Could the Recent Blackout in Puerto Rico be a Sign of the Future?

As some of you may already know, on September 21, Puerto Rico experienced a massive blackout across the island. The power outage was apparently caused by a fire that erupted at an electricity plant when some systems failed, sparking approximately 15 more fires at other locations. Up to 1.5 million people were left without power, 250,000 without running water, about $1 billion was potentially lost in the three days that everything came to screeching halt. Though the situation has been more or less resolved, for the time being, there are still many households left without electricity. The governor has warned that there could be unforeseen consequences from the incident in the future, adding to the fears that this a sign of worse to come as Puerto Rico deals with crisis after crisis.

The electricity situation in Puerto Rico is a symptom and maybe even one of the causes of the deteriorating economy of the island. Like with many other services in Puerto Rico, energy was provided by one centralized government entity called the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, or PREPA for short. PREPA has made many questionable decisions and has been the subject of several allegations of corruption. In towns like Aguadilla, electricity is provided free-of-charge to city-owned institutions and private businesses, though not to private citizens. The justification for this is the generous amount of economic benefits which Aguadilla and other municipalities have reaped from the deal, like fewer local tax increases and revenue from city-owned businesses (hotels, restaurants, etc.). The downside to this, of course, is that PREPA has had to borrow tremendously every year to plug the holes in its budget. PREPA’s debt stands at $9 billion because of these decisions.

The dilemma with PREPA illustrates how complicated and interwoven the economy and politics are in Puerto Rico. Everyone and everything ultimately relies on the central government institutions, really whether they want to or not. This particular situation is compounded by PREPA not following its own rules. When it was created by Rexford Tugwell, one of the New Deal architects we’ve referenced here before, it was intended to be a power company of the people and for the people – but it had limits. The no-charge use was conditional on a cost cap, after which cities were required to pay for continued use. Ostensibly, city and central government payments for increased usage of electricity would make up for loss in revenue from PREPA’s tax exemption.

As of 2014, though, municipalities and government institutions owe a combined $720 million to PREPA, of which there has been sparse efforts to collect. The last time PREPA threatened to turn off power for delinquent payments, the government had to sell off the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport to cover the difference. It’s now the only privatized airport in the nation, and yet the Puerto Rican port authority is still falling behind on its debts to PREPA. Other government entities delinquent payments owed have publicly challenged PREPA’s legal authority to enforce its threats of power shutdowns.

PREPA has been criticized for its over-reliance on oil, of which prices fluctuate constantly and generate significant costs in importation, only adding to fiscal decline. Though some scoff at the idea of introducing alternative energy plans as a way to decrease the debt, it’s fast approaching the point at which the current situation cannot be physically maintained. A $72 billion debt and a fiscal control board will spell big changes in the way Puerto Rico’s run, and the doomsday predictions of more collapsing services in the future could end up becoming a reality. The reality now, though, is that the government-run corporations are able to sustain themselves, whether due to corruption, incompetence, flawed practices or circumstances outside their control. That in turn could lead to the reality of drastic budget cuts, which could lead to the dreaded reality of incidents like September 21 blackout becoming common occurrences.

From Suburban Lawyer to Jibaro Hotelier

The fantasy of packing up everything and moving to a tropical island is a common story that many of us can relate to. Leaving behind all the stress, the traffic, the bills, and especially the snow and the ice to lie down on a beach somewhere has a certain appeal. Some have definitely followed through with the fantasy: every time I head down to Puerto Rico, I find several second or third generation Puerto Ricans from the Bronx, Queens, Jersey, or wherever else, that had only been to the island once or twice before deciding to give up everything to settle there. I’ve also met quite a few white and black Americans who could barely speak Spanish, but nevertheless left their lives behind for Puerto Rican living. However, unlike most of those people, Steven Weingarten never had the dream of retiring to a tropical island.

Steven was a lawyer with a private civil law firm in Great Neck, Long Island, when he decided to explore Puerto Rico. He had been to the island at least twice before, staying with family at one of the Condado hotels, and traveling with a special summer camp program that brought kids from Connecticut all the way down to Bayamon, PR, as a camp counselor. Though he enjoys warmer weather, Steven isn’t all that fond of the beach, and the campers and counselors got themselves lost in the hilly, muddy terrain. Both were so long ago that Steven can’t even remember the name of the hotel or the program. So, what prompted Steven to just return to the island after decades had passed?

As he recalls, he was sitting in his law office “on a gloomy November afternoon in 1995…watching the large snowflakes float towards the cold concrete below. I feel the chill in my bones and the need to get warm soon.” He went to the local library to pick up some guidebooks, and eventually discovers that the island of Puerto Rico has a mountain chain in the central region that he’s never been to. Not being the biggest fan of “just lying on the beach for a week,” he decides that a little change of scenery for a tropical vacation would be the perfect escape from the chilly climate.

Steven looks into the system of Paradores in Puerto Rico, a special type of hotel established by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, a government agency created in the 1970’s. The Parador program was a special initiative based upon a similar system in Spain of luxury hotels, though in Puerto Rico they’re privately owned “country inns” that were converted from older buildings, like coffee plantations. Unfortunately, focus for some Paradores has been less on the “luxury.” Steven tried for three Paradores, but two were overbooked so he settled on Parador Casa Grande up in the mountains of Utuado. Those of you who’ve seen our photography of the modern Casa Grande Mountain Retreat may be conjuring images right now of the renovated hotel, but as Steven describes it the place was nowhere near the picturesque hideaway it is now.

The Parador Casa Grande was in such disrepair that Steven still remembers the details vividly, 20 years later. The pool was a “dark soupy green” color and had not a single piece of furniture in sight, so that Steven had to bring one of the rough, scratchy towels from his room to lie down next to the mucky water. The guest rooms weren’t much better, with wall-to-wall carpeting – a big, BIG no-no in the humid environment of Puerto Rico, especially high in the rainforest – and bedsheets Steven describes as having a “nubby, sandy feeling.” The bathrooms had poorly glued-on tiles, tiny industrial sinks with bare piping, and rusty tubs that still had stains in them. The parking lot’s asphalt was broken up and there was barely any room to park. The walkways were made of rotting wood (unlike the concrete used now) and the hacienda was dimly lit and all the furniture was dirty.

Steven begins chatting up the staff and gets the full story on the deplorable conditions. The disinterested owner was already using money from refinancing his mortgage on the hotel to invest elsewhere. He hadn’t paid taxes on the place for years and foreclosure was soon to follow. The staff’s checks had already begun bouncing. While going over everything with Steven, the front desk manager quips that he should buy Casa Grande, possibly as a joke but maybe also a bit of a desperate plea. Steven’s a little shocked, but he takes the suggestion to heart as he continues his trip in Puerto Rico, eventually arriving at a much nicer hotel on the west coast of the island. He, as he puts it, “cornered” the owner and asked him if buying a small hotel up in the mountains was a crazy idea. “I don’t think you’re crazy,” he answers, “but you’re in for a lot of work.”

20 years later, and Steven’s gone from “being a suburban Long Island lawyer, to a Puerto Rican hotelier,” as he so aptly puts it. For over two decades he’s put his heart and soul into repairing and renovating Casa Grande, and it shows. “It’s unrecognizable from what it was,” says Steven. New, painted rooms, with beds that I personally can attest to are very comfortable, refurbished bathrooms, a clean, freshwater pool – with ample furniture – that’s being renovated yet again to improve it even more, walkways made out of solid concrete of course, and a redone hacienda where guests can sit and eat for breakfast and dinner, as well as attend yoga classes. There are even some beautiful hiking trails on the property, and Steven also added hammocks for all the rooms.

