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Colonialist Assault on Puerto Rico and the Prospects for Independence

“Porto Rico (sic) is not forgotten and we mean to have it.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was reassuring his friend Theodore Roosevelt. According to the New York Times, Puerto Ricans are an “uneducated, simple-minded and harmless people who are only interested in wine, women, music and dancing.”  The subject at hand for the Times, one year after the U. S. military invasion of 1898, was “Americanizing Puerto Rico.”

Upper –class haughtiness set the stage for victimization of the many by the wealthy few. Now the U. S. Congress is forcing Puerto Rico’s government to make payments on $72 billion in debt owed to U. S. banks and hedge funds.  People’s basic needs are being ignored.

The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), passed in June 2016, created a “financial control board” that has become “the de facto government, banker, judge, jury, and executioner of Puerto Rico,” according to critic Nelson Denis.

That board on March 8, 2017 called upon Puerto Rico’s government to take emergency steps to avoid running out of money. The next day it rejected Governor Ricardo Rossello’s plan offering annual interest payments of $1.2 billion, a far cry from the  almost $6 billion actually required. But on March 11 the board accepted a revised plan; interest payments would be $800 million a year. Government pensions would be reduced and employees furloughed.  Christmas bonuses are out.

The University of Puerto Rico faces a $300 million budgetary cut and 300 public schools will be closing. The board wants to shrink healthcare spending despite reductions from 12.3 percent of the GDP in 2010 to 10.5 percent in 2014. A 50- per cent minimum-wage cut for younger workers is possible.  The retirement age, gasoline and sales taxes, and electricity rates have inched up over five years. Pensions and benefits have diminished.

Most Puerto Ricans have been used to troubles since the U. S. take-over in 1898. Now, the overall poverty rate is 45 percent; 57 percent of children live in poverty. Unemployment officially is 12.6 percent of the workforce, but only 40 percent of adults belong to the workforce. Food prices are high partly because Puerto Rico produces only 10 percent if its food.

Emigration to the United States has been a hedge against misery; as of 2008, 400,000 more Puerto Ricans were living there than in Puerto Rico. Government authorities in both countries worried about a “surplus population,” says clinical psychologist Jorge A. Montijo.  By 1965, 35 percent of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been surgically sterilized.

The new rulers quickly changed Puerto Rico to their liking. By 1901 both U. S. exports to and imports from the island had quadrupled. U. S. owners controlled 70,060 acres in tobacco – up from 5529 acres – and 141,248 acres in sugar cane – up from 21,505 acres; 85 percent of the island’s manufacturing was in U. S. hands. As of 1928, four sugar syndicates owned over half of all arable land.

Legal arrangements facilitated U. S. control of the island’s economy and political life. An “Organic Charter” in April 1900 handed control of Puerto Rico to the U. S. Congress.  Another such law in 1917 gave Puerto Ricans U. S. citizenship (without representation in Congress) – just in time for them to be drafted as soldiers in World War I. Congress’ “Law 600” of 1950 allowed for a Puerto Rican Constitution and declared Puerto Rico to be a “Free Associated State,” a label used to persuade the United Nations General Assembly to remove Puerto Rico from its list of colonized territories.

Congress reserved the right to approve that Constitution before it took effect; its provisions would always give way to U. S. laws. It specified that “payment of interest and amortization of the debt [is] the first priority.”

Other legal straitjackets: Congress’ Merchant Marine Act (Jones Act) of 1920 required that cargoes going from one U.S. port to another – Puerto Rico included – be carried in a U. S. owned and operated ship, with a U. S. crew. Shipping costs went up as did prices for imported goods. And, rejecting a defendant’s claim of protection from double jeopardy, the Supreme Court ruled June 9, 2016 that Puerto Ricans bow to only one sovereign, the federal government.

Today, left-over effects of Section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code are ravaging the daily lives of most Puerto Ricans, or soon will be.  Regulations imposed in 1976 exempted U.S. companies operating in Puerto Rico from paying taxes on income or capital gains. U. S. investors would pay no taxes on dividends paid by those companies. And taxes weren’t due on U. S. investments deposited in Puerto Rican banks.

Section 936 was “nothing but a welfare program for the Fortune 500,” said a tax attorney. U. S. companies in Puerto Rico generated $14.3 billion in income in 1995 alone. The island’s economy grew. Meanwhile successive governments were relying on “multi-million” dollar loans to make up for sharply reduced tax collections. Federal monies flowed to the island and public -sector hiring increased. Government leaders and citizens fell into dependency.

Then, beginning in the 1990s and ending in 2006, authorities in Washington phased out Section 936. U. S. companies closed operations in Puerto Rico or cut back production. Industrial jobs fell by one third.  Between 2006 and 2014 Puerto Rico’s GDP contracted by 13 percent, thus “provoking a new wave of migration,” with heavy middle class representation. Soon “Puerto Rico [was] essentially running on bonds held by U.S.-based banks and corporations” – and hedge funds. The PROMESA law came to their rescue.

Puerto Ricans are resisting. Students at various branches of the University of Puerto Rico marched and demonstrated in late February against threats to schools and University programs. Teachers joined them, pointing to poorly-paid professors now being hired on short-term contracts. The Communist Party’s Abayarderojo newspaper labeled school closings and reorganization of educational districts into independent entities, which is contemplated, as “war on public education.”

The struggle to shed Puerto Rico’s colonial status is at low ebb.  The Independence Party has gained little support from voters in recent elections and in referenda on relations with the United States. Most Puerto Ricans have voted either for one party inclined toward statehood or another tending toward autonomy. Nowhere to be found is high – profile, anti-colonial agitation centering on exploitation of the working class.

It was different once. From the 1930s into the early 1950s, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party propelled the independence movement. Pedro Albizu Campos, the Party’s president told members that, “We will immediately free the worker from labor leaders disoriented by the Yankees … who have him carrying the North American flag, whose dark shadow reigns over this colonial government that has converted us into slaves of North American corporations and businesses.”

The first item of the Party’s economic program spoke of “organization of workers so they can demand from foreign interests or invaders participation in gains to which they have a right.” Albizu maintained that workers are “the true power and true source of wealth belonging to the homeland.”  Striking sugar cane workers in 1934 called upon Albizu Campos to lead their strike.

The Nationalist Party faded after terrible repression including massacres and imprisonment of leaders. Albizu Campos served two long terms in prison, where he was tortured.  The story was otherwise in Cuba; there, revolutionaries brought two struggles together, one for national sovereignty, the other for social justice.

Alejandro Torres Rivera, leader of the National Hostos Independence Movement and a lawyer, provides commentary as relevant to Puerto Ricans’ resistance today as it was to the Nationalists he was writing about:

“[T]o have the national demand for independence be taken up by a social class like the working class made for a more persuasive questioning of the colonialist and imperialist project of the United States in Puerto Rico.   Imperialism was also aware of the danger to its interests from the political demand for liberty, sovereignty, and independence being merged in a common program with the social and economic claims of the working classes of Puerto Rico.”

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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