Just a month ago, I visited my ancestral land of Puerto Rico with a delegation of Grassroots International donors and activists. As Grassroots’ solidarity program officer for the Building Equity and Alignment for Impact Fund, I got to work alongside resistance movements there and see how my organization makes sure they have the resources they need to sustain the important work they do. As a Boricua (Puerto Rican) myself, this work is closest to my heart.
Without a doubt, Puerto Rico is in the midst of an historic uprising. Half a million Boricuas in the archipelago (Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra) overthrew the corrupt, misogynistic and homophobic governor, Ricardo Rosselló, in just a matter of weeks. The contrast between this and the ineffectual Mueller investigations against Trump could not be more profound. My people are showing the true meaning, and potential, of grassroots power.
The coming weeks are crucial for the people of Puerto Rico, and the demands are clear:
- Prosecute those accused of corruption and abuses through the courts: accountability, not impunity.
- Halt Fiscal Control Board plans and audit the $72 billion public debt through public participation.
- Declare a state of emergency to address the spate of femicides and violence against women in the archipelago and to protect the right to an abortion.
- Protect public services, public education, pensions and labor rights against privatization, and protect the right to protest.
These are all necessary to move Puerto Rico forward on a path of true self-governance and sovereignty.
As we move forward, we must also remember that this uprising did not just happen in a span of two weeks, but as a fast-moving fire after the long painful simmer from austerity and colonial violence. It was the culmination of decades of organizing and resistance. The governor’s and his buddies’ leaked texts on the Telegram social media platform revealed proof of the injustices, corruption and absolute disregard for Boricuas, especially women and LGBTQI people. But they were only the spark.
The Long Fight Against Austeridad
If the Rosselló texts were the match, austerity was the gas.
We’ve been a colonial experiment of the U.S. over 120 years. For five decades under Operation Bootstrap, we were a source of cheap labor and a corporate tax haven. But so-called free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement destroyed Puerto Rico’s economy. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of jobs; our economy has stagnated or contracted for 13 straight years.
The Puerto Rican government issued tax-exempt bonds to keep themselves afloat, but the hedge fund managers have exacted a deep price on working people over the years. Successive governors have sold off the public health care system and telephone company, massively increased tuition (and cut funding) at the University of Puerto Rico, and decimated the teachers’ union by decertification.
With every attack, we’ve fought back. Back in the 1990s, telephone workers went on a 41-day strike, facing down Rosselló’s father, also a former governor. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, teachers and college students launched strikes and occupied universities. Even before the marches this summer, we were already well-acquainted with the acrid smell of tear gas in the streets.
Battles followed battles. But the hedge funds and neoliberal heads of state still demanded their payments. In 2016, in a rare show of bipartisanship, Congress passed and Obama signed the PROMESA bill, using the same old colonial rhetoric that “Puerto Ricans are incapable of governing themselves.”
The Financial Oversight Board created under PROMESA is completely unaccountable to Puerto Ricans, and their decisions supersede our constitution. The board, appointed by President Obama and members of Congress in 2016, includes members from banking institutions who are directly connected to the $72 billion debt. Since Puerto Rico can’t legally declare bankruptcy like U.S. cities can, hedge funds invested more and more money that the people have been forced to pay back with interest. For pennies on the dollar, hedge funds bought our bonds then received a guaranteed payout over the life of them — netting them hundreds of millions of dollars more in profits at our expense.
Our infrastructure was already crumbling. Our government already showed they cared very little about our people. Hedge funds were already imposing their vision on the archipelago. But then Hurricane Maria came. As it ripped across the Caribbean, it took all these elements and increased them tenfold. The winds of Hurricane Maria lifted not only buildings, but also the last of the wool from our eyes. Ineffective and paltry relief efforts exposed our colonial position vis-à-vis the U.S. for many Puerto Ricans — some for the first time, others with laser clarity. After a period of confusion and despair, resistance was bound to escalate too.
Since the storm, the government has closed dozens of schools, chained the gates and gotten them ready for sale. People like Elisa Sanchez, who works in the rural neighborhood of Bartolo in Lares, had the right response: “Let’s cut the chain.” She and her Bartolo neighbors cut the locks, turning their local school into a housing block and community kitchen for those left homeless from the storm.
The resulting Centro de Apoyo Mutuo Jíbaro-Bartolo (CAM-JI) is just one example of several other Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (Centers of Mutual Aid) across the island. They serve as sites of self-determination, resistance and community. When I visited CAM-JI Bartolo in June, members had created apartments from the old classrooms of the school, a coffee shop, a performance space and a museum for the Higüera tree. (This gourd tree symbolizes our connection with our Indigenous ancestors.)
Other mutual aid projects, like the Comedores Sociales, were organized years before, to feed University of Puerto Rico students in Río Piedras. This project grew to include other social kitchens and a solidarity economy restaurant called La Cocina Rebelde (the Rebel Kitchen). After the hurricane, these activists stepped up their efforts, sometimes at great cost to their physical and mental health. And during the most recent protests, Comedores Sociales provided meals to protesters. They have literally fed and sustained the resistance for years because, as they say, “You cannot eat austerity; we cook dignity!”
A Feminist State of Resistance
The hurricane frayed fragile social bonds even more. In this crisis, violence against women festered. As La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (the Feminist Collective in Construction, a radical grassroots organization in Puerto Rico that fights against the different forms and relationships of oppression and power) noted in June,
“Last year, 23 women were murdered by partners or ex-partners. In the first six months of this year, 8 women have been murdered, in extreme violent incidents, some with knives, burned, some in front of their children. Similarly, 3,609 incidents of domestic violence, 642 administrative complaints against police officers for domestic violence and sexual harassment and 60 police arrests in incidents of domestic violence have been recorded.”
Since November of last year, La Colectiva has been protesting in front of the governor’s mansion for Rosselló to declare a state of emergency for femicides and domestic violence. For three days, they sat in and occupied the governor’s residence at La Fortaleza, the purple color of feminism dotting the streets below the famous brightly colored umbrellas that hung above.
Misogyny didn’t just spew out of the governor’s mansion with this #Telegramgate scandal; it has shown up in his policies too. In 2017, Rosselló removed school curriculum on gender equity. For months, the governor bucked La Colectiva’s state of emergency petition. Four months later, when he finally signed one, many activists recognized that it was a watered down version of their original demand.
It makes sense then, that La Colectiva activists were among those Rosselló and his cronies targeted in their texts. They have never wavered in their struggle for gender protection, even when demonstrators in front of La Fortaleza only numbered in the dozens. La Colectiva was also among the very first protesters in front of La Fortaleza demanding answers once the #Telegramgate scandal broke. Those implacable dozens laid the basis for the hundreds of thousands that joined them protesting Rosselló’s texts.
I am celebrating my people’s power to oust a governor for the first time in our history. As ever, la lucha sigue (the struggle continues) — crucially, in the continuing fight to decolonize and to win radical self-determination. But our best hope of taking inspiration from and bringing solidarity to my people is in the long process of grassroots organizing. We must learn from and give support to the unbowed activists that have been waging this fight for years — and will keep fighting in weeks, months and years to come.