“The Most Important Place in the World”: On Puerto Rico and the Freedom Struggle

“Leaving the Protest” (Flickr: Oscar Rohena)

Though the United States has colonized Puerto Rico since 1898, when the country took the island as booty in the Spanish-American War, most politicians and pundits haven’t been able to make sense of the island — or its US-based diaspora. In 1901, the same Supreme Court that justified domestic segregation in its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling upheld colonialism abroad by declaring the island and other US colonial conquests (Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii) to be “inhabited by alien races” and “foreign in a domestic sense.”

This curious category — foreign yet domestic — has haunted Puerto Rico’s vexed relationship to the United States ever since. Puerto Ricans can be drafted to the military and travel to the United States without a passport, but they can’t vote for president and the island has no voting representation in Congress. The United States has used Puerto Rico as a laboratory of cruelty for everything from pharmaceutical testing and sterilization to military drills, police surveillance, and austerity. The United States has overdetermined the island’s political economy — first through decades of outright military rule and then, since the island implemented a form of self-government in 1952, by having veto power over Puerto Rico’s government.

US control has been devastatingly evident in the last decade, as US elites extended what scholar Diane Lourdes Dick has called the “tax imperialism” of the island into full-blown economic control. In one of his final acts as president, Obama oversaw the creation of an unelected “financial board” in the summer of 2016 to address the island’s debt crisis — a crisis created by US banks and the colonial nature of Puerto Rico’s economy. As with the emergency management board established in response to Detroit’s financial crisis, PROMESA was an unelected board staffed with conservatives who wasted no time slashing much-needed public resources and infrastructure. In full effect by the time Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, PROMESA meant that Puerto Rico was less prepared to respond to (or avoid losses from) the storm. The hurricane’s devastation was less God than man, the product of the island’s development being controlled by US elites for more than a century. Both debt and austerity have disparate effects: the Afro-Puerto Rican population has been hard hit by both, and gender violence has spiked since the hurricane.

This long, bitter experience of colonialism — which I’ve barely glossed here — has been on full display since the eruption of spontaneous demonstrations against the right-wing government of Ricardo Rosselló began on July 15, after Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism revealed that Rosselló and many in his inner circle exchanged racist, misogynistic, and homophobic text messages. The feckless, mocking tone of these exchanges encapsulated the frustration many Puerto Ricans have felt at Rosselló’s administration over its two and half years in office — gleefully insulting people while stripping them of jobs and services. As scholar Marisol Lebrón described the situation, “people are taking to the streets — not only to demand Rosselló’s resignation, but also to clearly express that the current political situation is unacceptable.” The massive demonstrations have already forced Rosselló to resign as head of his party and agree not to seek re-election, yet they continue to demand more. On July 21, protestors gave Rosselló an ultimatum: “You have until 11:59 pm to leave,” they said. “If you refuse, we will make this country unmanageable.”

Rosselló resigned three days later. Demonstrators responded with joy — and by calling for the resignation of his successor.

A History of Being Unmanageable

While many Americans began paying attention to Puerto Rico with the appointment of PROMESA in 2016 and then Trump’s miserable response to hurricane recovery a year later, Puerto Rico has a long history of being unmanageable in its quest for self-determination. Worker movements have repeatedly struck against oppressive conditions and abusive industries, while revolutionary nationalists have staged several island-wide insurrections. Strong feminist and ecological movements have flourished in recent decades, as have student movements protesting austerity. As is true of the current demonstrations, Puerto Rico has a remarkable history of popular protest: campaigns to oust the US military from Vieques and free Puerto Rican political prisoners have enlisted widespread support across the island and diaspora. “Puerto Rico’s long history of militant protest and massive mobilization created the political infrastructure for the emergence of the #RickyRenuncia social movement” Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo say of the island’s “multiple solidarities.” Labor unions and university students, along with socialist, nationalist, and pro-independence movements have been anticolonial protest fixtures for decades.

That fighting spirit has long appealed to at least segments of the US Left — including the US Black Freedom Struggle. Laura Briggs closes her stunning book on the gendered history of US imperialism on the island, Reproducing Empire, by saying “Puerto Rico is the most important place in the world.” A casual review of the US Left in the 1970s would echo this estimation. As groups like the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and the Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional set up shop in cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest, calls for Puerto Rican independence and self-determination could be found in the platforms and organizing strategies of many leftist organizations. Puerto Rico occupied a central place in any progressive imagination of freedom. Vietnam’s triumph over the United States showed that a small, outmatched country could achieve freedom from the biggest military the world had ever known — perhaps Puerto Rico would be next?

The island’s central place in the radical American imaginary was solidified by 1974, with the launch of the Puerto Rico Solidarity Committee (PRSC). An effort to coordinate solidarity efforts among otherwise disparate US leftists, the PRSC was led by legendary organizer Ella Baker. A veteran Black leftist, Baker had organized worker co-operatives in Harlem in the 1930s, worked for the NAACP in the 1940s, protested police brutality in the 1950s, and mentored the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. Now she was mobilizing for a free Puerto Rico. At the PRSC founding convention, Baker addressed 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Addressing her remarks to “friends, brothers, and sisters in the struggle for human dignity and freedom,” Baker connected the struggle of Puerto Rico to those of Black people in the United States. She described her own pathway to struggle, when as a child a white boy called her a racist epithet — “and I struck him back,” Baker recounts to wild applause. (Solidarity activist Meg Starr recounts a similar enthusiasm greeting Puerto Rican Nationalist Lolita Lebron in 1981, two years after an international campaign had freed her from prison following leading a 1954 attack on US Congress; when Lebron said she was not sorry for her actions, the room erupted in a chant of “¡Lolita seguro, a los Yanquis dale duro!”)

Baker encouraged everyone in attendance to organize their friends and neighbors who don’t already agree on the issue, saying “that they, as well as you and I, cannot be free in America, or anywhere else where there is capitalism and imperialism, until we can get people to recognize that they themselves have to make the struggle and have to make the fight for freedom every day in the year, every year, until they win it.”

Baker’s work in PRSC reflected the central role Puerto Rico played in Black America’s radical foreign policy vision in the 1970s (much as Palestine does today). It also demonstrated the central role the Black Freedom Struggle played in the drive for Puerto Rican self-determination, both on the island and in the United States. After all, the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street organization founded in Chicago in 1968 and New York City a year later, pointed to the Black Panther Party as its inspiration, and the two groups anchored Chicago’s original Rainbow Coalition. Even when not in the same organization, Black Power informed the nature of Puerto Rican radicalism. In Chicago, for instance, Black Power militants offered an internationalist embrace of the Third World with a pointed critique of state violence in the form of policing and prisons, as well as a challenge to racist housing and educational policies. Puerto Rican independence activists in groups like the Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional learned from these struggles as they waged their own battles for self-determination within the United States, linking their fates both to the island of their origin and to Black Americans’ struggle for justice.

The protests in San Juan, New York, Orlando, and elsewhere forced Ricardo Rosselló to become the first governor in Puerto Rico’s history to resign from office. Where things from go here is an open question. Puerto Rico still faces many other challenges, endemic to its position as a US colony long governed by the island’s racist and patriarchal elite. Events on the island warrant close and ongoing attention, as movements experiment but vultures encircle. Yet the movement that ousted Rosselló scored a resounding and inspiring political victory. Once again, the most important place in the world animates our freedom dreams.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.