This op-ed original appeared in Spanish on Chile’s Prensa Irreverente.
Capitalism made landfall in Puerto Rico on approximately July 25, 1898, the day U.S. troops came roiling out of the sea at Guánica. The island had already experienced a budding form of bourgeois exploitation, no doubt shipped there by Spanish frigates. But it was the arrival of Yankee capitalism around the turn of the last century, in the form of the American Colonial Bank and the Sugar Trust, that has led chaotically but inevitably to the layered crisis suffocating the island as we speak.
The United States conquered Puerto Rico and colonized it for two reasons: first, as a military outpost to help ensure military command of the Caribbean, if not the entire hemisphere; and second, as a source of cheap (exploitable) labor and natural resources. But on closer look we can see that the two reasons are really one and the same, with the capitalist state using its military power to enforce, expand and strengthen its economic power. Instead of the latifundia of feudal Spain, for over 100 years Puerto Rico has played an unwilling host to its present-day equivalents — agribusiness, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and real estate.
Washington’s economic experiments in Puerto Rico, meant to showcase the island as the jewel of Western state capitalism in contrast to Eastern state socialism, have been merely the frantic tinkerings of capitalism facing its decline. The Great Depression was an alarm bell for capitalism, the loudest up to that point, indicating that Marx’s early diagnosis of capitalism contained at least a ring of truth. Economists were forced to admit to actually existing contradictions within capitalism — overproduction being just one, the falling rate of profit being another, and capital’s antagonism toward nature, yet another — and they searched for ways to cure capitalism of its weaknesses, or at least keep it on life support, indefinitely if need be.
The collapse of sugar and other crops, not only in Puerto Rico but around the world, led Wall Street to push for a massive industrialization to bring the island into the 20th century as quickly as possible. As with Stalin’s five-year-plans in the Soviet Union which began nearly two decades before it, the real goal of Operation Bootstrap was not the prosperity of the Puerto Rican people but U.S. profits. Anyone doubting this need only be reminded of the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women during the same time; genocide and economic justice will never share the same stage.
Since that time, the spread of global capitalism has caused a waning in the economic stability Puerto Rico once enjoyed by virtue of its very close (and very forced) with the United States. Plus the decade-long phasing out of tax incentives for industry and investment, beginning in 1996 under President Clinton, unleashed one of the most vicious cases of capital flight in recent memory, transforming Puerto Rico into a floating speck of rust.
Now the vultures are circling overhead, greedily scanning for any last piece of viscera they can find. Schools are closed, hospitals shuttered, and the Prepa, the public electric company, is purposely being mismanaged by Governor Rosselló in hopes of getting it and all other publicly-owned utilities privatized. Allowed free rein in Puerto Rico and no checks on the rate of its development, capitalism has hatched, matured, and ultimately collapsed during the course of one single but long century. Now it’s going out of business; everything must go, as capitalism searches for a new host.
Last month the weatherman said Puerto Rico just missed a direct hit by Hurricane Irma, one of the fiercest storms ever unleashed by the Atlantic. But Puerto Ricans have no fear of natural disasters, not when all of its ruination is man-made.
Featured image: “Charging Bull” by Arturo Di Modica stands in New York City’s Financial District (Sam Valadi/Flickr)