Guillotines, Illusionism and Protest in Contemporary Puerto Rico

Jan 24, 2020
9:03 AM

Earlier this week, disdain toward Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez Garced seemed to reach its peak as protestors erected a life-sized guillotine in the Calle de la Resistencia.

The old Calle Fortaleza, which hosts Puerto Rico’s Governor’s Mansion, saw how hundreds demonstrated collective rage against Vázquez Garced’s after locals from the southern municipality of Ponce found a warehouse full of supplies dating back to October 2017, just a month after the devastating Hurricane María hit the archipelago. Amid police vigilance, these Puerto Ricans distributed the aid themselves as they voiced a new claim: it was not enough to demand the resignation of those in charge of disaster management, they needed to be held accountable and pay for their negligence with judiciary processes. #PresosTodos

The guillotine reappeared during a Thursday protest, which ended in reports of police using tear gas to disperse protesters.

As someone who studies protest in Puerto Rico, I was greatly surprised by the presence of a guillotine in this week’s actions. The guillotine, an instrument that dates to revolutionary France in the late 18th century, symbolized something more than a desire to see a negligent government prosecuted and incarcerated. The guillotine is a device of rapid execution that beheads those declared guilty of betraying their people. Its presence in the old Calle Fortaleza implied more than #PresosTodos. Considering the guillotine’s historical trajectory, one can argue that it showed a collective desire to have the lives of Puerto Rico’s political class pay for Hurricane María’s dead and the refugees of the earthquakes that devastated southwestern Puerto Rico the day after Día de Reyes 2020.

Little before the arrival of the guillotine to the Calle de la Resistencia, however, one of the most important figures of the #Verano19 surprised many members of the Puerto Rican intelligentsia and the archipelago’s activist circles. Rey Charlie, a community leader who led thousands of motorcycles to make massive demonstrations demanding the resignation of Governor Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló Nevares announced that he would not join the protests that seemed to grow after the warehouse’s discovery. Going against the growing radicalization of protest in the streets, Rey Charlie called for sensibility from his followers, questioning who would replace Governor Vázquez Garced and asking that Puerto Ricans focus on helping earthquake victims. Political change could wait until November, when Puerto Rico will vote for its local government alongside the U.S. presidential and state elections.

One of the most recognized figures of a summer that many consider revolutionary seemed to comply with the status quo as photos surfaced of Rey Charlie accompanied by Puerto Rico’s non-elected governor and Thomas Rivera Schatz, controversial president of the island’s Senate.

An analysis of the events occurring after the #Verano19 shows that Rey Charlie’s reactions to protests after the appearance of the warehouse fit his profile as a community leader in a Puerto Rico without movements that emphasize the archipelago population’s political education. The weak Puerto Rican state leads many to organize at the grassroots level, a tendency exemplified as caravans of cars arrived in the towns most affected by the earthquake to deliver aid purchased by individual citizens. But it is important to note that the crises that affect 21st-century Puerto Rico led to new, extra-state forms of organizing.

Autogestión (self-reliance or self-management) breaks the illusionary social contract that defined the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA, Commonwealth status) by exempting the government of taking responsibility for the well-being of its citizens. This leads resistance to become more focused on tangible goals, like opposition to specific leaders or issues, rather than going against the colonial status that limits the possibility of socioeconomic development in Puerto Rico. Even though Rey Charlie’s community leadership and his impact in the protests that ousted Rosselló Nevares are indisputable, his political postures ended up being misinterpreted thanks to the impetus and social changes caused by the mobilizations themselves.

In the 1970s the Union of Socialist Youths, a pro-independence student collective in the main University of Puerto Río Piedras campus, warned its fellow Federation of University Students for independence against the trap of falling into political illusionism. Seeing the difficulties encountered by the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, the Union of Socialist Youths called for a revolutionary struggle against the core of the colonial and capitalist systems imposed by the United States via the ELA. Illusionism permeated other parts of Puerto Rican social struggle amid diminished electoral support for pro-independence sectors and governmental repression toward workers’ struggles accompanied by accusations of corruption. Advanced sectors, accompanied by the microcosms of the intelligentsia, seemed satisfied with calling for independence via symbolic protests with interpretations that were not necessarily accessible to the Puerto Rican population at-large.

Hurricane María led to a halt in that illusionism. The devastation caused by a Category 5 storm made evident the disdain of the imperial metropole toward Puerto Rico and the inefficiency of its weak colonial state. Enhanced adversity, accompanied by years of autogestión and new organizational tendencies emerging from student and feminist collectives, led Puerto Ricans to the streets to demand Rosselló Nevares’ resignation during the #Verano19.

People march in San Juan on July 25, 2019, one day after the resignation of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares. (Photo by RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

It is our responsibility to reflect on those events without falling in the illusionism so criticized by the Union of Socialist Youths. Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and its consequences make high levels of political consciousness and actions with concrete effects necessary for the archipelago’s survival. Going beyond symbolism, we need to be inspired by the times during which the Puerto Rican independence movement organized in favor of specific causes with explicit demands.

We won struggles against mining in central Puerto Rico, in favor of bilingual schooling in New York City, and against the U.S. military in Culebra and Vieques. Let us go forward now to achieve the definitive end to the colonial status that perpetuates the suffering of our populations in the archipelago and the U.S. metropole.


Aura Jirau is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Pittsburgh. She studies mid-20th century Puerto Rican student activism and its connection to the archipelago’s independence movement and other forms of social mobilization. Twitter: @asjirau.