By José E. Rivera Santana on January 9, 2020 P
This comprehensive article on contemporary Puerto Rico was written just before a devastating 6.4 earthquake hit Puerto Rico on January 7 knocking out power to a half-million people and leaving thousands homeless. Trump, however, didn’t even blink as he pushed more resources and military personal towards war against Iran. Puerto Rico has been neglected with reconstruction being dismal to nonexistent since Hurricane Maria leveled the island in 2017. Now the proud Puerto Rican people will be tested even further and they will have to rely on their own organizational capacity along with international solidarity. Editorial
As 2020 begins, it is worth taking a look back and commenting on the events that have taken place in Puerto Rico over the last year and identifying their links and possible consequences. The exercise leads us, inevitably, to situate ourselves in 2016 in order to trace the process that describes this last episode of our history. That year several events of great significance took place. Of particular note were the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled on the delegitimization of the “commonwealth”. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress, almost simultaneously, approved the Promise Act imposing a Fiscal Control Board (FCB) on the Government of Puerto Rico. Against this backdrop, the 2016 general elections were held and later, in January 2017, the Ricardo Rosselló Nevárez administration began.
The new governor was barely able to start, much less consolidate a government team. He was not even able to recruit the minimum of talent, nor was he able to count on acceptably mature leadership. His outcome was the inevitable consequence of what never was. It probably would have been the same if the election had been won by another candidate. Anyone who would have assumed the governorship in January 2017 would have had to face the enormous difficulty of managing a government structure without the power to do so. The imposition of the Junta and the Promesa law ended up occupying the few spaces of self-government left to the Associated Free State or Commonwealth known as ELA.
The only possible route to exercising one’s own governance, with meaning, no matter who the elected governor was, was political confrontation against the JCF and thus against Congress. Rosselló had that option in his first (and only) two years and at times it seemed that he would do so, which would have placed him in another dimension in our history. But, he became discouraged and in practice succumbed and joined the demands of the Board. He issued executive orders and signed laws that were very much in line with the Fiscal Control Board (FCB) agenda, to finally be subjected to the Board’s fiscal plans and the budgets that it has imposed.
Clearly, the management of the Rossello administration collapsed once it submitted to the opinions of the FCB. From there to here it has been the seven members of the Board, accompanied by a retinue of well-paid law firms and consultants, who in practice govern and even manage the public agencies. This has now been joined by the union of the major government agencies, the proliferation of “monitors” and the frequent and selective interventions of the FBI.
In the two and a half years of Rosselló’s administration, everything got worse. The country did not have, nor does it have, plans for economic development. The Fiscal Control Board and the Promesa law did not contemplate the economic development of Puerto Rico either. The only reference to that issue was the creation of the working group whose report and the result did not obligate either Congress or the Board. So much so that the group submitted its report in December 2016 without any consequences, until today.
Meanwhile, the Board has not rested on putting its foot on the accelerator to pay off creditors and vulture bondholders as was demonstrated with COFINA’s Adjustment Plan and is intended with that of Prepa. That, and no other, is the Board’s function. That is why its letters to the Rosselló administration were insistent on the demand of adopting severe or draconian austerity policies (as characterized by the Nobel Prize winner in economics, Stiglitz, in his visit to Puerto Rico) with the sole purpose of separating money for generous payment of the debt. Therefore, in the absence of economic development policies, the Fiscal Control Board, far from being an instrument to deal with Puerto Rico’s economic and financial crisis, as some thought, has become the main obstacle. The economic situation is unprecedented and extremely serious, and the role of the Board has no other consequence than to aggravate the situation.
To complicate the picture, the climatic reality took care of alerting us (again) to our geographical location. Hurricanes Irma and Maria were natural events that stripped and deepened the diversity of problems that already existed and were boiling to death. The institutional inability of a government administration, emasculated by corruption, to respond to the urgency of the situation was compounded by the contempt and derision of the president of the United States. But it was not only Trump’s execrable expressions, it was also the irresponsible handling of FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, Congress and other federal agencies that have used blackmail as the norm in their treatment of Puerto Rico and for whom four thousand lives represent only a statistic. Now, as if that were not enough, there is the slow and uncertain disbursement of hurricane recovery funds. It is clearly a block action by the permanent government of the United States. Trump is simply a vulgar accident.
