The U.S. government has erased any lingering doubts that Puerto Rico is nothing but a U.S. colony with no sovereignty whatsoever by creating a federally appointed Financial Control Board to oversee the island’s $72 billion bond debt crisis.
Washington, has essentially shoved an unelected shadow government with unrestricted power down the throats of the island’s 3.5 million residents in place of the democratically elected local government that has existed in Puerto Rico since 1952.
Whether or not Puerto Ricans swallow it remains an open question. So far, they are not.
Opponents of the oversight board — or the “Junta” as they call it — have organized a massive resistance movement under the name La Concertación Puertorriqueña Contra La Junta de Control Fiscal (The Puerto Rican Pact Against the Fiscal Control Board). They have staged daily protest marches and rallies throughout the island. They have set up an ever-growing tent city on the grounds of the Federal Court Building in Hato Rey and have vowed to remain there until the oversight board is rescinded. They have even mentioned the possibility of staging an island-wide work stoppage to bring all government and commercial operations to a standstill.
Survey after survey confirms that an overwhelming majority of Puerto Rico’s population wants the control board stopped before it starts. The opposition includes people from every part of the Puerto Rican demographic spectrum — students, public and private employee unions, business owners, academics, the prosperous, the poor and even some minor politicians.
It counts on leaders, such as Jerohim Ortiz Menchaca, 25, who was a promising aide to Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla until March of this year, when the governor expressed his support for the control board. Without mentioning the governor by name, Ortiz Menchaca wrote a scathing piece in one of the island’s largest newspapers condemning the “irresponsible and unscrupulous” politicians who ransacked Puerto Rico and deceived the population into believing that the island was in solid financial shape. Then he resigned his job.
“I was of the opinion that we should have vehemently opposed the board,” he said. “But I wasn’t taken seriously . . . After I wrote the article, there were people in La Fortaleza who wanted to cut my head off.”
Ortiz Menchaca is convinced that he and the opponents of the control board will prevail, although the fight will very likely take years. “We must win, ” he said. “If we don’t, there won’t be a Puerto Rico to speak of in the future.”
La Concertación’s leadership also includes Mirta Colón Pellecier, a public housing resident and community organizer who is among the most directly affected by Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Colón Pellecier is one of 678 former tenants of Las Gladiolas housing project in Hato Rey who were relocated into temporary subsidized apartments throughout the island, while the complex was demolished and built as new — or so they were told. After the residents left and Las Gladiolas was torn down, the government put the property up for sale instead (presumably to repay part of the bond debt) and sent the remaining tenants, including Colón Pellecier, a curt letter informing them that it was canceling the agreement, effectively putting them all out to live on the street.
Although she has two grown sons in the United States who have offered the opportunity to move out of Puerto Rico, Colòn Pellecier says she intends to stay and fight.
The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stabilization Act (PROMESA) that created the seven-member board proposes to repay a debt through austerity: cutting the island’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $4.25 an hour, slicing retiree pensions, firing thousands of government employees, shutting down more schools and hospitals and selling off Puerto Rico’s infrastructure — its transportation system, water and electrical systems and its beach front property — to private interests.
The board can meet and act in secret, without providing documentation or rationale for its decisions. Its members can accept gifts from outside entities that might want to influence their decisions. They can prosecute anyone in Puerto Rico who opposes them and are themselves immune from prosecution for crimes they might commit in exercising their duties. They can give priority to repaying the stateside vulture hedge fund managers that purchased Puerto Rican municipal bonds for pennies on the dollar and only one member can be a resident of Puerto Rico. To add insult to injury, Puerto Rican taxpayers will have to bear the cost of the board’s estimated $350 million budget.
“This board is nothing more than a license for corruption,” Colón Pellecier said. “The poor will get poorer. Food will go up. Water and electricity will go up. There will be chaos.”
In the U.S. meanwhile, sympathizers vent their anger behind the risk-free confines of Facebook. And The National Puerto Rican Agenda, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan” coalition of major stateside Puerto Rican organizations and “distinguished” community leaders, plans to hold rallies during the Republican and Democratic national conventions with a vague plea for a “humane” debt restructuring.
