The following article was written by Panamanian sociologist Olmedo Beluche, who recently visited Puerto Rico to participate in a series of conferences on the anticolonial struggle in Panama and Puerto Rico.
An economic and social crisis has struck the “Commonwealth,” a euphemism that U.S. imperialism uses to disguise the colonial regime under which it has dominated the island since 1898. The neoliberal policies that were imposed starting from the 1980s, combined with the global economic crisis, which has hit hard since 2008, has led Puerto Rico’s colonial regime to an unsustainable situation that could explode at any moment.
The privatization of public enterprises, of state industry, of services and even of roads has decreased revenues to the state government that does not come directly from taxes. This process has led to an enormous fiscal crisis of the Puerto Rican state, which has been loaded onto the backs of the working class. As reported by the newspaper El Nuevo Día, budget deficits are being resolved each year through the acquisition of new loans (totaling nearly $23 billion since 2000) until the accumulated debt reached $72 billion, with $3.7 billion a year in interest payments. (elnuevodia.com, Nov. 7)
Debt that, according to the colonial constitution imposed on Puerto Rico in 1952, the state must pay the bondholders before satisfying the basic needs of the population. Debt that has led the current governor, Alejandro García Padilla of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), to place a drastic limit on public spending and propose a tax increase on fuel oil of 40 percent, from $9.25 to $15.50 per barrel entering the country, at a time when there has been a considerable drop in international prices.
According to the governor and his advisors, the tax increase is necessary to save from ruin and further privatization the three service institutions it administers: the Health Insurance Administration, the Roads and Transport Authority and the Electric Power Authority. This approach to economic policy has led the unemployment rate to fluctuate between 13 and 15 percent, to a high dependence of the population on the system of federal unemployment benefits system (“coupons”) and to a migration to the United States that averages 3,000 young people each month.
According to polls in El Nuevo Dia, 60 percent of the Puerto Rican population disapproves of Governor Garcia Padilla, 92 percent believe that things are going badly or very badly, 93 percent believe that their situation now is the same as or worse than one year ago, and 79 percent believe that things will be worse in another year. (elnuevodia.com, Nov. 8)
The parliamentary opposition, the also rightist New “Progressive” Party (PNP), seeks to block the reforms of the PPD, more as an electoral ploy than out of principle, and its sole proposal to address the crisis is to promote “statehood” for Puerto Rico, that is, to move from the “Commonwealth” status to become a full-fledged state of the United States of America. Although the PNP is flirting with sectors of the U.S. Republican Party, what is essential here is that the new balance of power in the U.S. Congress, following the results of the Nov. 4 election, does not seem to favor those who propose annexation.
The Republican Party’s extremist (Tea Party) wing has opposed any immigration reform that allows legalization of all 50 million Latin American immigrants living in the United States. Is it likely they will favor statehood for Puerto Rico that would add another 4 million Latinos/as with full political and social rights? This does not seem logical.
Although the historic Independence Party disappeared electorally by not getting the 3 percent required by law in the elections two years ago, there appeared on the political scene a project of a class-based political party, the Party of the Working People, led by Professor Rafael Bernabe. This party also failed to survive the election but insists on re-registering before the next election. It did manage to win a council seat in the municipality of Vieques.
Class-struggle unionism in Borinquen
Puerto Rico has a long tradition of union struggle of its workers and popular sectors. In recent times, what everyone remembers is the “People’s Strike” against the privatization of the telephone company in 1998, whose combative union had wide popular solidarity, although later it was defeated. The students of the University of Puerto Rico staged a militant strike with occupation of Rio Piedras campus a couple of years ago. This year the teachers were on strike for better wages.
The Union of Electrical and Irrigation Industry (UTIER) and its president Angel Figueroa Jaramillo are the benchmark of class unionism facing the neoliberal measures that strike at the rights of the Borinquen working class. Jaramillo explains that UTIER practices unionism under the “principle of non-economistic class struggle that turns into class solidarity with other sectors.” This principle led UTIER to break with the AFL-CIO and link up with the World Federation of Trade Unions.
Jaramillo traces the history of UTIER since the electricity industry was nationalized in 1942, dividing it into two periods, the first period being the establishment of the conquests and rights that became labor rights for the whole class (Christmas bonus, job security, system of pensions and retirement, etc.) lasting until the early 1970s, and the other in defense of labor rights against the neoliberal attacks, from then until the present, with four major strikes (1973, 1977, 1981 and 2012).
