Will Hurricane Maria Wash Away all Illusions about the U.S. in Puerto Rico?

Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post

Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward identified and emphasized an important factor in understanding the larger political and economic forces that create the conditions in which people defy the rules of the established order and take part in popular protest. ((Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward. 1979 [1977]. Poor People’s Movement. New York, NY: Vintage Books.)) These moments of popular protect was during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when unemployment was at about one-third for the working population in the U.S., and during the 1950s and 1960 when unemployment reached depression levels for Blacks, living in segregated ghettos. For Piven and Cloward, it was the removal of employment and the disintegration of community that resulted in uprooting people from a sense of stability that comes from the routine of work. It is in these moments of catastrophic suffering that individuals find it difficult to blame themselves or God for the plight they found themselves in. ((Ibid., 11-12.))

In the case of Puerto Rico, will Hurricane Maria have a similar effect? Will the removal of stability (which was always precarious) among the many poor and displaced in Puerto Rico force Puerto Ricans to confront the illusion that the conditions on the island are not their individual or collective faults, but the results of the U.S. colonial relationship? Hurricane Maria appears to be a part of the storm that has ravaged Puerto Rico since 1898.

Even before Hurricane Maria reached Puerto Rico, it had depression-like economic conditions with high unemployment and a poverty rate estimated to be at 43.5% in 2016. ((QuickFacts: Puerto Rico. U.S Census Bureau. 2016. Retrieved October 1, 2017.)) Recent figures had the “official” unemployment rate at around 10.1% in August 2017 (17% in 2010 was the highest since 2007). ((Economy at a Glance: Puerto Rico. Bureau of Labor Statistic, United States Department of Labor, October 13, 2017. Received: October 13, 2017.)) According to a Pew Research Center report, more Puerto Ricans have left the island for the U.S. this decade than during the largest recorded numbers during the Great Migration after World War II, citing job-related reasons above all others. ((See Cohn, D’Vera, Patten, Eileen, and Lopez, Mark Hugo. 2014. “Puerto Rican Population Declines on Island, Grows on U.S. Mainland.” Pew Research Center, Hispanic Trends. Retrieved October 4, 2017.)) Immigration to the U.S. has historically been seen as a safety-valve, reducing the social pressure and conflict associated with high unemployment.

A very important statistic is the percentage of Puerto Ricans in the labor force. According to the U.S. Census 2011-2015, only 43% of Puerto Ricans aged 16 and older are in the labor force (compared to the U.S., which is 63.3%). It is difficult to arrive at actual figures of the plight of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico when one considers all the discouraged workers who exist below the official radars of U.S. quantitative statistical methods. Many appear to either manage to scrape by, participate in the underground economy, or move to the United States. For example, the number of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. reached a record 4.9 million in 2012, and since, at least 2006, has exceeded the 3.5 Puerto Ricans on the island.

On his visit to Puerto Rico, Trump said, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico.” While this may have been an attempt at humor, it actually reveals the U.S. government’s official policy on Puerto Rico, regardless if a Republican or a Democrat is at the head of the executive office. The idea that economic conditions are self-inflicted is not only consistent with “blaming the victim,” but is also part of the “myth of underdevelopment.” ((See Michael Parenti. 1995. Against Empire. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.)) The myth of underdevelopment illustrates how imperialist nations enrich themselves through the extraction of resources, enslavement, exploitation of labor, the development of captive markets, and debt domination as a result of ownership and control of industry and trade and then turn around and treat a colony or neo-colony’s actions as the source of its impoverishment.

Puerto Rico has experienced one of the worst hurricanes in its history. Most of the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans remain without electricity, drinking water, food, fuel, vital medicines, and a devastated infrastructure. The Trump administration’s response has been slow and ineffective, leaving Puerto Rico in a dire life and death situation. However, the history of Puerto Rico has been a history of economic crisis that long preceded the hurricane or the well-publicized 72 billion dollar debt owed to Wall Street. We are told that Puerto Rico has mismanaged “its” economy and that it is a “welfare basket case,” leeching off of U.S. tax payers’ money. But what is missing in this “official” U.S. narrative is that Puerto Rico has been the location of wealth development. This wealth development has certainly not been equal. U.S. corporations have received the lion’s share of it along with a Puerto Rican elite that has seen fit to ensure that Puerto Rico’s resources remain in the control of the U.S. and that it remains a captive market for U.S. goods.

