Protests in Puerto Rico forced the resignation of the corrupt Governor Ricardo Rosselló. This recent movement signals a revival of people’s movements and the struggle for independence from imperialism and colonialism on the island. Its important revolutionaries in the U.S. learn from this struggle and support the fight for self-determination in Puerto Rico.
Over 500,000 march in the capital of San Juan to demand Gov. Rosselló’s resignation. Huge demonstrations such as these show the real mass character of the movement.
This past summer a mass protest movement erupted in Puerto Rico, taking the island by storm and forcing the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló just fifteen days later. The popular demand for his resignation was sparked after several of his private messages were leaked, including misogynist and homophobic comments as well as jokes mocking the victims of Hurricane Maria. A large number of people—including many who had never protested before—took to the streets people quickly took to the streets demanding his resignation. But while these leaks were a catalyst for the movement, the protests were about far more than offensive remarks. The protests were about the frustrations of the people of Puerto Rico with the policies and nature of the current colonial government, which has always served the imperial interests of the U.S. ruling class and never the interests of the poor and working masses.
Rosselló—an MIT graduate born to a political dynasty—began his term as Governor in 2016. While in office, he oversaw austerity policies and “financial restructuring” which funneled money away from social services like education, disaster relief, and healthcare and towards allegedly repaying Puerto Rico’s debt. But instead of repaying debt, these policies only increased the suffering of the Puerto Rican people and drove thousands more into poverty and destitution. When Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, the Rosselló government did almost nothing to help the people recover from the disaster that killed thousands of people and left large portions of the island without electricity or means of transportation and communication. On top of this, the Rosselló administration regularly faced corruption charges of graft, and stole from the people to increase the personal wealth of his inner circle while exacerbating the poverty of the masses of Puerto Ricans.
Fundamentally, all these issues are related to a more basic problem facing Puerto Rico: The legacy and continuation of colonial rule by the United States since the island was annexed in 1898. This recent mass upsurge is thus not isolated, but is a continuation of a long and vibrant history of the Puerto Rican people’s struggle against colonialism and domination by the U.S. imperialists, and by the Spanish Empire before them. In order to more fully grasp the significance of the movement last summer, we must first analyze the history of Puerto Rico.
A painting of the Grito de Lares rebellion, showing revolutionaries arresting Spaniards, taking down the Spanish colonial flag, and raising a flag of Puerto Rican independence. While short-lived, this rebellion was a catalyst for the rebirth of anti-colonial struggles on the island.
Puerto Rico: An American Colony
For 405 years, since the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the island in 1493, Puerto Rico was a colony of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish launched a genocidal campaign against the native Taíno people, used the island as a colonial military base, and set up plantations and a racial caste system. The masses of Puerto Rico resisted and rebelled against the Spanish at various times. Soon after the initial colonization, the Taíno people rose in rebellion in 1511, but were ultimately defeated. The ethnic cleansing of indigenous people and brutality of the local colonial rulers in part led to a long ebb in organized people’s rebellion, but could not suppress it forever. People’s struggles continued, but were largely disconnected and sporadic—mostly taking the form of rebellion at different plantations against the brutal exploitation faced by the workers in the cane fields.
However, after the success of revolutions in France, Haiti, and elsewhere, the tide began to turn. Inspired in particular by revolutionary movements against Spain in Mexico, Cuba, and South America, the Grito de Lares rebellion broke out in 1868. The Lares revolutionaries attempted to win Puerto Rican independence through armed revolt. They organized secretly, setting up underground organizations across the island and uniting large sections of society in a revolutionary and pro-independence movement. While this rebellion was cut short by Spanish repression, the Spanish colonial forces could not snuff out the people’s revolutionary sentiment and desire to be free.
At the time, the Spanish were quickly losing their grip over their overseas colonies. Not only had they recently lost control of Mexico and South America, but the ruling class of the Spanish Crown was facing political and economic crisis at home. This allowed rising imperialist powers such as the United States to use these divisions for their own benefit. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were annexed and taken over by the U.S. imperialists.
