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Puerto Rico’s Uprisings Have Empowered a New Leadership Among the Oppressed

Rising activist leadership from youth, LGBTQ people and Black Puerto Ricans is a step toward liberation for the island.

Demonstrators in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on January 23, 2020, demanded the resignation of Puerto Rico's Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced and Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz after a warehouse full of relief supplies, reportedly dating back to Hurricane Maria in 2017, were found having been left undistributed to those in need.

The U.S. federal government’s disastrous response to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria illustrates a longstanding history of an exploitative domestic policy on the island. Recent earthquakes have not only rocked Puerto Rico’s infrastructure but have emphasized the United States’s negligence of its own citizens. Journalist and Columbia University professor, Ed Morales, describes Puerto Rico as the “symbol of marginalized communities all over the U.S. and the world.” He joins activist and scholar Rosa Clemente to discuss the personal and political implications of the island’s ongoing debt crisis, recovery efforts, and an intersectional movement that challenges the political establishment.

Laura Flanders: Rosa, I got to start with you because the last time I was looking at you, you were just back from the Island, you were saying, “We’re looking at a Puerto Rico for finance and not for people.” What does it look like now?

Rosa Clemente: I still believe that the ultimate goal will be to have Puerto Rico, but no Puerto Ricans in it. And the more these two years have passed, with the work of Naomi Klein and Ed and Yarimar Bonilla really kind of laying out what we thought was potentially going to happen, but when you begin to read it and how they’ve all contextualized it, it’s very real. And I think we have to understand, more, that there are a group of particularly young, white, rich men that want to try out all this cryptocurrency and Bitcoin and see Puerto Rico as the staging ground for that.

Talk a bit about what this fantasy has been to you because this is personal, this is family fantasy.

Ed Morales: There’s a lot of people who knew that was a fantasy all along. But when you get to the average Puerto Rican, like my family and some people that I know, they really felt like the status was working for them on a certain level. They were able to have a middle-class home and a car and go shopping at malls like you have in the United States. But the economy of Puerto Rico was never self-sustaining, and the government has been in debt, going all the way back to the 70s, to ameliorate that.

Was it never self-sustaining? Never could’ve been self-sustaining, or was it created [to be] not self-sustaining, which is to say dependent?

Morales: Yes, it was never self-sustaining because, well first of all, Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain for 400 years before the United States, and they were collaborators with the Spanish colonialism as well, and they were the ones who had most of the property in the sugar industry. But when the U.S. came in, they adjusted the tax laws to favor outside interest, and the U.S. sugar companies were able to take over most of the best land for sugar, and the U.S. economy started to dominate the Puerto Rican economy, and it was never really allowed to grow on its own. The Jones Act [made] it impossible for trade to happen. The U.S. set up Puerto Rico as a free-trade zone in the early 20th century, as a prelude to NAFTA in a way, by just … there were no duties charged to the U.S. for imports from Puerto Rico, and then the U.S. dumped all of its consumer stuff, that it wasn’t selling in the U.S., onto Puerto Rico.

Talk about the … is it called the Downes Bidwell case, that determined the status, and contextualize that a little bit for us?

Morales: What happened in the 19th century, with a lot of territories that the U.S. acquired, which were put on the road to statehood, like a lot of the places in the middle of the country and in the West … those were thought of as incorporated territories, which meant that they were on the paths [to] statehood. But at the end of the 19th century, when the U.S. decided to start this … colonial empire and expand beyond its borders to maybe create a security zone in the Caribbean and to the South…. Fighting the war with Spain, they acquired these territories filled with people who they mistrusted, or were just outright racist towards, because they were not white, they were mixed. There’s a lot of prejudice against mixed people as well. They would say things like, “Mixed people have the worst aspects of both white and Black,” so they did not consider Puerto Rico, or the Philippines, as candidates for statehood.

And they created this new category called unincorporated territory. And Downes v. Bidwell, which was decided on by two of the same Supreme Court judges that decided on Plessy v. Ferguson, which established separate but equal, they said that Puerto Rico was belonging to, but not a part of, the U.S. And so, what that allowed them to do was treat Puerto Rico in ways that was [an] advantage to the United States. For instance, they gave Puerto Rico the title of state so that it couldn’t declare bankruptcy. They did it that way, but when it was to their advantage to consider Puerto Rico a foreign area, then they consider it as foreign and that’s constantly still being done.

What has this scenario meant for you, your family, your life?

