Puerto Rico, the forgotten

Now that Christmas is around the corner, people are wondering about Puerto Rico, that American territory which is not a state, but whose inhabitants are citizens of the USA. Last September, the island was devastated by two hurricanes. Irma, the most destructive in Caribbean history, swept across Puerto Rico on 6 September and on her heels Maria which made landfall on 20 September. The twin furies could not have come at the worse time. Puerto Rico, our step sister, was and is deep in debt for about US $120 billion and that will not disappear even if the island becomes a state. I wonder if Puerto Rico has fully recovered. Will it have a bleak Christmas?

“We’ve been suffering under the hurricane of Yankee colonialism for more than 100 years,” declared Mr. Rafael C. Miranda, a perdurable independence fighter. He has affirmed all along that Puerto Rico is a colony of the USA and that Washington has allowed American corporations to exploit the island’s natural resources and labor force. After transferring their gains to the mainland, “now we have to pay the colonial regime’s U$74-billion debt to bondholders,” decried Mr. Miranda.

I hope that by now Puerto Rico has gone beyond a survival mode, that life is back to normal with water, electricity,  and food supply restored to appropriate levels, specially in the non-urban, agricultural areas. According to news reports, the Federal Emergency Management Agency disbursed a generous US$125 million for individual assistance funds and the Small Business Administration office appropriated U$9 million for low-interest loans. These were implemented with no sparkling immediacy, but by now retail shops should be back in business and anticipating Christmas sales.

What has happened to those 200,000 or so Puerto Ricans who sought refuge in Florida? Many of them were school children who enrolled in country schools, totally unprepared to receive such large numbers of students. Last month the US Department of Education announced it would give additional funds to country schools that have had a 5% increase in enrollment. Since Puerto Ricans are US citizens, I suppose most of the students who fled to Florida are still studying there while living with relatives.

We have forgotten that in 1898, the USA sent 15,000 troops to Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War; at the same time, the island was engaged in an anti-colonial independence movement against Spain, just like the Philippines. We have forgotten about the Jones Act of 1920, which stipulated that all cargo destined for Puerto Rico have to be transported on US-owned vessels, thus increasing freight cost.

Independence fighters like Mr. Miranda argue that “US capitalists have distorted and twisted production on the island to fit their needs, exploited the labor of working people, and plundered the island’s natural resources in search of superprofits. Colonial rule means that working people face not only the exploitation of domestic and foreign capitalists, but also direct rule from Washington.”

We have also forgotten about those labor strikes in 1934, when workers of sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantations rose in protest. In those days, US corporations owned about 50% of sugar and 85% of coffee plantations. Who remembers “Operation Bootstraps? When there was a decline in world sugar prices, in the 1950-60 decade, Washington implemented an industrialization program of sorts called “Operation Bootstraps” which gave tax incentives to American corporations that set up shop in Puerto Rico. Attracted by cheap labor and tax cuts, Americans opened factories from tuna canning to pharmaceuticals. Consequently, the agricultural sector was all but abandoned, so since then Puerto Rico has had to import food, mostly from the mainland.

Due to globalization perhaps, profits of the “Bootstraps” investors began to nosedive from 1996 to the present, so Washington phased out tax breaks; factories closed and thousands of Puerto Ricans lost their jobs. Then came the hedge funds, bonds, and other financial instruments, which only served to push Puerto Rico into the bottomless debt trap.

“The hurricanes cost a lot of damage, but not as much as colonialism has,” declared Rafael C. Miranda. Anachronistic as it may sound, I think he is right. There are other former political prisoners like Mr. Miranda – Oscar Lopez, Filiberto Ojeda Rios, Pedro Albizu Campos, Senator Ruben Berrios Martinez, etc. Puerto Ricans may have voted for statehood, yet there are many who have not forgotten to fight for their Independence.