Steven transitioned to his new life gradually, commuting to Puerto Rico from New York for four years before settling in. Though it could have potentially been a system shock for an outsider, he’s adapted quite well to his new home. Even if he’s not that keen on beaches, Steven loves warm weather and says he also loves the landscape and fauna of the Puerto Rican mountains. He also says that he loves the people, calling them “very warm and very friendly,” noting that there’s less “pretentiousness,” “materialism,” and “social climbing,” than in the cities. “It’s very appealing to me, there’s a lot to be said for this lifestyle. That’s why I’ve been here for 20 years, no one forced me to stay…I get to live and work to in paradise.” Seeing Casa Grande Mountain Retreat now, it definitely does seem like a paradise within a paradise.

Puerto Ricans More Likely to Give Charity Than Other Americans

While searching through the increasingly depressing news reports concerning Puerto Rico, I found an interesting subject picked up by several different websites. Researchers have found that a majority of Puerto Ricans – almost 75 percent – regularly give charitable donations. That’s interesting for several reasons: that’s about 20 percent higher than the average for the rest of the U.S., Puerto Rico’s been in an economic decline for at least over a decade, and poverty levels in Puerto Rico are much higher than in the rest of the nation. Why then, are Puerto Ricans so willing to give up the few dollars left in their pockets?

Charity in Puerto Rico is a complicated topic to talk about, mainly because of the corruption that can often run unchecked through the island’s institutions. One such example is a local charity managed by the governor’s brother, its only employee, and a former New York union representative of Puerto Rican descent. The charity receives donations from the biggest companies doing business in Puerto Rico, and even the most casual observer can point out the nepotism and system of “pay-to-play” kickback politics. Worse still is the ammunition it gives to those who want to make sure no federal funds go to the island’s government, at a time when the effects of such are devastating.

Even with the less than ethical behavior of some charities, significant giving still goes and ostensibly manages to find its way to the actual people. A number of charities, including the one that initiated the study, both outside and based in Puerto Rico have been able to serve thousands of people on the island with donations from both locally and the mainland. However, according to the study, most Puerto Ricans prefer to partake in informal acts of charity, like donating directly to neighbors and family. A majority of those sampled knew next to nothing about giving through official channels. It’s also important to note that the study separated the population by general and high net worth households, the latter being those above $150,000 annual income or $1 million net worth. Though somewhat more gave to charity – about 88 percent – it was less than the average in the mainland U.S.

Puerto Rico has increased incentives for charitable giving, including the 2011 PR Tax Code which increased tax deductions for donations to 10 percent. However, most of those in the study had no idea this law existed, including quite a few high net worth households. Whether this is due to a widespread lack of exposure and education from philanthropic non-profits, or from an inherent distrust of institutions caused by corruption, it’s hard to say. What can be said is that there is a lot of untapped potential in Puerto Rico.

If you’ve read through our previous postings (which, you know, I’d personally recommend), then you have an idea of what we believe about Puerto Rican unity. While we – Puerto Ricans on both the mainland and island – can sometimes disappoint each other greatly, we continuously show that beyond the violence, racism, and self-hate we do care about each other deep down, even if we won’t admit it on an individual level. If that could be harnessed en masse, we could actually start to fix some of the internal problems on the island.

The Man Who Fought for Puerto Rican, Irish and Indian Independence

Last week passed the birthday (Sept. 12) of probably one of the greatest – and to some, one of the most infamous – revolutionaries the world has ever known. The man we refer to Don Pedro Albizu Campos was incredibly passionate, highly educated, supremely intelligent, and thoroughly dedicated to the cause of independence for colonized nations. His political involvement spanned over 40 years, despite almost 30 of those being spent in and out of prison. He was finally pardoned and released for the last time just six months before his death. His funeral procession is claimed to have been attended by 75,000 people, a testament to the enduring adoration held by many Puerto Ricans for him.

There are already plenty of sources detailing the man’s life, so I’ll just list the important bits. He was born in Ponce in 1891 to a mother of “mixed ancestry” and a father of Basque descent. His father wouldn’t recognize him until he was already 19, and the only thing it seems he received from his progenitor was the privilege of being able to be claimed as “white.” Anyone who sees a picture of him can plainly observe that besides a few European features, he didn’t really fit into many definitions of “white,” but the designation seems to have affected his life by supposedly allowing him access to education usually reserved for the white families of Ponce*, among other things later on. It’s important to note that Albizu’s mother died when he was young, and he grew up with his aunt in a devastatingly impoverished section of town with no support from his father whatsoever.

Despite these humble beginnings and not enrolling in school until he was 12, Albizu breezed through his studies and completed 11 years of education in 7 1/2 (it was at this point that his father finally claimed him). He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Vermont, where he studied Engineering, and while studying there received another scholarship for the prestigious Harvard University, where he earned several more degrees including one from Harvard Law School. However, his studies were cut short by World War I. He immediately enlisted for the U.S. military, even before the country entered the war, and was placed in the Army Reserves, as were many other Spanish-speakers and troops of African descent. His designation as a white Puerto Rican ostensibly led to him being assigned an officer position, though doubtless his vast intellect and ability to speak eight languages (at least four or five of which were spoken throughout the Western Front) helped to secure that position. He served until 1919, though never saw combat due to a variety of reasons, and the political circumstances behind them may shed some light onto why Albizu became so fervent in his desire for independence.

As I said, Reserve units like Don Pedro’s, the 375th Regiment, were part of an effort to raise men from among the Latino and African-American populations to face the daunting task of fighting what had become the bloodiest war in history at that time. However, politicians in the Jim Crow Southern states were not quite happy with the prospect of armed blacks passing through and residing in their constituencies, where some of the most important training camps and shipping off points were located. At least one source claims they dreaded the arrival of Puerto Rican troops, who they felt would not accept segregation. This proved at least partially prophetic, as the racism Albizu dealt with within the color-divided military changed him from a man who had been willing to fight and die for the United States to one who would cut all ties with the nation. He came to see the U.S. and Puerto Rico as culturally and ideologically opposed** and unable to co-exist as one nation-state. He extended this idea to other colonial struggles, namely to the Indian and Irish independence movements which were in full swing at the time.

albizu

Calle San Sebastian, Old San Juan

At school, Albizu became a leader and a rallying point for many of the international students and also involved himself with several revolutionary intellectuals at the time. These included Indian nationalists Subha Chandras Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, and eventually Irish nationalist Eamon de Valera. Albizu was involved in debates, consultations and even sometimes in the actual crafting of the rules and laws of these revolutionaries’ independence movements. He was constantly active in drumming up support for these causes while at Harvard and became a respected figure in their circles. However, he considered men like de Valera, Tagore, and Mahatma Gandhi as being too limited and idealistic in their views, and looked more to Bose and Irish nationalist James Connolly as the templates for what was necessary to uplift a colonized people.

He returned to Puerto Rico in 1921, and you can read yourself about how many lucrative job offers he turned down to work with the poor residents of his native Ponce. A few years later, in 1924, he joining the burgeoning Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and was elected its Vice President. In 1930, the Party suffered an ideological split and Albizu became the President of the organization, which reportedly saw a militant rise in its tactics and objectives with Don Pedro’s leadership. They campaigned during the 1932 elections, but were unable to secure much political support and then turned to labor strikes and other tactics, finally making headway in 1934 when Albizu was asked to intervene in a sugar cane worker strike. He successfully secured wage increases for the workers from 45 cents to $1.50 for a 12-hour day. It was then that Albizu and the Nationalists began garnering real attention, from both the populace and the government. Crowds of Puerto Ricans began following him around, as did the police and FBI. The U.S. government also appointed a new military governor of Puerto Rico, who outfitted the police force of the island with military grade equipment (Thompson submachineguns, tear gas, etc.)