The Puerto Rico as a captive market of the U.S. was established by the U.S. Foraker Act of 1900. The Foraker act placed all trade between Puerto Rico and other countries under U.S. taxation and protective tariffs, which protect U.S. products from foreign competition.  As a result, Puerto Ricans are forced to buy all of its imported goods from the U.S., thus becoming a captive market. In addition, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 stipulates that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried on U.S. flag ships to Puerto Rico. ((See Nelson Denis. 2017. “After a Century of American Citizenship, Puerto Ricans Have Little to Show for It.” The Nation, March 2, 2017.  Retrieved June 5, 2017.)) As a result, Puerto Ricans pay up to 20% more for goods sold on the island, increasing the profit margins for U.S. produced goods and shipped items.

As long as Puerto Rico (and not just the selected elite) is not in a position to negotiate the terms of its development, trade, and have the capacity to regulate and tax foreign investment (includes the U.S.), Puerto Rico will remain in the clutches of U.S. dependency.  For example, in 1947, Operation Bootstrap, a U.S. driven economic development project meant to industrialize and combat poverty in Puerto Rico by attracting U.S. owned manufacturing companies, with tax exemptions, subsidies to factories, and loan assistance was a godsend to U.S. corporations because of the unlimited pools of low-paid labor and all the profits amassed without the benefit of paying taxes to the island or investing in its development. In order to address the poverty that this program accelerated, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), encouraged Puerto Rican immigration to the U.S. by subsidizing airfare. In addition, other forms of population control was used to combat poverty such as a governmental sponsored sterilization program. Yet, in that period, U.S. corporations continued to take huge profits off the island, while billions in federal welfare and transfer payments come to the Puerto Rican yearly to alleviate poverty. ((See Juan Gonzalez. 2000. Harvest of Empire. New York, NY: Penguin Books, p. 251.))

In 1976, the U.S. Congress passed Section 936, in the U.S. Tax Code, with the goal of encouraging business investment in Puerto Rico.  While several corporations, primarily pharmaceutical corporations, took advantage of the federal tax exemptions and made millions, Section 936 did not deliver on its promise of jobs or increases of wages because capital-intensive labor requires less employees. Nevertheless, the continued problem was that U.S. corporations did not invest the profits in Puerto Rico; instead most of them accumulated their profits until the end of the tax exemption period (10 years) and then liquidated their profits into other subsidiary companies outside of Puerto Rico. ((James L Dietz. 1986. Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist and Capitalist Development. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 301.)) In fact, because of the loss of billions of dollars in taxes to the U.S. federal government, Section 936 was phased out of existence in 2006.  Some have pointed to the removal of Section 936 as causal to the current economic crisis, but a careful review of this law reads more like the legal corruption that pervades Washington and corporate interests, and not a viable and sustainable economic policy with Puerto Rican interests in mind.

For many Puerto Ricans, the promise of America did not pan out. Nelson Denis observed:

After one hundred years of citizenship [the Jones Act], the per capita income of Puerto Ricans is roughly $15,200—half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union. Yet in the last five years alone, the government raised the retirement age, increased worker contributions, and lowered public pensions and benefits. It also hiked the water rates by 60 percent, raised the gasoline and sales taxes (the latter to 11.5 percent), and allowed electricity rates to skyrocket. In 2013–14 alone, 105 different taxes were raised in Puerto Rico. ((Nelson Denis. 2017. “After a Century of American Citizenship, Puerto Ricans Have Little to Show for It.” The Nation, March 2, 2017. Retrieved June 5, 2017.))

The nefarious circumstances that surround the Jones Act of 1917 are clear and illustrate the motives of the United States. According to Johnson, “Congressional hearings in 1916 had indicated that many Puerto Ricans preferred to be Puerto Rican citizens” as opposed to U.S. citizens. ((Roberta Ann, Johnson. 1980. Puerto Rico: Commonwealth or Colony? New York, NY: Praeger, p. 17.)) In the period of World War I, Lewis wrote: “…America felt obliged to prove her liberalism as against imperial Germany…” ((Gordon K. Lewis. 1963. Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean. New York, NY: Haper Torchbooks, p. 3.)) In addition, Cripps argued that with the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. wanted to secure Puerto Ricans more firmly to the U.S. as well as curb the growing discontent toward the United States. ((L. L. Cripps. 1982. Human Rights in a United States Colony. Cambridge, MA.: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., p. 23.)) Lastly, Denis argues that U.S. citizenship wasn’t exactly a gift, because one month later the U.S. declared war on Germany and needed more able bodies for the war effort in World War I. ((Nelson Denis. 2017. “After a Century of American Citizenship, Puerto Ricans Have Little to Show for It.” The Nation, March 2, 2017. Retrieved June 5, 2017.))

