Puerto Rico: Uncle Sam's Colony

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By Jose Cortes Sanchez

A century ago on March 2, 1917, President Wilson signed the Jones Act, granting citizenship to the 1.2 million residents of U.S.-occupied Puerto Rico, though almost 300 rejected the sainted Wilson’s offer. A month later, the U.S. entered WWI, and after some 18,000 Puerto Ricans fought on the metropole’s behalf, they came home to an island of second-class citizens ruled by sugar monopolies. We’ll see if today’s islanders will have the foresight and resolve of their forebears as they prepare to vote in a referendum this June on either statehood or independence. What is clear is that Puerto Rico’s status as an “unincorporated territory” has exacerbated the effects of a cruel imposed austerity requirement to pay back the island’s staggering $72 billion of publicly-held debt. The status quo is unsustainable. 

On July 28, 1898, General Nelson Miles flew the U.S. flag over the conquered city of Ponce and declared the U.S. arrived “to bring you protection, not only to yourselves but to your property, to promote your prosperity…and to give…the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.” Others were less kind. Tennessee’s Sen. William B. Bate called Puerto Ricans “mongrels” and “savages” while Ohio’s Sen. Joseph B. Foraker said paternalistically that Puerto Ricans “have no experience which would qualify them for the great work of government with all the bureaus and departments needed by the people of [Puerto Rico].” From the benign to the openly racist, the U.S. was determined to hold the island as a colony.

A lethal 1899 hurricane prompted the U.S. to devalue the island’s currency by 40 percent, giving U.S. capital a chance to make a killing. Encouraged by greedy U.S. colonial administrators like Gov. Charles Herbert Allen, the island’s first civilian ruler and the founder of Domino Sugar, and with Puerto Rican farmers crippled by currency devaluation and higher taxes, U.S. firms gobbled up so much land that by 1928, 80 percent of sugar farms were Yankee-owned and over half of arable land was owned by just four of them. Thus, an independent class of mixed-race, mountain-dwelling peasants, or jíbaros, had become swiftly proletarianized.

Pedro Albizu Campos, the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard (racists denied him his scheduled valedictory speech in 1921) and a public defender, became involved with the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in 1924. After years of travelling throughout the island and the U.S.-dominated (and often militarily occupied) lands of the Caribbean and Latin America, he became the party’s president in 1930. With the Depression, U.S. business interests became especially jealous of their power, and they weren’t too happy with Albizu Campos leading a successful sugar workers’ strike in 1934. Next year, four Nationalists were shot at a university in what is known today as the Río Piedras massacre. Additionally in 1935, on Palm Sunday a Nationalist-organized march in Ponce to commemorate slavery’s 1873 abolition ended with 19 civilians dead and over 200 wounded in the Ponce Massacre. Albizu Campos was jailed in 1937 and released in 1947 only to experience the 1948 Gag Law’s passage which made it illegal to own a Puerto Rican flag or speak out in favor of the island’s independence (the same year that Orwell’s 1984 was published).

On October 30th, 1950 island-wide uprisings culminated in U.S. bombing of the towns of Utuado and Jayuya, Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate Pres. Truman shortly after, and later shot up the U.S. Congress in 1954.  During those events, 3,000 Puerto Ricans were swept up in a dragnet, Albizu Campos was jailed again, and was subjected to radiation experiments until his death in 1964.

The U.S. made efforts at placating the restive island, allowing the democratic 1948 election of Luis Muñoz Marín as governor; and in 1952 the island formally became a “commonwealth” though the reality of colonialism remained unchanged.  In 1942, the U.S. launched “Operation Bootstrap” to shift the economy from a predominantly agrarian economy to an industrialized one, yet profits extracted by U.S. capital were systematically hoarded abroad the mainland. Lured by tax-free policies, the tourist, service, and especially pharmaceutical industries set up shop and gave rise to a small yet growing middle-class, giving the U.S. a cosmetic foil to an economically strangulated, revolutionary Cuba. Yet with the downturn of the 1970’s, the island’s lack of fiscal sovereignty and a robust taxation regime caused the state to sell off interest-free bonds to cover the costs of its obligations in pensions, schools, and so forth. This was also coupled with privatization of state agencies and tuition hikes at universities. This pattern proceeded apace into the present, enabled by successive comprador governments determined to make Puerto Rico the “Singapore of the Caribbean” by suppressing workers and appeasing stateside capital.

The June 2016 passage of the PROMESA Act created a junta, a “fiscal control board,” to oversee the island’s repayment of its public debt via more austerian policies. At a time when emigration and unemployment is at an all-time high; when layoffs and low-wage, part-time work is growing, and an already-high cost of living becomes increasingly unbearable, the junta’s policies will only worsen the crisis. Whether or not the small left-wing and anti-colonial movements of the island will win the day this June remains to be seen, but prospects look bleak. Admission to the Union is unlikely because in all likelihood, Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million people (it would be the Union’s 29th most populous) would only add more lawmakers to the Democrats at a time of 1850’s-level polarization; and adding millions more Latinos to the U.S. would anger a radicalizing far-right as well as anger the GOP base. Yet, the widespread jubilation at the release of Oscar López Rivera by Pres. Obama in January; the election of a Bernie-endorsed candidate to San Juan’s mayoralty (Bernie, unlike Hillary endorsed PROMESA and openly described Puerto Rico’s status as “colonial”) also signals a rising and broad awareness both on the island and within the influential Puerto Rican-American community of U.S. colonialism’s tightening grip on Puerto Rico. Whether Puerto Rico will remain the same, be admitted to the Union as a economically devastated tropical Mississippi, or go 1959 Cuba remains to be seen.

 José Sanchez is part of the Central New Jersey chapter of DSA and attended Rutgers-New Brunswick, majoring in history, minoring in political science and Latino & Caribbean studies.

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