Despite a desperate economic crisis comparable to Greece’s, in the United States we only get an episodic look at what is crushing the nation of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico has been called the “Greece of the Caribbean” by economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, but as has increasingly been noted, it is more accurate to describe it as the Greece of the United States.
Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and has been such since it was seized by the U.S. during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Puerto Rico was never offered a legitimate path toward national independence and, instead, found itself being “granted” a Commonwealth status which is, in many respects, neither fish nor fowl. Puerto Rico is not an independent nation-state nor is it a state within the United States.
Over at least the last two decades, the economic situation in Puerto Rico has been going topsy-turvy. Manufacturers were encouraged to move to Puerto Rico from the mainland U.S. as early as the 1940s in search of cheap labor. One of the advantages of such a move was that Puerto Rico was within the United States proper. Yet, as we entered the era of neoliberal globalization, manufacturers in Puerto Rico began to look for even cheaper sources of labor, ultimately deserting the island. This was quite similar to what happened in much of the southern part of the United States mainland when industries moved there in search of non-union, cheap labor, only to shift — in many cases — to the Caribbean, Latin America, and ultimately Asia.
As with many cities on the U.S. mainland that have been ‘de-industrialized,’ Puerto Rico found itself in a growing economic sinkhole. Government entities borrowed, and were actually encouraged to borrow, always fed the illusion they had no need to worry about a collapse, that is, until 2008 when there was a collapse, a collapse known as the “Great Recession.”
Puerto Rico now has over US$72 billion in debts leading to a default this past August. Accompanying this debt have been repeated calls for further and further steps down the road of austerity. Yet the demands for austerity have been on top of years of austerity, including repeated calls for workers and their unions to grant greater and greater concessions.
Were Puerto Rico a city, they would be permitted to declare bankruptcy, but there are no such provisions. Instead it is expected that the Puerto Rican government will institute further cuts in order to please the creditors, during which time the creditors and their apologists will blame Puerto Rico itself for this crisis.
The crisis must be set in the larger context of Puerto Rico’s “status.” As a commonwealth/colony, its economic decisions are not its own. One of the most infamous economic challenges, for instance, is the result of the Jones Act of 1917 which requires that products brought to the island are transported by a U.S.-made ship with a U.S. crew. Products to Puerto Rico, coming from outside of the United States, must be transferred to U.S. ships thereby driving up the costs. The impact on the cost of living in Puerto Rico has been profound.
In this context, Puerto Rico is witnessing a population exodus, with many Puerto Ricans moving to Florida, as well as other U.S. states. This has led to what some commentators have described as a “death spiral,” as fewer people on the island are being gauged in order to pay for the debts that they had little-to-no role in making.
Though it would be incorrect to suggest that this situation has received no attention in the U.S. media, it would be accurate to say that attention has been episodic. Contrary to the ongoing news coverage of the Greek economic crisis, Puerto Rico may receive an article here or there, only to be forgotten until the crisis escalates. Furthermore, the U.S. political establishment has done little to address the depth of the Puerto Rican crisis; specifically, the Republicans seem to have little interest in anything that approaches a financial bailout.
While it is true that there are no simple solutions to the Puerto Rican crisis, there are issues that need to be put on the table. The first is that of Puerto Rico’s status. There are three contending visions of the future of Puerto Rico: independence, statehood or commonwealth (the status quo). Each tendency has a significant base of support, though independence is the weakest tendency. Despite the fact that the statehood forces tend to lean conservative, the Republicans on the mainland have displayed little interest in bringing Puerto Rico in as a state, in part for fear that Puerto Rico will go Democratic in elections. The commonwealth forces may be on the road toward an existential crisis since the status quo cannot be sustained over the long term. The independence forces remain small and divided, but certainly could regroup. Regardless, if the status question is not resolved, this crisis will predictably deepen.
The second factor is the demand for austerity. The Puerto Rican labor movement, having gone through a major revitalization in the 1990s through the massive organizing of the public sector, has found itself in full retreat as the government demands greater and greater concessions. In effect, Puerto Rican workers are being asked to pay for the crisis. As Mother Jones has noted, austerity plays itself out in all aspects of the lives of Puerto Rican workers, including cutbacks in healthcare. In either case, the Puerto Rican labor movement is attempting to combat these attacks.
The lack of presence on the radar of the mainland U.S. media is not simply a moral question. Puerto Rican working people need solidarity from progressives in the U.S. Among many progressives on the mainland, and actually in much of the global North, there has been a recognition that Greece needed (and needs) greater solidarity in the face of the economic blackmail by the European Union. This stands in contrast to the relative silence, not only in the mainstream U.S. media or elite political circles, but also within the progressive movement.
In the 1970s a solidarity movement was built in support of the movement for Puerto Rican independence. Due to a crisis in the Puerto Rican independence movement that solidarity effort collapsed. Yet, Puerto Rico desperately needs a solidarity movement right now with the struggle against austerity and, ultimately, the struggle for the achievement of a legitimate, popularly mandated status.Puerto Ricans must be the instruments of their own freedom rather than finding themselves trapped by mainstream U.S. law.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.