Puerto Rico—a U.S. colony for the past 118 years—is experiencing an unprecedented debt crisis. This situation has the potential to generate a climate of impugnment of the island’s dominant ideological bloc and, in turn, democratize the political space. For this to materialize, the Puerto Rican political left must make the radical expansion of civil and political rights its first priority.
Puerto Rico is very limited in its options for rising out of its debt crisis, mainly because it’s an “unincorporated territory” of the United States and, as such, it has no real representation in the U.S. Congress. It has a “resident commissioner,” a kind of federal-level representative who has voice in the U.S. House of Representatives and can introduce bills, but cannot vote on the House floor.
In light of this lack of representation, the New Progressive Party (NPP)—which, in spite of its name, represents the Puerto Rican conservative Right—advocates full annexation to the U.S. Annexation would entitle the island to five representatives and two senators at the federal level. For the NPP, this level of representation would be the true solution to the debt crisis that Puerto Rico is facing. Annexation would entail equality with the states of the union in terms of access to federal social programs; the opportunity to authorize insolvent municipalities to file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code; and the opportunity to seek the restructuring of the debts of the island’s insolvent public corporations.
On the other hand, the two main left-wing political forces—the Puerto Rican
Independence Party (PIP) and the Hostosian National Independence Movement (HNIM)—hold that the true crisis facing the island is the crisis of colonialism. The Puerto Rican political left maintains that the debt crisis is only a corollary of the more than five centuries of colonialism that Puerto Rico has endured, first under the yoke of the Spanish crown and, since 1898, under the United States. From this perspective, the solution to the debt crisis lies in the independence of Puerto Rico, but the PIP and the HNIM do not have a shared political imaginary. The PIP seeks a sovereign social democratic state, whereas the HNIM hopes to reconfigure Puerto Rican society from a Marxist-Leninist orientation.
It’s important to consider that a change in the political status of the island toward independence does not guarantee the continuation of the civil and political rights gained under the colonial system; rights which, by the way, contributed to the dramatic decline in the popularity that independent-ism enjoyed during the first half of the 20th century. The last referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico, held on Nov. 6, 2012, showed us that the majority of the island’s U.S. citizens prefer annexation, whereas a very reduced proportion prefers independence.
Living in Puerto Rico, one quickly realizes that it’s common among Puerto Ricans to associate progressive stances with leftism, and leftism with independent-ism. So it follows that for a radical climate of impugnment to emerge, it would first be necessary that a rupture occur in the perceived necessary relationship between progressivism and independent-ist aspirations. Here it helps to think of the first decades of the 20th century, decades in which the Puerto Rican labor movement was socialist and pro-annexation.
The student strikes at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in 2010-2011 were the closest thing to a detonator of radical change in 21st century Borinquen. The general consensus on the island seems to be that this cycle of strikes was the product of three main elements: the insular economic recession, the imposition of a neoliberal policy of budget cuts, and the layoff of 30,000 public sector workers by the administration of governor Luis G. Fortuño Burset.
Unfortunately, student action did not extend significantly beyond the university, which is generally considered a hotbed of independent-ism. Therefore, if there’s something to be learned from these struggles, it’s that in order to facilitate the opening of a cycle of mobilizations that generates a climate of impugnment of the island’s dominant ideological bloc, the Puerto Rican independent-ist project should not have primacy over the radical expansion of the civil and political rights attained under the colonial regime.
Víctor Daniel Meléndez- Torres is Puerto Rican and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.