Rumblings of Change in Puerto Rico

The island territory is ruled by the United States but politically and socioeconomically adrift from it. Many want that to change

Rumblings of Change in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico, San Juan, Old San Juan/Getty images

Tamara Zoe García’s great-grandmother remembered when the soldiers came to town.

“She was 10 years old when the Americans arrived,” García tells me as we stand along the malecón in Guánica, a seaside town in southern Puerto Rico.

“She watched them marching the Spanish soldiers in shackles to Yauco,” she says, referring to a hillside town about seven miles away.

Shielded between two hills, the bay of Guánica, where the U.S. military arrived to seize Puerto Rico as war booty during the Spanish-American War on July 25, 1898, glitters under the midday sun, the wind churning the sea to create diamonds on the crests of the waves.

Behind us lies Guánica itself, a colorful sprawl of low-slung structures, many still severely damaged from a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in January 2020, which briefly knocked out power across the entire island. This was the second time Puerto Ricans were plunged into darkness in less than three years; Hurricane Maria in 2017 claimed over 3,000 lives and knocked out power to the island for months while then-President Donald Trump golfed and tweeted his rage at NFL players

Such blows of nature are themselves a testimony to the complex and ambiguous relationship between this island of 3 million people and the giant power that lords over it from the north.

“Even before the earthquake, there were the budget cuts,” says Carlos García (no relation), an unemployed handyman from the town who, like Tamara Zoe García (herself a chef by training), is a member of Team 821, a group of local citizens who formed after the quake to pool their resources and try to improve the lives of residents. He stands before an abandoned pink and white house, dramatic fissures running up its sides, its support pillars looking near collapse.

“There was a consolidation of government offices,” Carlos García says. “The unemployment office went to San Germán [a mountain town about 15 miles away], cupones [the island’s equivalent of food stamps], went to Lajas. We don’t have those services anymore.”

Ringed with glistening white sand beaches and blessed with an interior of undulating, fecund mountains, Puerto Rico (officially the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico or Free Associated State of Puerto Rico) exists in a colonial twilight among the family of world nations. Over the last four years, it has endured the destruction of hurricanes Maria and Irma, widespread protests that drove Gov. Ricardo Rosselló from power in 2019, the 2020 earthquake, and a grinding economic crisis that has now stretched into its second decade and dovetailed with the coronavirus pandemic.

Within a month of Tamara Zoe García’s great-grandmother watching the U.S. forces march the Spanish away in Guánica, they had succeeded in defeating the creaking European empire across Puerto Rico’s entire 100–by-35 mile expanse. The Americans had arrived less than a year after the adoption of the Carta Autonómica, which had granted Puerto Rico significant autonomy from Spain and established an elected House of Representatives, an autonomous judiciary, and a great degree of economic control. The Puerto Rican writer Tomás Blanco would call the Carta Autonómica “the crystallization that has long been claimed and debated, of a rule of law that opened a broad channel for the hope of solving regional problems from the local point of view.”

All of that would change. The island would be ruled by unelected and often racist functionaries for five long decades afterward, and moves toward independence would be violently crushed by U.S.-backed security forces, culminating in a 1937 massacre in the southern town of Ponce on Palm Sunday 1937, during which 19 civilians died and some 200 were injured.

Finally, in 1952, under the aegis of the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) of the island’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín, a new constitution came into effect, setting up the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, which still exists today. More populous than 22 current U.S. states, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can vote in U.S. presidential primaries but not in the general election. The island is represented by a single, nonvoting member (known as the Resident Commissioner) in the U.S. Congress, and while it elects its own governor and bicameral legislature, ultimate power over the island’s fate lies with the U.S. president and a U.S. Congress the island’s citizens have no say in electing.

Muñoz Marín and the PPD initiated an aggressive program of industrialization on the once largely rural island that became known as Operation Bootstrap, and soon the income generated by manufacturing outstripped that generated by agriculture as an urban, export-oriented economic model took hold. Puerto Ricans unsatisfied with the arrangement could travel with ease between the island and the mainland United States, where even better-paying jobs awaited, an escape valve that to a large degree headed off the roiling social unrest that occurred elsewhere in Latin America during the second half of the 20th century.