Things came to a head in 1935, when a political spat between supporters of Albizu and supporters of Carlos E. Chardón, Chancellor of the University of Puerto and head of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, initiated a conflict that saw the police become involved at Chardón’s behest. Chardón had been appointed by former governor Theodore Roosevelt Jr., and Albizu accused the Chancellor of being an American crony. Chardón’s supporters at the University declared Albizu “Student Enemy Number One” and “persona non grata,” and Nationalist students protested in response. Police stopped a “suspicious looking” vehicle, and one thing leading to another, the two Nationalists in the car were subsequently shot by police and another two were dead as well (no source provides a single clue as to how the other two Nationalists who don’t seem to have been in the car just turned up as shot to death). A Nationalist who lived nearby claimed to have seen the police purposefully execute the car’s occupants, but her testimony was never introduced in court – the officers involved received promotions.

The head of the island’s police force, former Army Colonel Riggs, was assassinated not long after. In response, police rounded up two members of the Nationalist’s youth organization that they alleged to have carried out the deed, and promptly executed them without a trial. They then rounded up and arrested several Nationalist Party leaders, including Albizu Campos, who was sentenced to 10 years in an Atlanta prison. Thus began the first of several stints of incarceration for Albizu and many other Puerto Rican activists, and the decades of violence that followed. In 1937, more of the Nationalists’ youth organization members staged a march through Ponce to protest the arrests. The governor caught wind of it at the last minute and ordered the mayor to cancel their permit, and stationed police on the planned route with orders to disperse the crowd – all without telling the protesters. The officers began firing immediately, killing 19 and wounding 200, including women and children. Despite even members of Congress objecting to his methods, Governor Winship tried to hold a military parade the following year at the very spot of the massacre to celebrate the supposed “victory” of his heavy-handed campaign. Gunmen fired on him and managed to kill a local National Guard officer.

Though Winship was recalled and native Puerto Ricans were finally beginning to assume the higher offices, the government still cracked down on any and all attempts at promoting independence. One measure was an oppressive “Gag Law” that completely criminalized all such behavior, including any language critical of the U.S. government and even the displaying of a Puerto Rican flag. The Nationalists had had enough and planned to stage an open revolt, even though Don Pedro had finally been released from jail. This coincided with an attempt on President Harry Truman’s life. Though the latter came rather close to completion, both efforts ultimately ended in failure for the Nationalists, who were only able to hold most of their gains for a few days against planes and artillery. More summary executions followed their defeat.

Albizu was attacked and besieged by police in his home, and arrested again. He was pardoned by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín in 1953, but then in the following year Nationalist members opened fire in the U.S. Capitol building and wounded five congressmen. Don Pedro was immediately placed under arrest again and remained in prison until 1964, when he was released due to health concerns. He died six months later after suffering the last of multiple strokes. He had claimed while he was imprisoned that he was subjected to torture by x-ray radiation. Many of his symptoms accurately resembled radiation poisoning*** and a Cuban doctor confirmed such after performing an independent examination – in addition to the admission since that some prisoners were experimented on with x-rays.

There’s quite a bit I left out, like his accusations against Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoades (claimed to have purposefully killed several Puerto Rican patients in a private letter), his rivalry with Luis Muñoz Marín (who actively fought against independence even against his contemporaries’ wishes, and was alleged to have been an opium addict), his touring of Latin America, his investing in bonds for Puerto Rico, and many other historical anecdotes. I also interjected some of my own conjecture, and though others may disagree with how I painted his life, I felt that those details were important to understand who Don Pedro Albizu Campos was and why his story is still important today. The most important thing I left out was how he initially opposed the U.S. ownership of Puerto Rico. Though the passion for the fight came from his morals, he still approached the battle as an educated man. He contended that the U.S. relationship with Puerto Rico was illegal, and for all intents and purposes, he probably was right.

The Spanish granted Puerto Rico a Charter of Autonomy as they were preparing to leave, not wanting to deal with the insurrection any longer. However, the U.S. soon defeated the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines (due in large part to the native rebel movements and the low morale among the Spanish troops) and demanded concessions for victory. Spain granted the U.S. the rights to Puerto Rico, violating their earlier agreement with the island. Claims can be made about the timing and the lag in communications or the remaining Spanish presence, but it does not change the fact that American forces disregarded the Puerto Ricans’ claim of sovereignty and continued occupying the island. The troubled relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. will not change until that fact is admitted. Worse, the general impression of Puerto Rico among Americans has not seemed to have changed much in the past 60 years, despite everything. A 1950 article from a Harvard newspaper referencing Albizu as a former grad, and in the context of the Nationalist revolt, speaks about the incident and the island in quite unflattering terms. Specifically, they say that the political maturity of Puerto Rico is “doubtful.”

The appointment of the fiscal control board and the language being used to describe the whole Puerto Rican Debt Crisis has shown that this is still the popular view whenever anything even remotely goes wrong in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are frequently, consistently even, shown as administratively, economically and politically inept by even the most ostensibly liberal and humanist of news rags. Having come back from Puerto Rico recently at the time of the writing of this article, I can tell you personally that this portrayal and its effects are being felt on the island, and they’re not sitting well with it. The demonstrations may seem relatively small now, but so did the initial protests that led to the Nationalist Party, and probably a a million other revolts besides that grew out of tiny sparks of outrage. Worse, there might not be a leader like Albizu to keep whatever new movement comes centered.

Whatever detractors will say about him and his organization, Don Pedro was clearly a sober and driven individual. If the attacks attributed to his planning really were his masterpieces, then he truly was a hyper-intelligent and principled man. Even if you want to label him a terrorist, he was obviously nothing like the brutal fanatics we fear today. He launched no preemptive attacks, he bombed no crowded civilian centers, and he terrorized no common man or woman. Nearly every assault was aimed directly at the leadership, always came in response to previous atrocities, and was carried out as surgically as a nascent, Third World resistance movement could afford to. He never seemed to become bitter at the Party’s failures and begin lashing out, even as he was literally being killed by his captors. Where many other revolutionaries would become jaded, sadistic, tyrannical, delusional and amoral, he stayed focused, and where others used only violence, he attempted to solve things legally and civilly before finally turning to armed conflict. If Puerto Ricans revolted now, they’d be lucky to have someone as measured as Don Pedro leading them. More than likely, it’d be someone with a lot less finesse and reserve that would drown both sides in blood. This scenario could become an unfortunately all-too-real future if things don’t change, and soon.

I’ve purposefully avoided hyperlinking anything until now, not wanting to create leading trains of thought and preferring to offer you the links to most of my research, save the more atrocious and insulting pages that I refuse to give backlinks to. Read them for yourself and make up your own mind on who Don Pedro was.

*It’s mentioned in passing on Albizu’s Wikipedia page that Ponce High School was “a public school of the white elite.” I checked the source, and found it came from a book about Luis Muñoz Marín. As I said, Muñoz and Albizu were ideological rivals and it’s been my experience that most chroniclers of the former always attempt to tear down, demonize, and trivialize the latter to make their subject appear more ideal as the moderate Puerto Rican politician. I wouldn’t have given it any credit, but then I saw the claim that Albizu received his officer’s commission due to being labeled as white. I personally think it more likely came from his education and abilities, but I also know that it’s true that such all-black units were often required to have white commissioned officers, and that racial definitions for Puerto Ricans in American institutions were whatever was bureaucratically convenient at the particular time, and that it could consequently open certain doors otherwise left shut. I recall seeing an image some years past of what was supposed to be Albizu’s military application, in which he claimed himself as “Negro,”  but it was impossible to tell if it was real.

