Workers Vanguard No. 1159
23 August 2019
For a Revolutionary Workers Party
Down With the Colonial Junta!
For the Right of Independence!
After some of the largest protests in Puerto Rican history forced the resignation of despised governor Ricardo Rosselló last month, Puerto Rico is confronting an ongoing political crisis. The match in the powder barrel was the leaked cache of private chat messages between Rosselló and his cronies, which oozed bigotry, misogyny and derision for the poor. For the 3.2 million citizens residing on a territory under the boot of U.S. colonial domination, the grievances run much deeper: brutal austerity, massive unemployment and deteriorating schools, hospitals and transportation. Now, the American overlords, with the help of Puerto Rican bourgeois politicians, are openly plotting to intensify their iron grip on their colony. First and foremost is enforcing the diktats of Wall Street’s fiscal control board, known as the “junta,” to make the impoverished masses pay billions of dollars in debt to the same U.S. capitalists who wrecked the country’s economy.
Following a five-day gubernatorial stint by Rosselló’s handpicked successor Pedro Pierluisi, a lawyer for the junta, the new occupant of the governor’s mansion La Fortaleza is former justice secretary Wanda Vázquez, another Rosselló crony. Washington has its eyes on Jenniffer González, a Trump supporter and resident commissioner to the U.S. House of Representatives, in the event that Vázquez meets with widespread opposition. Vázquez, notorious for covering up government corruption in her previous position, is reviled for having refused to investigate diverted Hurricane Maria relief funds and aid. That 2017 disaster was marked by the U.S. rulers’ criminal and chauvinist contempt for Puerto Ricans—over 4,000 were left to die in Maria’s wake and whole swaths of the island chain remain devastated to this day.
Ever since seizing the Caribbean territory during the Spanish-American War 121 years ago, U.S. imperialism has looted Puerto Rico’s land, exploited its labor and then laid it to waste. While Puerto Rico has been euphemistically designated a “commonwealth” since 1952 to give the illusion of self-government, to this day the U.S. government calls all the shots, controlling everything from currency and communications to trade relations and shipping. This colonial subjugation is a modern-day version of “white man’s burden,” whereby the white imperialist power lords over its darker-skinned subjects in the name of “civilizing” them. Puerto Ricans are second-class U.S. citizens, and those living in Puerto Rico are barred from voting in federal elections (even their House representative has no official Congressional vote) but held hostage to federal plenary powers, including the FBI and military. We demand: All U.S. troops and federal agents out of Puerto Rico now!
Hoping to quell the recent upheaval and return to business as usual, Democrats and Republicans called for Rosselló to step down. On August 2, the White House announced it would punitively suspend over $8 billion in federal aid to Puerto Rico due to political unrest. While Trump is an open embodiment of racist arrogance and capitalist greed, the Democrats represent the same imperialist ruling class. It was Barack Obama who implemented the 2016 PROMESA law that appointed the fiscal control board of bankers and CEOs—drawn from companies that have directly profited from decades of financial swindles—to further bleed and starve Puerto Rico. Proclaiming some $74 billion in bond debt alone, the junta is a tyrannical collection agency for vulture creditors, and makes its decisions behind closed doors.
While some calm has returned to the streets for now, Puerto Ricans are beyond fed up. What is vital is for the working class to emerge as the leader of the country’s unemployed, students and all the oppressed, particularly women, who suffer violence and degraded status. The working class is the one force with the social power and historic interest to put an end to both colonial oppression and capitalist misery through socialist revolution.
Workers in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico share a common class enemy: the U.S. capitalist rulers. There is also a link of flesh and blood—Puerto Ricans make up a key component of the organized working class in many U.S. cities, where they are subjected to racist abuse by the forces of the capitalist state. The U.S. working class must take a side with its class brothers and sisters and demand: Cancel Puerto Rico’s debt! Opposing the entire system of debt peonage would speak to the righteous anger of Puerto Ricans over the secret machinations of the junta, which refuses to divulge its austerity plans.
We advocate independence for Puerto Rico as part of our opposition to U.S. imperialism. At the same time, we are aware that most Puerto Ricans feel ambivalent about independence. While they detest their colonial status and have a strong sense of nationhood, they are legally allowed to live and work in the U.S., as over five million do, without the same threat of deportation or I.C.E. detention faced by Latino immigrants. It should be up to the Puerto Rican masses to decide how they want to exercise their national self-determination. Therefore, we stress the right of independence for Puerto Rico.
Our aim is to build a Leninist vanguard party in Puerto Rico that can intervene into the struggles against colonial oppression, fighting to direct them against not only the U.S. masters but also their local bourgeois lackeys, with the goal of establishing working-class rule. Only the proletariat in power can begin to lay the material basis for emancipating the Puerto Rican masses from imperialist subjugation.
A Puerto Rican workers republic would face enormous obstacles and powerful enemies, centrally the U.S. bourgeoisie. Proletarian rule in Puerto Rico would have to be extended internationally. What is posed is the forging of Leninist parties in the imperialist heartland and throughout the Caribbean as part of a revolutionary international. A multiracial workers party in the U.S. would win American workers to helping advance the national liberation struggles of Puerto Rico, which are indispensable to tearing down the capitalist order at home.
