Puerto Rico: A victim of U.S. capitalism

Jan. 2020 PRearthquake (Ricardo Arguengo:Getty)
Damage from recent earthquakes off Puerto Rico’s coast. (Ricardo Arguengo / Getty)


Since Dec. 31, Puerto Rico has been struck by a series of devastating earthquakes and aftershocks, which have demolished many buildings on the southern portion of the island and driven thousands from their homes. Half a million Puerto Ricans were without power, an over 250,000 without water service. In some areas, the effects of the earthquakes were worse than those caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The infrastructure of the island and thousands of homes have still not been fully repaired from Maria.

For background, we are printing a speech that Ruwan Munasinghe presented as part of a panel discussion, sponsored by the Young Socialist Alliance, at the University of Connecticut in September 2019.

Puerto Rico is an island that in many ways illustrates the crisis of capitalism that we are seeing in our contemporary world. Colonialism, financial imperialism, debt, austerity, migration, environmental crisis, and race—all are fundamental aspects of an understanding of the current crisis we see in Puerto Rico today.

Through the panel, I would encourage you all to think about such things as Puerto Rican citizenship. Do Puerto Ricans—as it is said—“enjoy” their citizenship and have the same access to social programs as many native mainlanders? How is the current crisis influenced by history? How is this state—Connecticut—an important part of the struggle? And, very importantly, why independence?

The most recent major development—a development that many of us have been paying close attention to or directly involving ourselves in—has been the mass demonstrations that rose to a crescendo in July against Ricardo Rosello. We will talk a lot more of the particular details of these mass mobilizations but we should not see the demonstrations as mere reactions to the telegraph leaks or anything the governor, as an individual, has done. Rather we must put it into context as the culmination of many different happenings.

The explosive demonstrations of July 2019 were the culmination of a short history of mass mobilizations. There was a general strike in 2009, there have been teachers’ mobilizations together with students to stop privatizations and school closures, and the past few May Days have been portentous of the militancy of protesters and responding police repression.

Very critical to understanding the developments in July of 2019 is the protest movement in 2000 to shut down the use of Vieques island (a U.S. Navy bombing and testing ground) near the east coast of Puerto Rico. In October in the year 2000, the population took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, after a local security guard had been killed by a stray bullet. Some noted that the spirit of the Vieques rebellion could be felt in the recent demonstration.

Overall, one of the biggest events in recent years has been the devastation of Hurricane maria. The death toll from this hurricane is estimated to be something like over 3,000 dead. It is difficult to even understand or describe the sort of trauma seen on the Island in the aftermath of Maria. A people already struggling were dealt an unimaginable blow.

Climate change, driven by human activity, is creating favorable conditions for stronger hurricanes, with recent research finding that storms are intensifying more rapidly than they were 30 years ago. From this, we can see how Maria is an example of how industrial capitalism—itself an economic mode of production that was made possible through slavery and colonialism in the third world—is now affecting the third world.

However, Puerto Rico is a particular case in which we see the devastation being so acutely deepened by its current position within the system of imperialism and colonialism. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States—one of only a handful of remaining direct colonies today. Today, the forces of colonialism and imperialism are exerted upon the island through a variety of ways, but notably through the near dictatorship of the financial capitalists and their ruling-class associates.

In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed PROMESA, which put Puerto Rico’s finances under the control of a newly created Financial Oversight and Management Board. This body of U.S.-appointed members oversees debt restructuring and essentially operates to enforce austerity upon the island. This means heavy cuts to social spending and massive privatization. In collaboration with the financial imperialists of the Fiscal Control Board, former-Governor Rossello personally forwarded efforts to privatize the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).

Indeed, Rosello’s post-hurricane plan for the island set forward an ambitious austerity program of closing hundreds of schools (in favor of privatized charter schools) and other government entities. Between 2010 and 2017, roughly 340 public schools have been closed down, and the board has overseen a massive slashing of University of Puerto Rico’s budget. It is no wonder that we have been seeing massive mobilizations of students in recent years.