**Several sources mention two Catholic priests among Albizu’s international contacts prior to his return to Puerto Rico. A few seemed to imply they had ties to the Irish Republican struggle, and one source claimed the Basque priest in particular saw it as a fundamental conflict to free “orderly” Catholic Europe from “chaotic” Protestant Europe. It was also claimed that this was major influence in Albizu’s ideology, however all mentions of his religion are only of his “devout” Catholicism and no more. India wasn’t a Catholic nation, but WAS oppressed by a Protestant colonizer along with Ireland, however, it could just as easily have been reactive Anti-Anglo bias or simply because Great Britain was the U.S.’s ally at the time, or neither. His Catholicism influenced his principles, but there’s little evidence he saw his cause as a holy war.

***Thanks to the work of researchers and archivists, the photos of the abuse done to Pedro Albizu Campos have been preserved and can be seen clearly by all. I won’t share them here due to their graphic nature, but you should be able to find them online or in certain books. For those with weak stomachs, I can sum them up as showing Albizu on what appears to be a stretcher or gurney, with a sheet pulled back to reveal his legs swollen to an extreme degree with scars visible even in black and white.

https://movimientomprl12s.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/frases-mas-sobresalientes-de-don-pedro-albizu-campos/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Ricans_in_World_War_I

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/369th_Infantry_Regiment_(United_States)

http://ephraim8.tripod.com/PuertoRicanPoliticalPrisonersAlbizuIII.html

https://writetofight.wordpress.com/dr-pedro-albizu-campos-his-emergence-and-the-influence-of-ireland/

https://nothingtobegainedhere.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/albizu-and-connolly-lives-of-sacrifice-and-valor/

https://waragainstallpuertoricans.com/pedro-albizu-campos/

http://latinopia.com/latino-history/biography-pedro-albizu-campos/

http://www.anb.org/articles/11/11-01225.html

http://www.democracynow.org/2015/4/21/war_against_all_puerto_ricans_inside

http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1950/11/9/brass-tacks-ppuerto-ricans-this-week/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponce_massacre

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%ADo_Piedras_massacre

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_radiation_experiments

http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/the-human-radiation-experiments

http://ippnw.org/pdf/mgs/1-1-mccally.pdf

https://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/bras.html

https://palantelatino.com/2012/07/26/u-s-invasion-of-puerto-rico-misconceptions-vs-facts/

http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/27/opinion/l-time-to-end-us-occupation-of-puerto-rico-787489.html

http://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/pedro-albizu-campos-revolutionary-forces-pacrf

https://palantelatino.com/2012/03/21/75th-anniversary-of-la-masacre-de-ponce/

http://www.whoisalbizu.com/

https://www.tumblr.com/search/pedro%20albizu%20campo

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg – The Puerto Rican Father of Black History

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in what is now Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1874, though nearly all information beyond that about the man is conflicting. His mother, Maria Josepha (or Josefa), was a freeborn black woman from one of two islands (St. Croix or St. Thomas) in what was then Danish territory. His father, Carlos Federico Schomburg, was either an immigrant from Germany to Puerto Rico or a Puerto Rican of German descent. This duality of information is a common occurrence in the sources detailing Schomburg’s life, many authors divided between one fact and another. Whatever his exact background, it’s clear that he was propelled to leave a tremendous impact on the world when he helped to introduce black history as a major subject of education and literature in the Americas.

Schomburg himself claimed that his inspiration for his life’s work came from the brazenly racist proclamation of a grade school teacher in Puerto Rico, who told him that black people had “no history, art or culture.” Many historians, however, suspect that his experiences with the African-American community at the turn of the century are what actually spurred him to dig up his people’s history. Schomburg emigrated to New York while still a teenager, and began befriending several Cuban revolutionaries – including the famous Jose Marti. He joined and founded several groups for the independence of both Puerto Rico and Cuba, though supposedly became disillusioned with the cause after the U.S. invaded and occupied the former Spanish territories.

Schomburg had married an African-American woman from Virginia in 1895, and another from North Carolina shortly after her death. They were part of the Great Migration, black Americans fleeing the growing oppression in the South as Reconstruction was giving way to Jim Crow. Through new friends and family, Schomburg was ostensibly exposed to the African-American experience for the first time and began including it with his writings on Afro-Caribbean topics. He started researching the history of Africans and their descendants, and networked with other black scholars to gather and promote texts on black history and culture.

In 1912, Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce, and in 1926 he accepted an offer from Ernestine Rose of the New York Public Library to lend his collection of texts to the NYPL for $10,000. He donated somewhere between 5000-10,000 works in total, and used the money to finance travel to Europe and the Caribbean to further his research. He was eventually offered the position of curator for the Center named after him, and held this and many other positions until his death in 1938.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is undoubtedly the father of black history and the main actor behind it being taken seriously as a literary subject in the United States. Historians have started to wake up to this fact in recent years, though this wasn’t always the case. Despite how he’s portrayed now as a celebrated African-American scholar, he wasn’t readily accepted by the black American community according to some. Most sources I found claim Schomburg to have been “lifelong” friends with W.E.B. Dubois, yet I’ve heard from others that he was in fact one of the greatest resistors to Arturo’s appointment as curator of his own collection, which sounds more in line with the often narrow-minded and reactive approach Dubois would take to further his causes. Additionally, while Schomburg’s protégé, Langston Hughes was able to be buried at the Center, the mentor’s family was forced to intern Schomburg himself in what is described by some as a “pauper’s cemetery” (at least at the time) because his former colleagues wouldn’t accept his remains at the Library.

Whatever the real truth, it becomes apparent when looking into his life that the passage of time has muddled the facts of Schomburg’s history. What’s worrying to me is a sort of simplification of his background and work that has regulated it to being a solely African-American subject. Schomburg was born well before the U.S. acquired his homeland of Puerto Rico. He was already an adult and deep into his studies on black history by the time he arrived in the U.S., and it was almost a decade after that he began delving into the North American black experience as opposed to the Afro-Caribbean one he grew up in. Despite what some historians have tried to claim, he did not all of sudden abandon focusing on Afro-Latino issues to dive into African-American subjects, speaking and writing on both for decades after. This petty national divide undercuts the very cause Schomburg worked so hard towards – a Pan-African database of knowledge that all Afro-descendants could learn their history from. Whether in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, or the U.S., it was all the same struggle for him.

I think it’s also unfair and a little biased for African-American scholars have tried to paint Schomburg as being influenced primarily by his U.S. experience. I can’t speak much for the Danish Virgin Islands, which is where he spent his adolescent years studying, but I know that his childhood home of Puerto Rico is one of a few places where the racial divides take a unique turn. Puerto Rico was one of a few colonies where the free black population outnumbered the slaves. This affected the race-based class system greatly, which already operated outside the One-Drop Rule of the Anglophone territories. Interracial couplings, while still looked down upon by some, were not outlawed, and their offspring were afforded a relatively larger degree of social mobility. That’s why the son of a white Puerto Rican and a black West Indian could freely seek an education, and it’s without a doubt a major instigator for Schomburg’s life dream.

Schomburg was like many Afro-Caribbeans who arrived in the U.S., who rejected a status quo they did not grow up in. Racism is still prevalent in the rest of the Americas, but widespread segregation could not realistically be enforced long-term in countries where blacks were often the majority. They were not raised believing they were subservient or inferior, and knowing that their ancestors had fought to make sure of that. Their influence helped spark the Harlem Renaissance and the wave of Afrocentric literature and arts that followed. Schomburg is arguably one of the most famous of these activists, because he made sure to put it all in writing for future generations.

