Corruption, natural disaster & pandemic: Consequences of colonial rule in Puerto Rico

Trump Puerto Rico
President Donald Trump tosses paper towels into a crowd at Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria.


Sell Puerto Rico? President Trump’s initial thoughts about the nation following Hurricane Maria in 2017 highlight capitalism’s utter disregard for life on the island. Elaine Duke, former head of Homeland Security, said, “The president’s initial ideas were more of a businessman, you know: Can we outsource the electricity? Can we sell the island? You know, or divest of that asset?”

What right does Trump or the U.S. have to “sell” Puerto Rico? The U.S. seized the island in 1898 from the former colonizer, Spain, and ignored the legislature that Puerto Ricans had set up in favor of a new colonial administration imposed by Washington. The U.S. then ruled Puerto Rico as a highly profitable sugar plantation.

Since the United States acquired the country through piracy and kept it impoverished for over a century, whom does Trump now think he would sell Puerto Rico to? He probably hopes to dump the asset and invest the money elsewhere, a standard practice among Wall Street investors, and yet the suggestion reveals the deeply chauvinist nature of Trump and the ruling elite. However, there is still a lot of profit to be made from the U.S. colony. The corporate elite knows this, and big businesses are hungry to take more wealth away from the devastated island.

Hurricane Maria took place in 2017, and three years later, parts of the island, like the town of Mayagüez, are still without electricity. A real recovery for working people has been slow and almost non-existent. The massive earthquakes in January 2020 and now the COVID pandemic have made it nearly impossible to obtain real relief under the government structures currently in place.

The fiscal control board installed by the U.S. government to run Puerto Rico’s finances has had difficulty driving forward a serious austerity program. The demand from Washington for austerity is offset on the one hand by the need to increase the debt by borrowing money. On the other hand, the increased debt will in time push a deeper austerity agenda to deliver the island’s wealth to Wall Street investors and speculators.

Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt is blamed on corruption and mismanagement and was a driving force for passing the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in 2016. This act gave the U.S. even tighter colonial control over the island. The wealthy use Puerto Rico’s massive “debt” as a battering ram to forcefully justify continued exploitation.

Profiting off the misery of the Puerto Rican workers and farmers actually looks similar to President Trump’s vision of “selling” the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria. For example, the current “nationalized” energy grid has recently been sold to Luma Energy, a combined U.S. and Canadian business venture, that signed a 15-year contract in a bogus “public-private partnership”. These public-private partnerships always end up benefiting the private interests rather than the public.

Meanwhile, in the middle of a pandemic that has pushed 300,000 more residents out of work, at a time when water supplies are crucial to maintain health, a serious drought has affected more than 140,000 residents. The current dire situation will drive Puerto Rico deeper into debt and further bind them to fiscal domination by U.S. capital.

How can Puerto Rico break from this cycle of exploitation and oppression? Although the situation seems hopeless, the capacity of the Puerto Rican working class at home and in the diaspora continually renews itself in the form of new and dynamic struggles. The struggle in Vieques that ousted the U.S. Navy, the 2010 student strikes, the fight against climate change and coal ash, and the massive inspiring mobilizations built around solidarity with women and the LGBTQIA+ community that ousted sexist, homophobic, and corrupt governor Ricky Rosselló in July of 2019 help provide answers.

But any struggle that does not fundamentally challenge the ruling elite for power will allow systemic oppression to continue. Rosselló, for example, was replaced by another corrupt governor, Wanda Vázquez, who is now facing corruption scandals around the distribution of aid following the January earthquakes.

Socialist Resurgence supports the self-determination of the Puerto Rican people. Although the 2017 referendum showed a strong support for statehood, the referendum was largely boycotted by pro-independence groups. Only about 500,000 of 2.2 million registered voters turned out.

Today, the most viable way forward for the people of Puerto Rico is independence. This means a continued struggle to build political revolutionary organizations to fight their way out from under the heel of U.S. colonial control. The fight for independence means a combined effort that puts millions of Puerto Ricans into the streets both at home and in the U.S. to loosen the stranglehold of the capitalist class and call into question all the oppressive social relations that have maintained Puerto Rico as a colony for generations.



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