Workers Vanguard No. 1123
1 December 2017
Colonialist Profiteers Bleed Puerto Rico
It has been more than two months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, yet there is no end in sight to the devastation suffered by this brutally oppressed colony of U.S. imperialism. Half of the island still has no electricity, while more than half of the population lacks access to clean water. Streets lined with mounds of soaking garbage, mud and dead animals, along with black mold-infested houses, are breeding grounds for diseases like the rodent-borne leptospirosis, which has already claimed the lives of several people. U.S. nurses organized by their unions to volunteer in Puerto Rico describe a desperate situation of hunger, disease and overwhelmed medical personnel with few supplies treating people in tents.
Puerto Rico’s official Maria-related death toll of 54 hides the fact that nearly 500 more people died in September of this year than in the same month last year. A number of these deaths were of disabled and elderly people in sweltering hospitals or trapped in their homes. The distress in rural areas is particularly acute, with many areas cut off and having received no aid. Tens of thousands have lost their homes and all their possessions, and are left with no job prospects for the foreseeable future. There is an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from the island since the hurricane; many of them are moving into the cramped homes of relatives on the mainland. Meanwhile, those staying in hotels and motels in Florida and elsewhere face homelessness as rates increase during the high season.
The colonial masters in Washington, led by President Donald Trump, have missed no opportunity to display their contempt for the oppressed Puerto Rican population. Displaying typical racist arrogance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose real purpose is revealed by the fact that it is part of the Department of Homeland Security, dispatched staff who speak no Spanish to an island where nearly three million people speak only Spanish. Before handing out any aid, FEMA is demanding documentation like utility bills and that applications be followed up via email or text message, knowing full well that people’s homes have been destroyed and that they have no electricity, much less internet access. As of early November, FEMA had paid out a total of only $121,000 in federal flood insurance aid to Puerto Ricans. FEMA’s measly handouts consist of boxes with some potato chips, beef jerky and a couple bottles of water.
Strangle Puerto Rico
Even before the hurricane, nearly half of Puerto Ricans lived in poverty. Puerto Rico imports more than 85 percent of its food, and Hurricane Maria destroyed most of the island’s crops. The prospect of even more widespread hunger and disease looms, not because of a natural disaster, but because of more than a century of colonial pillage. Prior to the devastation of the storm, Puerto Rico was already being gutted by the imperialist vultures who demanded that working people be made to pay for more than $70 billion in debt run up by the capitalist exploiters. The Obama and Trump administrations alike have supported the predatory hedge and mutual funds that have raked in enormous profits by starving the Puerto Rican people. These are the same finance capitalists who were bailed out by the Obama administration following the 2008 economic crisis, while working people in the U.S. were thrown out of their homes and saw their wages and benefits slashed.
The capitalist ruling class that represses and exploits working people in Puerto Rico does the same to workers and the oppressed on the mainland. And the drive to smash unions and slash workers’ pay and benefits is being carried out in both places. Furthermore, Puerto Ricans are an important component of the working class and union movement in the U.S. itself. It is in the interest of workers in the U.S. to side with their Puerto Rican class brothers and sisters against the common class enemy and to demand: Cancel Puerto Rico’s debt!
That Puerto Rico’s “debt crisis” is an imperialist scam is confirmed by the fact that roughly $25 billion, more than one-third of the island’s total outstanding debt, was borrowed to cover a shortfall in Medicaid funding. This shortfall is due to the fact that federal Medicaid funding to U.S. territories like Puerto Rico is capped well below that to states. In Puerto Rico, nearly two-thirds of its population qualify for Medicaid and Medicare. Federal funds for food stamps in Puerto Rico are also capped. Because the island had reached its cap by the time of the storm, there was no money left for emergency food stamps. The imperialist rulers’ racist rationale for these limits on federal funding is that the dark-skinned peoples of its colonies, including Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, should not become “dependent” on aid from their oppressors and exploiters.
Last year, amid the debt crisis that began in 2010, Obama imposed a junta named PROMESA to ensure that Washington could directly oversee the island’s finances and impose austerity. Up until then, local control over finances was exerted by the imperialists’ Puerto Rican toadies in the bourgeois Partido Nuevo Progresista and Partido Popular Democrático. The island’s health care and public education systems had already been heading for collapse before the hurricane due to the economic crisis.
In recent years, clinics had closed and hospitals had filed for bankruptcy, while hours and pay for medical staff were cut. More than 3,000 doctors left the island after 2010. Over 200 schools were closed as part of the austerity drive, while another 300 schools had been slated for closure when the storm hit. A measure of the economic devastation of the island is that 10 percent of Puerto Rico’s population had moved to the mainland between 2005 and 2015.