By the end of the 1960s, electoral politics on the island translated into a political tug of war between the PPD and the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), which supports the island being admitted as a full state within the United States. (Despite often being characterized as a party of the right, the PNP in fact encompasses an idiosyncratic range of political opinion from Trumpist Republicans to liberal Democrats, only united by their mutual desire for statehood and talent for political fratricide.) The island’s third political tendency — for independence — had been severely weakened following the crushing of violent pro-independence uprisings in the early 1950s and the subsequent targeting of activists by the FBI as part of its Counterintelligence Program and by Puerto Rican police.

A provision of the Internal Revenue Code enacted in 1976 — known as Section 936 — gave companies from the mainland United States an exemption from federal taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico and helped spur further growth in manufacturing jobs and other sources of work, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. It would be the repeal of Section 936 in 1996 — undertaken by then-President Bill Clinton with bipartisan support to pay for a minimum wage hike on the mainland — that would begin to herald Puerto Rico’s long, steady decline.

During this period, the island was governed by a PNP-affiliated physician named Pedro Rosselló — the father of Ricardo Rosselló — who led a scandal-plagued administration and left office in January 2001, bequeathing the island a public debt of some $25.7 billion.

Over the next several years, the island’s government would impose a range of new taxes to cover the shortfall as the island’s general obligation bonds sank toward junk status, which brought about the arrival of capitalist adventurers. Hedge funds lent Puerto Rico more than $3 billion, envisioning a 20% return on the back of the island’s constitutional clause requiring that bonds be paid back. The funds were dominated by politically powerful entities, such as the Paulson & Co. hedge fund of leading Republican donor John Paulson, who would later serve as an early endorser of and economic adviser for Trump’s presidential campaign. As a territory, Puerto Rico had no legal ability to declare bankruptcy, and repeated downgrades of the worth of its bonds had effectively shut it out of the bond market. The government was reduced to short-term bank credit financing and other schemes to stay afloat from month to month, effectively creating a pyramid scheme where the state was borrowing money from some lenders to pay others.

In June 2016, the U.S. Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which established the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB, though often referred to locally as “la junta”) with the power to restructure $70 billion of the island’s debt. It was signed into law by Obama that same month. Thus, an unelected federal entity was given the ability to manage the island’s finances over that of its elected government.

The protests that erupted in Puerto Rico in July 2019, following the leak of hundreds of profane chats between Rosselló and his close advisers, during which they mocked ordinary Puerto Ricans and fantasized about the assassination of political opponents, grew out of a social milieu that, for anyone under the age of 30, had been only a grinding litany of austerity, natural disasters, and wild political cronyism to rival anything seen elsewhere in Latin America, with the politically connected offered plum government jobs, contracts, and high salaries while the rest of the population was largely left to fend for themselves or exercise “the JetBlue option” (migration to the mainland United States).

After 18 months of custodial governorship by former Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, Pedro Pierluisi, a PNP politician who in his 2009-2017 role as Resident Commissioner was instrumental in crafting PROMESA, was elected as Puerto Rico’s governor this past November with 33.24% of the vote in a five-person race. Pierluisi, who took office in January, had previously served a chaotic five days as governor following the resignation of Rosselló, only to have Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court declare his assumption of the office unconstitutional. The PNP also retained the office of Resident Commissioner and won the mayorship of San Juan, where former Secretary of Labor Miguel Romero narrowly defeated former PPD deputy Manuel Natal, who ran as the candidate for the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (Citizens’ Victory Movement or MVC), a new party formed just before the 2019 protests, in an acrimonious ballot fraught with charges of fraud.

Despite the initial impression of stasis, however, it would be a mistake to say that nothing has changed in Puerto Rico’s political landscape since the 2019 uprising. The long-dominant duopoly of the PNP and PPD appears to have broken down.

Two of the MVC’s members won election to the island’s Senate and two to its House of Representatives, while the right-wing Proyecto Dignidad won one seat in each. For the first time in history, women constitute a majority in Puerto Rico’s Senate, where five supporters of independence will also occupy seats. In an election where 34% of the electorate voted against the two main-party candidates for governor, MVC candidate Alexandra Lúgaro, came in third with 14.21%, while the candidate for the pro-sovereignty Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), Juan Dalmau, received 13.72%, a fairly stunning result considering that in the 2016 elections, the PIP’s gubernatorial candidate received only 2.13%.