Puerto Rico’s elite and political process grew out of colonial context. The political process has historically operated within the sphere of external control and it is within these constraints that Puerto Rico’s political parties operate. The political process provides the island’s elite and their political parties an arena in which to exercise their limited power within the perimeters of U.S. power. For example, Luis Munoz Marin and the PPD came to power in the 1930s during political and economic strife. Munoz Marin was the Roosevelt New Deal administration’s man in Puerto Rico and he and the PPD would serve as an intermediary force between the U.S. and the Puerto Rican people, delivering the “goods,” short circuiting the tension on the island, while elevating their own political and economic interests in keeping the colony afloat. ((Vince Montes. 2003. Cycles of Protest: Contentious Puerto Rican Collective Action, 1960s-1980s. Unpublished dissertation, New School for Social Research.))

The creation of the “commonwealth” in 1952 or what is referred to as the Estado Libre Asociado in Puerto Rico was designed to shield against international criticism of its continued colonial status. This in turn provided the opportunity to manufacture the necessary consent to “legitimize” the political arrangement by providing the appearance of the expressed political will of Puerto Ricans. The creation of commonwealth status was used as a ploy to convince the U.N. that Puerto Rico was no longer a colony. As a result, in 1953, Puerto Rico was removed from the U.N.’s list of non-self-governing territories that required decolonization. This maneuver made the U.S. exempt from submitting annual reports on the country’s social and economic conditions to the U.N. Secretary General. Since 1953, the U.S. has refused any inquiry into Puerto Rico’s political status stating that all Puerto Rican matters are within the purview of the U.S. and it is considered an internal matter. As we will see below, the U.S. colonial relationship with the U.N. is at the core of this matter and cannot be resolved as an internal matter, but requires international attention and intervention in the form of establishing a process for decolonization.

The management of a colony by the use of a U.S. state strategy of elite promotion of the PPD and its employment distribution and social aid provisions failed miserably by the 1960s and the 1970s as the U.S. was hit with an economic crisis and moved more in the direction of neoliberalism amid growing competition from Japan and Western Europe. The period that preceded the crisis was characterized by what Morales Carrion called the “political consensus,” because it involved the PPD’s ability to deliver employment and improvements to the standard of living. ((Arturo Morales Carrion. 1983. Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., p. 143.)) This crisis also provided opportunity for the New Progressive Party (PNP), a new pro-statehood political party, to emerge.  They won their first governor’s election during political and economic uncertainty in 1968. They attempted to appeal to the poor with such slogans as “Statehood is for the Poor” as they attacked the PPD for being responsible for Puerto Rico’s state of dependency. The PNP program is that as a state, Puerto Ricans would have access to the services, rights, and protections that other U.S. states have. Critics have stated that statehood would bring about the death of a Puerto Rican nation; its unique culture, identity, and whatever autonomy it claims and aspires to possess.

The pro-statehood party has received little to no support in the U.S. Congress and if and when this is to happen it would more than likely occur when Puerto Rico has been depopulated of almost all Puerto Ricans, especially the poor, which is occurring now (as noted above). On the other hand, the PPD’s model as an intermediary force embedded in the New Deal politics of managing marginality has ran its course, because of  the U.S.’s declining global economic position and its increasing reliance on neoliberal policies. It is clear that the U.S. and Puerto Rico do not have mutual interests. It is also clear that the U.S. continues to maintain sovereignty over Puerto Rico and as long as it can maintain a captive market, rent free military bases, an endless pool of labor rendered superfluous due to globalization and its race to the bottom, and bodies to fill the rank-and-file of the war machine, it has no desire to change this fortuitous situation, only the desire to keep a lid on a potential explosive situation.

Puerto Ricans now must confront a grim reality that the U.S. government does not care about them and has not since 1898. This reality is not the result of the Trump administration. After all, the establishment of PROMESA, came under the Obama administration, which announced loudly and forcefully that Puerto Ricans do not have any national sovereignty or rights, because this board, which comprises of Wall Street interests has dictatorial powers, having control over Puerto Rico’s budget, laws, financial plans (allocation), and regulations, and is not accountable to Puerto Ricans. ((Patricia Guadalupe. 2016. “Here’s How PROMESA Aims to Tackle Puerto Rico’s Debt.” ABC News, June 30. Retrieved June 12, 2017.)) It is very important to point out that the U.S. government, no matter the political party at the head of the executive office, has never prioritized a resolution of Puerto Rico’s colonial status. It is also important to understand that political parties in Puerto Rico are not mere puppets of the U.S. or its party duopoly, but are active participants in sustaining their own positions of power by cooperating closely with the U.S.’ Democratic or Republican Parties.

Will Hurricane Maria wash away all illusions about the U.S. in Puerto Rico? The hurricane winds of Maria appear to be blowing the roof right off of the many years of concealment and containment of the fact that Puerto Rico is but a colony of the U.S., with second rate citizenship and as Trump stated, “on an island in the middle of the ocean.”