Union Busting and Privatizations
Andrew Biggs, a Republican board member of PROMESA, gave voice to the chauvinism of the U.S. ruling class toward Puerto Ricans, complaining of the “inherited political culture” from Puerto Rico’s time as a Spanish colony—a thinly veiled way of labeling the U.S.’s Spanish-speaking colonial subjects lazy and ungrateful. Biggs also took aim at the supposed “structural barriers” preventing Puerto Rico’s economic recovery: minimum wage laws, paid sick days for employees, paternity leave and overtime pay. In other words, he wants to get rid of any rights, protections and benefits for workers and the poor that might diminish the profits of the imperialist rulers.
Indeed, in recent years, the imperialists and their domestic lackeys in the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie have waged massive union-busting campaigns against the working class. They have especially targeted the unionized electrical workers of the state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the teachers union, the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR). These workers have been in the front line of struggles against austerity and are key to restoring services on the island by repairing the electrical grid and reopening the schools.
The privatization of PREPA has been the long-sought-after prize of the U.S. and local bourgeoisie, who also seek to smash the electrical workers union, Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego (UTIER). To this end, the Puerto Rican government signed a $300 million contract with the small Montana company Whitefish Energy to repair part of the power grid after the hurricane. Two major transmission lines that Whitefish repaired failed soon after (leaving 80 percent of the population in the dark). Following a political scandal (which included the company’s alleged ties to the Trump administration), Whitefish’s contract was canceled. Whitefish had brought in private contractors from the U.S. to do repair work that should have been done by UTIER members, many of whom are unemployed. The hiring of any additional workers should be controlled by the UTIER. No to privatization! Defend the UTIER!
The imperialists also see the hurricane as an opportunity to privatize Puerto Rico’s public school system and smash the FMPR teachers union. Their model is the evisceration of public education in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Some 7,000 teachers, mostly black women, were laid off, and the city was left with a school system composed almost entirely of charter schools. Charters are an attack on public, secular education and a weapon to destroy teachers unions. Due to Hurricane Maria, over 45 percent of the schools in Puerto Rico today are closed. Both the U.S. secretary of education Betsy DeVos and her counterpart in Puerto Rico, Julia Keleher, want to keep school doors shut in order to accelerate privatization.
Twenty-one FMPR members were arrested on November 7 for holding a protest in Keleher’s office to defend access to public education and their union. Teachers on the island have helped clean up the schools and have fought for them to be reopened. Meanwhile, teachers who fled Puerto Rico after the storm have only until January 8 to reclaim their jobs. But the Department of Education has stated that up to a fifth of schools will never reopen. Down with privatization of schools! Defend the teachers of Puerto Rico!
For the Right of Independence for Puerto Rico!
Puerto Ricans’ sentiments about the island’s status are deeply contradictory. There is keenly felt resentment over the U.S. overlords’ racism and repression and the poverty to which they have reduced the island. At the same time, many worry about losing the ability to live and work on the mainland and fear that Puerto Rico would suffer greater immiseration if the island became independent. Some see statehood as a way to end the island’s second-class status. Puerto Rican history is marked by a tradition of militant independence struggles. Independence fighters are important symbols of national dignity, such as Oscar López Rivera, who was imprisoned by the U.S. for nearly 36 years before he was released in May.
The U.S. colonialists and their local compradors have long sought to suppress independence sentiments. Between 1948 and 1957, Puerto Rican governor Luis Muñoz Marín’s Ley de la Mordaza (gag law) even prohibited flying the Puerto Rican flag. People who displayed the flag in their own homes were subject to lengthy prison terms. Independentistas have been bloodily suppressed, from the police killing of four Partido Nacionalista militants at the Río Piedras campus in 1935 to the repression of López Rivera’s Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional in the 1970s and ’80s and the killing of Ejercito Popular Boricua leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos by FBI agents in 2005.
As intransigent opponents of national oppression and U.S. imperialism, we favor independence for Puerto Rico. However, in upholding the right of self-determination, should Puerto Ricans decide they want statehood, we would support the will of the population, just as we would oppose any attempts by the U.S. rulers to forcibly impose independence. Thus, we stress the right of independence for Puerto Rico. The fight for independence would run up against local agents of the imperialists, like the current governor, Ricardo Rosselló. With the working class at its head, the fight for independence could become a lever for overthrowing capitalist rule on the island. An independent Puerto Rico would inspire the workers and the oppressed in the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as the millions of Puerto Ricans and other working people in the United States. On the other hand, a successful workers revolution in the U.S. would offer immediate independence and massive economic aid to Puerto Rico.
Putting an end to imperialist plunder in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries requires socialist revolutions that put the working class in power. When those who labor rule, the land and all other means of production will be placed at the service of workers and the oppressed. The Spartacist League and International Communist League fight to build Leninist-Trotskyist parties in the U.S., Puerto Rico and beyond, national sections of a reforged Fourth International, to lead such revolutions.