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As VP Harris Visits Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans Call for End to US Colonialism

Vice President Kamala Harris is visiting Puerto Rico during a week marking the abolition of slavery and a massacre.

Vice President Kamala Harris makes her way to board a plane before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on June 14, 2021.

Vice President Kamala Harris is on her way to Puerto Rico, which is marking two historic events this week: the abolition of slavery and a United States-backed massacre that left 21 Puerto Ricans dead.

Decades before the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico and made it a U.S. colony, slavery was abolished on March 22, 1873. It was freedom on paper: Many enslaved Black people were forced to work an additional three years for their masters, and slaveholders had to be compensated for their “losses.”

While this Emancipation Day is celebrated every year, Puerto Ricans continue to wrestle with systemic racism and colorism. The watchdog group Kilómetro Cero reported that in measuring the use of police force from 2014-2020, the mortality rate for residents of racially diverse and poor neighborhoods was more than double than that of those who live in white and poor communities.

The police force on the archipelago (Puerto Rico is a system of islands) also has a legacy of political repression, in step with federal agencies.

On March 21, 1937, Puerto Rican nationalists assembled for a peaceful march on Palm Sunday in the city of Ponce to commemorate the abolition of slavery and protest the imprisonment of their leader, Pedro Albizu Campos. Like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, then U.S.-appointed Gov. Blanton Winship saw Puerto Rican independence activists and groups as a threat to U.S. economic and military control of the island. On his watch, local police fired at and brutalized the marchers, with 21 killed, nearly all civilians, and 200 wounded. A U.S. commission found that Winship lied about marchers initiating the violence, but he was never prosecuted for that or for reportedly ordering the Ponce massacre.

The violence of white supremacy and its iterations today, and the violence against pro-independence advocates have been constants, whether under Spanish or U.S. rule. And so has the resistance to racism and colonialism, oppressive systems that are linked and fuel each other. Throughout much of the 19th century, enslaved and free Black Puerto Ricans were revolting against the brutality of dehumanization and pressing for true liberation, and abolitionists were also struggling for the independence of Puerto Rico.

Will Vice President Harris — whose parents were from Jamaica and India, which not that long ago were both under the foot of British colonialism — speak to these events and the colonial system? Will the U.S. repair the lasting harm from the FBI’s dirty war on Puerto Ricans who criticized U.S. colonial rule?

What is far more likely is that Harris will tout what the Biden administration has done for Puerto Rico, like introducing an energy resilience fund. Yet, the administration has doubled down on unfair and arbitrary policies, like upholding a Trump-era Department of Justice challenge on a Supplemental Security Income case, which denied that benefit to a Puerto Rican living in the Island; and reaffirming support for shipping restrictions imposed on Puerto Rico under the Jones Act that make essential goods more expensive. Even though the Biden-Harris platform included action on the unelected fiscal board imposing austerity on Puerto Rico, that colonial junta remains firmly in place, with President Biden recently adding another Wall Streeter to the board.

The administration also supports a deeply problematic status bill in Congress.

Being Clear About What Decolonization Must Entail

Self-determination and decolonization must be fair and transparent. Yet, the Puerto Rico Status Act (PRSA) being pushed in Congress eliminated a people’s status convention that had been on the table and would have facilitated a bilateral dialogue between Puerto Rican delegates and a congressional commission. The PRSA astoundingly leaves out a lot of critical information, including on the question of Spanish as the controlling language of schools, government and courts in a statehood scenario; whether the imposed maritime restrictions would end; and if the waves of mega-rich Americans gentrifying the island will be allowed to participate in a referendum.

Imagine if the discussion was about another nation’s government omitting information for a status referendum or imposing an unwanted, untransparent, and unelected board for seven years that is dismantling public institutions. Pundits on U.S. news shows would be quickly calling out the anti-democratic nature of it.

This is not lost on the 6 million diasporicans stateside. In the last presidential cycle, Boricuas were critical in coalition votes in states like Pennsylvania. For many of us, what happens here and to Puerto Rico matters, as evident from the mobilization of stateside Boricuas after Hurricane Maria and in response to protests to oust former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019. Among our deepest concerns is the protection of the identity, culture, language, and land our ancestors and families have sacrificed so much for. Many of us are here to begin with because of forced migrations endemic to colonialism.

At election times, presidential candidates attempt to portray themselves as the better choice for Puerto Ricans when the reality is that U.S. leaders, operating through the colonial elite, have been harmful to Puerto Rico since 1898. U.S. colonial impositions have also been inflicted on Pacific Islanders of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and “American” Samoa. In the “U.S.” Virgin Islands, a massive refinery serving U.S. consumers for decades has left all kinds of contamination and alarming health effects on Crucians.

The failure of Americans to confront U.S. colonialism furthers it. Americans can and should usher the U.S. into a post-colonial era, instead of it continuing to dominate the lives and decisions of Caribbean and Pacific Island peoples, a shameful injustice for the last 126 years. Decolonization does not revolve around Puerto Ricans being able to vote for U.S. president. That’s a default U.S. narrative. We must demand that elected representatives in Congress withhold support from any legislation offering status referendums built on incomplete or tilted language. A genuine decolonization process would center those directly impacted — the Puerto Rican people, not political parties — and clearly answer upfront the implications, and transition involved, in the range of status options so that Puerto Ricans can make a fully informed decision on what their future would look like.

We’ve had 126 years of U.S. administrations positioning the colonies for outcomes that benefit external corporations and political agendas. True decolonization is people-up and transparent, and that is what progressives should be rallying for.

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