 18 years old before the 2020 presidential election. It will be the first time he votes. When I asked him who won the debates he said, “no one—they all lost, no one talked about Puerto Rico.”
My teen cares deeply about the island where his mom was born and where his grandma and grandpa, cousins, aunts, extended family and friends live. For him, a young voter, as well as for many other Puerto Rican voters of all ages, the island and its issues must be addressed by candidates if they want our votes.
In the 1900’s, the imperialist platform won. Anti-imperialism has not risen as a serious electoral issue. It’s time it rises again. What better case study to debate the effects of imperialism than Puerto Rico, America’s oldest colony?
The island is undergoing one of the most transformative moments since the United States took it over as war booty from Spain in 1898. The issues affecting Puerto Rico will require presidential and congressional vision and leadership. The citizens are engaged and participating. People have rightly lost faith in its leaders and they continue to demand transparency. There are plenty of talented leaders on the island that want a chance at constructing a new future, a clean way of governing, free of corruption, and with real democracy.
Turning away, ignoring, making deals behind closed doors, or appointing more federal monitors, has not worked. If the last eighteen days and counting of daily protests have shown anything, it’s that Puerto Ricans of all ages, tax brackets, races and ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations are furious at corruption, government infectiveness, and neglect at both local and federal level.
Not only do each of the aspirants have a responsibility to let voters know what their positions are on imperialism and Puerto Rico, but journalists and moderators have a duty to ask these questions and also hold candidates accountable.
Sandra Guzmán is an EMMY award-winning journalist, documentarian, and author of The New Latina’s Bible. She is a producer and lead interviewer in the film, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a bio-doc about the Nobel Prize-winning legendary African American writer, Toni Morrison, now in theaters. Follow Sandra at @mssandraguzman.