Over 500 years of exploitation has left Puerto Rico reeling
BY RICARDO ARROYO-MONTANO + EROC ARROYO-MONTANO
“What am I driving at? At this idea: that no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization.” –Aime Cesaire
As news of the complete devastation across the island of Puerto Rico is released, I find myself incessantly hitting refresh on my Internet browser. With each click, my emotions and tears overwhelm me. A deep feeling of desperation follows. This has become an unintentional daily ritual since “natural disaster” Hurricane Maria struck the island.
I know I am not alone.
As 3.4 million Boricuas on the island work to survive in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, more than 5 million Boricuas across the Diaspora wait to hear from family and friends, while trying to simultaneously figure out how we can be the most helpful. Many have identified three specific ways to help the island progress:
- Donating towards humanitarian efforts. We trust and highly recommend giving to these grassroots organizations on the island: AgitArte, Defend Puerto Rico and CEPA.
- Calling for the elimination of the exploitive debt that strangles the Island.
- Organizing and fighting for a full repeal of the Jones Act.
Meanwhile, we are willingly or unwillingly participating in a collective mourning, a grieving of what has been lost. Deep down, we know that Puerto Rico and its people will never be the same again. The entire island has lost electricity and won’t have it back for at least six months. A curfew is being enforced by the National Guard. People have lost their lives as the government failed to supply hospitals with diesel fuel for their generators. An estimated 44 percent of the Island is without clean drinking water. Over 80 percent of the island’s crops have been wiped out. Most schools remain closed, leaving 700,000 students without access to formal education. Flooded towns across the island will have to deal with diseases that are common in contaminated drinking water and from mosquito breeding grounds in still water. We are still learning more about the devastation by the hour.
In the midst of all this hardship, the Twitter-happy, white supremacist, misogynist, colonizer-in-chief managed to attack San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz from his golf course. Eventually making it to the island two weeks after the hurricane first hit, where he continued to insult the Puerto Rican people by insisting that they were not experiencing a “real catastrophe.”
Many Boricuas are engaged. They are asking questions, the whys and hows, and many are immersed in the work. The multitude of challenges Puerto Rico faces today are symptomatic of the ongoing theft of the island’s resources, a neglected infrastructure, and widespread poverty. What is happening today is a direct result of 500 plus years of colonization. What is happening is a direct result of the Jones Act of 1917, and of the exploitative economic policies forced upon the island.
The people creating these economic disparities and deep debt are exploiting poverty and hoarding our resources. These vulture capitalists bank on our oppression. They have been squeezing the juice out of the island and its people, and then have the audacity to charge the people for a sip.
In the following essay, my brother, a Public Defender and community activist, Ricardo Arroyo-Montano, makes the clear connection between the policies and actions of the past and the continued colonization of Puerto Rico. Mass corporate media coverage would have us believe this is all happening in a vacuum, that this disaster and its effects are only about this hurricane. We hope that this piece can serve as a resource for those who are interested in learning more about Puerto Rico and its deep history of resistance. -EAM
Ed. note: The following has been excerpted from a longer history of Puerto Rico. The entire work can be viewed at sonofatabey.com.
The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico resulting from Hurricane Maria is the peak in a long colonial relationship with the US and an opening for a shift towards self determination. Given that Puerto Ricans living on the island have no voting power in Congress, it is important for stateside Puerto Ricans and allies to understand key moments in this relationship, so that we may clearly and powerfully advocate on behalf of the island and its residents.
Colonialism everywhere is justified by racial supremacist ideology cultivated by colonizers for the purpose of economic exploitation. Puerto Rico is no different. The United States of America’s history of involvement with the island is full of examples of both, the effects of which led to the current crises.
One of the tools of oppression is to whitewash and erase the history of the oppressed. History textbooks in the United States are dominated by Eurocentric historical narratives, minimizing and even excluding the contributions and struggles of marginalized people. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, polls showed that nearly half surveyed were not aware that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
It is fair then to conclude that they know even less about why Puerto Ricans have citizenship, the long struggle for sovereignty on the island, the military abuse of the island and its people, forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women, or the long-term economic exploitation that has impeded the island’s self-sufficiency. If US residents do not know how these problems created the economic crisis the island faced prior to Hurricane Maria, they also do not understand how the response to the current humanitarian crisis serves to solidify US power over the island.
In November of 1897, Spain had granted Puerto Rico a Charter of Autonomy. The charter granted Puerto Rico a new electoral government and voting representation in the Spanish Parliament. The new government was empowered to suspend the publication and enforcement of any resolution of the Spanish government identified as harmful to the general interest of the island, which allowed Puerto Rico to trade with other nations and enter into its own trade agreements. For the security of Puerto Rico’s autonomy, it was specifically mandated that no changes in island government could occur without the consent of the Puerto Rican legislature.
The Spanish-American war ended with the Treaty of Paris, which ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. By ceding Puerto Rico to the United States, Spain broke the provision previously granted to Puerto Rico. Essentially, Spain gave away a nation which it had no legal right to cede.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES ACT
Recognizing that Puerto Rico was actively attempting to sever its colonial relationship with the US, Congress passed the Jones Act in 1917, which legislated that all imports and exports to the island are required to be transported on American ships, built in American shipyards, with American crews. This protectionist policy has the effect of adding a 15-20 percent cost increase on goods shipped into Puerto Rico, a cost passed on to Puerto Ricans. Several studies have shown that this one law causes billions of dollars in losses per year for Puerto Rico, while every political party in Puerto Rico has advocated against the Jones Act. However, with no political representation vis-à-vis the US, it remains the law of the land. This is just one event in a pattern of Puerto Ricans advocating for the best interests of the island and being overruled by the United States Congress, particularly in regards to economic self sufficiency.
From the mid-1950s until 2006, Operation Bootstrap, ostensibly designed to spur an industrial revolution on the island, gave US corporations 10 and 20 year tax exemptions on all gross revenues, dividends, interest, and capital gains income. The tax exemptions ensured American businesses a competitive advantage over Puerto Rico-owned and operated businesses. Rather than spur economic activity on the island, US corporations moved the money generated in Puerto Rico back to the mainland.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that phased out the tax incentives created by Section 936 over the following 10 years and US corporations, mostly pharmaceuticals, began to relocate to other countries. By 2006, when the incentives came to a close, the economy was already in recession. This economic condition was further exacerbated by the US market crash of 2008, an economic crisis from which the island has not yet recovered.
Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was crumbling before the storm. Forced austerity measures took away from needed upgrades to the electrical grid. This follows the tried and true playbook of defunding public services. Then, when they are unable to meet public need because of the cuts, argue for privatization by calling them ineffective and inefficient. Privatization, however, would allow the already high rates to be raised even higher, hurting Puerto Ricans already struggling to survive, all while profits are repatriated back to the United States. Even now while PREPA has operated at a loss for Puerto Rico it actually generates a profit for Wall Street. After Maria, Puerto Rico is without power, a situation that estimates say could take up to half a year to correct and will only serve to strengthen the PROMESA boards push to privatize Puerto Rico’s public utilities.
Whether intentional or not, there is no disputing that the federal government’s slow response in delivering aid to Puerto Rico has accelerated an extant economic exodus from Puerto Rico and will continue to do so. -RAM