In 1890, the United States had “closed the frontier” and effectively completed its settler-colonial project, moving the few remaining indigenous populations into either rural reservations or urban slums. The capitalist class in the North decisively defeated the slave-owning plantation economy of the South in the Civil War. The westward expansion led to a huge increase in the wealth of the railroad owners, the mine owners, the big landowners, the cattle-barons, and the financial institutions in this country, at the expense of working-class and poor people who had created all the wealth in the first place!
This massive wealth accumulation, the emergence of monopolies, and the massive power of the banks and financial institutions signaled the start of American imperialism’s race to re-divide the world and compete with other global powers. Spain’s colonies were a nearby and easy target. The wealth of the monopoly capitalists had to be further expanded and accumulated, and the U.S. realized that the best way for them to do this was through conquest.
During the Spanish-American war, the U.S. ruling class propaganda portrayed America as a savior to the former Spanish colonies of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico (which were subsequently put under U.S. domination).
Racist political cartoons like these from right after the Spanish-American War depict the colonized people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii as children who needed to be “civilized” by Uncle Sam. The blackboard in the back reads in part, “The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without their [the colonies’] consent until they can govern themselves.” White supremacist depictions of colonized people are still an integral part of how U.S. imperialism operates.
The U.S. was depicted as the country which would spread freedom and democracy to these countries. In fact, the U.S. ruling class had no sympathy for the people of the former Spanish Empire. They simply saw Spain as a competitor, and the U.S. capitalists aimed to build their own colonial empire on the backs of the people of the world.
Following the annexation of Puerto Rico, the U.S. moved quickly to ensure that the island’s land, labor, and resources were firmly in the grips of the U.S. monopoly capitalist class. In 1899, the U.S. outlawed the Puerto Rican Peso (which was at the time equal in value to the American dollar) and declared it was only worth $0.60 on the dollar. As a result, every Puerto Rican lost 40% of their money overnight. In 1901, the U.S. raised taxes on Puerto Rican farmers, forcing them to accept onerous loans from American banks. Because the interest on these loans was so high, farmers defaulted and lost their lands to the banks, who sold them to big agricultural corporations.
In 1920, the U.S. government passed the Jones Act. The Jones Act stated that goods traveling between American ports must be made, owned, and shipped by U.S. companies. This benefitted American shipping capitalists and granted them the ability to charge monopoly prices between U.S. ports while forcing Puerto Rico and other colonies into economic dependence on the U.S. The Jones Act is still in place today. As a result, it costs more to ship from LA to Hawaii than it does to ship from LA to Shanghai!
Commodities coming from foreign countries, when being shipped to Puerto Rico, must first be dropped in Jacksonville and transferred to a Jones Act-compliant ship, jacking up the price by 200 to 400 percent! However, the Jones Act—while very significant—is just one U.S. policy which serves to keep the Puerto Rican people under a star-spangled iron heel. The U.S. capitalist class has worked to profit from the exploitation and oppression of Puerto Rico.
A regiment of the U.S. military marching through Puerto Rico. After the Spanish-American War, the U.S. quickly set up its own military occupation of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is almost entirely reliant on imports for food, finished goods, medical supplies, and more—all from Jones Act ships. As a result, the cost of living in Puerto Rico is estimated to be 13% higher on average than the mainland. For example, Puerto Rico imports around 85% of its food, mostly from the U.S., and so food on the island costs twice as much as it does in Florida—this was all before Hurricane Maria even hit!
After it was seized during the war, the island was initially used for cash cropping in the interests of U.S. agribusiness, especially the American Sugar Refining Company (now Domino Sugar). By 1930, between 30-40% of the land was controlled by Domino Sugar and U.S. banks. These banks also owned the postal service, railroads, seaports, and more in Puerto Rico. After World War II, the U.S. ruling class shifted away from cash cropping and towards establishing Puerto Rico as a base of industrial production. This led to the destruction of most of the arable land in the country—which is now only 6% of the land—since it was no longer profitable for the U.S. elite to farm it.
