The liberal imperialist rags, e.g. The Guardian & co., have spilled a lot of ink in recent weeks decrying the colonial status of Puerto Rico, often juxtaposing “statehood” to the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the united $tates. They are not alone. This sentiment burns throughout the island’s political leadership, who upon the announcement of the the referendum last year carried slogans to the same effect: “Statehood or Independence, but not Colonialism” and the like. This kind of rhetoric is deceptive, of course, and shows the weakness of “self-determination” arguments deployed by liberals and compradors in lieu of a real program for decolonization.
The Debt Crisis
This vote will change absolutely nothing, besides an astonishing pro-statehood result (despite a ridiculously low turnout). The ball is now in Washington’s court, and they are highly unlikely to even recognize the vote, let alone table a motion for statehood. There are plenty of reasons, chief among them is the debt crisis on the island, that has sent Puerto Rico into a death-spiral of default, owing more than 70 billion dollars in debt (large percentage of which held by amerikans). Even if a statehood vote were proposed, this, along with the various economic perks to their current “commonwealth” status, would likely hold back any opportunity for Puerto Rico to join the union. One of these perks has actually shaped the current debt crisis to a significant degree, since a large percentage of Puerto Rican debt is actually held in united $tates municipal bonds. These bonds are created by the government in order to fund public infrastructure, government programs, etc. and are normally held by private investors. This is important, because almost 70% of all amerikan municipal bonds rated by Morningstar have some kind of exposure to Puerto Rico due to the tax exemptions on the interest gathered from those bonds.
This “triple exemption” from federal, state and local taxes on interest is only one aspect of many making Puerto Rico’s current fiscal arrangement to the united $tates very beneficial, and the fact that they are not a state has placed their own financial affairs into a category separate from the federal government. Essentially, the united $tates can contribute to the island’s debt crisis through the reckless parasitism of amerikan investors (including many from the so-called middle class) without necessarily footing the bill as they would in New York, for instance. What’s more, approximately $37 billion of the island’s debt has been deemed illegal by the Debt Audit Commission and the ReFund America Project for a number of predatory lending practices by amerikan investors.
This debt has had deep ramifications for the whole economy and has forced them into a state of extreme austerity to attempt to cope with the complete lack of confidence in the Puerto Rican economy. The island had made significant cuts to housing, welfare and education, with more than 180 schools being closed in May of this year. This is being compounded by the house bill “PROMESA” which will create an oversight board with special powers to help in solving the debt crisis. Their solutions, predictably, are solutions for the investors, and not for those living on the island, with a plan to lower the minimum wage for some workers. They say this will be temporary, but with such a power at their disposal it is unlikely that the bourgeoisie will forfeit its gains peacefully.
This is not the end of the austerity pains in Puerto Rico—not by a longshot—as they are, as well, suffering a climbing unemployment rate at nearly 12% in comparison to the amerikan 5% unemployment for mainlanders. And while the median household income in Puerto Rico stands at about $18,626 the prices for consumer commodities are actually higher on average than on the mainland united $tates. This is not a product of the debt crisis, but has been exacerbated by it, and now more than 46% of Puerto Ricans are living in poverty as reported by the government. If Puerto Rico were granted statehood, it would become the poorest state in the union by far. The debt crisis in Puerto Rico is, besides the primary obstacle to integration as a state, a creation of the continued colonial relationship with the united $tates. It begs the question: what is the real solution to the problem of Puerto Rican colonization?
A Platform of Decolonization
Despite the popular will of the pitifully low-energy referendum, drawing only 23% of the voting population, the answer to the problem clearly does not lie with the united $tates (shocking). Unfortunately, this is often lost in the liberal discourse of “self-determination” having taken the place of a real platform of decolonization. By that we mean one that aims to fundamentally destroy all aspects of the parasitic relationship between the imperialists and Puerto Rico, specific to the conditions of colonialism on the island. Liberal discourse (which, sadly, encompasses many so-called socialist treatments of the Puerto Rican crisis) has ceded all political creativity to the colonial superstructure, rather than putting forward any constructive program for the future of Puerto Ricans. The most recent referendum, complete with its dismal participation, epitomizes this reality. The authorities who proposed it had no longstanding plan for either outcome, however they certainly anticipated the preference for statehood among the voting population. Their analysis of Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the united $tates is as weak and superficial as one can get while still acknowledging that such a relationship exists.