Conversely, however, in a concurrent referendum on the island’s status in which voters were asked whether Puerto Rico should be granted statehood within the United States, 52.52% answered “yes” while 47.48% rejected the concept. The referendum, which was nonbinding, followed a two-part 2012 status referendum where 53.97% voted that they did not wish to continue with the current free association arrangement and, for the first time, a majority — 61.16% — chose statehood. (A third of the 2012 responses to the second question were left blank, leading statehood opponents to argue those were in fact anti-statehood votes.)

Statehood opponents frequently reject the electoral results based on what they claim voters “really” want, and the PNP’s near-total domination of the island’s electoral machinery, revealed in a recent investigation by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Investigative Journalism Center), has led to further questioning of the results. In one of the few concrete attempts to engage the issue on the mainland, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, proposed in August 2020 by U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez & Nydia Velázquez, both of Puerto Rican heritage, suggested the election of status delegates to “develop a long-term solution for Puerto Rico’s status, be that statehood, independence, free association or any option other than the current territorial arrangement.”

During his run for the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to “work with representatives who support each of the status options in Puerto Rico to engage in a fair and binding process to determine their own status,” calling the current arrangement “untenable.”

The whiff of colonial domination in the relationship between moneyed mainlanders and the citizens of Puerto Rico — especially since Hurricane Maria and certainly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — is not hard to spot.

On a local level, this is typified by the hundreds of daily indignities Puerto Ricans are subjected to by visitors, from the gringo who spat in the face of the employee of a supermarket in the surfing mecca of Rincón in July after being asked to wear a mask (and got a golf club to the head for his trouble) to the drunkard who attacked members of Puerto Rico’s National Guard for the same reason at San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in November, screaming, “It’s going to be all over social media!” while pinned to the floor. Last September, outside the rural mountain municipality of Morovis, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 people traveling from the mainland to promote the sale of bitcoin virtual currencies threw a packed, maskless party, images of which they incautiously shared online.

Since the island reopened to tourism late last spring, but especially since this past autumn, the streets of Viejo San Juan, where I live, have been choked with herds of maskless tourists from the mainland, packing the already oversaturated Airbnbs (many of which are replacing the homes of long-term residents who are being forced out of their neighborhood), crowding bars, and posing for selfies in the quarter’s narrow streets, with seemingly little regard for the well-being of the local population. “Maybe you’ll survive, abuelita, now bring me my drink” seems to sum up their attitude.

In 2012, the island’s government passed Act 20, which sought to promote export services on the island via tax credits and tax exemptions, and Act 22, which fully exempts high-net-worth individuals from local taxes on all passive income provided they reside in Puerto Rico (“residing” being defined as being present on the island for at least 168 days per year). In 2019, both acts were folded into the so-called Puerto Rico Incentives Code, which said it wanted to “promote the necessary conditions to attract investment.” Though the logic of the law was to hopefully encourage these individuals to invest in the local economy, it seems to have attracted something else altogether.

One expat website — called “Sovereign Man” — encourages individuals to take advantage of the law, gushing about how the author pays “zero U.S. federal income tax, only a 4% corporate tax for my businesses and zero capital gains and dividends tax … to live a comfortable lifestyle in paradise.”

That such arriviste fantasies are lived out on an island that has had to close 44% of its schools since 2007, which has resulted in “serious harm to the students and communities who rely on them,” as the University of California at Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute and San Juan-based Centro para la Reconstrucción del Hábitat concluded, goes unsaid.

Another investment website, created following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, practically salivates at the potential for displacement, advising readers, “With nearly one-third of the island’s homeowners behind on their mortgage payments … the next several years are going to see thousands of distressed properties coming to market. This presents a significant investment opportunity.”

The financial links between the Act 22 beneficiaries and the PNP, especially, are extensive, with the Public Accountability Initiative and the watchdog network LittleSis reporting that the party had received 70% of its donations between 2012 and 2020, with Pedro Pierluisi receiving $60,000 and San Juan mayor Miguel Romero receiving $44,000.