The Origins of the Palenque

If you look up palenque, you might get a couple of different results. The first ones to show up will likely be about the Mayan city-state that was actually named Lakamha, now a collection of ancient ruins in Chiapas that is heavily marketed by the Mexican tourism industry for its historical value. This has overtaken the term palenque’s more common usage, which you’d have better luck finding if you look up synonyms in other languages, like Quilombo, Mocambe, or Maroon. If you really look, you also might be able to find San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, one of the best examples of the original term.
Palenque was the term the Spaniards used to refer to runaway slave communities, first for Indians then for the Africans that replaced them. The Spanish word for fugitive slave, Cimarron, would eventually be corrupted into the English Maroon. This particular variation was most often applied to the Maroon communities of Jamaica, who regularly raided and ambushed the British colonial forces until the latter were forced to sue for peace. The military prowess of some palenques was so great that their Maroon militia (and their descendants) decisively ended more than a few battles between colonial powers. These communities, and many others throughout the Americas, maintained their autonomy so well that some remain relatively isolated even today.
The palenque and the cimarrones that resided within them were instrumental in developing and maintaining Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino culture, and at times even Pre-Columbian Indian culture. Some even helped shape the greater cultures of their nations, like the former palenque of Loiza in Puerto Rico, where Bomba was born and of whose instruments and rhythms can be seen and heard in the musical styles that came after. Though usually occupied by a majority of Africans and Afro-descendants, palenques became melting pots of culture, language and ideas, and the people that emerged from them were altogether unique. That is what inspired us to choose the name palenque – we seek to form our own community, where people and culture from all over the world can mingle freely.

Long Road to Gold for Puerto Rico

On August 13, 2016, professional tennis player Monica Puig became the first Olympian to win a gold medal for Puerto Rico. Competing in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics in the women’s tennis singles, Puig managed to beat the German Angelique Kerber, who is ranked as the second-best tennis player in the world currently. On top of those accolades, Puig is also the first Latin American to win a gold medal in the women’s tennis singles, the first Puerto Rican to win an Olympic medal in tennis, and the first female athlete to win a medal for the island.

It’s been a long road to the gold for Puerto Rico. There has been a Puerto Rican delegation, independent of the U.S. team, in every Summer Olympics since the 1948 London games – and even a few Winter Olympics games. Puerto Rican athletes have a total of nine medals, with six out of that nine in boxing. Juan Evangelista Venegas Trinidad of Rio Piedras won the first medal in the 1948 games in the men’s bantamweight boxing by beating Louis Callenboat of Beligum by unanimous decision. Puerto Rico wouldn’t win another medal until the 1976 Montreal games, another bronze in boxing by Orlando Maldonado of Bayamon in the men’s fly lightweight division.

Puerto Rico received its first Olympic silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles games, by way of lightweight boxer Luis Ortiz of Humacao. Though he lost his final bout by a knockout in the second round, it was reported that he was still given a hero’s welcome in Puerto Rico. Yet he was not the only one making history for the island, as fellow boxer Aristides Gonzalez won a bronze in the middleweight event to give Puerto Rico two medals from one delegation.

The next time the U.S. territory won a silver medal was in the 2012 London games, which also ended up being the second time Puerto Rico won two medals and the first time AND second time the island received a medal in a category besides boxing. Jaime Espinal, originally from Santo Domingo of the Dominican Republic, won his silver in freestyle wrestling, while his compatriot Javier Culson, of Ponce, won a bronze in the 400-meter hurdle event.

The reception received by Puig from Puerto Ricans, as well as her own jubilation, shows just how much this win means for all Boricuas, those on the island, the mainland, and abroad. Having their own delegation has helped to shape and maintain Puerto Rico’s own national identity. Events at the 1948 games led to Puerto Rico establishing its own flag, after the U.S. complained about the P.R. delegation carrying theirs’. Now more than 60 years later, people in the U.S. take to social media to complain about Puig referring to Puerto Rico as a separate nation in a case of the greatest irony.

Puig is technically not the first Olympian born in Puerto Rico to win the gold, nor is she even the first to win one in women’s tennis. Gigi Fernandez, born in San Juan, won gold medals in 1992 and 1996 in the women’s doubles events. However, she won them for the U.S. delegation, generating significant controversy in Puerto Rico. She also generated controversy recently when she seemingly insulted Puerto Rico’s most recent silver medalist, Jaime Espinal, for his Dominican ancestry. Espinal emigrated to Puerto Rico when he was five, and though he moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was 15, he quickly returned to Puerto Rico – even going so far as to leave without the rest of his family. It’s interesting to note that the exceedingly humble Espinal has actually defended Fernandez, despite the backlash against her carried out in his name.

Two things should be taken from this tale. The first is that the unanswered question of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty and identity does eventually spill over into everything. The second, however, is that the island’s national and cultural pride can be a unifying factor. The Olympian athletes who’ve represented Puerto Rico have been of all colors and backgrounds, but have had one motivation. Monica Puig may have spent a good part of her life living and training in the U.S., but she went out of her way to represent the island of her birth. The love she showed for Puerto Rico was paid back exponentially by her countrymen and women, a testament to the respect Puerto Ricans give to their national heroes.

#BlackLivesMatter and Puerto Rico

The #BlackLivesMatter movement began with a simple hashtag and a statement of frustration, a reaction to a rash of highly publicized fatal altercations between African-Americans and police (and at least one private citizen acting as if he was the police). Since its inception, it has galvanized people from many different backgrounds and spawned chapters in several American cities, as well as a number of overseas offshoots. Over the past month, a photograph taken by Joaquin Medina from Humacao, Puerto Rico, has been shared all over social media which depicts a group of black Puerto Ricans raising their fists with the tagline “#BlackLivesMatter Puerto Rico.”

The photo doesn’t seem to indicate that those involved are part of a new chapter of BLM in Puerto Rico, but rather the image itself is part of a reoccurring theme in Medina’s photography work that frequently showcases Afro-Ricans as part of the African Diaspora in Puerto Rico. The caption for the version posted on his Instagram account explains that the intention of the photo was to “show solidarity and unity with the black community in the United States,” roughly translated, though the exact language he uses is interesting. Specifically, he calls the killings by the police “the abuses of the government,” which speaks very heavily towards the history of police brutality in Puerto Rico – often targeting black Puerto Ricans of both genders and all ages, and carried out by a monolithic, overbearing police force.

As I said, many people – including more than a couple of group and celebrity pages associating themselves with BLM – have shared the image across social media. The photo has come at a time when many Person-of-Color organizations made up of other ethnic groups have come out to show support for #BlackLivesMatter, especially Latinos. The narrative surrounding the efforts of Hispanics in the United States to help BLM has for the most part been one of honoring shared experiences and empathy towards the plight of African-Americans.

An acquaintance of ours wrote probably one of the best examples of an outside supporter’s perspective on the movement, which does a good job of displaying the viewpoint of a Latino who believes in BLM. However, despite our support, we at Palenque Connections have mixed feelings about how our solidarity as Latinos is being framed. Now, don’t get it twisted – this is a cause we’ve been championing since before it was an idea on everyone’s lips. Our personal interests in this, though, are exactly the reason why we don’t agree with our portrayal as being on the sidelines. Institutionalized racism against persons of African descent is all too common throughout most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve already pointed out that a certain town in a certain U.S. territory has historically already been the subject of much abuse by police.

