As you may be aware, Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 18 leading to an island wide power outage and 16 deaths. This comes just five years after Hurricane Irma devastated the island and then-President Donald Trump made a mockery of the suffering of the island after 3,000 were killed. For many with Puerto Rican heritage such as myself, squaring one’s identity can be difficult. After all, we are among the last outright colonized people on the planet. We are told that we are Puerto Ricans, yet our land is not our own. Being a Puerto Rican is simultaneously a state of being and not being. The latter half of the 20th century saw decolonization sweep across Africa and Asia, and many new states emerge. But Puerto Rico has remained stuck in the mire of colonialism. For me, the time is up. The island must secure independence for its survival.
Since 1898, the island has been a US protectorate. That was when the US acquired the island from the Spanish after the Spanish-American War. But many do not know the dark history that occurred on the island during those years. The first half of the 20th century was a time when eugenics was taken seriously as a science and the United States inflicted mass suffering on many of its “undesirable” populations including African American and indigenous communities. Puerto Rico suffered immensely during this period. Between the 1930s and 1970s, one-third of the female population of the island was sterilized. This procedure was so commonplace it became known as “la operación.” In fact I have personal experience of talking to my uncle who told me that it was common knowledge what was happening and women “going to the doctor” became a euphemistic way of saying she would be sterilized. This was colonial violence on an immense scale. Along with this racialized medical violence was colonial violence. For example, the Ponce Massacre on Palm Sunday in 1937 resulted in police killing 19 independence advocates and injuring 200 more. The US has even gotten involved, such as in 1978 when two revolutionary independence fighters, Carlos Enrique Soto Arriví and Arnaldo Darío Rosado Torres, were killed by police with the likely aid of the FBI.
The economics of Puerto Rico have all the hallmarks of colonial development. The coldly named “Operation Bootstrap,” from the capitalist mantra “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” was a development program designed to turn Puerto Rico from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Many on the island lost their former jobs and had to leave for the United States to seek employment. Adding to the colonial system was the fact that Puerto Rico was a tax shelter, meaning companies investing there would pay no taxes on their investments in Puerto Rico. This pattern of development seemed to work for a time, but ultimately it has failed. By relying solely on US investment — as being a territory of its type prevents it from getting foreign aid — it meant when US policy shifted, Puerto Rico would be hard hit. In 1996, Section 936, the law making Puerto Rico a tax exempt investment area, was phased out. This meant US industry gradually stopped investing in Puerto Rico. The results have been horrific. According to the Mercatus Institute, the public debt has ballooned to $70 billion, or 68% of the GDP. Puerto Rico is in a profound debt crisis, only made worse by the 2008 recession, COVID-19 pandemic, and numerous natural disasters. This has led to a mass exodus. Much like the Irish, there are now more Puerto Ricans living in the United States than their homeland. The idealist in me wants to believe that this was not intentional, but the cynic in me knows that the United States has historically relied on cheap labor, be it African slaves, immigrants or prisoners. This crushing of Puerto Rico’s condition has given the US a permanent source of incoming labor. The island has essentially had to declare bankruptcy, and the government here is trying to restructure the debt. If the IMF and World Bank are any indicators, western capitalist debt restructuring is usually a further sign of entrapment.
With all of this being said, the American relationship with Puerto Rico has been disastrous for Puerto Rico. It is clear the status quo has meant impoverishment and deprivation for the island. This leads me to the main counter to independence-statehood. Being a state has not prevented extreme neglect by the US government — see Flint and Jackson for recent examples. Much like Hawaii before it, becoming a state would only cement the colonization of Puerto Rico as legitimate. This is not acceptable. Puerto Rico is a beautiful place with endless possibilities. In order to fulfill them however, it must escape the yoke of US dominance. Someday I wish to return to a free Puerto Rico, one where the people know the land as their own and where their dignity is respected.