“Today’s economy is attracting a different kind of Anglo American,” says Julio Ortiz Luquis, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the City University of New York. “Puerto Rico has become a tax haven for rich Americans. These Americans, for the most part, are not the professional class of migrants that came during the 20th century to live in San Juan or around military bases. They have been attracted to the island by the current economic crisis and have no connection to or knowledge about Puerto Rico’s reality. They are land speculators and bitcoin enthusiasts, and most do not know what to do with buildings and land bought. The main difference between the 20th and 21st century Anglo presence in Puerto Rico is that today the presence is more visible, less educated, and more socially disconnected and racist.”

As the mainlanders live out their tropical fantasies, a steady backbeat of violence also stalks the island. Gun battles with high-velocity weapons in the island’s housing projects, known as caserios, are not uncommon, and recently, when a man believed to have been a member of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Cantera (FARC) drug trafficking organization killed three police officers while fleeing pursuit, his body was subsequently found dumped in the busy San Juan neighborhood of Santurce next to a sign that said, “I am responsible for the murder of the policemen.”

Puerto Rico also remains a dangerous place to be a woman. Last month, Pierluisi declared a state of emergency with regard to gender-based violence, a move long campaigned for by activists, and proposed implementation of a gender perspective curriculum in public schools, improving collection of statistics on femicides, review of protocols for sexual harassment, and a strengthened enforcement of protection orders.

When Puerto Rico’s political battles and economic dislocation grow too much, I often seek solace in the island’s mountains where, despite the struggles there, one can feel an almost corporeal lifting of stress and a stronger connection to the island’s rebel soul.

In the mountain town of Adjuntas, where some of the island’s best coffee is produced, Arturo Massol Deyá, professor of microbiology and ecology at the Universidad de Puerto Rico and executive director of Casa Pueblo, is thinking about the future of the island.

“We have a generation that is more aware of what is happening in Puerto Rico because we are confronting a crisis that is right in our face, their definition of stability is not what we had in the past,” says Massol Deyá, the cool mountain air around him filled with melodious birdsong. “What they see is what we have right now has a lot of contradictions, and they don’t see a better future nearby.”

Formed by Massol Deyá’s parents in 1980 to oppose planned strip mining in the central mountains, in the ensuing years Casa Pueblo has grown into both a model of promoting self-sufficiency — from helping to install solar panels all over Adjuntas and beyond, to managing a forest, to tending to a butterfly garden — as well as a kind of signpost of resistance to the conniving designs of the politicians in San Juan and their off-island allies.

“The actual contradiction of the colonial relationship with the U.S. was meant to collapse, and what we are witnessing is its collapse,” Massol Deyá continues. “When you add that reality to what is happening with climate change and the consequences we are going through in the Caribbean, that model that has been imposed in Puerto Rico is our greatest weakness in confronting that reality. We are all about confronting that model of dependency.”

Driving away from Adjuntas, as one’s eyes take in the sight of horses grazing placidly in fields and gurgling mountain streams wreathed by lush greenery, one is reminded that Puerto Rico is not just acquisitive, avaricious politicians, hurricane winds, and angry protests. It’s also listening to the sound of the coquí frog serenading you as you stand with a Barrilito (Puerto Rican rum) in your hand under a sky full of stars in the clear air of cordillera central. It’s wading into the warm Caribbean Sea as the sun sinks fiery in the western sky. It’s the sound of plena played spontaneously outside a bar in Santurce. It’s stopping to feast on lechón in Guavate on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Somehow, amid all the struggle, these aspects of the island stubbornly endure.

One of the harbingers of change in Puerto Rico, elected to the Senate under the MVC’s banner, is Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, an Afro Puerto Rican attorney and member of the LGBTQ community who previously was the first Black woman to head the Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico (CAPR), the island’s bar association. When I was writing this article, I asked her what the future held for Puerto Rico.

“The country is going through difficult times that we did not imagine we would have to face,” Rivera Lassén told me, reflexively referring, as many do, to Puerto Rico in national terms. “We have been hit by political storms such as the PROMESA law and the imposition of the fiscal control board, as well as the austerity measures, and we have suffered storms such as Irma and Maria, earthquakes, and now COVID-19. In all these moments, we see clearly the need to have a government that works and has adequate responses to these crises, but what we have seen is how corruption envelops [everything] and fills the country with helplessness.”

“Without a doubt, the country has to solve the status problem,” Rivera Lassén continued. “We need to build an inclusive country, a country that includes all of us. All of us.”

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