In Puerto Rico, colonialism is alive and well
Congressional “solution” to the debt crisis threatens island livelihoods
Yuisa Gimeno
volume:  
volume 37
issue 3
June 2016
imagestuff

The caricature of Boss Tweed, standing in for the U.S. Congress, is by cartoonist Thomas Nast.

The U.S. Congress and Wall Street blame Puerto Rico for its $72 billion debt and want to “help.” Ironically, it is Uncle Sam’s laws and colonial policies that created the island’s economic crises in the first place. For the past 118 years, the United States has overseen the destruction of the island’s standard of living, political autonomy, and natural resources. (See How Wall Street and US colonialism created Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, Jan. 2016, at socialism.com).

Now Congress is planning to impose a solution that will wring $72 billion out of the Puertorriqueño working people. It is named the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA).” This legislation — not yet passed — amounts to a hostile takeover of the island’s economy operated by Wall Street, aptly compared to the European Union’s financial seizure of Greece.

PROMESA establishes a 7-member Financial Control Authority, appointed by the U.S. President, which has financial supremacy over Puerto Rico. The Authority will be accountable to no one but itself. Its primary function? A collections agency for wealthy investors, run by Wall Street. That is, transferring the last remaining public wealth — electricity, pensions, education, highways, and housing — into private, profitable hedge funds. Many Boricua (Puerto Rican) scholars and activists aptly call this new order economic dictatorship or colonial slavery.

Only suffering guaranteed. The Authority can enact any law that serves its interests and veto any Puerto Rican legislation that conflicts. The island government and voters will have no say about regulations implemented. The Authority decides salaries of all public workers, lay-offs, cuts to services, and supervises union contracts. If the Authority doesn’t agree with the budget created by Puerto Rico’s legislators, it can create any budget it wants. Funds to operate the Authority (staff salaries included) will come from the same fiscal pot.

PROMESA will have the power to audit the pension system and determine its ongoing funding levels (the Catholic Church has already cancelled retiree teacher pensions), and reduce minimum wage from $7.25 to $4.25 an hour for newly hired workers 20-24 years old. It plans to raise sales tax to 11.5 percent, and enforce island laws that prohibit public sector employee strikes or lock-out. The 3,100 acres of Vieques Island would be sold to private developers and energy projects fast-tracked to exploit natural resources. Any public worker or elected official who resists or obstructs or exposes the Authority’s operations could face a $1,000 fine, a year in prison, or both. In short, explicit political repression is written into the law.

Equally outrageous, the Authority can issue more debt, and island taxpayers will get stuck with the bill once again! PROMESA holds no promise but only suffering to Puertorriqueños. Senator Patrick Duffy (R-Wisc.), the sponsor of PROMESA and a former cast member of MTV’s “The Real World,” offers an inhumane and chaotic real world he doesn’t have to live in.

Ramped-up defense of working class needed. The havoc and misery wreaked on the most vulnerable — poor women, Black Puerto Ricans, youth, LGBTQ and disabled folks — will spike exploitation and discrimination against them. Harassment of independistas, many of them ex-political prisoners, has already escalated. Seventeen so far have been detained by the FBI for DNA testing. To most readers, the FBI’s invasive authority to operate in Puerto Rico is surprising and appalling.

In March, unionists and political groups publicly denounced the Authority. The following month, University of Puerto Rico students protested debt repayment in front of the island Treasury and demanded funding for public services and education. Local legislatures authorized the governor to suspend debt payments in order to fund social services. He did just that on May 1. PROMESA would immediately overturn this moratorium. MINH, an independistas group, protested the Authority and detentions, and organized several public discussions about its dangers. Recently, a coalition formed of 50 groups, including organized labor and students. They’re planning a mass media campaign, more protests and mobilizing workers. Call to Action on Puerto Rico, a solidarity group based in New York City, is working with their island counterparts.

Ultimately, PROMESA takes aim at the labor movement and radicals. For capitalists’ greatest fear is workers’ recognizing their own capacity to stop production and leftists mobilizing for a more sane solution — like independence under socialism.

A united front that calls for an island-wide general strike until all demands are met would be a bold step forward. Demands could include: cancel the debt; tax the rich and corporations to fully fund public services and education; the right to self-determination. Standing up together could instigate revolt throughout the region.

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