Puerto Rican Protestors Get the Goods
Living in a territory that’s been governed by outside powers for centuries, Puerto Ricans have a long, rich history of fighting back against oppression at home and abroad. The exposure on July 13 of blatantly elitist, sexist, homophobic text messages between Governor Ricky Rosello and his cronies was so egregious that it united people across social divides and sparked a massive protest movement in the streets.
Now, the departure of Rossello and the installation of the reticent Wada Vazquez has posed a question: how can working-class people make fundamental changes, beyond a changing of the guard?
A New Kind of Colonialism
The massive anger that swept Governor Ricky Rossello out of office came on the tide of a long-brewing anger over the latest chapter in Puerto Rico’s history as an exploited colony. Since the US took over Puerto Rico after hundreds of years of Spanish exploitation, the US ruling class has attempted to turn Puerto Rico into an offshore workshop where corporations can reap the benefits of operating in America without having to deal with the same wages, labor rights, and environmental regulations as on the mainland. For decades, the US government has used tax breaks to entice US corporations to Puerto Rico, like the Tax Reform Act of 1976 that exempted corporations from profits earned in US territories.
In 1996, a drive to correct the US government’s deficit, as well as popular anger about corporate welfare, led the Clinton Administration to revise the tax code and phase out the subsidies over a decade. During that time, US corporations fled back to the mainland, taking resources and jobs with them, ultimately reducing Puerto Rico’s manufacturing base by 40%. The year the subsidies expired, 2006, the Puerto Rican economy entered a nearly continuous recession that is now in its 13th year.
With these heavy losses and a declining population, the island’s government took on increasing amounts of debt from European and American banks, ultimately reaching $70 billion at its peak. As the government grew increasingly unable to pay the debt, the Obama administration, supported by both Republicans and Democrats, imposed the ironically named PROMESA (“Promise”) Act in 2016. This law sought to recover the banks’ money and in the process strip Puerto Ricans of even the most basic democracy and control over their island.
The act created an unelected Fiscal Control Board and gave it supremacy over the island’s elected bodies. The Fiscal Control Board’s first steps were to impose massive cuts to pensions, schools, healthcare, and other essential services, and to reduce labor standards, including lowering the minimum wage for young workers. Meanwhile, the “junta,” as Puerto Ricans call the Fiscal Control Board, has used public funds to pay hefty fees to financial firms and consultancies for these “solutions,” often to the very same consultants who helped orchestrate the debt crisis.
The ruling classes of Puerto Rico and the US have benefited from this, while the census puts 43% of Puerto Rico residents below the poverty line. Throughout this process, which author Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” the US ruling class has used crises in Puerto Rico to expand the reach of capitalism on the island and find new opportunities to extract wealth back to the US.
Resisting The Junta
Working-class Puerto Ricans did not accept this financial takeover lying down. The Fiscal Control Board’s budget cuts provoked a huge wave of protests and massive student strikes in the spring and summer of 2017. After Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September 2017, however, the protest movement was set back as homes and lives were devastated.
Governor Ricky Rossello played a demagogic role in opposing the US-imposed Fiscal Control Board. Rossello came to office as a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which has traditionally caucused with the Democratic Party, and as official proponents of statehood, the PPD claims to be more anti-colonial than their rivals.
Rosello initially applauded the Fiscal Control Board’s austerity plan. However, as it came closer to being implemented, huge protests erupted. In August 2017, Rosello made a dramatic show of resistance, opposing furloughs that would cut government workers two days a month, and threatening to risk arrest to prevent the plan from being enacted. The ongoing protests continued to drive Rosello further from the junta, and he even filed a lawsuit in the summer of 2018 protesting their broad powers, which led to a ruling in the junta’s favor.
But Rossello’s objections were merely about democratic process and control. He and the junta didn’t differ in their basic views of the problem and the neoliberal approach toward addressing it. For example, Rossello worked to privatize PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Authority, which had long been a goal of the neoliberal “disaster capitalists.”
