The Island of Puerto Rico is currently in the midst of an economic crisis. It has been reported that Puerto Rico’s government owes over 70 billion dollars in debt, mostly to investors holding state issued bonds, living in the continental United States. Unable to repay such a huge sum of debt Puerto Rico has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court attempting to restructure its financial obligations. This appeal was quickly denied, thereby provoking the U.S. Congress to step in and attempt to resolve this dilemma.
It was the House Natural Resources Committee, which passed a bipartisan bill resulting in a complete takeover of Puerto Rico’s economy. The bill calls for an oversight-committee of seven people to manage the entire financial economy of the island. Only one of the seven is required to be a resident of Puerto Rico. Four of the remaining six will be chosen directly by the Republican congress. The other three can be selected by President Obama; however, his choice will be from a list provided by the House Republicans. Aside from this economic-junta, further austerity measures are required in the proposal. Undoubtingly, austerity in the face of the current Puerto Rican depression will further disparage the working class and poor of the island.
A possible and reasonable response to this news could be; what is the current territorial/state status of Puerto Rico? The United States often refer to the island as a “commonwealth.” Which brings up another interesting question; what does it mean to be a commonwealth? This legal term derives from English common-law, referring to an independent state, which maintains its sovereignty within an association of similar sovereign states. This definition certainly does not apply to Puerto Rico. Seven people making decision for 3.5 million is appalling. The fact that they are unelected and mostly appointed by a foreign body is infuriating. Certainly, this situation does not constitute a free and equal state in a community of free and equal states. This situation constitutes imperialism, which makes Puerto Rico a formal colony in a frightful empire. With that said, perhaps the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico should be reconsidered prior to settling the debt issue.
In the late 19th century a war was concocted by the murderers in the U.S. War Department, in order to conquer the remaining Spanish Colonies in America and Asia. Immediately following the Spanish American War Puerto Rico found itself under direct U.S. Military rule. At the turn of last century is was the Foraker Act, passed by the U.S. Congress, which ended the military rule. The Foraker Act allowed for the U.S. President to appoint a governor for the Island and appoint an eleven-member executive council, in congruence with Congress. Only five of these members were required to be of Puerto Rican heritage. Sound familiar? However, there are some noticeable differences with the Foraker Act. First the Foraker Act allowed for more Puerto Rican representation. The second difference, in the 19th century United States citizens didn’t shy away from the term imperialism and very often embraced the term. It was the polemics of Mark Twain that begun to change the idiom and vernacular, with respect to opinions on imperialism in the United States. Today the term imperialism is thankfully a bad word, but in Puerto Rico it has led to the disingenuous euphemism “commonwealth.”
Anyone who has taken a single course in political science knows Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics, “who gets what, when and how.” Puerto Rico is being stripped of those political decisions by the proposed economic-junta. What are the Puerto Rican legislature and the governor’s responsibilities, if they are stripped of the most important obligations of a state? Puerto Rico does not have a voice in voting for President of the United States, they do not have a single Senator in Washington and they do not have a Congressman in U.S. House of Representatives. The only representative in Washington is a figurehead Resident Commissioner who cannot vote on bills. As a matter of fact, he cannot even vote on bills that he himself proposes. Now with the economic take-over Puerto Rico doesn’t even have a say in managing its own economic affairs.
As stated before the oversight-committee (economic-junta) is obviously formal colonialism. However, the more insidious 21st century style imperialism, which is economic and political manipulation, has been taking place on the Island for decades as well. For example, when the U.S. wants to control a Latin American country they pass so called “trade deals,” in collusion with the elites of that particular country. If they do not like leaders in Haiti, Honduras, Chile, Venezuela or Brazil the U.S. stages a coup, finances opposition groups and foments protests. If the U.S. wants to maintain military dominance in the hemisphere or maintain agricultural dominance over Mexico and Columbia, the U.S. simply declares a “War on Drugs.” How does Puerto Rico fall into this 21st century empire? The municipal bonds issued by Puerto Rico were triple tax exempt, making them attractive to wealthy non-Puerto Ricans. The money Puerto Rico was borrowing, in the form of bonds, was being used to fund the government. As a results the Puerto Rican government was spending more than it was taking in, which is the whole premise of state issued bonds. Municipal bonds are predicated on people lending money to the government with the expectation of being paid interest at a future date. It was Puerto Rican Senator Angel Rosa who stated that the Puerto Rican government should just negotiate the pay-back terms directly with investors. Rosa’s proposal makes perfect sense, especially when considering a long term investment like that of municipal bonds. It is apparent that investors became nervous and wanted to profit big before any other credit downgrades occurred, as the President of the Senate Eduardo Bhatia suggested. A much bigger critic, House Minority Whip Jennifer Gonzalez noticed that this forged crisis is just a form of propaganda to pass draconian laws.
