As we enter a new year, still facing disasters, death, and destruction wreaked upon us in the old one from both nature and the man-made crazy of Trump, his enablers, and his voters, it’s easy to want to forget the past and look hopefully toward a brighter future with the incoming Biden-Harris administration. They have a major task ahead of them cleaning out Augean stable-sized messes left behind by the Orange Occupant and his minions. With that said, I have my own “hope” to add to the towering pile of critical issues they face.
I hope and pray that attention to Puerto Rico doesn’t get washed away in the flood of other important issues on their overflowing agenda.
This isn’t the first time I’ve expressed these wishes and made resolutions. The following story is from Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, posted only a few months after hurricanes Irma and Maria slammed into Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In 2017 many U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico will be ringing in the new year of 2018 by candlelight. Not because it is romantic or spiritual—it is because they still have no power. Living sin luz (without light) is not some poetic reference—it is a nightly reality. A nightmare from which the dawn of the following day brings no surcease. Citizens in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) are not nearly back to normal, are facing a major loss of tourist revenue and a budget crisis.
I’m not in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions, however this year I’ll make an exception. I resolve to continue shouting, writing, tweeting, calling elected officials and doing anything in my power to keep the untenable, unacceptable, disgraceful state of affairs facing our sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in front of politicians and the general public who have allowed the unimaginable to become normal. Since when is it normal for a travesty like this to become simply a matter of ticking off the number of days that pile up, and moving on in our minds to something of greater urgency?
In September of 2018, one year after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, I tried again and wrote: “Make a promise to support Puerto Rico”
Where is the national outrage?
More than a year has passed since back-to-back Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, killing thousands of people—not on direct impact, but in the days and months of neglect from their government and their “president,” aka Donald Trump, that followed.
The situation remains grave for the survivors. Contrary to much of the published mainstream media reportage, not everyone has power, more than 60,000 people are living under leaky tarps, schools have closed, there is a mental health crisis, and we are in the middle of hurricane season 2018. New storms form each week and people who live in the Caribbean live with the daily anxiety of weather watching.
On Dec. 29 of 2019 my plea was repeated.
You don’t have to be Puerto Rican to give a damn about what is happening, right before our eyes, to Puerto Rico.
In September of 2017, after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands as well, along with family and friends I watched a nightmare unfolding. It soon became patently clear that the U.S. government, under the failed leadership of Donald Trump, was botching relief and recovery efforts, and few mainland mainstream reporters were bringing their A-game into the mess. I was struck by the fact that a majority of folks here seemed to know next to nothing about the island and its fractured history as a U.S. colony. The New York Times reported, “Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans Are Fellow Citizens.”
I made a promesa to my santos that I would do what I could to amplify the skimpy mainstream media coverage of the recovery efforts on the island—as well as covering the Puerto Rican community here on the mainland.
Same story for the three-year anniversary of Maria.
The power grid on the island is by no means stable, and one simply has to check the online outage map to get a sense of the frequency of loss of service. What is very troubling is the sale of the state utility. Ed Morales, author, journalist, and professor, recently wrote this illuminating piece for The Nation.
On July 26, Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, the head of UTIÉR (Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego), Puerto Rico’s electrical and irrigation workers’ union, tweeted from one of the island’s power generation stations. From Costa Sur Unit 5, near the southern coast, he posted a video of an open porthole that allowed people to peer into a massive boiler made of decaying metal and see streaking blue and orange flames, the stuff of electric power generation. “This is the plant that failed on January 7th, 2020,” he wrote—referring to the day a 6.4 earthquake hit southwestern Puerto Rico—“the one José Ortiz said would take a year to repair.” Ever since the quake, Ortiz, then the CEO of the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), had been saying the agency did not have the capacity to get the damaged plant back up and running until then. (Ortiz stepped down from PREPA in August.) […]
Since 2016, when, in response to the island’s spiraling debt, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) was signed into law, many of its major decisions have been in the hands of the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), which many call simply “the Junta.” The FOMB is tasked with restructuring the territory’s $72 billion debt; its main tool, a brutal austerity regime. Hundreds of schools have closed, government workers’ pensions are threatened with cuts, municipalities are being defunded, and PREPA is slated to be fully privatized as part of the solution to its $9 billion debt.
