People power manifests in Puerto Rico but can it last?

 While the people power demonstrated by Puerto Ricans over the last few week has been inspiring, it is just the beginning of their demands for change.

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Over the past few weeks, Puerto Rico has seen a massive uprising that is estimated to have brought about one-third of the U.S. Commonwealth’s people to the streets and finally forced the resignation of its governor, Ricardo Rossello, on July 24th. Although the main island and the archipelago it forms the largest part of is under the control of the United States, U.S. media seemed much more interested in the simultaneous protests in Hong Kong than those engulfing what locals often call Boricua, a name derived from the area’s original indigenous inhabitants, the Taino, who called their lands Boriken.

The unrest began after the arrests of Julia Keleher, who had stepped down as the territory’s education secretary in April, and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, who had more recently left her post as head of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration, by the FBI on corruption charges. 

Later in the same week as the arrests, the obvious disgust felt by many ordinary Puerto Ricans intensified after almost 900 pages of Telegram group chat messages from then-Governor Rossello and other political elites were leaked and then published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. 

In these Spanish language messages, Rossello and others speak in pretty awful terms about female colleagues including Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair and San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who became a powerful voice for the territory’s people after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria just a little less than two years ago. Perhaps most damning were messages where the governor and his friends seem to make fun of the mainly poor people who died as a result of the hurricane or in its immediate aftermath. The sometimes violent language in the texts reportedly also targeted members of Puerto Rico’s vulnerable LGBTQ+ communities.

More broadly, the messages show an out of touch elite that seems to emulate the worst aspects of both U.S. and Latin American politics.

Unfortunately for the territory’s working people, as opposed to its local elite, Puerto Ricans have less wealth on average than anywhere in the mainland United States. These circumstances are not just the fault of local authorities, but also a U.S. federal government that continues to treat archipelago as a colonial possession.

Even before Maria devastated the territory, its colonial status could be easily demonstrated by the fact that under an obscure 1920 law called the Jones Act, Puerto Rico can only receive goods by sea if they are brought on American ships with American crews. Besides enriching mainland shipping interests, the law makes the cost of many things much more expensive then they are on the U.S. mainland. 

More recently, the territory’s inability to declare bankruptcy due to its legal status has meant that it couldn’t discharge its more than $70 billion in debt in the way American cities like Detroit have in the past. Adding insult to injury, foreign hedge funds like Aurelius Capital Management, sometimes called ‘vulture funds’, bought the Puerto Rico’s liabilities for pennies on the dollar before demanding full payment of the original debts. This situation led to the creation by the U.S. Congress in 2016 of a powerful board run out of the U.S. district court for southern New York that locals call ‘the Junta’.

Interestingly, this board has also butted heads with local authorities like Rossello, a problem of often conflicting elite interests that’s rarely noted in U.S. media reports about Puerto Rico’s troubles.

One of the lawyers on this board, David Skeel, was also involved in the management of Detroit and Atlantic City when they faced their own financial crises. He has written in the past about how periods of “dictatorship” are sometimes necessary for municipalities to deal with economic problems and, after the resignation of the territory’s elected governor and the refusal of his chosen sucessor to take the job, it seems that the Junta may be in the position to make such a dictatorship a reality for Puerto Ricans at some point in the future. 

This is obviously not what those who took to the streets, especially in the capital, San Juan, were fighting for, as Julio Lopez Varone, a lawyer and organizer with Puerto Rico’s Center for Popular Democracy explained to the Intercept, “This is a moment when we have people rising up and saying they want to have power to make their own decisions. People are not in the streets because they want more federal control. They are in the streets because they want a say in their future.”

Further, the Junta’s fiscal plan shows how even more money, at least $1.5 billion, is being extracted from the territory to enrich mainland consultancy firms like McKinsey and Company. This money will be paid out to lawyers, consultants and others over the next six years by Puerto Rican taxpayers and none of it will go to paying down the territory’s debt.

As reported by New York Magazine in April, “The firm [McKinsey] billed the board more than $72 million through January, and its ongoing contracts total about $3.3 million a month.” 

While firms like McKinsey are profiting handsomely from the territory, things have gotten even harder for PuertoRico’s poorest people in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as the founder of a non-profit group called PRXPR, Carmen Baez, recently explained, “”People have lost their livestock – the chicken that laid the eggs, the pork that provided the meat, their orchards and gardens that provided their vegetables… The most disadvantaged victims of Hurricane Maria are now the ones that are further suffering under the burden of politics. If the federal aid was limited and slow before, now it will be worse.” 

The danger represented by Hurricane Maria may have slowed the desire of many wealthy Americans to take advantage of the fact that they pay close to zero in taxes on income if they reside in Puerto Rico for at least 6 months of the year. Still, these kinds of incentives could mean that the territory will become a prime candidate for what has come to be called climate change gentrification, where areas of high ground are bought up by the wealthy, as is now happening in Miami’s Little Haiti, which is three feet higher than surrounding areas of the city. 

The people power demonstrated by Puerto Ricans over the last few weeks should inspire us but the resignation of Rossello is just the beginning if the territory is ever to change its status in terms of the mainland United States. Whether Puerto Ricans (and diaspora communities on the mainland) eventually choose independence or statehood (which would also likely change the math in the U.S. Senate in favor of Democrats), the Junta will not go as easily as the former governor and a Puerto Rico still reeling from Maria without local leadership, corrupt as it so often seems to be, is now more prone to the depredations of mainland elites than ever.

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