It is very important to note that the massive debt of Puerto Rico did not appear out of thin air. It came, very consciously, from predatory financial instruments. Puerto Rico is a plain example of the way in which, to quote Lenin in his work “Imperalism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” “[the] export of finance capital plays in creating the international network of dependence and ties of finance capital.”

And in this context, we can see that the problems that face Puerto Rico are the problems that face all of the third world under capitalism today—debt, austerity, hunger, climate change, financial imperialism, colonialism, racism. We see in Puerto Rico all of the important problems of capitalism that plague the entire world. The same capitalist destruction of the environment that is affecting the Amazon as we speak is ravaging Puerto Rico; the debt and IMF crisis affecting Argentina is similar to that of Puerto Rico; the economic and environmental consequences of colonialism and neocolonialism impact Puerto Rico as it does in every subjugated nation.

And, as we see across the world, Puerto Rico’s working class throughout history is exploited by an imperial power under the dictates of that power’s economic interest—in some cases, Puerto Rico has literally been testing grounds for corporations and the U.S. government.

Lets just focus for one moment on an issue as basic as food and hunger. Following Maria, access to food was a major cause of strife. The destruction of the hurricane elucidated for the world just how precarious lack of food sovereignty can be. Roughly 85% of food that Puerto Ricans eat to sustain themselves is imported from abroad. And this is on an island with abundant soils that can grow a variety of foods.

This is a recurring issue across the third world. Here I evoke the words of the Burkina Faso revolutionary, Thomas Sankara, who once asked an audience rhetorically, “Where is imperialism?” “Just look into your plates when you eat,” he said. “You see the imported corn, rice or millet: this is imperialism.”

Lets consume what we can control and break from imperialist dependence. The precarious position that massive food imports places Boricuas in terms of food sovereignty and susceptibility to natural disaster is not the fault of the island’s masses! Years of colonialism have dictated what Puerto Rican land is used for. That is, the capitalist class has ruled over the Puerto Rican people in deciding what Puerto Rican land, as well as labor and capita,l are used for. These decisions over production are not in the interests of Puerto Ricans (to feed themselves properly) but rather in the interests of the capitalists in maximizing profit—which means a topography of monoculture: the mark of a colonized land and ecological vulnerability.

Speaking in the context of Africa, the Caribbean socialist Walter Rodney once said that “there was nothing natural about monoculture. It was a consequence of imperialist requirements and machinations, extending into areas that were politically independent [only] in name. Monoculture was a characteristic of regions falling under imperialist domination.” In the case of Puerto Rico, the arable land (and I would include the stomachs of the people of Puerto Rico) has historically fallen to the dictates of the bosses of U.S. sugar and coffee interests and the financial oligarchs at large—as has been the case with all natural resources, capital, productive forces on the island. The effects of this historical fact are still felt today.

Similarly, we must firmly situate the issue of debt upon the historical reality that the third world faces today. From Pakistan to Jamaica, from Argentina to Egypt, the neoliberal financial wisdom of the so-called “Washington consensus” (overseen usually by the IMF, World Bank, etc.) has historically perpetuated the maintenance of a debt to the first world, which in turn results in less and less money for the beholden country to spend. Pakistan, for instance, recently passed an austerity budget; and this is in a country where most people don’t have access to two meals a day.

Debt is used as a means to perpetuate the status of the colonial semi-colonial world. As my friend Richmond Apore says, the way the system works is as if you have a broken arm and in order to get a replacement arm you have to cut off your leg; and to replace your leg you must cut of your hand, and so on and so on.

