Global Independent Analytics
Danny Haiphong
Danny Haiphong

Location: USA

Specialization: War, Racism, Capitalist exploitation, Civil rights

Colonialism Never Died: Puerto Rico's Economic Crisis Made in the USA

The end of World War II marked a watershed moment in world history. The war decimated Europe's capitalist economy and propelled US imperialism to the world stage.

This development ignited anti-colonial rebellion across the world. The struggle for self-determination in Africa and Asia in particular nearly ended the system of colonialism worldwide. Numerous states in Africa and Asia gained formal independence and others, such as Vietnam, fought and won total liberation from the scourge of colonial domination. 

Yet colonialism was never truly eradicated from the global picture. African revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah fathered the theory of neo-colonialism to explain this phenomenon. Nkrumah described neo-colonialism as a form of indirect, but no less exploitative, form of colonial domination where a native ruling class administers the plunder of a country on behalf of the former colonizer. One country, Puerto Rico, has remained a colony of the US imperial state.

Today, the people of Puerto Rico are facing a devastating economic crisis made in the USA. To understand the crisis in Puerto Rico, we must look into its root causes. Part one of this article utilizes the text War on All Puerto Ricans to outline the history of colonialism and resistance in Puerto Rico. Part two analyzes the current crisis on the island and its significance to the boarder international order.

Part 1: Brief History of Colonialism and Resistance in Puerto Rico

The island nation of Puerto Rico, originally called Boriquen by native Taino inhabitants, was colonized by the US in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War (1898). The Treaty of Paris, established after Spain's military defeat, officially handed Puerto Rico into the colonial grip of the United States. After one week of formal independence from Spain, Puerto Rico was subsequently invaded by 16,000 American troops. Puerto Rico was seen by the US as an ideal military outpost as well as a convenient nation on which to dump excess productive goods. The US maintained direct military control of the island until 1900.

US colonization subjugated cultural, political, and economic life on the island under the dictates of Washington. Politically, the US denied Puerto Rico the ability to exercise any rights under the US Constitution. The US also exercised full control over Puerto Rico's legislative capacity. To this day, all laws passed in Puerto Rico must receive the approval of its colonial master. But perhaps the most striking example of US political control over Puerto Rico was, and still is, through its military presence. In 1941, the US military occupied the island of Vieques and used it to conduct Naval-bombing exercises that included the use of napalm, Agent Orange, and depleted Uranium. The US military has occupied the island ever since and currently controls 13 percent of Puerto Rico's arable land. 

Economically, the US immediately forced Puerto Rico to use the US dollar (USD) as national currency and devalued its former currency, the Peso, to just 60 percent of the USD. US banks used the currency advantage to consolidate Puerto Rico's agricultural economy. By 1930, US corporations owned over half of Puerto Rico's arable land. These corporations pushed Puerto Rican farmers into the city for starvation wages while the subservient colonial government fixed prices to make US imports unaffordable to the vast majority of the Puerto Rican people. 

These insufferable conditions were supported by a US-sponsored cultural and political genocide. As a matter of policy, the US forced Puerto Rico's public schools to teach in English only. Furthermore, the US utilized the Puerto Rican medical system for experimental sterilization. From 1930-1970, one third of women in Puerto Rico were sterilized with US-produced contraceptives. Leading scientists of the practice of Eugenics justified the procedures with racism. Puerto Ricans, like Blacks in the US, were considered biologically inferior peoples whose birth rate had to be controlled in order to maintain the white divinity of the US way of life.

The people of Puerto Rico resisted US domination from day one. Out of the oppression of US colonialism emerged a strong nationalist movement led by Pedro Albizu Campos. Campos was a Harvard graduate who organized farmers, peasants, and the poor toward the goal of national liberation. In 1934, Campos led a mass strike of agricultural workers across the country. For his leadership of the Puerto Rican masses, Campos was placed under a 24-hour FBI surveillance, jailed, and experimented on in prison for a total of 24 years beginning in 1935. The US-controlled police conducted numerous massacres of nationalist forces during this period and instituted the infamous Gag Law (Law 53), which made it a national crime to speak of independence, wave the Puerto Rican flag, or criticize the US government in any form. This law sparked numerous uprisings, including the infamous attack on the US House of Representatives in 1954.

The struggle for Puerto Rican independence continued both on the mainland and inside the US during the 1960's and 70's. Organizations such as Young Lords and Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) worked inside of the US to place pressure on the US government to grant Puerto Rico full independence. The Young Lords, comprised of mostly former street gang members of working class Puerto Rican communities, modeled themselves after the Black Panther Party and saw Puerto Rico's independence as an essential component of the international struggle for social justice. The FALN, in contrast, was an underground, armed organization that focused on the goal of national liberation through military struggle. 

