The days of July 8 to 24 in Puerto Rico drew the world’s attention towards the island colony of 3.2m people and its diaspora of 5.6m in the US. The morning after PNP governor Ricky Rosselló’s resignation, the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal, speaking for a key section of US imperialist opinion, denounced his record of insufficient obedience to the Fiscal Control Board and demanded even greater subordination to the US-established authority from his replacement.
Meanwhile, visuals of the nightly mass demonstrations, street fighting, and barricades in Old San Juan outside the governor’s mansion, as well as the general strike on July 22 involving thousands of people spilling into the Américas highway, announced a tremendous national and popular awakening, finding militant support in the diaspora and attracting the sympathy of observers in the Caribbean, Latin America, and throughout the world.
The ouster of Rosselló transforms the political scene, which had been defined by the debt crisis following the 2014 bond downgrade, the 2016 elections which produced PNP majorities of 21:7:1:1 in the Senate and 34:16:1 in the House, the devastating impact of Hurricane María, and various expectations surrounding the coming 2020 elections, including the candidacy of Carmen Yulín Cruz. To begin to understand this moment, the first time in Puerto Rican history that a mass movement has driven out a governor, as the dangers and opportunities of the situation unfold for the workers and the people, we must return to the process of the historical constitution of the Puerto Rican nation under the colonialisms of Spain (1508-1898) and the US (1898-the present).
“The exploitation of the mines by the conquistadors through the exploitation of the indigenous laborer; the Indian-Spanish war ending with the battle of Yagüecas, the importation of black slaves, the division of the land into hatos realengos protected from the Crown; the continued presence in Puerto Rico of poor Spaniards; mestizaje: these facts immediately produced differences of interests and psychological reactions, which were, undoubtedly, factors of national differentiation: the nation began to form. Three centuries provided for the arduous alchemy of the motherland, until the symptoms of integration began to reveal themselves in an indisputable manner. Three centuries of struggle, labor, and blood: Indian risings, slave revolts; criollos and Spanish laborers who escaped from the villages and lived a hard and independent life in the rough interior. Bitterness, humiliations, resentments, vengeance, and insecurities formed the terrain on which a secret chemistry of history would plant hopes, aspirations, and decisions.” (our translation)JUAN ANTONIO CORRETJER, La lucha por la independencia de Puerto Rico
From the 1493 landing of Columbus in Boriquén and the definitive beginning of colonization with the arrival of Juan Ponce de León in 1508, Puerto Rico, like Cuba, developed principally into a military outpost for protecting Spain’s trade with its American colonies against French, English, and Dutch incursions. The indigenous population had three fates: decimation, escape to other islands or the mountains, or assimilation through intermarriage. The colonial economy centered first on gold mining carried out by Taíno and Carib slave labor and later on cattle rearing by African slave labor and various exports, especially ginger and sugar. The first major Indian and slave revolts occurred respectively in 1511 and 1527. During the first 300 years of Spanish colonialism, in contrast with other colonies in the Caribbean, particularly those of the British and the French, the economy came to be dominated by small-holding and self-sufficient producers with a limited development of latifundia. However, the expansion of sugar production around 1800, given an impulse by the Haitian Revolution, coincided with events in the Iberian Peninsula that marked the first political expressions of a new emerging nation.
The first such political expression of a national character is linked to the figure of Ramón Power.
In 1809, during the Spanish War of Independence against the Napoleonic invasion, Puerto Rico sent Power as its representative to the Cádiz Cortes, the first parliament in Spanish history and the promulgator of the liberal Constitution of 1812. Power was elected as first vice-president of the Cortes, which sought to keep possession of the American colonies, already then in revolt, by recognizing political equality between European and American Spaniards, announcing a general amnesty, issuing proclamations against the oppression of Indians in the Americas, and taking a lead in Europe of suppressing the slave-trade. Power carried with him a list of 22 proposals, such as the appointment of Puerto Ricans to public office and the implementation of public education. His list included a proposal for independence, which he did not present in the end — due ultimately to the character of Puerto Rico’s economy, sympathizers on the island of the ongoing independence movement of Simón Bolívar in South America remained weak and isolated.
However, the figure of Antonio Valero de Bernabé must also be recognized: a military officer in the Spanish War of Independence against France, he later fought in both the Mexican War of Independence and the movement of Bolívar against Spain. He was the “first Puerto Rican to think clearly about the independence of the nation”, while also introducing the element of internationalism into Puerto Rico’s revolutionary tradition (CORRETJER).
Note that the 1900 Foraker Act under US rule imposed a system of government that reduced the representation granted to Puerto Rico by its colonial power, compared to what it had obtained in the Spanish Cortes (e.g., 15 deputies by 1874).
… after the revolutionary and formative act of Lares, no self-respecting person can deny the existence of Puerto Rican nationhood. … Lares is the stone of our foundation, the soul of our history, the living and the immortal …CORRETJER
On the night of September 23, 1868, up to one thousand armed insurrectionists proclaimed the first Republic of Puerto Rico in the central-western mountain town of Lares and raised the revolutionary “flag of Lares.”