Will all this collective outrage be enough to stop the growing economic holocaust that has already driven hundreds of thousands to flee the island for the United States? Judging from history, the answer would be “No.” The United States traditionally reacts to Puerto Rican resistance with brutality, and residents either suffer through it or leave. Either way, they swallow it.
In 1935, for example, Washington named Gen. Blanton Winship as the island’s governor with instructions to quell a growing sentiment for independence. Winship responded by ordering the island police to surround and fire point blank into an unarmed group of independentistas conducting a protest march in Ponce that had been authorized by the city’s mayor. Nineteen marchers died and about 200 more were critically injured. Winship also sought to depopulate the island with a federally funded program that at its end had coerced 30 percent of the women between the ages of 20 and 49 into being sterilized. An army of medical assistants in white lab jackets actually went door to door telling women that sterilization was good for their health and that they could reverse the procedure if they decided they absolutely had to have children.
The present control-board episode in U.S. colonial rule promises more of the same. Almost all of the islanders alive today grew up under the inappropriately named “Commonwealth” form of local government (El Estado Libre Asociado) that was manufactured in 1952 to create the illusion that Puerto Rico had some form of sovereignty in partnership with the United States, when, in fact, it didn’t, as is patently clear now.
The news that Santa Claus doesn’t exist has come as quite a shock. Sixty-three years of living a colossal hoax has programmed them to deal with the federal government by making polite and respectful appeals to Washington’s better nature. Even now, as the walls begin to crumble, the PROMESA protests come across as exercises in civic engagement, not as acts of defiance, as if all you need to do is present the United States with a well-reasoned rhetorical argument for self-determination and Congress will graciously hand it to you.
Then again, Puerto Ricans have never experienced a threat of this magnitude to their economic, political and even cultural viability. Not only have they been officially told that they have no control over their destiny, but those who do have control can do whatever they want to them. It remains to be seen whether the islanders will maintain their 63 years of civility when the control board begins bludgeoning the island in earnest.
“It’s my generational responsibility to fight back,” Ortiz Menchaca says. “The country I inherited is in far worse shape than the one my parents had.”
The question is: What’s next?
As if to break the inertia, popular columnist Wilda Rodriguez of El Nuevo Dia newspaper came up with a brilliant what-the -heck-let’s-throw-it-out-there idea that bears repeating. Ms. Rodriguez, who has a knack for saying what others feel but are afraid to express, suggested that Puerto Ricans simply take it upon themselves to:
* Eliminate Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative seat in Congress and fill Puerto Rico’s vacant seat in the United Nations, which long ago recognized the island’s distinct national identity.
* Suspend Puerto Rico’s November elections, inasmuch as Washington has rendered the Commonwealth government null and void, and appoint a constitutional assembly to draft a new status for the island as an independent nation.
* Suspend the process that the current government put in place for repaying the bond debt, including any and all payments to vulture hedge fund managers.
* Implement Puerto Rico’s own bankruptcy law.
* Disavow the U.S. federal courts on the island.
* Unilaterally suspend the Jones Act of 1920 and invite foreign merchant ships to deliver consumer goods bound for Puerto Rico directly to the island and not by way of Jacksonville, Florida, a process that raises the cost of basic necessities by as much as 40 percent.
* Transfer the island’s cultural and environmental assets to a trust, non-profit organizations and employee-run cooperatives.
* Impose a 10 percent tax on foreign investments.
Some will think it’s a crazy idea. There are risks involved to be sure. Historical precedent, as mentioned earlier, suggests that the United States will respond predictably by sending in troops to crush even the notion of Puerto Rican self determination and anyone associated with it. People might die; although there won’t be much left for Puerto Rico to lose anyway after the control board takes over.
In reality, the plan makes far more economic and political sense — for both Puerto Rico and the United States — than appointing a control board to feed the island to the vultures. I’m willing to bet that the idea will start to look more appealing as the control board tightens its grip around Puerto Rico’s neck. With any luck, the United States will see the benefits to it as well.