#RickyLeaks Sparks Uproar
The exposure of Rosello’s deeply offensive text messages on July 13, 2018 sparked off resentment from virtually all sections of Puerto Rican society. In some ways, the protests were similar to the protests that erupted across the entire US against Trump from 2016 to 2018.
The behavior of the top executive in Puerto Rico was so obviously abhorrent that it touched off protests that were the largest in its history. Huge swaths of people who had never participated in political protest before came out and took to the streets, bringing political participation to a level never seen before. Popular anger at austerity was clear from the popular call “Ricky, resign, and take the junta with you!”
The opposition to Ricky seemed to unite working-class Puerto Ricans, large sections of the ruling class, celebrities and eventually even the bulk of Rosello’s own party who finally came to see him as a liability. Under pressure from ordinary people protesting non-stop in the streets, Puerto Rican legislators vowed to take up articles of impeachment. On July 24th, Carlos Núñez, the president of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, gave Rosello a choice of resignation or impeachment proceedings beginning the next day.
Governor Rosello appeared to be digging in his heels, refusing to step down after two weeks of enormous daily protests. But protesters responded with an effective general strike on July 22. An estimated 1 million people took to the streets, an entire third of the island’s population. The general strike massively threatened the ruling class of the island and finally succeeded in forcing Rosello to resign.
The speed at which the popular rebellion erupted exposes the fallacy of the common narrative that social change always happens gradually. The combination of major events—the Fiscal Control Board’s budget cuts, the devastation of Hurricane Maria, and the exposure of the governor’s deeply condescending text messages—all came together to spark a powerful explosion of popular protest.
It was these working-class protests that drove lawmakers to begin exploring impeachment and encouraged members of the PPD to view Rossello as a liability. As the protests seriously disrupted the economic life of the country and created a concrete crisis, Rossello was isolated and abandoned.
What’s remarkable is the way in which the protests called for resignation and didn’t wait on the impeachment process. In fact, within hours of Rossello stepping down, the Puerto Rican House of Representatives’ special committee to research impeachment was still hard at work determining if Rossello had committed an impeachable offense!
Class Struggle after Rosello
The battle for the future of Puerto Rico has continued after Rossello’s departure. It’s worth noting that the forces of neoliberalism had looked forward to Rossello’s departure, since he had been obstructing the junta’s unhindered access to the island.
As The Intercept reported, a number of key voices of the US ruling class, including some members of the Senate committee overseeing PROMESA and the editorial board of The Washington Post, called for the junta to be strengthened in the face of the elected government’s apparent “weakness.” The Carribean Times reported dozens of civil society organizations protested to get a judge to halt bankruptcy proceedings for 120 days to ensure that the Rossello power vacuum was not used to roll back democracy even further.
As many people returned to their homes, groups of working-class Puerto Ricans have fought to keep the movement alive. One exciting development is the rise of people’s assemblies, which first arose in the protests but were kept alive as community forums. Both the strengths and weaknesses of these assemblies were described in Jacobin by Jacqueline Villarrubia-Mendoza and Roberto Vélez-Vélez on August 24:
Organizers... make clear that this is not a space for political parties to push their political agendas, but for members of civil society as private individuals to present ideas and proposals for the achievement of transformative social change that emerges from the people. While many of the assemblies have participants with experience in assembly procedures—and the intricate parliamentary process—a significant number of participants are new to the scene, making for a space of innovation and experimentation within the democratic exercise.
The two parties of the Puerto Rican ruling elite have argued for decades about Puerto Rico’s political status in relation to the US, while ignoring other economic and social needs of the working class. The recent mass movement will hopefully create the space for the Puerto Rican working class to push for its own solution to the island’s relationship with the US, while also addressing the working class’s social and economic needs.
As mass anger against Trump continues to mount, the example set by the Puerto Rican working class can serve as a model for the resistance to Trump, which does not need to be limited by the speed of impeachment proceedings in the US Congress. The experience of this summer demonstrates that large protests and mass strikes could provide the energy that pushes the impeachment proceedings forward and, in the end, could be the force that drives Trump out, regardless of where the legal process is.
Mark Rafferty is an activist with Seattle DSA and an organizer with United Auto Workers Local 4121.