Puerto Rican Fight Lives On in People’s Assemblies Locally and in Diaspora

Mainstream media outlets in the U.S. have turned their attention away from Puerto Rico since the massive popular protests that forced former Gov. Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló to leave office in early August. However, the energy behind the political uprising hasn’t faded away. Instead, that energy continues to grow and is now being channeled into asambleas de pueblo — people’s assemblies — a new form of political engagement that is drawing Puerto Ricans from across the political spectrum, and throughout the archipelago and diaspora, into a movement that has the potential to transform Puerto Rican society and politics in the long term, far beyond deposing any particular politician.

The first people’s assembly, which brought together nearly 80 participants, was organized in mid-July in Ponce, some 40 miles to the southwest of San Juan, the epicenter of the massive protests that began in response to the release of Telegram chats between Rosselló and his political cronies in which they mocked and disparaged the people who they were supposed to serve. The assembly in Ponce was organized in part to allow people who had no way of getting to San Juan to participate in the important events that were happening in their country. The assembly’s organizers, including students from the local campus of the University of Puerto Rico, were also responding to an emergent question on the minds of Puerto Ricans participating in and witnessing the protests: “What will happen after Ricky resigns?”

The relative neglect of Puerto Rico by the mainstream media may make it seem that the mass protests came out of nowhere, but the problems that drove Puerto Ricans into the streets this summer didn’t start with Rosselló, nor have they ended with him. Likewise, years of political organizing in Puerto Rico preceded and laid the groundwork for the July protests and are now giving strength to the burgeoning people’s assemblies.

Creating Democratic Spaces to Bring True Change to Puerto Rico

The assemblies are convened with the intention to provide a truly participatory, horizontal and democratic space where people can share their concerns, voice their frustrations and fears, and present and collaborate on proposals to address the many struggles and obstacles facing Puerto Ricans in the archipelago and beyond. Some assemblies have begun to form committees to work on the major issues that have emerged in the course of these conversations.

The assembly agendas are set and driven by the participants, though they have tended to coalesce around common themes:

  • An audit of the massive Puerto Rican national debt, which many assert is largely unconstitutional and should be canceled or repaid by the actual responsible parties, corrupt politicians and opportunistic financiers, rather than by the people of Puerto Rico;
  • The dissolution of the Fiscal Control Board, which was installed to restructure the debt and ensure it is repaid in full, no matter the human cost. Installed by the Obama administration and derisively called “la Junta” in Puerto Rico, the Board is largely seen as illegitimate and not invested in the interests of most Puerto Ricans;
  • The fight against corruption at all levels of government, from local governments all the way up through the U.S. federal system that ultimately oversees politics in the commonwealth;
  • The need for a new Puerto Rican constitution and new forms of government that better serve democracy;
  • Severe problems facing public education, from elementary school to the public university system;
  • And the ongoing struggles being waged by feminist organizations and LGBTQ+ communities against the high levels of violence against women, queer people and trans people.

Less prevalent in these assemblies are debates about which status relative to the United States — statehood or the current commonwealth — would best serve Puerto Rico, a question which is the main distinguishing factor between the two parties that have dominated Puerto Rican politics for decades. While the two major parties focus primarily on the question of status, the assemblies are focused on the problems that affect the daily lives of Puerto Ricans, many of which stem from the colonial condition that would remain intact given either of the two parties’ options for resolving Puerto Rico’s status.

The People’s Assemblies Spread

Since the first assembly in Ponce, more assemblies have taken place in communities across Puerto Rico, including San Juan, Mayagüez, Carolina, Caguas, Bayamón, Lares and Luquillo. Many of these communities have already hosted multiple assemblies, some occurring weekly, with more planned in the coming weeks and months. And true to the increasingly diasporic nature of the Puerto Rican people, the assemblies have rapidly spread beyond the Puerto Rican archipelago, with events occurring and being planned in New York City, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay area. There have even been asambleas telefónicas, conference calls designed to connect people from the Puerto Rican diaspora in different regions with each other and with people in Puerto Rico.

Ana Portnoy Brimmer is a poet and activist living in Newark, New Jersey, and is a member of the communications committees for the assemblies in Luquillo and Mayagüez, her hometown. Brimmer describes the assemblies as “a strategic transition from the protests that overthrew Rosselló towards reflection, collective reorganization, and the creation of spaces based on participatory democracy with the purpose of developing agendas for local and national struggles.”

The assemblies are not being organized by any one organization, though many longstanding organizing bodies are helping with the work: Centros de Apoyo Mutuo, Comedores Sociales, Comuna Antilla, Jornada: Se Acabaron Las Promesas, Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, and El Frente Independista Boricua in New York, among many other groups.

Participants’ previous political engagement ranges widely. Raphael Agosto-Miranda, a member of New York Boricua Resistance and one of the organizers of the New York City assembly, said that while those gathered included many longtime activists, the New York City assembly also drew in many people who have never been involved in organizing before. “The assemblies are great for people whose commitment levels may vary, but they still want to plug in on some level.”