The history of that abuse by the police and other state apparatuses in Puerto Rico has already been fairly well-documented. Just as with the mainland, the War on Drugs effectively legalized the criminalization of black people on the island. The difference being that in Puerto Rico, with only about 1% of the U.S. population, most phenotypically black people had congregated in a certain few communities. In addition, the only local police force on the island is the Puerto Rican Police Department, a centralized policing contingent that maintains security for every municipality in the territory. As a result, these communities are often quite literally besieged whenever there is the slightest claim of a crime.

One such incident was the “Loizazo” in 2001, when the PRPD responded to a call about a fight breaking out at a children’s birthday party in Loiza with riot gear and indiscriminate beatings. Even the officers who were actually charged with crimes for this gross misconduct eventually had their convictions overturned by the higher courts. The incident has been widely dismissed by the Puerto Rican government and public, though the American Civil Liberties Union did finally begin investigating the PRPD a few years later. They filed several scathing reports and a lawsuit that saw the Justice Department start to crack down with reforms and independent monitors of the island’s police. However, despite the oversight the PRPD is still as corrupt as ever, and the ACLU only began taking notice when the violent tactics were extended to protesting government workers and students.

The message in the aftermath of all this is one that feels all too unfamiliar in the U.S., and Puerto Rico. Black lives matter only when their suffering begins extending to others, and even then it can only be addressed when it doesn’t start rocking the boat too much. In Puerto Rico the problem is compounded by the populace’s own racial identity. There are several conflicting theories and reports on the true ethnic backgrounds of the people that populate the island today, with census results showing that the further away we get from the last large-scale European migration, the greater number of Puerto Ricans think of themselves as white.

Studies have been conducted which paint a more realistic picture, but the findings always seem to be worded in such a way that leans towards excluding or trivializing mentions of African descent. The most conclusive so far indicates the majority (around 60%) of Puerto Ricans can trace lineages to male European ancestors and female Taino (Puerto Rico natives) ancestors. However, they also found that 84% of the women in the study had genetic markers from Africa. If the sampling is reflective of the greater population, then it might hint at the majority of Puerto Ricans having some trace of African blood in their family trees. “Y tu abuela, donde esta,” indeed.

Even more important than the genetic signs are the cultural. Any salsero would find themselves at home in a West African party, using the same dance moves they would in the Copacabana. Musical styles like Bomba and Plena were created by enslaved and free black communities, and even the Puerto Rican lexicon is saturated by African words and colloquialisms. Puerto Rican popular culture is transparently Afro-Caribbean. This makes the struggle between black citizens, the police and the government not only a class and race conflict, but an internal cultural conflict as well. It is, as others have alluded to, a persistent and physical rejection of blackness by Puerto Rican society, even while they continue to silently participate in Afro-Boricua culture.

In many ways, this struggle perfectly mirrors the struggle between African-Americans and white America, the rejection of the physical embodiment even while defining pop culture with their influences. However, in many other ways it’s even more perverse as Puerto Ricans also reject much of their own heritage, and their own family. It’s also reflective of the anti-blackness that permeates virtually all of the former colonies of the Americas. Ultimately, #BlackLivesMatter will have to move beyond framing their fight as one isolated to the United States and African-Americans. This is a cause that affects all black people in the Western Hemisphere. A good starting point would be making “BLM Puerto Rico” more than a picture. That’s not to say that no one in PR hasn’t already been fighting the good fight. If the efforts taken by the ACLU have shown anything, it’s that the leaders of Afro-Rican enclaves like Loiza would not and have not remained silent, even if it’s taken decades to raise any outside awareness. Yet it also shows that the voice of one community is simply not enough. The problem clearly transcends the lines of nationality – our solidarity and our actions will have to as well.

What About the 23 Puerto Ricans in the Orlando Shooting?

We’re all reeling from the recent attack at an Orlando nightclub, in which a perpetrator wielding an assault rifle and a handgun opened fire on over 100 people, including at least three Orlando PD. The attacker was the son of Afghani immigrants to Brooklyn, and was reported to have called 911 and supposedly claimed allegiance to the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, or whatever else you want to call it) in the midst of the attack. The story has already become politically charged as pundits and politicians jockey for control of the narrative here. The attacker was described by coworkers as “unhinged and unstable,” who also claim he frequently made offensive remarks regarding homosexuals, African-Americans, Jews, women and others. He also changed his name  to the Arabic word for “strong” and within the past two years traveled to Saudi Arabia multiple times. He was investigated by the FBI twice for suspicious activity, but they let him go both times. Now, some claim they’ve found his profile on a gay dating website and that he had been spotted at this very same gay club by some of the survivors. People are jumping to pin down his reasoning on one thing or another, whether he was indeed a self-radicalized Jihadist striking at Americans or an anti-gay zealot projecting his insecurities onto others in a violent way, or just a lunatic who should have never been allowed near a computer, let alone a weapon.

Many of the victims had another common connection: quite a few were Puerto Rican. A number of Puerto Ricans from all over the island and the mainland were visiting Florida at the time of the massacre, and there have been many looking to permanently relocate to Orlando and other areas in the Sunshine State. Florida has become the new primary destination for Puerto Ricans not only from the island, but for those born and raised in other parts of the mainland United States as well. People have cited the familiar Latino culture as one of the main reasons for places like Orlando becoming a popular destination, along with the high rate of violence as one of the main reasons residents are leaving Puerto Rico in the first place. That makes this particular all the more tragic considering how many left the island because of the violence only to find worse in a supposedly safe area. It’s even worse when you consider the unfortunate trends in Puerto Rico concerning LGBT rights and preconceptions about them. There has been significant resistance to attempts to secure equal rights and access for gay and trans people, including protests and targeted violence. One landmark case involved the mutilation and murder of one trans woman, which sparked outrage from LGBT rights groups on both the island and the mainland. The latter have been especially critical of the lack of legal protection and often total disregard for LGBT people within the court system. The situation for LGBT people in Puerto Rico overall has been too often even worse than for those on the mainland. Many of these people left this situation presumably with the hope that the one up north would be a better option, only to have that hope taken away from them so brutally and violently.

We come to the question of “why?” Why did the gunman choose this particular spot at this particular time, and these particular people? The entire case has been speculation from the start, complicated by both the perpetrator’s apparent mental illness and the modern political climate. Even on the things we should all agree on, we find ourselves combating each other for what should take priority. Whether the attacker was acting because of his religion or because of his detachment from reality is kind of a moot point to the victims and their families. Whether he targeted them because they were gay or Hispanic is an important question, but also ultimately a moot point for the same reason. Their specific nationality is also a factor when so many of one group was slaughtered, but who can say that was the assailant’s specific intention? It certainly wouldn’t make a lot of sense to the rational mind, if his agenda really was to stop the bombing of Syria by going after one of the most marginalized groups in the U.S. Maybe it was an excuse for his bigotry, or to act out his power fantasies. A lot of assumption on the former comes from an interview with one man, his former coworker, Daniel Gilroy. Gilroy claims that Mateen would use racial slurs in his presence so much that it was to the point of only using those slurs to refer to individuals of those groups. Mateen gave him the impression that he hated everyone, but at least one survivor’s account potentially contradicts Gilroy’s assertions. It could have been spur of the moment, but the attacker made a conscious choice not to murder any more of the Black patrons in the club, which makes his supposed racism seem relatively shallow, for lack of a better term. Of course, no one has made any mention of him sparing any of the many Puerto Rican and other Latino patrons present, so maybe his prejudice was narrower than his past statements would lead us to believe.