The president of UTIER explains that confronted with a state deficit, the government intends to reduce the budget by $1 billion, which, because it eliminates necessary personnel, degrades the quality of public services. The worst step, however, has been the imposition of Act 66 of “Fiscal Sustainability and Government Operations,” which diminishes the existing rights of 160,000 public employees and their families and 55,000 other municipal employees.
Law 66 attempts to make unions accept the temporary suspension of certain rights won by collective bargaining in exchange for supposed job security. It is negotiation with a gun pointed at the union’s head, for the same law states that while unions are required to give up their rights (at least until July 2017), public corporations are not obliged to respect any agreement and can continually impose new attacks on existing workers’ rights.
UTIER is promoting a regrouping of class and militant trade unionism not only with the Union Coordinating Group, but with other social and political movements through organizations like the Solidarity and Struggle Front.
Vieques still fighting, confronting Pentagon
Along with the struggle against privatization of the telephone system, around year 2000, the other big struggle that shook Puerto Rico and aroused solidarity from Latin America and the world was that of the community of the island of Vieques, which demanded that the U.S. military close its military bases and decontaminate the shooting ranges. That struggle ended in a victory in 2003 when the military bases were closed and bombing practice ceased.
During a meeting, 70-year-old Carmen Valencia told how Vieques was an island mainly dedicated to the cultivation of sugarcane, a task in which her father was engaged until the 1940s when the Navy arrived, closed mills and seized two-thirds of the island for military bases and target areas. “Without lights or fans, we had to lock ourselves in the home at 5 p.m. to avoid the abuses committed by the military against the women.”
Vieques’ struggle continues today, demanding adequate decontamination of the shooting ranges. Rev. Eunice Santana Meletius says, “The response of the empire in terms of cleaning up the pollution in the land does not cease to surprise and outrage us. It exposes the contempt it has for life; the excessive greed that always drives it to spend the minimum and its manipulative and sneaky way of acting to avoid meeting the basic requirements of decency and humanity.” (Compartir es Vivir, October 2014)
Santana tells how the alleged decontamination executed by the Pentagon consists in burning bombs outdoors to make them explode, which spreads its contaminants; how there is still sunk in a bay off Vieques the destroyer USS Killen, used in tests with nuclear weapons and loaded with 200 barrels whose contents are unknown; how Anones Lagoon, “the most polluted place,” has opened up a channel to drain its toxic contents to the sea.
Comrade Nilda Medina explains that the problem is not only decontamination, but that there are no adequate medical services to treat the many cases of cancer and other diseases affecting the population. To which must be added the many social problems of a population that continues to lose its livelihood, now in the hands of a growing tourist industry controlled by and at the service of North Americans.
Something is moving in the independence movement
A distant observer might assume that the issues of independence and decolonization would be considered subversive and outlawed in Puerto Rico, but what has happened is the contrary: Historical memory and the vindication of the Puerto Rican heroes is everywhere. In many corners one can find monuments to the leaders of this movement: Ramon Emeterio Betances, Eugenio Maria De Hostos and even Pedro Albizu Campos. In Ponce, for example, they have launched a Museum House of the Massacre, which occurred there in 1937, carried out by the colonial police against activists in the Nationalist Party of Albizu.
The independence activists argue that the main factor preventing a massive shift toward the independence of Puerto Rico is the economic crisis itself and the dependence of a large percentage of the population on the system of federal coupons, which creates a conservative culture and attitude among people without class consciousness.
Francisco Torres, current president of the Nationalist Party, which continues the struggle of Albizu, Lolita Lebrón and others, explains that at this time an Independence Roundtable has been set up to try to unite this fragmented segment of society. At least ten organizations are participating in this roundtable: They include the Nationalist Party, the PRT-Machetero, the MINH (National Independence Hostosian Movement) and the Socialist Front, among others. They have established six points of discussion for a programmatic approach that allows a joint action for independence.
On the other hand, a group still in the minority has launched the bold proposal of establishing the National Sovereign State of Borinken, which refuses to recognize the colonial government and acts as a parallel government around which a National Assembly of the Borinken People could unify the pro-independence people.
Whatever happens, we assume that the final collapse of colonial rule will come from a dialectical combination of social and anti-capitalist workers’ struggle with demands for self-determination and national independence. In both instances, the people of Borinken have the unconditional support of their sisters and brothers in Latin America.
Translation by Workers World/Mundo Obrero.