Puerto Rican workers have gone from laboring in the plantations to laboring in the factories and sweatshops of U.S. corporations. There was a major shift from agriculture-without-industry to industry-without-agriculture. To this day, many U.S. pharmaceutical, bio-tech, and weapons companies continue to take advantage of the fact that Puerto Ricans are technically American citizens but can be paid wages that are on average 30-35% less than mainland American workers. Currently, manufacturing accounts for 46% of Puerto Rico’s Gross Domestic Product, compared to ~11% of U.S. GDP as a whole. And after these commodities are produced, over 90% are exported to the mainland to be sold for the profits of the capitalists.
Puerto Rico’s colonial status allows the Puerto Rican working-class to be exploited more intensely than the working-class of the mainland. For example, the median household income in 2017 of the poorest state in the U.S., West Virginia, was $43,469. For Puerto Rico, the median household income in 2017 was only $19,343. Hundreds of thousands of people have been put out of work since 2008. 45% of the island’s population is below the official poverty line.
By official unemployment statistics, the island has 10% unemployment. However, using a different and more accurate statistic—the labor force participation rate, which measures the percent of adult and able-bodied people who work at least one hour a week—only 40% of the population works (compared to ~63% on the mainland). Given these statistics, it is unsurprising that the majority of Puerto Rico’s population relies on one form or another of government welfare in order to survive.
These meager welfare programs are by and large insufficient for meeting people’s needs, but are often the only lifeline poor and working people have. In the past few years, the Puerto Rican colonial government has pursued deeply anti-people austerity measures which gut these already weak welfare programs, education systems, and other social services. All of this is done to ensure a larger and larger portion of the government revenue in Puerto Rico can flow into the pockets of U.S. capitalists.
The debt burden in Puerto Rico far exceeds any U.S. state when compared to GDP. This has led to a large number of people fleeing the island due to the desperate economic conditions.
The Debt Crisis
Puerto Rico has long been a “good place to do business” for the U.S. ruling class, an ideal U.S. colony, where American companies are able to pay workers far less, avoid labor laws and environmental protections on the mainland that were won by people’s struggles, and use tax loopholes to further increase their profits. This led to brutal exploitation and oppression of the Puerto Rican working class, and the draining of profits from Puerto Rico.
Because a huge chunk of the wealth produced by workers on the island is pocketed by capitalists on the mainland, the colonial government has to borrow money from big financial corporations and banks on Wall Street in order to pay for its expenses. This colonial relationship is at the root of the debt crisis that Puerto Rico is currently facing.
Exploitative and oppressive U.S. policies laid the ground for the massive accumulation of debt in Puerto Rico. The Jones Act for example forced the island to pay exorbitantly higher costs for basic necessities, while massive tax breaks granted to American companies restricted the amount of tax revenue that the island’s government could collect.
Under the Clinton administration, subsidies for the Puerto Rican economy were cut. However, this only led to swift economic decline, since the Puerto Rican economy was—and remains—dependent on capital from the U.S. The government of Puerto Rico attempted to make up for the loss of the subsidies by issuing bonds underwritten by big financial institutions like Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Santander Bank. Essentially, this meant the Puerto Rican government was borrowing from the future from these banks, and promising to pay them back with interest—an impossible task given the fact that U.S. colonial domination of the island funnels most of the wealth created there into the pockets of U.S. capitalists.
About one-third of all the value produced in Puerto Rico (roughly measured by Gross Domestic Product or GDP) is “repatriated” off the island, to the mainland United States. Repatriation means that the profits made from a foreign investment leave the country they were made in and go to the pockets of the foreign investors. In the case of Puerto Rico however, the “foreign investors” have the same American citizenship as the workers. The commodities being sold by pharmaceutical, weapons, and other corporations are produced by Puerto Rican workers but the profits made in producing these goods are sent to the bank accounts of mainland American capitalists.