The insurrection — El Grito de Lares — was associated above all with the Antillean figure of Ramón Emeterio Betances, who 20 years earlier as a medical student in Paris had seen firsthand the events of the 1848 French Revolution and would later translate a biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture into Spanish. A text by Betances titled the “Ten Commandments of Free Men” represented the program of Lares: the abolition of slavery, the right to reject taxation, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce, the right of assembly, the right to bear arms, the inviolability of citizens, and the right of Puerto Ricans to elect their own authorities.
The uprising ended quickly in defeat, but was followed by new reforms, such as the abolition of slavery in 1873. Puerto Rico’s first political parties would also be formed in 1870. El Grito de Lares coincided with the beginning of the bourgeois revolutionary period of 1868-74 in Spain and Cuba’s first war of independence.
The political story of US colonialism in Puerto Rico begins with the invasion on July 25, 1898 during the Spanish-Cuban-American War. Betances noted from his Parisian exile, “if Puerto Rico does not act rapidly, it will be an American colony forever.” The 1898 Treaty of Paris ended the war and ceded Puerto Rico to the US, a decision in which the people of the island of course had no say.
The US military occupied Puerto Rico from October 1898 to April 1900 and the 1900 Foraker Act of the US congress created a new form of colonial government in Puerto Rico, subservient to US capitalism then entering its imperialist stage.
The Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 had a significance on a world scale as a marker for a new era: the imperialist era. Lenin succinctly defined its character:
“Imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism. Its specific character is
threefold: imperialism is monopoly capitalism; parasitic, or decaying capitalism; moribund capitalism. The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism. Monopoly manifests itself in five principal forms: (1) cartels, syndicates and trusts—the concentration of production has reached a degree which gives rise to these monopolistic associations of capitalists; (2) the monopolistic position of the big banks—three, four or five giant banks manipulate the whole economic life of America, France, Germany; (3) seizure of the sources of raw material by the trusts and the financial oligarchy (finance capital is monopoly industrial capital merged with bank capital); (4) the (economic) partition of the world by the international cartels has begun. There are already over one hundred such international cartels, which command the entire world market and divide it ‘amicably’ among themselves—until war redivides it. The export of capital, as distinct from the export of commodities under non-monopoly capitalism, is a highly characteristic phenomenon and is closely linked with the economic and territorial-political partition of the world; (5) the territorial partition of the world (colonies) is completed.”
Over the course of more than 120 years, Puerto Rico has remained a US colony, a fact that has only been more sharply exposed by the debt crisis, two 2016 US Supreme Court cases affirming the unqualified power of the US congress over the island (Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle and Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust, et al.), and the aftermath of Hurricane María.
In 1900, the Foraker Act provided for the appointment of the governor and the main 11-member legislative body by the US president, established a separate chamber subordinate to the final veto of the US congress, and created a non-voting “resident commissioner” in Washington. The 1917 Jones Act then reorganized the 11-member body as a cabinet and formed a bicameral legislature, maintaining the ultimate veto of the US president and the US congress, while granting US citizenship to Puerto Ricans
born on or after April 25, 1898.
The period of the New Deal was followed by two decades of governance by the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) under the slogan of “Bread, Land, and Liberty,” involving US-dependent industrialization (“Operation Bootstrap”) and the violent repression of the Partido Nacionalista of Pedro Albizu Campos and its insurrectionary activity in 1950. Luis Muñoz Marín of the PPD held the governor’s seat from 1949-65. The constitutional process of 1950-52 created Puerto Rico’s present status: the Estado Libre Asociado, or ‘commonwealth’ in English. The pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) emerged to contest the 1968 gubernatorial elections and the executive has subsequently circulated every four or eight years between the PPD and the PNP, which remain the two dominant parties at present. The Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), which obtained its height of electoral support in 1952 with 20% of the vote, today holds one seat each in the Senate and the House. It was founded in 1946 following the PPD’s abandonment of its original pro-independence position.
The years described above laid the foundations for the developments of the 1960s up to the current moment, including the creation of new political organizations, as well as the question of the five status referendums of 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012, and 2017. The most significant recent struggles have been the two-day general strike in 1998 during the fight of telephone workers against privatization and the fight for Vieques in 1999-2003.
To support Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence and against US colonialism—as North Americans—means to recognize that the vanguard in Puerto Rico upholds independence, an unresolved question underlying the massive entrance of the people onto the stage of history during the July days of 2019. It means to take as our starting point the idea that genuine unity between nations can only develop on the basis of real equality.
To say unity between nations is to say that Puerto Rico is a nation of its own and that Puerto Ricans are not “Americans too,” as US liberals of different types have repeated on various platforms. The “cultivated” US nationalism of the liberals is only a complement to the “crude” US nationalism of the conservatives. Against both, our watchwords must be: recognition of Puerto Rican nationhood, whose denial, as Corretjer noted long ago, is “an imbecility”; and the end of US colonialism, which means independence. Only on this basis can there be a united struggle of the workers and the people in Puerto Rico and the US.