Clemente: So, I would say when the hurricane hit, my parents called and was like, “You’re going, right?” And I said, “Yeah, I got to raise some money, but I’m going.” When I visited my titi in the hospital in Bayamón, at first, they weren’t letting anybody go in, they were very afraid of infections. And when they let me go in, I had to put on a hazmat kind of suit, so not to get other people sick. And she was in so much pain because she lost everything in the house and had broken her leg. She had an infection, and the nurse said, “At this time, we’re only doing surgeries to save people’s lives right now.” So, the part that my aunt was in was where, eventually, people would have to have amputation because they didn’t even have medicine to stop the infection. So, it’s real, it’s visceral.

The older I’ve gotten, I understand exactly what Puerto Rico is and the colonial status. So for me, when I got there in July and saw the unity of various, different Puerto Ricans — you might believe in statehood, independence, colonial, you might’ve been gone from the island, you might be coming back to the island from here, the United States — it was like that moment I always prayed for. I was like, “Oh, this is it.” It reminded me of the struggle around Vieques. At one point, everybody might’ve had a different political solution, but we knew, immediately, that Vieques has to … we have to stop it from being a bombing range.…

The U.S. base that the Navy was using for weapons testing.

Clemente: Right, and on May 1, 2003, that victory happened, and the U.S. Navy left. Now, to this day, they’ve never cleaned it up. And at the moment, Vieques doesn’t have a hospital, so anybody that gets sick in Vieques have to go to Fajardo.

But when I was at those protests … to see the amount of young people, to see LGBTQ, trans Puerto Ricans, to see anarchist-leaning young people, to see feminists. I mean, even walking through old San Juan, they had changed all the names of the streets, put tags over them, like this is not Calle de la Fortaleza, now this is Calle Libertad.

Morales: It was like a new kind of nationalism for me. It was like an intersectional nationalism because a lot of the failings of nationalism, in the past, [have] been that it’s been too patriarchal, male-dominated. And so, this inclusivity of women who were at the forefront and LGBTQ people, I thought, was really encouraging and a model for what could happen in the U.S., or what is sort of happening in the U.S., a little bit.

Is there a chance that this whole “Ricky Resign” movement could stay focused on the systemic corruption that you’re talking about and maybe the direction of development for the island?

Clemente: I think what a lot of people don’t know is that before that, five days before, the FBI indicted Julia Keleher, the secretary of education, and her entire staff, for corruption, for stealing. Julia Keleher’s the one that gave the go ahead to close over 200 schools in Puerto Rico.… She also has ties to Betsy DeVos. So, it’s like, you peel one layer and you’re like, “Okay, right.” And then this … do we want a governor that’s going to still represent the same type of corruption?

“Ricky Resign,” that movement, powerful enough to oust this governor, although maybe not get to the heart of everything. What happens to it now?

Clemente: Well, what has been happening, I think, also, that the intersection of particularly young, Black Puerto Ricans taking leadership, affirming who they are, I think that’s always [an] important step toward liberation. And we’re seeing that really play out, culturally and politically, on the island, which is exciting. And now, they have been having people’s assemblies. There’s even people who are rewriting what a Puerto Rican constitution can look like. For me, those are signs of empowerment. They’re signs that say we can no longer depend on some governmental structure or an elected official.

You write repeatedly, in the book, that there are ways in which Puerto Rico has been a canary in the coal mine for people in the U.S. Would you read a little part that speaks to that because over and over again, in your book, that comes across.

Morales: “Even as the real crisis began to snowball in Puerto Rico, it would not become apparent to the United States, largely because there has been traditionally almost no media coverage, outside of “The Laura Flanders Show,” of the island, outside of the occasional crime wave or hurricane. In fact, awareness of the crisis would become widespread at first, only through the business press, which I had to spend hours going over. We saw a threat to not only American investors, but also the municipal debt market itself. But the mainstream awareness of Puerto Ricans as a people and a nation has created a formidable discourse, one that would emerge suddenly, to disrupt the stark silences and to directly or indirectly remind America that the loss Wall Street and Congress had worked so hard to externalize will not be … so easily when the people who must pay for it are not as separate as had been thought. Through the debt crisis, as much as the United States tried to maintain its distance, Puerto Rico would finally become a permanent internal problem.”

And that really symbolizes how Puerto Rico is a symbol of marginalized communities all over the U.S. and the world, that the debt crisis in Puerto Rico bears a lot of resemblance to the financial crisis of 2008 where they had all of these bad mortgages that they gave to people who couldn’t afford to pay them back. It’s a very similar mechanism.

Both of you, thank you for your book, Ed, it’s beautiful, and continue to do the reporting you’re doing, Rosa, and we’ll continue to play it.

Clemente: Thank you, Laura, for continuing to cover Puerto Rico.

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