The fate of PREPA, then, is deeply bound up in the fate of Puerto Rico. The territory is in an exceedingly fragile state after a succession of political and natural disasters in recent years: devastating hurricanes in 2017; a political scandal that led to massive street protests and the resignation of the governor, Ricardo Rosselló, and several of his colleagues last year; and the massive earthquake and a series of aftershocks this January that knocked out the Costa Sur power plant and caused widespread damage. Figueroa Jaramillo’s confrontational stance against the CEO of PREPA is therefore at the center of a conflict that reveals the ways multinational corporations, aided by the federal government, are using the precarious situation to extract profit through privatization. This privatization scheme, urged on by the unelected FOMB, is speeding up a dangerous deterioration of democracy on the island at a time when it can little stand yet another crisis.
This month is also the anniversary of those earthquakes in 2020, which started in December 2019 and have continued.
Those earthquakes that toppled buildings and weakened major structures and facilities on the island severely damaged the Arecibo Observatory, which is now gone. This was one of the few recent well-covered stories that briefly put Puerto Rico back into the headlines.
Another item that became mainland newsworthy has been the ongoing issue of status—mostly viewed from the perspective of how Puerto Rican voters here on the mainland have affected votes for or against Democrats and Republicans.
The Puerto Rican vote is now being looked at in Georgia.
The other main area where there is coverage of Puerto Rico, to the exclusion of almost all else, is the statehood issue. Thousands of people, many of whom are not Puerto Rican or who are mainland politicians and don’t live on the island, continue to “weigh in” with their thoughts and opinions about Puerto Rican status: statehood, independence, maintenance of the status quo, or other alternatives. The voices of those who resist colonialism or who don’t have mainland media clout get the least amount of attention.
An example is Roberto A. Fernández, who has written pieces excoriating both statehooders and those who embrace the current farce of “commonwealth.” His analysis is rooted in the history of the United States’ acquisition of Puerto Rico.
In late 1898, the Treaty of Paris established the conditions under which Spain ceded to the United States its control over the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, while relinquishing sovereignty over Cuba. By then, American political actors and judges were conversant with hierarchical notions rooted on the idea of “race,” using it to explain and justify the domination of “whites” over the continent and its “non-white” inhabitants.
In 1901, the first cases testing the validity of the colonial policy over the new possessions reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In providing legal benediction to colonial domination over peoples and places, the Court relied on notions of racial hierarchy.
By then, the racialist discourse that the justices articulated had been in circulation for several decades. In essence, it said that there is an innate capacity for institution-building and self-governance, which is denied to all races but the Anglo-Saxon stock. Given that Puerto Ricans were an “alien race,” i.e., not Anglo-Saxon, they were to be governed for their own sake, and be given limited measures of self-government, from time to time and in small doses.
I see lots of uninformed tweets like the one below, which assumes that gaining two senators from a future Puerto Rican state would mean two Democrats in those seats.
This opinion doesn’t encompass the reality that Jennifer González, the recently reelected non-voting Rep for Puerto Rico, is a Republican.
One of the things that makes me crazy is that lots of people who chime in with opinions about Puerto Rico have zero clue who the players are on the island, they don’t know the names of the political parties, they aren’t aware of new developments, and they make assumptions that a party with the word “progressive” in its name makes it so.
I haven’t spent time in Puerto Rico in years, and the Puerto Rican “left” I interacted with decades ago has changed. There is a new cast of characters and I have tried to do my homework, but it’s hard, and made more so by having to do much of my reading in Spanish. (I’m not fluent in anything but Spanglish.)
I did find a translated article recently that helped.
Luis Fernando Coss, a professor at the School of Communication at the University of Puerto Rico, wrote: Puerto Rico 2021: A Shift in Perspective, A New Opposition
…it’s important to reflect on the significant progress of the Left in Puerto Rico in the 2020 election cycle. I propose an optimistic outlook based on the election results, not mere fantasy. I am one of those people who feels the progress has been undervalued. Perhaps this is because the results were somewhat unexpected for many. In any case, the big questions are: How do we view the new landscape on the Left? How will the opposition to the colonial and neoliberal regime adjust going forward?