Just between 2008 and 2017, the United States “repatriated” around $334 billion dollars in profits. At the same time, Puerto Rico’s bond debt in 2017 was estimated to be $74 billion. This means that just with the money American corporations drained from the island in a single decade, there would be enough to end Puerto Rico’s debt crisis four and a half times over! This “repatriation” of GDP is only one measure by which the American ruling class robs and exploits the people of Puerto Rico, and so the actual amount of profit generated on the island which never reaches the people is far higher.
The “Financial Oversight Board” established by Obama with PROMESA gave a group of Washington bureaucrats and Wall Street capitalists control over the Puerto Rican economy.
Instead of giving up a percentage of their profits to end the debt crisis, the U.S. ruling class has driven through extremely anti-people austerity measures to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay for the crisis that the capitalists created! The Puerto Rican government started to push these austerity policies in 2006. The government began to impose higher sales taxes, attacked public sector labor rights, and laid off tens of thousands of public employees. These attacks on the people did absolutely nothing to fix the debt—in fact, between 2006 and 2014 the debt grew by 64%!
At the same time, the Puerto Rican government also continued to give massive tax exemptions to the U.S. ruling class. Public infrastructure, such as the electrical grid, was allowed to deteriorate and left severely underfunded. Unsurprisingly, the debt grew and grew, and in 2015 was admitted to be “un-payable” by the Puerto Rican government.
In 2016, then-President Obama signed into law a bill called the PROMESA Act, an acronym for “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act”—which created a financial board to allegedly restructure the debt and solve the economic crisis facing Puerto Rico. Instead this oversight board intensified and deepened the austerity and attacks on the people. It expanded the cuts to public universities, pensions, and state-run infrastructure.
This oversight board is an unelected group of seven politicians and bankers. The board is not based in Puerto Rico, but instead sits in Washington D.C. and unilaterally dictates the financial policies of the Puerto Rican government. Unsurprisingly, this board is popularly known as “la junta” in Puerto Rico, a reference to the ‘juntas’ of right-wing military leaders that have run military dictatorships throughout Latin America. Many of these military dictatorships enacted similar austerity policies against the poor as well.
It is important to see here that the junta of bureaucrats who now decide Puerto Rico’s economic future are not the root of the issue, but symptomatic of colonialism. The board is there to ensure that the subjugation and plunder of Puerto Rico by the U.S. capitalist class can continue. The Puerto Rican people’s struggles against the corruption of Rosselló and the junta are thus part and parcel to the long history of resistance to U.S. imperialism—and imperialism in general.
Puerto Rican People’s Struggles Against U.S. Imperialism
Almost immediately after Puerto Rico was annexed and taken over by the United States, sentiments for independence grew stronger and more organized. A series of rebellions and revolts in the late 1800s had pushed the Spanish Empire to grant the island concessions in the form of slightly more autonomy and a form of local self-government.
The Ponce Massacre in Puerto Rico, in which the Puerto Rican Insular Police opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters and supporters of the Nationalist Party, killing 19 and injuring at least 200.
With the invasion by the U.S. during the Spanish-American war, Puerto Rico was put under U.S. military rule, with politicians and the governor appointed by the U.S. president. While the “self-government” granted by the Spanish was not a form of real freedom and independence, U.S. occupation and an effective military dictatorship enraged the masses of people and rekindled the independence movement.
American rule gradually ceded the people some degree of local control, in an attempt to convince people that the U.S. acquisition of Puerto Rico was not colonial. For example, a body similar to the House of Representatives (called the House of Delegates) was set up in 1900. But the real sham nature of this elected body was revealed in 1914, when their unanimous vote in favor of independence from the U.S. was flatly rejected. In 1917, the U.S. passed a law which made Puerto Ricans citizens of the U.S., saying it was a step towards statehood and being incorporated into the Union.
But in fact, the purpose of this move was to subject Puerto Ricans to the military draft and force them to fight in World War I. These actions by the U.S. government greatly increased popular support for the independence movement.
Several political parties, most notably the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, took shape during this time and organized for independence and self-determination. The U.S. responded with crackdowns and massacres. For example, in 1937 the PRNP organized a march in the city of Ponce in commemoration of the end of slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873.
