OPINION: Debt, God, and La Junta Colonialism in Puerto Rico

Aug 9, 2021
2:10 PM

A Puerto Rican flag flies on an empty beach at Ocean Park, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, he arrogantly claimed the Indies for the Spanish Crown and set out to achieve his two main objectives: spread Christianity and extract the riches of the islands (gold primarily). After almost 530 years, the colonization of the island that the natives called Borikén continues with a similar logic: the Christian cross on one hand and the pillaging of resources and wealth on the other. Earlier this spring, a “God, Puerto Rico, and Bankruptcy Law” op-ed in the Wall Street Journal written by David Skeel —the current Chairman of the imposed, colonial Oversight Board (a.k.a. “La Junta”)—  lays out a defense a modern debt peonage for Puerto Rico by twisting Christian notions of debt to stress compassion for creditors rather than debtors. As an anthropologist interested in the aftermath of colonization in the Americas, the historical and current religion-colonialism nexus of his discourse didn’t escape me.

Since its publication, the situation in Puerto Rico continues to become more fragile and precarious. The public electric utility has been privatized. The public education system, including the University of Puerto Rico, has been crippled with deep budget cuts. In early July, the Board threatened to sue the Puerto Rican government over a law to guarantee a dignified retirement. Just this past weekend, the Board extended the contract of its executive director Natalie Jaresko, keeping her annual salary at $625,000 per year. The Board continues to reveal who it really is: an undemocratic and unelected group of colonial emissaries.

As I continue to hear about Puerto Rico’s perilous situation, Skeel’s op-ed keeps echoing in my head for its glaring justification of the Board’s actions by cloaking them in biblical imagery. Skeel (who is a law professor) uses a narrow religious lens with apparently little awareness that his particular Christian prism is befitting a colonizer’s actions. He engages in a double morality discourse centered around debt and uses it to justify the pillaging of people and its resources while at the same time talking about having a (shallow) compassion for the people of Puerto Rico.

His rhetorical defense of repayment is not surprising because it reveals what late anthropologist David Graeber the moral perversions of debt.  In his now-classic book Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber touches upon the problem of defining debt and how it creates moral confusion of people simultaneously thinking (a) that paying back money that is borrowed is a matter of morality and (b) that anyone who is in the habit of lending money is evil (Graeber, page 9). As Graeber argues, debt is ultimately a moral question rather than an economic one. While modern debt originates with an economic transaction, it is overall a social relation that can be redefined by the parties involved. It can go from negotiating the terms of repayment to completely forgive debts.

Speaking of debt forgiveness, the Bible and Christian theology have a lot to say about debt. Skeel begins his op-ed highlighting how the issue of debt has been dealt with in the Bible and the Ancient World: from debt slavery, debt release after seven years, to the sweeping Biblical Jubilee after 49 years. He also draws on the New Testament and mentions how Jesus emphasized debt forgiveness as outlined in the principle “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” After this introduction, one would think that Skeel is going to argue for a sweeping Jubilee to forgive Puerto Rico’s debt. On the contrary, he suddenly shifts by making the audacious double morality claim that, although there are all these examples throughout the Bible of pardoning economic debt, they should not be seen as a “blueprint for bankruptcy legislation.” Instead, he pivots to a cherry-picked quote from one of the Psalms that declares, “The wicked borrows but does not pay back.” How telling when Skeel invokes wickedness in but does not place the blame on predatory hedge fund managers who knowingly preyed on Puerto Rico.

Although Skeel repeats the idea that the “Bible calls for compassion for those in financial distress,” he insists that it be applied “Only when someone truly can’t repay his debts.” As would a colonial adjudicator, he ignores that this is clearly the case of the people of Puerto Rico who are in financial distress, has not completely recovered from the effects of Hurricane María, and can’t repay.

Instead, his compassion is not with Puerto Ricans, but with the bondholders, stating: “The underlying objective is simple: to treat Puerto Rico’s creditors fairly while also reducing the debt to an amount the territory can afford to pay.” Sadly, to the Junta, the way to reduce the debt is to implement the same failed neoliberal policies of reducing social spending, privatizing services, raising taxes, and selling agricultural land and protected natural areas. These policies are cruel because they are born out not by those who “borrowed” or are “wicked” but by everyday Puerto Ricans, including future generations. And who are these creditors that he wants to treat fairly? Primarily vulture hedge funds, the ones that inflict more damage to the Puerto Rican economy according to many economists—including Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

Skeel concludes his op-ed by justifying his reappointment for another three-year term. Declaring he is willing to make a sacrifice because he is such a Good Samaritan, he’s not been paid, and is “the most Christian activity I’ve ever been involved in.” Followed by a delusional statement that “It has been a tremendous privilege to try to make the lives of three million American citizens a little better after years of economic distress.” On the contrary, what the Junta is doing is guaranteeing the misery of 3.5 million people for decades to come. Invoking Christian imagery while enabling the misery of the Puerto Rican people is about as nefarious as you can get.

Of course, not all of Puerto Rico’s woes can be blamed on La Junta. Skeel places the burden on politicians, which to a large extent is correct, but completely ignores the predatory aspects of the debt. The island was crippled by the gross mismanagement of the two ruling parties. In governor Pedro Pierluisi, the Board has found the perfect tool to accomplish the extraction of what little is left of common natural resources. It is because of the way local politicians handled Puerto Rico’s debt that it is so urgent to audit the debt.

It is time for Puerto Ricans to pick up the spirit of the Summer of 2019 and demand the end of the colonial Junta. There needs to be a serious auditing of the politicians responsible for this. If you are going to bring a Christian prism to understand debt, the only conclusion is that the people of Puerto Rico have suffered enough and deserve a sweeping Jubilee, a clean slate so that they can truly rebuild their economy from the ashes of the tragedies of the last few years. Otherwise, the cruel colonization that began with Columbus, will continue for decades to come.


José E. Martínez-Reyes, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Twitter: @JoseiStrummer.