In that context, the fiscal problems get worse and more complicated. There is no equation or model that can conclude that the debt of more than $100 billion can be paid, with a contracting economy and a panorama of uncertainty. Where is the money going to come from? What is the new source of income?
However, Rosselló’s replacement, Wanda Vázquez Garced, seems oblivious to the situation and ignores the disastrous path of her former boss. In her first and subsequent statements, she has not failed to express her adherence to the Fiscal Board and debt adjustment plans. She identifies herself as the person who can maintain a cordial and “respectful” “relationship” with the seven proconsuls, as Ricky did in his time and now Pedro Pierluisi also repeats.
Fortunately, the hopeful response to this chapter of our history comes from our people, from the various sectors that make up our people. This crisis has indeed had a social and protest response in spite of the constant, sophisticated and overwhelming ideological campaign that seeks to impose the idea that we Puerto Ricans do nothing. False! Since 2016, protest and mobilization activities have followed one another with different intensities and dimensions. The university strike in 2017, the mass mobilizations on May Day, and more recently, the Summer of 2019, presided over by our national flag – alone! Yes, the flag that was banned by the U.S. government in the last century, the one defended with blood, courage and sacrifice by our patriots, was and is today the symbol of the struggle of our indomitable nation rising up against tyrants and traitors.
It is important to note that all this has happened in just three years. Even during the period of suffering represented by the months following Hurricane Maria, the mobilizations did not stop. And the outpouring of courage and energy during the fortnight last July was a reflection of the tensions, abuses and frustrations that lie in the face of the exhaustion and collapse of an unburied economic and political system.
Although the scope and consequences of the Summer of 19 have yet to be deciphered, we can say that we learned that strength lies within us when we prepare to exercise it collectively. We learned that the union of wills is capable of everything, above laws, constitution or any other institution.
Such events were correctly interpreted by those who run the federal agencies of “security” and political persecution. They did not wait, nor did they skimp on time and launched a political, media and repressive operation to dismantle the impact and consequences of social mobilization and protest.
It highlights the abusive case against Nina Droz, as a clear attempt to make an example of the federal prosecution. Nina Alejandra Droz Franco was arrested in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after she blocked a line of riot police at a major demonstration and rebellion on May Day 2017. She was accused of trying to set fire to the Banco Popular building, a target of the protest. Similarly, the anti-worker laws passed by the legislature were designed to intimidate the unions. And the selective and abusive persecution by the Justice Department (then under the direction of Wanda Vazquez Garced) of a group of college students who participated in the 2017 strike defending the University of Puerto Rico. But it hasn’t worked out for them. No repressive and abusive policy can persist without a response from the affected classes and social groups.
Today, as rarely in our history, the need to maintain the collective response and mobilization in public spaces is evident. This has been, in the past decades, the most effective way to demand our rights. The examples are many and recent. The victory of Vieques, the defeat of the gas pipeline (Fortuño’s misnamed “greenway”), the release of Oscar López Rivera, the expulsion for the first time in our history of an elected governor, and so many other victories at the regional and local levels. In other words, practice has shown us which is the route that allows us to transcend private and small spaces and generate powerful movements that in themselves become expressions of social power.
It is on this basis that the indispensable conquest of the political powers violated by the U.S. government must be proposed and put forward. There is no way to address and seek ways to deal with the economic problems and challenges of the country’s development in general if we do not have the powers to design the instruments and implement our policies, programs and plans.
At this time, it is still on our agenda as a primary task to rearticulate the patriotic and anti-colonialist forces and sectors in order to confront Washington and demand, with the support of the diaspora living in exile in the United States and the international community, the self-determination, and independence of our people.