Despite the fact this march was permitted by the government, the permit was revoked at the last minute and the police were sent in against the marchers. They opened fire, killing 19 people and wounding some 200 more. Soon after, leaders of the PRNP were arrested and charged with conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. Massacres and arrests like these were a common part of the efforts to suppress the independence movement. But while they held back the development of the movement in the short-term, they spurred many more people both in Puerto Rico and around the world to support the struggle for self-determination and independence.
After the U.S. shifted industrial production to Puerto Rico in the mid-1940s, huge numbers of people moved to the cities and began working in large workplaces. This allowed the revolutionaries in the country to organize much more effectively and involve a greater number of the masses in their activities. What started as a movement based mainly among the petit-bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and sections of the bourgeoisie began to take on a mass, working-class character. The simmering anger against U.S. colonial rule by the Puerto Rican masses turned into a pressure cooker of resistance, and in 1950 this erupted into armed mass revolts against colonial rule.
P-47 bombers such as these were used to crush the people’s rebellion in Jayuya in 1950. News of the uprising barely reached the United States, and President Truman only referred to it as “an incident between Puerto Ricans.”
The U.S. had already taken steps to try and quell this rising resistance. In 1947, they allowed Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor instead of having a U.S. appointee. But this governor, Luís Muñoz Marín, was in fact a total comprador of the U.S. Meaning that, while nominally being “independently elected”, he was beholden to U.S. interests and led a puppet government to serve the colonizers. Like all governors since him, he was an agent of U.S. colonialism with a Puerto Rican face. Its no surprise then that Muñoz Marín played a major role in crushing the nationalist independence movement. In 1948, he signed a gag law which prohibited any organization against the government or the expression of anti-government sentiments.
It was illegal to wave a Puerto Rican flag or sing a pro-independence song under this draconian law. This increased repression led to even more of the Puerto Rican population to take a stand against the colonial rule. In 1950, the U.S. tried again to quell the pro-independence sentiment by introducing a bill that would turn the island into a “Commonwealth”—the official status of the island today. Commonwealth status only meant one real change: it gave Puerto Rico the ability to write its own constitution for local government on the island.
However, it did not allow them to declare independence or decide their own future in any significant way. The political-economic system was and still is fundamentally in the hands of the United States capitalists.
The revolutionaries and independistas of Puerto Rico saw this clearly for what it was: an effort to maintain U.S. colonial rule. The PRNP in particular worked to coordinate armed uprisings against the colonial government in 7 cities, including San Juan, Jayuya, and Utuado. In Jayuya, revolutionaries led by Blanca Canales raised the Puerto Rican flag in defiance of the 1948 gag law, leading Muñoz Marín to declare martial law. The Puerto Rico National Guard, a branch of the U.S. National Guard, was sent in to crush the revolt. P-47 bombers machine gunned the rooftops and destroyed large sections of the city, forcing the nationalists to surrender. The revolts in other towns were similarly put down by military might and massacres. This setback resulted in a big decline in the independence movement, although pro-independence sentiment remains popular.
With the deepening economic crisis, corruption of the Puerto Rican government, and disastrous effects of the 2017 hurricane, people’s struggles have seen a new wave of energy and initiative. Hurricane Maria in particular devastated the island—over 3,000 were killed, most of the island was without electricity and roads to rural towns blocked by debris for months, and the people sunk into even more severe poverty. Rural communities were left isolated, while hospitals in the towns and cities were over capacity and serving as extra space for the full morgues.
Hurricane Maria killed thousands and left many homeless and without food, clean water, or access to medical care. The U.S. government did almost nothing to help the people.
Instead of doing anything significant to alleviate the suffering of the people, the colonial government and the U.S. government continued to push forward austerity measures. The Jones Act was suspended to allow aid to enter, but this was reversed after only a week, keeping the prices of basic goods unaffordable. Thousands of people have left Puerto Rico for the mainland due to the unbearable conditions, and rich capitalists have begun buying up buildings and land in cities like San Juan to gentrify and profit from tourism and speculation while the masses of Puerto Rico remain unemployed, unhoused, and unfed.