To the governor, his supporters and those who endorsed statehood in the referendum, the colonial relationship with the united $tates only exists so long as Puerto Rico is kept legally separated from the united $tates. It is true enough that the colonial relationship is compounded by this legal reality, where different laws apply to commerce, citizenship and employment on the island in comparison to the mainland. This legal division certainly has an impact on the massive gap between the mainland united $tates and Puerto Rico, however to assume that this legal relationship alone defines the colonial relationship leaves no room for a deeper analysis of how the oppressed nations are related to the settler colonial empire. Consequently, it leaves us with few tools to understand how to thoroughly destroy the conditions of colonialism or deal with crises like the one now affecting the island.
New Afrika, despite being dispersed territorially across many states, with its citizens being found in every corner of the continent, has not ceased to be an occupied and ultimately colonized nation. Their incorporation has not made them equal to the settler in any material sense, nor has this been the case for the indigenous people of this continent, nor those in Aztlán. Recognition, or false-integration into the prisonhouse of nations as a “state” rather than a “territory” is not, nor ever will be, sufficient to resolve the colonial contradiction by itself. If Puerto Rico becomes a state tomorrow, even financially they will still be shackled with the debt generated by illegal and predatory lending. Even as a state Puerto Ricans will still be victimized by amerikan financial institutions and the racist pogroms of euro-amerikans guarding their exclusive and inordinately high wages. Statehood only means more political clout for the compradors who aspire to greater power on the island.
That said, we cannot take the issue of independence in such a superficial manner either, if we are to talk about real independence and decolonization that is. Assuming, for a moment, that the referendum would have gone the other direction, toward independence rather than any kind of obligatory relationship with the united $tates, the issue is not necessarily solved. This is especially true with the enormous financial obligation Puerto Rico would still be under if they were to become independent, and that is assuming that the united $tates would even allow such a thing to happen democratically.
Puerto Rico, if it were to achieve independence under the current neoliberal establishment, would perhaps cease to be a “colony” of the united $tates in a bourgeois-legal sense, but would start immediately down the path of becoming a neocolony. It would, on one hand, be a step toward genuine independence and decolonization provided the communist movement continued to develop at an accelerated pace, and with a program for genuine decolonization and internationalism. Without this, unfortunately even independence is not equal to decolonization. In the era of global imperialism the very nature of the world economy would place Puerto Rico back under the boot of u.$. imperialism along with the rest of the nominally independent Third World.
This is why the oppressed nations cannot afford libertarian and politically weak positions such as “self-determination” and non-partisan referendums, that value “statehood” as equal to independence and decolonization so long as it is the “popular will” of the people.We cannot cede the political responsibility of making revolution to the imperialists by refusing to lead the masses in the creation of a new society. Without arming ourselves with a genuine program for decolonization, extending beyond the superficial boundaries of legal relationships and political jargon, revolutionaries are forfeiting all responsible leadership over the people. All efforts toward ending colonialism must be ruthlessly partisan—whether they be referendums or armed struggle—and must correlate to a wider program that necessarily stands for independence, socialism, and the defeat of imperialism worldwide. If this is not accomplished, then every ounce of strength expended would have been in vain.
It is clear that such movements have existed, and the spirit of struggle continues to exist today, it need only be developed in the direction of revolution. In the name of all the martyrs of the struggle for freedom in Puerto Rico, it must be.
- “Why Puerto Rico needs to borrow money—and soon”, (CNBC)
- “Puerto Rican Students Protest ‘Illegal’ Debt and Education Cuts”, (TeleSUR)
- “Puerto Rico to Close 184 Public Schools Amid Crisis”, (TeleSUR)
- “House passes Puerto Rico rescue bill”, (CNN Money)
- “5 Things You Should Know As Puerto Rico Confronts Its Unpayable Debt”, (Huffington Post)
- “Census Bureau Reports Household Income Rising in States, Dropping in Puerto Rico”, (Puerto Rico Report)