Propaganda or not, since the U.S. government is a country of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, the pretense for economic crises was accepted and an economic-junta will be quickly installed. The control of a country’s economy by debt is one of the insidious ways the U.S. maintains its empire. A clear example of this is Argentina’s debt crises, which the Argentine government has been fighting for almost two decades. However, there is one major difference between Argentina and Puerto Rico when considering the debt crisis. Argentina is a country and can appeal to the International Court of Justice claiming that the United States was violating its sovereign immunity. They had a President, Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner who stated that she would not let Argentina become a victim of extortion. Ms. Fernandez decided to default rather than repay the debt on the ridiculous terms of banksters in New York. Puerto Rico’s colonial status prevents it from Argentina’s legal and executive discourse.
It wasn’t long ago that California was in a huge debt crises and the city of Detroit found itself in bankruptcy. However, they didn’t have to submit to an economic-junta. This is for one simple facts California and Michigan are sovereign states, in an association with other sovereign states. They have Congressional representation and governors who yield actual power. Most importantly if the Californian or the Michigan economies got really bad the federal government would bail them out. No one is even proposing a bailout of Puerto Rico, the so called commonwealth.
Some say Puerto Rico was reckless and must suffer the consequence. However, Puerto Rico has been in a depression for 11 years and they currently raised their sales tax to from 7 to 11 percent, with no plans of implementing programs for the poor and middleclass. In fact, Puerto Rico has been implementing austerity for over a decade at the direction of Washington. When Franklin Roosevelt was president, in the height of the depression, income taxes on the top rate were around 95 percent and the New Deal was simultaneously being implemented. At the start of FDRs presidency there was about 22 billion dollars in debt and when he left there was almost 300 billion in debt. Does anyone doubt that the progress of the 1950s was owed to the most progressive president in U.S. history? Does anyone call FDR reckless? Puerto Rico is cutting services and slightly rising taxes, which is not reckless at all by neo-liberal standards.
It is sad for one to say but Puerto Rico is not a commonwealth, it is not a state or a nation, it is a colony. As a colony they cannot fight against extortion like that of Argentina, they cannot maintain their dignity and manage internal affairs like that of California and they cannot pull out of their depression in the fashion of FDR. Puerto Rico should use this debt crisis as an opportunity to become an independent sovereign nation. Some say that Puerto Rico likes their status and repeatedly votes to remain a colony. However, like a battered wife Puerto Rico must leave this relationship. There are no hopes of this relationship getting better, the United States will continue to abuse the island economically and always promise for better days. The Island will need the help and solidarity of the international community. It will also need all of the curiosity and comradery of those of us that consider ourselves international citizens. This decision will not be an easy one and at some point there may even be an impulse to go back to the master, which must be ignored. Nothing is more liberating then when someone stands on their own feet after an abusive relationship.
One mustn’t forget the murder of Filiberto Ojeda Rios and numerous other martyrs, the forced sterilizations of Puerto Rican women, the conscription of Puerto Rican men to fight imperialist wars of hate. One must never forget the destruction of Puerto Rican agriculture, the poisoning of the environment by the pharmaceutical companies and the cancer epidemic spread in Vieques by the U.S. Navy. The innumerable laundry list of U.S. crimes against humanity on the island cannot be listed in this article, as it would take years of research and thousands of pages. Additionally, there can be no making right the millions of wrongs, therefore it seems like the right time to sever this unequal relationship and become the Republic of Puerto Rico. It has been proven in history that Puerto Rico is powerful not weak consider all of the revolutionaries, martyrs and free thinkers the island produces. The revolutionary spirit of the Grito de Lares must persist in these tumultuous times.