For many organizers and participants, the colonial condition is primarily to blame for the current plight of Puerto Rico. “Colonialism 101 teaches us that we cannot take care of ourselves, that’s the first lesson that we learn,” says Agosto-Miranda. But that doesn’t mean that the colonial status should dominate the agendas at the assemblies, especially because that approach runs the risk of alienating potential participants from the outset. “Talking about the corruption is inevitably going to lead to conversations about our status. But you’ll never get to those conversations if we don’t first open up the table to everyone to talk.”

Like the protests that overthrew Rosselló, neither the foci nor the form of these assemblies is coming out of nowhere. As organizers and participants have noted, they have roots in a number of places, from the anti-austerity Indignados movement that began in Spain in 2011 to the Occupy Wall Street movement that followed in the United States shortly thereafter; from the successful fight against the U.S. military in Vieques to the University of Puerto Rico student strikes that have taken place many times during the past two decades.

But perhaps one of the most important and frequently cited influences for the assemblies, as well as the mass protests that preceded them, is the surge of self-organization and mutual aid that arose in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

When Governments Fail, Puerto Ricans Help Each Other

In the wake of the hurricane, it quickly became evident that neither the Puerto Rican government nor the U.S. federal government were coming to the rescue. Andrew S. Vargas, a member of El Grito de Sunset Park, a community group that organizes in Brooklyn and beyond in response to various forms of social and economic oppression, argues that this lack of government support preceded Hurricane Maria and continued through the storm and its aftermath.

“The government didn’t exist in any meaningful way in the everyday lives of people for a very long time. And the people of Puerto Rico learned that we didn’t need them; that we could organize ourselves, we could tend to our communities, we could pool our resources and take care of the most vulnerable among us,” Vargas said. “I think we’re only just starting to see how Maria changed us.”

This self-organization continues to this day, now in the form of the assemblies where people are gathering together to organize and demand the change they so desperately need.

Hurricane Maria also activated the diaspora. As we watched the disaster unfolding in Puerto Rico, we could not and did not remain silent or inactive; we demanded action from the federal government, but more importantly, we took action ourselves, organizing entirely community-driven responses, raising funds and delivering supplies directly to our family members, friends and the communities that needed them the most.

“People from the diaspora had to suffer not knowing about their families for weeks, months, not being able to communicate, not being able to send supplies because they [were] being stolen or abandoned in warehouses,” says Katherine Adames Rodríguez, an activist and organizer from Ponce who is now based in Oakland, California. “Between the hurricane and the corruption that only got worse with the Fiscal Control Board … not only Puerto Ricans from the archipelago but also in the diaspora said, ‘This government doesn’t care about shit, we need to take matters into our own hands’.”

Many organizers cite this response from the diaspora as a turning point in the relationship between Puerto Ricans in the archipelago and in the United States. “There was a sense that the diaspora was rising to the occasion in the island’s time of need,” Vargas reflects. “I feel like we’ve come back together as a family.”

This reconnection has extended into the assemblies. “We’re transnational people; the nation of Puerto Rico is not limited to a proscribed space or an island or borders; we transcend that,” Vargas says. “So if we’re going to build a movement for the future of Puerto Rico, that transcendence needs to be built into that movement.”

The Diaspora Organizes in the Mainland

The assemblies in the mainland are uniquely positioned to target actors who negatively impact Puerto Rico but are based in the mainland United States. Rodríguez describes how members of the diaspora are considering whether to put pressure on mainland-based members of the U.S.-government-appointed Fiscal Control Board; as Rodríguez indicates, they might be concerned enough about their public image that with enough outcry, they might resign from the board.

On the other side of the country, Agosto-Miranda says that participants at the New York City assembly discussed how many of the hedge funds whose dealings have contributed to the massive Puerto Rican debt are based in that city and serve on the boards of other corporations located there.

Meanwhile, Diáspora en Resistencia, a group that helped organize the asambleas telefónicas, has also continued to organize a “Speak Truth To Power” campaign to bring people to congressional town halls and legislative office visits to call on U.S. Congress members to revoke PROMESA, audit or cancel the debt, and permanently remove Puerto Rico from the Jones Act Maritime Law of 1920.

There are many hopes and plans for what will come from the people’s assemblies, which are going strong into their third month this September. The organizers and participants hope that the assemblies will be able to spur change on those commonly held highest priorities, like canceling Puerto Rico’s debt and removing the Fiscal Control Board. To these ends, people are beginning to work toward creating a network of assemblies that allow the participating communities to communicate and coordinate across geographic and demographic distances in a united front, without losing the fundamental democratic accountability and participatory character of the movement. In this way, participants hope to develop a long-term alternative to the currently dysfunctional or non-existent structures of governance and aid, fostering an ongoing and inclusive space for true political engagement for the people of Puerto Rico, both in the archipelago and in the diaspora.

Agosto-Miranda said he hopes that in continuing to build together, Puerto Ricans realize that they neither need nor want the current system and find new ways to sustain themselves outside of that system. In addition, he hopes “that people realize that decolonization is an actuality, it’s not just a concept,” he said. “It’s an actual process that is happening right now and that will continue to happen, hopefully until the U.S. is gone.”