Both organizations faced heavy FBI repression and surveillance. In 1981, FALN leader Oscar Lopez Rivera was arrested during a traffic stop for the same seditious conspiracy charges that placed eleven FALN leaders in prison for fifty-plus years in 1980.  Rivera was imprisoned for 55 years on the original charges and for another 15 years for conspiracy to escape in 1987.  The continued imprisonment of Rivera is a testament to the ongoing struggle for Puerto Rican independence. His case has inspired people all over the world to fight not only for Puerto Rico's independence, but also for the freedom of all political prisoners inside of the US.

The Current Crisis

US colonialism in Puerto Rico, from the political imprisonment of Oscar Lopez Rivera to the continued corporate plunder of the island, has led the Caribbean nation into a deep economic crisis. The crisis is a product of the unequal economic relationship between Puerto Rico and its colonial master. Since 2008, Puerto Rico has contributed 58 billion to the US capitalist economy from food imports, corporate profits, and subsidies to US firms. The US has contributed just 4.6 billion in return to Puerto Rican development.

Corporate media in the US have demonized Puerto Rico for the supposed damage it has done to the American taxpayer. Yet it was Washington's policy of robbery that facilitated the crisis in the first place. The crisis intensified after Washington eliminated a series of tax credits that made investment in the country attractive to US firms in 2005. US corporations began to take business, and jobs, elsewhere.

This led the Puerto Rican government to declare that it would default on the 73 billion dollar debt owed to Wall Street earlier this year. Washington proposed to resolve the crisis through the institution of a Financial Control Board. The Board never won support in Puerto Rico. Both pro-independence and right-wing parties in the country rejected the notion that Puerto Rico's economy should be placed in the hands of the vulture capitalist and banks that underwrite the nation's debt.

Some observers connect the debt crisis in Puerto Rico to the Greek debt crisis. However, Puerto Rico's crisis is more similar to the US city of Detroit, MI. Detroit was placed under the rule of a financial manager in 2013. The emergency manager, Kevin Orr, possesses deep links to the anti-union and pro-corporate law firm, Jones Day. Emergency management has effectively eliminated local governance in the city. It has since presided over the privatization of key public services after the city filed for bankruptcy for failing to pay debts owed to the likes of Barclay's bank.

This is the model that the US capitalist class has pushed for Puerto Rico. And in many respects, austerity and privatization have already ravaged the country. Almost half of the population lives in poverty. The median family income is 19,630, with 84 percent of youth growing up in poor neighborhoods. These conditions have been exacerbated by the government's proposed austerity measures for public education, health, and transportation programs. Poverty in Puerto Rico has decimated the population, as record numbers of Puerto Ricans consistently migrate away from the economic devastation.

US colonial control over the political administration of Puerto Rico is a key component to the economic crisis. Under the "Territorial Clause" of the US Constitution, Puerto Rico does not have the right to assert national sovereignty. This means that Puerto Rico can neither file bankruptcy nor ask for foreign aid outside of US permission. It cannot ask for credit or other financial assistance from the parasitic institutions of the World Bank and IMF. The destiny Puerto Rico currently lies in the hands of the very same US government that created the crisis.

Conclusion

Puerto Rico has been a colony of the US for over a century. Over this period, Washington has privileged the profits of US-based multinational corporations over the national development of the Puerto Rican masses. Puerto Rico has also been used as a strategic base for the US military to maintain hegemony in Latin America and the Caribbean. US colonialism in Puerto Rico has driven the nation into a debilitating crisis. Both the history of US colonialism and the contemporary dominance that the US exerts over the island Puerto Rico must be examined together to truly understand the current crisis.

Colonialism is an outdated mode of development. International Law has long declared colonialism a violation of the self-determination of nations and of peoples' fundamental human rights. However, the US has always played by a different set of rules. Washington has never been brought to the International Criminal Court or sanctioned by the UN Security Council for the numerous crimes against humanity on its record. Washington has received immunity from the institutions that enforce international law despite being the greatest purveyor of violence around the world.

Puerto Rico's destiny is ultimately tied to the worldwide struggle against global imperialism. Although Puerto Rico is the last colony under US possession, its position as a military and economic subject of the imperialist order is one shared by much of the Global South. Puerto Rico's colonial status must receive special attention, however, as it disallows the people of the nation to join forces with Latin America's shift toward integration or assert any act of independent development generally. The good news is that history shows that the Puerto Rican people will not abandon the struggle for independence and liberation. The bad is that it is uncertain whether people in the US will join them and condemn the forces that have left Puerto Rico in shambles. 

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