For a Class-Struggle Perspective
The popular protest slogan “que se vayan todos” (all of them must go) was an expression of the intense mistrust toward Washington’s loyal stooges, including both the governing, pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) as well as the historically pro-“commonwealth” Popular Democratic Party (PPD). The PPD mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, participated in the demonstrations, declaring her opposition to corruption and the junta. But for over six years as the chief executive of the capital, she has overseen austerity measures and commands the repressive police force in San Juan. Cruz, a target of Trump’s wrath and a co-chair for the Bernie Sanders campaign, is plugging herself as a populist to capitalize on widespread discontent in her electoral bid for governor in 2020.
Many politicians from the two main parties in Puerto Rico are directly affiliated with the U.S. bourgeois parties that preside over their colonial “backyard.” (Rosselló and Cruz are both Democrats.) In the U.S., “progressive” Democrats like Sanders aim to refurbish the party’s image so that they can run the same machine of imperialist domination. A major obstacle to the working class mobilizing in its own interest is the lie that Democrats—who uphold the same profit-driven order as the Republicans—can be pressured to act on behalf of the exploited and the oppressed. This strategy is promoted by much of the left and the trade-union bureaucracy, which makes up a layer of the Democratic Party.
In Puerto Rico over the last several years, mass mobilizations of students, teachers and others, as well as labor strikes, have been carried out against privatization threats, school closures, pension theft and budget slashing. Unions like the UTIER electrical workers and the FMPR teachers have been in the front line of protests against union-busting and cutbacks, and both played a role in the July 22 one-million-strong work stoppage to oust Rosselló. But rather than standing at the head of the oppressed and dispossessed masses, the proletariat was dissolved by union misleaders into the “people,” which serves to disappear the unique social power of the working class, whose labor makes society run.
The union tops saddle the combative working class with the nationalist notion that “we are all Puerto Ricans,” which translates to unity with the local capitalists and their political representatives. Following the swearing-in of Vázquez as governor, an array of Puerto Rican unions, including UTIER and FMPR, issued a formal appeal to the administration. A 17 August press release describes how union leaders called on the new government to “take a stand in defense of the interests of the Puerto Rican people against the fiscal control board” and “address the demands for labor and social justice.”
The laboring masses have nothing in common with the capitalist government. What is needed is a class-struggle leadership of the unions that proceeds from this standpoint, opposing all politicians and parties that support capitalism—from the PNP and the PPD to the petty-bourgeois Puerto Rican Independence Party. Such a leadership would be committed to help build a revolutionary workers party.
A nationalist outlook can also be seen in the frequent appeal to the cops as fellow workers and victims of budget cuts. The police, known as la uniformada, are not workers or potential allies, but rather a core part of the bourgeois state. Their role is as strikebreakers, and their associations have no place in the union movement. Even if they come from poor or working-class backgrounds, the cops are the violent enforcers of the system of colonial subjugation and the hired guns of the bosses. When the cops mobilize for pay and pensions, it is to be better able to mete out all-sided repression. From its origins in 1899, the year after the U.S. military invaded and took possession of the country, the Puerto Rican police have helped keep Washington’s colonial subjects under its heel, including in the decades-long bloody war against independentistas.
Amid the current crisis, some leftists have put forward alternatives that merely seek to tinker with the colonial arrangement and capitalist rule. Such is the case with the reformists around the U.S. publication Left Voice, affiliated to the Trotskyist Fraction-Fourth International. While claiming to oppose the colonial regime and to be for socialist revolution, Left Voice argues to convene a “free and sovereign Constituent Assembly” that “would allow the working class, in the heat of the struggle, to develop its own bodies of self-organization” (“A Revolutionary Perspective for Puerto Rico,” 3 August). They claim that a constituent assembly “must discuss and make democratic decisions on the great structural transformations required by the country to win its national liberation, end imperialist plunder and rebuild its economy.”
In fact, the call for a constituent assembly is a barrier to the working class developing the kind of revolutionary class consciousness and organization necessary for its own emancipation. A constituent assembly is a bourgeois government, and the call for it has historically been used to derail proletarian revolution. Only after the working class has seized state power and established a workers government will it be able to decide how to rebuild society to the benefit of the vast majority of the population, including the provision of jobs, as well as quality housing, education and health care.
In the end, only socialist revolution extended internationally can satisfy the basic needs of the masses: the end of poverty, freedom from the yoke of imperialism, and social equality for women and other deeply oppressed layers like gay and trans people. For us in the belly of the U.S. imperialist beast, the fight for the national liberation of Puerto Rico is especially important. As was emphasized in the “21 Conditions” for membership in the then-revolutionary Communist International, adopted in 1920, it is the duty of communists “to support every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds.” This task includes instilling “in the hearts of the workers of its country a truly fraternal attitude toward the laboring people in the colonies and toward the oppressed nations.”