I’m now referring specifically to those forces that place themselves in opposition to neoliberalism and colonialism in Puerto Rico—without losing sight of some important differences among them. In other words, I’m not talking about a single community, but rather a pluralized “community” belonging to a very diverse movement that could identify as leftist in the sense described above. To be clear, I assume that the votes for independence and socialist candidates, for the MVC [Citizens’ Victory Movement] and the PIP, and for independent candidate [José Antonio “Chaco”] Vargas Vigot are like-minded votes mostly oriented toward some kind of transformation of the country and social progress —whether via a gradual or decolonizing route— and not a mere “act of protest.”
What confuses things more is the issue of just who can speak for Puerto Rico.
The very small number of congressional statehood supporters includes both Democrats and Republicans.
Rarely do any of the mainland “opinionators” and pundits know much, if anything, about the long and painful colonial history of Puerto Rico, nor can any of them name the leadership of the various political parties on the island, nor are they discussing current issues with the fiscal control board, the island’s energy grid, the medical infrastructure, the lack of a hospital on Vieques, the privatization of the Vieques/Culebra ferry, the impact of the Jones Act, food insecurity, FEMA failures, and femicide. I could continue with my list, but frankly it’s depressing and I’m sure several people will show up today in comments stating why Puerto Rico should become a state (or not) while COVID-19 continues to kill off more Puerto Ricans, there are still residents whose power goes out daily, and there are far too many folks with no roofs.
The recent “vote” for statehood in Puerto Rico generated a lot of social media heat, which is ongoing. One of the more interesting analyses I’ve read so far was this op-ed from Efraín Vázquez-Vera, a full professor at the University of Puerto Rico and the former assistant secretary of state of Puerto Rico’s State Department. He points out:
…the turnout in this plebiscite was only 50% of registered voters, which means that the 52% who voted yes to statehood represent only 26% of all registered voters in Puerto Rico.
Within the yes and no votes, 38,000 ballots left the question blank. These non-voted ballots could be seen as an expression of people who did not wish to validate another scam plebiscite with their vote.
How long can the United States avoid its responsibility to tackle the issue of Puerto Rico’s future political status? The territorial status of Puerto Rico is unsustainable, being the main reason for the present Puerto Rican crisis. If one thing can be said to be certain is that Puerto Rico’s crisis will go from bad to worse during the next four years. A governor with two-thirds of the people against him with an opposing legislature means a paralyzed Puerto Rican government for the years to come, when action is most needed.
This panorama suggests that, sooner or later, the United States will be confronted with the results of another plebiscite, probably with a true majority of Puerto Ricans who favor statehood for the wrong reasons: because of their poverty, their hopelessness and their desperation.
If the 2020 Puerto Rican Status plebiscite was a victory for the Puerto Rican pro-statehood movement is still an open question, but certainly Puerto Rico and the United States lost.
There are people publishing important stories about Puerto Rico and pressing issues outside of the status-wrangling. However, their voices need amplification. Follow them and share what you can.
What I am trying to say today is what Erica González Martínez, the director of #Power4PuertoRico, lays out in this tweet.
I try hard to be the type of ally outlined in green. I am only one voice—a small, non-Puerto Rican voice. However, I believe one voice can reach a few others, who in turn can educate someone else.
I get up every morning between 4 and 5 AM and make an attempt to gather news from or about the island. I post what I’ve found and shared both on Twitter and here on Daily Kos every morning at around 7:30 AM in the Abbreviated Pundit Roundup (APR) and related pundit stories written by ChitownKev. I post a similar roundup twice a week in Black Kos (which is currently on holiday hiatus until Jan. 8).
I follow not only mainstream media outlets and island papers that post in Spanish, but also key journalism groups on the island like the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI in Spanish).
I ask again for you the reader to find some time in your day, or week, or month, to educate yourself, just a little, about what is going on in our colony. (Yes, Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony.) Check out current news and information, but also try to learn a little history. Share some of these stories to your social networks.
Join me in making a resolution to pay more attention to Puerto Rico in 2021.
You don’t have to be Puerto Rican to give a damn.