By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
When word recently broke about the extreme financial disaster facing Puerto Rico. I was amazed by the surprise of so many people. Yet, what amazed me even more was what I can only describe as a shrug in connection with the crisis affecting the island nation that happens to be an occupied commonwealth of the United States.
Puerto Rico was seized by the U.S. in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The USA refused to recognize the desire of the Puerto Rican people for independence, and, instead, kept the island nation as a colony unto itself. Repeated efforts at constructing an independence movement were repressed, often violently, by the U.S. government.
Puerto Rico’s economy was deformed. From a nation that could produce its own food products, it found itself importing food. Rather than building an all-round economy serving the needs of its people, economic development in Puerto Rico increasingly serviced the needs of U.S.-based (and eventually multi-national) corporations. Manufacturing facilities, in many cases, left the mainland USA and went to Puerto Rico. Yet, with the development of neo-liberal globalization, such facilities began to move elsewhere in search of even cheaper labor.
Puerto Rico, in a manner reminiscent of many mainland U.S. cities that have been economically constrained, found itself borrowing more and more in order to sustain itself. Again, as with so many mainland U.S. cities, this seemed to work until the financial bubble burst in 2008 plunging the USA, and much of the rest of the world, into what has come to be known as The Great Recession. Puerto Rico has never recovered from The Great Recession and it seems as if few people in Washington, D.C. actually give a damn.
Puerto Rico cannot declare bankruptcy. As a U.S. possession, they cannot change their currency. They cannot begin a process of nationalization of resources and assets. Instead, Puerto Rico is bleeding. It is bleeding people, among other things. A significant migration has been unfolding from Puerto Rico over the past several years as citizens of the commonwealth conclude that life for them is in a downward spiral.
In the last several weeks, increasing numbers of calls have been heard in favor of Puerto Rico receiving assistance from the U.S. government. Despite these calls and the clear and demonstrable evidence of the disaster unfolding, the response has largely been a shrug. Republicans, true to their colors, have little interest in economic assistance to Puerto Rico. There is little doubt that race occupies a factor in such decision-making. At the same time, and with the notable exception of Latino elected officials, the Democrats have been quite slow to move on this crisis.
The approach of Puerto Rican governments to this crisis, as it has unfolded, has been to increase austerity. As we see around the world, austerity increases the misery of the population and benefits the bankers and financiers who are usually those directly responsible for the disaster. Instead of such an approach, Puerto Rico needs immediate assistance to stabilize its economy and reduce the suffering of its people. Ultimately the resolution of this crisis must be linked with an in depth discussion of the future relationship between the USA and Puerto Rico. Colonial status, even draped as a commonwealth, means that the people of Puerto Rico are still refused the opportunity to decide upon their own future.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.