This article was first published in Spanish by Chile’s Prensa Irreverente.
Writing a review of the ongoing crises in Puerto Rico is spiritually exhausting work. Simply being asked to provide a few comments, however brief, immediately puts me in a sour mood.
It isn’t that I don’t enjoy discussing my paternal homeland, because I do. But my love for Puerto Rico–its vistas, its people, their history–only intensifies my frustration with the fact that nothing ever changes on the archipelago, at least not for the better. Much of what was written in 1918 still sticks today in 2018, and it is a constant struggle for a present-day commentator to come up with reasons to reiterate the century-old arguments and criticism written back when Don Pedro was still just a Harvard undergrad serving his country (or what he thought was his country) in the U.S. Army.
This year also happens to be the centenary of the death of José de Diego, known as “the father of the Puerto Rican independence movement,” and anyone wishing to understand Puerto Rico’s current problems would do well to read one of his poems. But I guess the readers of Chile and the rest of the world want the morbid details of the latest bruises left on the people of Puerto Rico, who have been continually battered–first by the Spaniards, then by the Yankees–under that most insidious form of social abuse known as colonialism.
I often use the plural noun crises when discussing the situation in Puerto Rico. The news media loves to report on whatever crisis is in vogue to talk about this week, quickly ignoring the crisis it railed against the week before, which causes the general public, already notorious for its short-term memory and lack of historical sense, to forgot last week’s crisis entirely. Yet for any Puerto Rican truly paying attention, last week’s crisis, instead of being forgotten, is merely added to the growing list of ongoing crises in Puerto Rico.
This week’s crisis, according to the mainstream, is the impending collapse of Puerto Rico’s public education system. The insular Department of Education says its enrollment has shrunk by 22,350 students in the 100-plus days since Hurricane María tore across the island in late September, prompting Puerto Rico’s secretary of education, Julia Keleher, to say, “We definitely have to close schools.” What she means is that she intends to close even more schools, adding to the 167 closed last summer. Her goal, along with the federal secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, seems to be to open the public education system to full-scale privatization. In an October 26 tweet she held up New Orleans’s conversion to a charter school system after Hurricane Katrina as a “point of reference.”
Keleher’s machinations are in line with Governor Ricky Rosselló’s desire to privatize Puerto Rico’s public utilities, including the heavily indebted Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Even before the first storm, Irma, hit in early September, rumors swirled that the PREPA was “intentionally degrad[ing] service” in order to, as the a report by The Intercept put it, “prime the pump for privatization.” Last July, four members of Puerto Rico’s governing junta published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal under the unambiguous headline, “Privatize Puerto Rico’s Power.” The offloading of Puerto Rico’s publicly owned utilities has been a dream of the colonial government ever since the current economic depression hit way back in 2006, and the island’s main airport, Luis Muñoz Marín International in San Juan, was already sold off to private investors a few years ago. Where most people see disaster and hardship, vultures see a potential meal.
So those are two crises: the education crisis and the privatization crisis. Then there’s the immediate crisis caused by the September storms, namely the lack of electricity for most of the island’s residents, combined with the lack of food and medical supplies — the lack of everything, really. That makes three crises, or four, or five, depending on how you view it. Then there’s the healthcare issue, with federal cuts to Medicaid and Medicare funding, as well as the exodus of much needed doctors and nurses. Those are the sixth and seventh crises. Then there’s the debt, or debts — over $70 billion in outstanding debt, plus $50 billion in pension obligations — crises eight and nine. Finally, there’s the tenth crisis: the status question.
Each of the first nine crises function independently of one another, except that every one of them is related to the tenth crisis, which is really the mother of all the others. Crisis X, colonialism, didn’t plunge Puerto Rico into the dark, of course; the storms did that. But that Puerto Rico was unprepared to take the blows, and that half the island remains in the dark to this day, can safely be blamed on the U.S. government’s decades-long treatment of Puerto Rico as its personal property–“belonging to, but not part of,” the United States. The same goes for the depression (which I failed to list as a crisis), and the healthcare crisis, and the brain drain, and the crumbling education system, and the debts (a colony, by definition, has almost no control of its economy and finances; if it did, it wouldn’t be a colony)– all of them find their origins in the fact that the people of Puerto Rico have been stripped of the ability, and the natural right, to decide their own future.
Knowing full well that Puerto Rico is a slave of the U.S. government and its business interests, who dares feign shock at the news this week that the $36.5 billion disaster relief package approved by the U.S. Congress back in October has failed to reach the people of Puerto Rico, being held up by 1,500 miles of red tape? Anyone who is surprised clearly doesn’t understand, fundamentally, the nature of Puerto Rico’s bondage to Uncle Sam, and if they truly don’t understand the relationship, then he or she is part of the problem.
Which makes for the eleventh crisis: public ignorance.