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Vivirse la película: Willful Opposition to the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico

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Elections were held last month in Puerto Rico. The governor elect is the 37-year old son of a former governor. He is in favor of statehood; against same-sex marriage; in favor of paying the entirety of the government’s 72 billion dollar debt (regardless of its legitimacy or its effects on the availability of public goods and services and regardless of the infringement of people’s constitutional rights repayment will most surely involve); against a gender responsive curriculum in public schools; in favor of the increased imbrication of Church and State; against the legalization of marihuana, all the while refusing to acknowledge the legality of abortion. He is a father and a husband and a Christian and a democrat and he pledges to work side by side with the federally imposed Fiscal Control Board in order to usher in a so called new epoch of fiscal responsibility in the island.

The board or la junta recently met in Puerto Rico, on the grounds of an out of the way, luxury resort. Its first two meetings were held in New York, where the seven-member unit took control of all major governmental agencies and public corporations, including the only state-run university system. As such, it is primed to function as an un-elected governmental body which, for many, rendered the elections mute.

Thus, in campaigning, candidates not only made every effort to sell themselves as the better option for governor, but also struggled rather mightily to craft a vision of la junta as a responsive entity. And so, depending on the candidate and the day and the particular question or issue raised, la junta was a partner, or a monitor, or an older brother of sorts; or, really, just offered the elected governor an unprecedented opportunity for Puerto Rico to prove itself to the world financial markets. Other times, la junta was just punishment for decades of irresponsible public spending and governmental corruption and unscrupulous politicians who were not humble or honest enough to recognize that Puerto Rico, as a non-autonomous economy, could not generate enough activity to keep up with its obligations with its creditors and with its people, without taking on more and more debt. Interestingly enough, the one narrative strain that remained constant was that la junta. while certainly a colonial imposition that lacerated our collective dignity and our democracy, was ultimately something that could be worked with or worked around—though not necessarily worked over (in the sense of hustled)—for the betterment of all.

In the end, only one candidate of the six, explicitly pledged to disobey any and every dictum originating from the board. She received less than 3% of the vote in an election where only 56% of the electorate participated. And so, the tale of a Puerto Rico eager to acquiesce to the bluntest form of colonial repression it has been exposed to since 1952 has been told and retold in the last few months with increasing regularity. After all, opposition to la junta, as some may argue, has been relatively modest in scale: a few community groups created, meetings, workshops, a slew of Facebook pages and viral posts, op-ed pieces, a protest against the major island newspaper, a protest against the local chamber of commerce, a protest against female entrepreneurs in a Hilton hotel, an early morning occupation of the board’s president’s business office, a civil disobedience camp in front of the U.S. District Courthouse, a march on election day under the rain. And a people’s assembly, which was touted as bringing together representatives from all major sectors of island society and the Puerto Rican diaspora to form a collective, organized front of militant opposition.

The assembly was held on June 25th and was sponsored, in part, by the San Juan municipal government. While it was open to the public, it was not open to public participation as both its speaker list and its agenda of activism were settled beforehand by organizers. This provoked a smaller public amongst the larger public present to stage a protest, demanding that the assembly be open for debate and deliberation. The demand was met with hostility and calls to silence from the stage. However, the disruption was effective enough for organizers to hasten to close the affairs of the day, as the San Juan mayor directed her staff to gather up all the folding chairs.

These events garnered the rebuke from people in more traditional leftist circles who lamented the seemingly intrinsic inability of the left in Puerto Rico to come together for a common goal. And so, the protesters who protested the protest assembly were chastised in both alternative and mainstream media outlets for being too near-sighted, too disrespectful, too impatient and too willful.

Sara Ahmed defines the will as “the capacity or potential to enact a ‘no’, the potential to not be determined from without, by an external force.” She continues stating, “the will signifies that it is better to leave the right place than to stay at the right place because you are unable to move on your own.”

As it pertains to the question of place and in relation to the willfulness of the small group of people that opposed those gathered in organized, top-down opposition to the Fiscal Control Board, Ariadna Godreau has argued that la junta presents a serious tactical problem for activists. Insomuch as the board does not have a physical, permanent address, it cannot properly be addressed by taking the street. For where exactly does one protest against the board? La junta as such is nowhere to be found in Puerto Rico. It is not at the U.S. District Courthouse nor at the Federal Detention Center nor can it be found along our U.S. Coast guard guarded borders.  It will only be present, Godreau argues, in its coming effects on the health, the education and employment prospects of present and future generations. And it is present already, I would argue, in the ritualized mimicry of its undemocratic, colonialist procedures and forms. A mimicry that can  even be staged within instances of opposition to it. For where is la junta more present than in a people’s assembly that does not allow interventions from the very people who responded to the call? Where is la junta more present than in an opposition that pushes a bottom line—consensus—like the board pushes a bottom line—debt repayment?