Like many colonies with a large population, agriculture did not remain the dominant part of the economy forever. Today, manufacturing makes up a significant part of Puerto Rico’s export value. The program “Operation Bootstrap” in the middle of the 20th century was an attempt (in conjunction with U.S. interests) to utilize the Island’s labor force. In the mid 1960s, manufacturing overtook agriculture in the economy. This is something we are seeing increasingly today: manufacturing in the third world is rising up in areas that previously perpetuated colonial-influenced agriculture and cash-crop-based economies.

For example, Sri Lanka (where I am from) now has an economy where manufacturing—particularly garment and clothing manufacturing—is now the most important part of the economy in terms of total value of exports, thus breaking with an over 100-year-old history of a plantation-based economy. This is a relatively new development of semi-colonial areas under capitalism that we have to reckon with and study as scientific revolutionary socialists and even more importantly as activists.

Relatedly, we must understand the need of the United States to exploit Puerto Rican labor. This is actually what drove the first major wave of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States. In Connecticut it was initially things like tobacco farm work that recruited the unemployed on the island and brought them to places like Windsor Locks and Hartford to work harvesting shade tobacco under horrendous conditions. The point was for companies to increase profit. As Ruth Glasser writes, “By using island labor to sort Connecticut grown leaves and roll cigars, companies could pay less than minimum wage and avoid income tax.”

These were really the trailblazers of the Puerto Rican community in Connecticut—a state with one of the highest percentages of Puerto Ricans in the nation. Later, migrants worked in factories such as the textile factories of Willimantic. In places like Hartford, the community formed around each other. Formal and informal groups of “diasporicans” sprung up to help community members in both political and non-political ways. I was recently thrilled to come across a picture of the Young Lords demonstrating against police brutality on the steps of city council in Hartford (in the 1970s). And the Young Lords have mobilized significantly in Bridgeport too.

I hope you can see how Puerto Rico is immediately pressing here in Connecticut. Climate change alone has brought hundreds of Puerto Ricans to this state in places like Hartford, where climate migrants were housed in the Red Room Inn—but only temporarily and still suffer with hardships like access to proper housing and childcare.

As I mentioned before, diasporicans in Connecticut made their presence felt by participating in the Ricky Renuncia protests. I would even say that I think Connecticut has a unique part in the struggle, and Puerto Rico is pertinent for all people in Connecticut.

What are some solutions that we can work toward? The first logical thing to do would be to continue mass mobilizations and press forward with demands that Wanda Vasquez resign. One of the things I’m still trying to consider is whether or not to advocate for a constituent assembly—which has been voiced from many leftists on the island. Would it be a positive development, as such a body could work to solve the problems of governance (like who should be the next governor) and also the issue of U.S. control? Of course, a longer-term goal would be the break with U.S. control.

It is good to reflect on the fact that we have seen many mass mobilizations in the past month. In addition to Puerto Rico, Algeria (where YSA members have been making contact with student leaders) and Sudan come to mind. All of these movements have been inspiring, but we must realize that none of them had a radical leadership that could have led the movement away from mistakes and concessions to the bourgeoisie (both national and foreign) and towards a complete revolution.

Above all, it is important to reflect on the fact that we have seen many third world socialist liberation struggles. Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Chile, Algeria, Nicaragua, and so on—but the only one to successfully break with capitalism is Cuba. This is the only one that decisively broke from collaborating with their respective national bourgeoisies.

That brave act allowed them to enact a monopoly of foreign trade and prevent foreign capital from wrecking every reform effort from behind the scenes. It allowed them to use their natural wealth and working-class creativity not for private profit but for building one of the best medical systems in Latin America. It allowed them to make education available to all. It allowed them to use the land in the interests of small farmers and food sovereignty.

It inspired much of the world and showed that a country could build itself on the basis of human need without the deformations that the bureaucracy imposed on the Soviet Union. Socialists in the struggle for Puerto Rican independence need to study the Cuban experiment and figure out what it might mean for Puerto Rico and the semi-colonial world around the globe. But these are just my views and I offer them as part of the broader discussion we are holding here tonight.



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