The last two times in which large segments of the Puerto Rican population became aware that their collective suffering was the byproduct of larger structures and processes and not the result of either individual attributes or some deficiency in their ability to self-govern was in the 1930s, when the Nationalist Party and organized labor mobilized and in the 1960s and 1970s when Puerto Rico was hit with an economic crisis, which propelled mobilizations of labor, students, and the reemergence of the pro-independence movement. In these two historic moments, the U.S. state and the elites on the island had the use of the carrot (a system of rewards in return for compliancy) and the stick (a huge repressive and surveillance apparatus on the island). However, today, there appears to be less and less carrot (the New Deal strategy), but plenty of stick.

The stick can be summed up by examining the repressive and surveillance apparatus on the island. The U.S. military presence on the island has varied according to the U.S. geopolitical strategy at any given time. At its peak, there were 50 military bases with the largest being the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. In the 1980s, these military bases had approximately 10,243 full-time active military and civilian personnel stationed on them. ((Humberto Garcia Munoz. 1993. “U.S. Military Installations in Puerto Rico: Controlling the Caribbean.” Pp. 53-66 in Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Puerto Rico, edited by Edwin Melendez, and Edgardo Melendez. Boston, Mass.: South End Press, p. 57.))

The U.S. National Guard, currently maintains 48 armories and are in 30 communities. The Guard in Puerto Rico is estimated at being about 8,000 to 10,000 strong. In addition to the Guard and the unknown military strength of other branches on the island, there are FBI, DEA, CIA, Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, and private contractors who are not only involved in drug interdiction and counterinsurgency operations in the Caribbean and Latin American, but are active in Puerto Rico. ((Vince Montes. 2009. “The Web Approach to the State Strategy in Puerto Rico.” Pp. 99-118 in Bureaucratic Culture and Escalating Problems: Advancing the Sociological Imagination, edited by D. Knottnerus and B. Phillips. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.))

This military presence on the island has historically served as a constant reminder and deterrent to resistance: a show of U.S. military strength as compared to Puerto Rican’s military weakness. These forces have been active in putting down rebellion and engaging in counterinsurgency types of operations in the 1930s and 1950s that targeted the Nationalist Party, a pro-independence organization. Also in the 1960-1980 period, the FBI’s COINTELPRO was active in a campaign to disrupt the pro-independence organizational efforts that included labor leaders and students on the island and in the United States. For example, in 1985, 200 FBI agents raided Puerto Rican activists’ houses and businesses throughout the island in an attempt to intimidate supporters of independence while they arrested people alleged to be connected to the Los Macheteros. ((Ronald Fernandez. 1996. The Disenchanted Island: Puerto Rico and the United States in the Twentieth Century. Westpoint, CT: Praeger Publishers, p. 246-247.))

It was discovered in 1987 that the FBI and the local police had “subversive” dossiers on about 75,000 Puerto Ricans deemed to be threats. These dossiers go back to the early days of the U.S. occupation and not only on included members of pro-independence supporters, but also included large sections of the Puerto Rican population. ((Ramon Bosque-Perez. 2005. “Political Persecution against Puerto Rican Anti-Colonial Activities in the 20th Century.” Pp. 13-48 in Puerto Rico under Colonial Rule, edited by Ramon Bosque-Perez and Jose Javier Colon-Morera. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, p. 24.)) These brief examples point to how a movement for national independence has been historically repressed and criminalized; they also reveal the lunacy in the reasoning that Puerto Ricans have somehow expressed their free will under such oppressive conditions.

Will the disasters, natural or otherwise, create the conditions for a people to look beyond the U.S.’ set parameters of thought and alternatives and look at larger political and economic conditions that Puerto Rico finds itself? This is not a case of restructuring or forgiving the debt or allocating more provisions to Puerto Rico, but the case of colonialism.  A cursory study of Puerto Rico’s history illustrates that remedies to the “economic problem” in Puerto Rico have consistently overwhelming benefited the U.S. at the cost of Puerto Ricans.

The Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria on the island and its disparaging views of Puerto Rico may end up being a watershed moment for Puerto Ricans because it reveals the real commitment and position of the U.S. on Puerto Rico.  The effects of Hurricane Maria and the austerity measures (e.g., closed schools and hospitals, and cuts to government employment) may, in fact, begin a major drift towards decolonization as the current reality on the island becomes more and more evident to the common Puerto Rican.

Vince Montes is a Lecturer in Sociology at San Jose State University. Earned a Ph.D. at the New School for Social Research. Recent publications can be found on The Political Anthropologist, Global Research, Radical Criminology. Read other articles by Vince.