The incident was a perfect storm of hatred, vulnerable people exposed to the depredations of a madman. By all accounts, the attacker was a very insecure man and hid that insecurity behind a bully’s mask. Bullies will often go after people who they feel are easier targets for their rage and cruelty, and past lessons have shown that Puerto Ricans – especially LGBT islanders – are invisible victims. However, with the sheer number of Puerto Ricans present in the Orlando-Kissimmee region, they could have just as simply been targets of opportunity for this psychotic killer. It’s unknown whether Mateen chose the club’s “Latin Night” event specifically or if the date was just convenient for his homicidal rampage. I personally suspect it was a mixture of his supposed familiarity with the place and the personal hatred he harbored within himself, but we’ll never know for certain. Even if the attacker had lived, all the evidence pouring out about his personality in hindsight suggests he wouldn’t have ever explained his agenda any more coherently. Many people have come up with their own theories, but as of now they’re still just theories. People have come forward with their owns reasons, including that he had a secret gay life, but authorities have shot down these claims. It seems impossible to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. No matter what the initial cause, 49 people are dead, and whatever labels are slapped on that story will not bring them back. There were straight, gay, black, brown and white men and women in that club. If anything positive is to come out of this tragedy, then as Americans and People of Color we need to acknowledge that these were members of our community.

News outlets have claimed there were a few families not claiming their slain relatives’ remains because of possible public shame. That’s probably the worst tragedy in all this, that even after seeing the human cost of this bigotry, some still refuse to budge on their outdated beliefs and continue treating LGBT Puerto Ricans as “undesirables.” The only good thing that can come out of this incident is for greater acceptance of these people by their families and the public as human beings. If there’s one thing I’ve learned growing up a Puerto Rican, it’s that – for better or worse – family’s always there. I’ll argue that it’s against our very culture to outright reject anybody, especially family. Hopefully, while this tragedy is in the public spotlight it will create an open dialogue about the status of LGBT Puerto Ricans on the both the mainland and the island.

The Unfortunate and Unpopular Reality of the Puerto Rican Debt Crisis

Now that the New York parade and the many regional festivals have passed, there’s one topic that’s dominating news about Puerto Rico. The debt crisis is threatening to cripple the island in a way it might never come back from, and politicians and economic experts alike are stomping their feet and shouting down each other’s plans to fix the dilemma. It’s an issue that’s dividing people of all ideologies – you know things are complicated when Obama, Ryan, Clinton and Trump ALL agree on one plan, while the U.S.’s only Socialist Senator and top conservative economic advisors agree on another. Most disconcerting about this muddled and increasingly tumultuous battlefield are the subjective narratives being pushed by all sides, including recycled rhetoric that borders on propaganda. One of the worst cases of the language spewed in these campaigns is the idea that is becoming ever more popular, of blaming Puerto Ricans for their misfortunes.

This reoccurring theme was originally aimed solely at the Puerto Rican government, and ostensibly still is for all intents and purposes, but has become quite transparently applied to the island’s 3.5 million residents, and their rather borderline nihilistic approach to politics and economics. This type of language is, of course, something we should be used to – it’s the same narrative put forward before, during, and even after Operation Bootstrap. The actual effects of that program are still debated today, whether it was ultimately beneficial or harmful, and was filled with the same finger-pointing and chest-beating we’re seeing now. I suspect that the ending will be the same as well, with nothing having been accomplished except driving Puerto Rico further in to a hole, upon which the residents will receive the rest of the blame yet again – and therein lies both the problem, and its root.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with that it should be clear that we are not going out of our way to be defenders the Puerto Rican government, either the legislative branches or the sitting Governor. I have had friends and family within the island’s government, including at least one blood relation, but I will not shy away from pointing out what has become glaringly obvious. Those holding political office in Puerto Rico continue setting a consistently ever-worsening precedent of self-interest, elitism, bigotry, and short-sighted decision making with each new cabinet change – but it was a precedent that was already old by the time the first actual Puerto Rican native took a political office while the island has been under U.S. control. A slew of Anglo-American civilian and military governors have taken administrative mastery over the colony, sometimes with rather productive results for certain sectors of the U.S., but with “mixed” results for the population of Puerto Rico – to put it very mildly.

Even the best-intended of these men often acted upon their own wants for the island, which is exactly how the centralized, government-controlled bank of Puerto Rico was created in the first place. Yet this is not a case to be dismissed as “failed progressive policies,” as some have tried to. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans – all have used Puerto Rico for their own ends, then cast blame on each other when things go poorly. When unemployment rises and businesses begin shutting down, everyone takes turns blaming either an unregulated free market or reckless government spending before shifting the accusations wholesale back onto Puerto Ricans. Both the fiscally conservative and liberal experiments in Puerto Rico have failed before they began, greatly benefiting only a select few every time, and the social experiments that have succeeded have often done so with disastrous results. There’s a worrying  (or, perhaps, infuriating) correlation between the two, tied to the amount of disregard for the well-being of the Puerto Rican people in either case.

There is no escaping the fact that for the 118 years it has lasted, the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico has always been one-sided in the favor of the former. Current statistics have almost a quarter of every dollar produced by Puerto Rico going directly to the American mainland, and given the history between these countries these estimates could be overly conservative. For all the rhetoric concerning government intrusion coming from Republicans, few other states or territories have been subjected so continuously to such a brazenly parasitic relationship with the rest of the country. Yet despite this, it has been the House Republicans that have been shifting the most criticism onto Puerto Rico, and conservatives in general have attacked the island’s economy and internal politics both in the present and past.

The majority of past elected Governors of Puerto Rico may have been Democrats, but the current Governor‘s predecessor was and still is an ardent Republican. Despite his drastic tax cuts and claims of deficit slashing, upon his loss in the next election he left the governorship still with a massive deficit and a sharp spike in unemployment across the island. I don’t claim to be an economist, but the evidence shows clearly that this is not a matter of ideology. All the tax raising and tax cutting have done little to nothing for the actual Puerto Rican people, so that the only common thread between the parties here is their lack of foresight for the long-term well-being of the island. The Democratic Party, Republican Party, PPD, PNP, and the PIP all have favored short-sighted tactics for short-term political gains, and ALL have shown, repeatedly, that they either don’t know or don’t care what’s best for Puerto Rico as a whole.

While Republicans and conservative economists argue with Democrats and liberals about the supposed failure of “big government” policies in Puerto Rico, predatory hedge funds have been fighting behind the scenes to make sure they get a cut before everything goes to hell. The question of who owns Puerto’s Rico debt has a different answer depending on who you ask. In the course of doing further research for this writing, I’ve read several wildly contradicting ranges of percentage breakdowns. These claims are complicated further by the very nature of the market, as some of these bond investments have been thrown around into various mutual funds so that quite a few individual investors on the mainland have been dragged into the crisis as well.

This has worked in the favor of many of the less scrupulous of these hedge funds, as some have joined together to fund efforts portraying the governments in both San Juan and Washington, D.C., as forcing taxpayers to bail out Puerto Rico. They have taken advantage of the presence of island-residing bondholders to further this narrative to tug at Americans’ collective heartstrings. To be clear, there are many native Puerto Ricans invested in the San Juan government’s bonds. I have at least one relative that lost all her money in such investments and claims to be completely destitute because of it. I also know that she used her late American husband’s considerable fortune to invest in the first place. I’m not condemning her, but this speaks to the reality of many of the bondholders portrayed as “average Joe” Puerto Rico residents.