What is needed then is not so much a bottom line as the enacted potential for a no; a willfulness of the opposition that would take us from ritualized mimicry of colonialism to the adoption and repetition of rituals of disregard. An opposition that errs on the side of excess, for if la junta has no discernible place in Puerto Rico then it’s on activists to act as if anybody, anywhere or anything under colonial rule could very well be a placeholder for the board.

Consider, for example, a protest staged in the entrance to the Caribe Hilton hotel in San Juan on occasion of a women entrepreneurs conference. One of the featured speakers was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It just so happens that the event coincided with the 50th anniversary of the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico. Protesters—most of them confused as to the nature of the activity they were protesting—blocked vehicle access to hotel grounds, thus forcing attendees—some of them women from impoverished communities—to walk long distances and miss out on the early morning events. At one point, one of the protesters smashed her loudspeaker on the hood of a passersby’s SUV. The move seemed excessive, uncalled for and, at the time, threatened to escalate tensions between protesters and the police, who had not physically intervened with the demonstration. Some twenty minutes later, several arrests were made.

In looking back at the event, I wonder if the smashing of the loudspeaker was the enactment of a no. If the protester was assuming the role of that willful subject that will not let the forms of her opposition be dictated to her from a stage in an assembly she cannot take part in. Her actions indicate, I think, a desire to opt out of the joy, let’s say, of putting up a collective front of opposition. They indicate, perhaps, that socio-political conditions in Puerto Rico right now are not conducive to large scale, tidy, consensual mobilization efforts but rather lead individual actors to the “edges of feasibility” (Nicole Smythe Johnson); to points at which their lives as such do not seem livable anymore. And so, some leave for the U.S. (to the rate of 150 people per day); some hold to the dominant ideology of staying put for the sake of family and cultural pride; some hunker down and assume the end of times with a healthy dose of cynicism, content perhaps to find some some solace among their Facebook contacts; and some push the limits of our political imagination by acting out in unpredictable, irresponsible ways.

In the protest, after arrests had been made and without any visible police threat to herself, that same protester proceeded to sit on top a compañero, laying on the street and hugged it out—in a sort of lovers ‘embrace—shouting that police would have to take them both. For some of us present, it seemed like she wasn’t so much responding to events as they were actually unfolding but rather to the event as she had imagined it unraveling. The Spanish phrase for this is “vivirse la pelicula” which communicates not only a subject’s lack of grounding in reality but also her desire for a starring role of sorts. It is a type of pretention: if you set out that day to dramatically resist being arrested by cops, you carry out your resistance even if cops are unwilling to arrest you. Because the mere presence of police implies the threat of arrest, and thus, protesters must willfully imagine and enact creative, meaningful ways to either avoid or engage that threat in an effort to sincerely embody what is at stake on a larger scale.

When demonstrators were told that Sotomayor was not there commemorating the anniversary of the court, the protester could be heard yelling “it doesn’t matter.” It didn’t matter, perhaps, because what was (and is) at stake for her (and for us) is the possibility of inhabiting a place where representatives of the US government cannot freely vacation or spend time during a layover or do any business whatsoever without being confronted with the context and consequences of their presence here. It is a type of weaponizing of the landscape of the weak, if you will. Or at least of the weakest spots within an already weakened landscape, too worn down by precarity and crisis politics to inspire any large scale mobilizations on its behalf.

“It doesn’t matter” then is a goodbye of sorts to whatever it is that Puerto Ricans on the left (and on the right) think the country should be in the midst of this crisis. A goodbye to the notion that individual and/or collective actions are supposed to be building blocks for future actions. It doesn’t matter whether they are or not. What matters is that ‘I’ am taking advantage of this opportunity to live out the movie of my dreams. Is that pretentious or is that revolutionary? Does it even matter if the dream is predicated on a very simple and ultimately unquestionable truth: Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S. La junta is the most brutal, violent and offensive manifestation of this reality in recent times. Living is no longer feasible here. I am for feasibility by any means necessary.

That last bit was from Spike Lee’s Malcom X movie, which I started watching but never finished. But it doesn’t matter in so much as what I really want to say is that I am for feasibility by all unnecessary means as well; which is to say that if the board cannot be spotted in Puerto Rico, then one must pick whatever spot on the map is accessible for a protest or a disruption of some sort. Even if the spot chosen has already been reserved for purposes of opposing the board. What matters are the terms of the opposition. And perhaps the only terms acceptable when facing a seemingly impossible situation is the will to say no. To not be defined from above or outside. To opt out and go live in a movie inside your head. The body, however, is on the street.

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