Following a week-long series of devastating earthquakes, along with President Trump’s vociferous reluctance to approve a sufficient aid plan in a timely manner and the recent discovery of seven warehouses full of undelivered aid from Hurricane María, Puerto Rico will surely become a talking point in this current news cycle and also during the 2020 election.
Whether it is because of the President’s prior ill-informed comments on the debt crisis, corruption patterns, or his unwillingness to address human suffering appropriately, Trump has pushed much of the Puerto Rican diaspora away from the Republican Party’s electoral base, providing Democrats with an easy demographic to pander to. Yet despite these opportunities to address Puerto Rico’s recurrent economic and environmental problems head-on, Democrats have done little to even give lip-service to Puerto Rico’s woes, presumably because their donors benefit from the island’s economic and political subjugation. It’s time for the Puerto Rican diaspora to stop playing politics with Democrats and demand solutions that are sustainable for our nation. It’s time we demand an end to colonialism and begin a conversation about reparations.
The argument is simple, but the narrative not so much. Puerto Ricans have been subjected to US colonial rule for over 120 years following the Spanish American War (1898). In the span of this time period, Congress has created innumerable opportunities for U.S. corporations to exploit the island, tax-exempt, for cheap, skilled labor while simultaneously monopolizing the island’s markets. The result has been a lack of public investment, providing government technocrats with few options to develop the island without emitting unsustainable bonds for future generations to pay for. Then burdened by a 100-year-old shipping monopoly via the Jones Act of 1920, Puerto Rico has been provided few opportunities to bring down the price of goods via competition, making basic food staples excessively more expensive than they are in the U.S.
Consequently, migratory waves to the U.S. followed, depriving the island of much of its talent. Now, Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. amount to a little over 5 million, with the island retaining a declining population of approximately 3.4 million. These longeval migratory patterns forged a gradual diminishment of the island’s tax base, impeding debt repayment possibilities on a $73-billion-dollar balance, thus perpetuating public cuts to essential services. Congress in turn has responded in the most inhumane of ways: by appointing a fiscal oversight board to ensure debt repayment, forcing local politicians to abide by harmful austerity “recommendations” which included the closing of roughly 300 public schools, the sale of valuable, revenue-making public assets, and pension cuts among many other harmful measures. As a result, poverty and mental health crises have become endemic to the island, as the island’s productive possibilities and population dwindles. It is important to notes that the votes to establish this board in 2015 were bipartisan, and happened during the end of the Obama administration.
To add insult to injury, Puerto Rico’s ability to respond to these injustices within U.S. political institutions is virtually null due to the island’s lack of voting representation in Congress. Statehood movements have proven incapable of confronting U.S. imperialism out of fear that the special interests that govern and benefit from the island’s colonial status will turn on them. In this sense, as colonially induced underdevelopment has undermined the island’s ability to respond to natural disasters, it’s only “natural” that Puerto Ricans demand aid and an adequate response from the federal government. Yet once again, the President, along with the two dominating political parties, have done virtually nothing to mitigate the disaster they helped create. The only way for Puerto Ricans to break this cycle of abuse is to demand an end to colonial subjugation, and a just compensation for robing the island and its people of a future.
While decolonization and reparations sound like radical ideas, they are only deemed so because they upset U.S. corporate monopolies that lobby Congress and represent just and sustainable solutions for the island’s economic and political woes. In this sense, it’s not in Congress’s interest that Puerto Rico become independent, as U.S. shipping, pharmaceutical, retail, and bond market interests all lobby Congress and benefit from this objectively disparate and harmful relationship. Puerto Rico’s insertion into the international community however would provide it with diplomatic and economic possibilities historically foreign to the island, allowing it to compete in a global economy. Also, a better provision of public goods and services can be attained through a more equitable tax system that favors Puerto Rico’s interests over U.S. corporations who have left the island with little to show for in terms of infrastructural and institutional development. Furthermore, decolonization can also help mitigate corruption problems nascent from the ambiguous political relationship that Congress has promoted in consonance with the two hegemonic colonial parties (the pro-statehood PNP and the pro-commonwealth PPD).
Comparatively, while reparations may seem like a hard sell to Americans, it might come as a lighter conversation, given that it’s easier for politicians to talk about payouts for “past” injustices than it is for them to address for example, current Congressional impositions like the fiscal oversight board.
Calculating and explaining what reparations would look like may be a little more complicated, but it’s a conversation that helps redirect the political discourse: We are not a people who need help. We are a people who have been wronged and demand justice. That said, for these two demands to become a reality, the Puerto Rican diaspora must hold politician’s feet to the fire. Those playing politics with the Democrats would have their interests better served in demanding that the party take concrete steps towards decolonization and reparations rather than accepting the Democrats’ blatant pandering that Puerto Ricans are “Americans” and “deserve better.”
We are not “Americans” for any dignified reason. We are colonial subjects that have been robbed of a future on our own land, and now demand that it be returned.
Jenaro Alberto Abraham II is a PhD student at the Department of Political Science at Tulane University. He tweets from @JenaroAbraham.