One such CNN story was appealing enough that even I was reconsidering my cynicism, but the illusion was quickly broken once they began revealing more details about the “average Joe” Puerto Ricans’ being profiled, namely their professions, locations, and especially the amount of they invested, which were all six to seven figures. That would be quite a bit of money for an “average Joe” mainland American to throw down on an unsure investment, but for a Commonwealth where it’s a struggle for most just to be able to live paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s a veritable fortune and a huge risk to boot. All the Puerto Ricans the campaign has chosen to profile as the main bondholders are, like my aforementioned relatives, part of the Puerto Rican upper-middle class, which of course most of the politicians they are fighting come from as well.

As we have alluded to here before, too often members of this segment of the population regard the rest with a rather elitist contempt, which I’ve been exposed to first-hand. I’ve listened to family that abandoned the island long ago wax philosophical about how dark-skinned Puerto Ricans and immigrant Dominicans are the cause of all Puerto Rico’s economic woes, similarly to how marginalized groups are blamed for crime and such in the U.S. and probably the rest of the world. One of the differences in Puerto Rico is the Old World, feudalistic mentality that still pervades society there just as it does in the rest of Latin America. The Spanish assigned class based on characteristics such as skin-color and ancestry, and made explicit policy decisions on how a person was treated based on these requirements. Blacks, Amerindians, and mixed peoples were not only socially restricted, but subjected directly to heavier taxation as well, all on the basis that they deserved it because of what they were.

Puerto Rico has not developed the same ideas of social mobility present in the U.S. (however complicated or skewed they are) because of this and portions of the population are often seen as inherently deviant. Thus, when parts of the upper-middle class, whether the government or private citizens, play around with the Commonwealth’s money it’s not likely to be seen as a societal disservice – it can be construed as their privilege to do so, and the burden of the rest to merely deal with the inevitable consequences. Despite the current government’s language, I have no doubt that many officials care little about the current crisis beyond maintaining their own salaries and nepotistic appointments. Here is part of the unfortunate reality we all face as Puerto Ricans – we are indeed often just as culpable in this long chain of oppression and negligence our island continues to be subjected to.

Congress has shown time and time again that, as a whole, they do not care much about Puerto Rico beyond gaining votes or creating inroads for businesses they’re personally connected to. The Puerto Rican legislature has shown that they don’t care much about the rest of the island beyond maintaining their power. And we Puerto Ricans on both the mainland and the island show we don’t care much beyond enjoying the beaches and dancing, and having the right to travel between both countries. These are sweeping generalizations, to be sure, but are all too easily applicable. I’ve met too many Puerto Ricans on the island that just want to live comfortable enough, and think moving north is a “Get-out-of-jail-free” card if things get too bad. I’ve also met too many Puerto Ricans on the mainland who couldn’t me tell what a single Governor had done in the past 10 years, but could name 10 beaches and bars off the top of their heads. And while all of us continue to ignore the reality in front of us, companies and wealthy tax dodgers from the U.S.come to Puerto Rico, make or save millions and bring it all back to the mainland after barely spending a cent on the island.

This crisis was inevitable, and it’s actually surprising it took so long for it to occur. If the current Governor had been in office during the recession, he would have likely done the same, unlike his predecessor who idolizes his allied American political party. This arrogance is typical of the Puerto Rican elite who have bought into the supposed autonomy and equality afforded under Commonwealth status. The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court broke that delusion, especially considering its swiftness. The fact that any financial giant could get away with saying they’re side of preventing a taxpayer bailout, especially after the controversy of 2008-09, to poor Americans is tragically comic. It’s downright infuriating that the party of fiscal responsibility and shrinking government is campaigning to keep up trust in government bonds even at our expense. This hypocrisy is just another symptom of the broken relationship we have, and the schizophrenic agenda regarding us – treating us as less equal than others – has culminated into this very situation. Make no mistake, though, this is a taste for what is to come for many in the rest of the  U.S., no matter what bill passes, but it will be Puerto Rico that suffers most.

The status quo will no longer be viable after this, and those who have abused it for their own ends will be thrust into the spotlight because of it. The U.S. can’t continue to label Puerto Rico autonomous without affording it actual authority, and it can’t continue to label it part of the Union without affording it the same rights and privileges that every other American citizen takes for granted. I’ve been anti-Statehood my whole life, but if it would guarantee the island actual support I would be at the front line of any campaign to push it. We cannot to continue pushing our ideological agendas into the mix when the island’s future is at stake. As it stands now, Puerto Rico is a Third World nation with First World amenities. Puerto Ricans on the island have become a new “separate but equal” class within the U.S., citizens beholden to different sets of rules from two governments. No one has been able to decide whether Puerto Rico is part of the United States or part of Latin America, and until that decision is made there will continue to be incidents like the debt crisis, wherein the federal and Puerto Rican government jockey for power with commercial interests.

Whether the island were to become a State or independent, or even if it remains a Commonwealth, the result as of right now will inevitably be the same. Another large migration, likely to dwarf the past exoduses, will arrive in the U.S. mainland. It will be composed of the poor at first, who will have to compete with the undocumented for unskilled labor positions. It will quickly include the middle class as well, as it has recently, who will then compete with the already struggling middle class professionals here for skilled jobs. We’ve already seen it happen, and it will keep happening. Puerto Ricans have little recourse but to uproot themselves to the mainland, where even with a pay cut they can work for better wages with more job security. It’s been known for at least a decade that the island’s economy does not work, and the reality is that even it’s done ostensibly well, it’s rarely worked in favor of the natives. The only thing that will stop it from happening again and again is if Puerto Rico gains real economic independence, real political power, and, above all, real unity among its constituents.

This is the often unpopular part of the reality for many Americans, including Puerto Ricans, that Puerto Rico is for all intents and purposes a separate nation. It has a different culture, different norms, and different routines. The same methods that might work in the mainland have not worked on the island. Worse, most of those efforts carried out in the past have always been part of someone else’s finite political agenda. Puerto Rico is not a playground for others to test out their stratagems, their products or their military ordinance. It is not a place to force-feed American-made goods, avoid mainland regulations, or cheat your taxes. It is its own country with three and a half million living human beings just trying to sustain themselves. They need to be “allowed” to have the ability and freedom to do so. It’s also important going forward that we will all admit our complicity in creating this air of apathy and fatalism concerning Puerto Rico.

I purposefully avoided dwelling on the financial details of the crisis, because as I said I’m not an economist. You can read below the words of people more qualified and more eloquent than I to come to your own conclusion. I will say that there is precedent for throwing out at least the interest of these outstanding debts, and I agree with many that the very nature of what the debts developed into makes them as a whole at least partially illegal – and the fault of both governments as well as the financial institutions that have cherry picked which laws to follow. Both sides have pushed forward arbitrary stipulations in their own favor, which only proves my point: until the political situation with Puerto Rico is resolved, the economic situation will always be in crisis. What Puerto Rico needs is not investment in the government, but investment – and trust – in its people. We need legitimate investors to make equitable deals and grow with our local companies and institutions. There is tremendous economic potential on the island, enough to keep the entire population self-sufficient and their fund-givers happy. There is enough arable land to feed the entire island, and then some, enough wind and sun power to make alternative energy a lucrative option, and if the Jones Act restrictions were to be lifted or at least modified, then the port of San Juan could very well make Puerto Rico the Singapore of the Caribbean. This might seem a far-off dream and even impossible considering current events, but I have faith that our island can one day get through this and make this all a reality. But they will need help to get there.

http://www.democracynow.org/2015/11/26/juan_gonzalez_on_how_puerto_ricos

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/114/190/

https://www.newyorkfed.org/outreach-and-education/puerto-rico/2014/report-main.html

http://www.centennial-group.com/downloads/For%20Puerto%20Rico%20There%20is%20a%20Better%20Way.pdf