The government of Rosselló has also been tied up in a web of corruption scandals. For example, in July it was uncovered that two of Rosselló’s agency chiefs—the Education Secretary and the Executive Director of the Health Insurance Administration—had been funneling some $15 million in federal contracts to companies they had ties with. Only a few weeks before this, the Treasury Secretary of Puerto Rico alleged on radio that an “institutional mafia” was operating within his department, engaged in profit-making and graft scandals. He was promptly fired for bringing these allegations to the media, with administration officials saying he was not “loyal.” These corruption scandals have been the norm for Puerto Rico for generations. However, the increasing anger at the whole government—the pathetic response to natural disasters, the austerity, the corruption of the two-party system—laid the ground for the huge mass movement that came in July.
The July Protests & Their Relevance for the Mainland
On July 11, 2019, an anonymous source leaked Telegram messages from Rosselló’s account, and on the 13th the Center for Investigative Journalism published nearly 900 pages of leaked texts. The messages revealed open misogyny, homophobia, and a real hatred and contempt for the people. Rosselló and other members of the administration discuss manipulating public opinion through social media troll networks, crack jokes about the victims of Hurricane Maria, and joke about shooting opposition politicians such as the mayor of San Juan. Rosselló was on vacation in France when the messages were published, and quickly flew back to Puerto Rico to try and save his already tarnished career. But the people were already gathered on the streets to demand his resignation.
Rosselló confined himself in the presidential palace—a 16th century Spanish construction called La Fortaleza (The Fortress)—while the masses poured onto the streets. By July 17, over 500,000 marched through Old San Juan with the popular demand “¡Ricky Renuncia!” (Ricky Resign!). The governor and his family attempted to win back support by visiting churches and women’s shelters, but to no avail. More and more members of the administration resigned, and the pressure of the mass movement continued to grow. On July 31st, Rosselló announced his resignation.
The Spanish colonial-era palace La Fortaleza (The Fortress) in which the governor of Puerto Rico resides. While the politicians live in decadence, the majority of Puerto Ricans live in deep poverty.
The protest movement that brought Puerto Rico’s government to its knees carries a lot of lessons for revolutionaries in the mainland United States and around the world. For one, it demonstrated the real power of the people. While the opposition party supported aspects of the protests and stands to gain from the fall of their political rival, the movement was not one concocted or engineered by the equally corrupt and backwards opposition.
It was a real mass movement that got hundreds of thousands of people actively involved in politics, many for the first time. The movement rekindled demands for system change and self-determination, and ultimately showed people what is actually possible when people come together in struggle against their real class enemies. Through a two-week long sustained mass rebellion, Rosselló’s government was brought down.
It is important to see that what happened in Puerto Rico was not a revolution in the proper sense of the word—the next government to replace Rosselló’s will not act in a fundamentally different way. It will maintain the parasitic political, economic, and social relations the United States has with the island. The police, National Guard, prisons, and other repressive tools of the state will act in much the same way towards the people when they fight back and rebel. The demand for self-determination will continue to be repressed and the country looted by U.S. capitalist vultures.
However, the movement has greatly increased the Puerto Rican people’s fighting spirit. They are struggling for even greater gains—including eventually throwing off the shackles of American colonialism and establishing a really pro-people and socialist society. This will ultimately require revolutionaries in Puerto Rico to assess the successes and failures of people’s struggles—both in Puerto Rico and globally—and seriously organize for revolutionary overthrow of the whole colonial Puerto Rican state.
As revolutionaries and internationalists within the United States, we have a duty to support the people’s struggles against imperialism all around the world, and support the development of principled revolutionary forces in every country. What’s more, since Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony, the histories of the working-class in the U.S. and the working-class in Puerto Rico are intimately tied together, and there is a need for revolutionaries and workers here to support the self-determination of Puerto Rico. We have a common interest in the overthrow of not just U.S. imperialism (the direct oppressor of the people in the mainland and in Puerto Rico), but the entire system of capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy.