Puerto Rico’s crisis: capitalism, colonialism and climate change

BY:Carol Ramos| February 15, 2018
Puerto Rico’s crisis: capitalism, colonialism and climate change


I think it’s important from a start to realize that the crisis conditions in Puerto Rico in the wake and aftermath of hurricanes Maria and Irma, were not brought about extraneously this past fall, but are rooted in the systemic inequalities that were already in place and were the root cause of the humanitarian disaster that’s grown and intensified since the back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes decimated the island.

Puerto Rican people were already suffering terribly because of U.S. colonialist laws and exploitation that had been crippling the economy and had resulted in an insupportable unpayable public debt of $96 billion. Finance capital, real estate markets and hedge fund profiteers had railroaded the island nation into insufferable social and economic conditions. Similar to what happened with the 2008 housing bubble crisis, hedge fund profiteers buy up bonds at pennies on the dollar, give loans to people that are desperate then demand 100% repayment at very high interest rates, and with the full power of the U.S. legal, political and economic system behind them.

Puerto Rico had no right to do anything about the looming economic crisis because the economic stranglehold is built into the colonialist system. No recourse to address it, and even the vote taken in a referendum in favor statehood, (although with only a 23% turnout) as a means to get relief from this situation, was ignored by Congress – where the final say always rests.

One of the tenets of capitalism is the concept of taking big risks to try to win big financial gains. The propaganda hype is that you reap big financial rewards because you took big risks.  But in reality, it’s turned on its head, especially under a colonialist relationship, investments pay out regardless. If an investment is a bad one, the corporations make their millions and the people pay through austerity measures. Who pays in Puerto Rico? The local economy, the  university and public schools, healthcare, workers’ pensions, workers’ wages, and communities.

These were the cutbacks dictated by PROMESA , the US federal law that established a fiscal oversight board to restructure the massive debt. Who is on the board? Among others, a private equity manager and former bank president, another banker, a member of the right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute, a conservative corporate law professor. No surprise that measures included: close 184 schools, try to implement a minimum wage of $4.25 an hour for 25-year-olds and younger, order Puerto Rico to implement 10 percent cutbacks in its public pension system, massive layoffs in the tens of thousands of workers, cuts that include $1 billion in health services, $300 million from the university budget, $350 million in aid to municipalities, eliminate environmental protections, privatize and sell off public lands.

So, why doesn’t Puerto Rico declare bankruptcy to try to resolve some of the problem of this debt built up over decades at usurer interest rates that have rendered it unpayable? Puerto Rico tried – and made an effort based on its Puerto Rican Recovery law, to allow public utilities to restructure $20 billion in debt with some creditors. The case went to the Supreme Court and in 2016 the Court struck down the Puerto Rican law, arguing that Puerto Rico is not a sovereign state, it has no legal right to make this decision – (one of the tipping points in public thinking that would dissolve any notion that free associated state is nothing more than a euphemism for United States colony).

Only the U.S. Congress may enact bankruptcy laws – the upshot here is that for purposes of relief to the population, the applicable laws are determined by Congress, but for the purposes of GOP tax reform, Puerto Rico is treated like a foreign country, and levied a “sovereign country” export tax on manufacturing, in effect further crippling its local economy.

I want to share that Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote on this decision ”the Recovery Act is the only existing legal option for Puerto Rico to restructure debts that could cripple its citizens.”

“Soon, Puerto Rico will be unable to pay for things like fuel to generate electricity, which will lead to rolling blackouts” and “other vital public services will be imperiled, including the utilities’ ability to provide safe drinking water, maintain roads and operate public transportation.” She said the majority Court’s approach is a deceptive argument and leaves Puerto Rico “powerless and with no legal process to help” its citizens. Key word Powerless – and in Crisis.

As Communists, we don’t believe restructuring is a viable solution to the debt crisis. We must demand the debt be cancelled. It has been paid many times over through the plunder of the island’s resources and exploitation of its workforce. Instead of cooking up restructuring schemes and going down a road of further impoverishment and capitalist profiteering, we say cook up a “debt picadillo”, let’s make mincemeat out of the debt!

All of this, all of the above was before Irma and Maria.

So, when Maria and Irma ravaged the island last fall, the framework for further oppression and profiteering was already in place and steering fast toward a humanitarian disaster.

For advanced capitalism, Maria was the perfect storm of the capitalist greed: a combination of structural colonialist stranglehold, and climate change devastation.  In other words, it’s what one of our prospective speakers at a scheduled CPUSA roundtables, Natasha Bannon,  calls the convergence of the three C’s: capitalism, colonialism and climate change.

The devastation of the hurricane has been in many ways dwarfed by the crisis caused in the aftermath due to #45’s and the GOP Congress’ refusal to fully fund recovery and rebuilding. There was the contemptuous scene of #45 tossing rolls of paper towels at a group of people in in Puerto Rico and then justifying the slow response by claiming logistical issues,

FEMA’s threatening to cut off water and food aid in order to stimulate private economy is part of the criminal response – Heroic San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz pleaded ‘we are dying“ and the slow negligent response to the destruction and the need were  steps toward genocide. There have now been thousands of deaths – deaths of diabetic and sick patients stranded without electricity and a means to refrigerate medicine, patients unable to operate dialysis equipment, people drinking from creeks and rivers and contracting bacterial diseases that come from animal carcasses contaminating the water. Today’s growing suicide rate among young people suffering depression and desperation are the tragic consequences of Trump’s racist negligent and criminal response.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand invited Mayor Yulin Cruz to the SOTU address last week. “The administration has caused lasting pain and even more havoc than the hurricanes themselves,” Yulin Cruz said. The idea that “FEMA is leaving because the situation is stabilized is ridiculous  “anyone who comes can see nothing is stable.”

We have to keep the pressure on for actions that keep Puerto Rico in the news like the position taken by Gillibrand. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, Connecticut Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, Illinois Representative Luis Guttierrez have repeatedly made trips and spoken up and called out the lies in the GOP spin. Representative Ted Lieu of California and Representative Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands propose that Puerto Rico’s electric grid be rebuilt with wind, solar and a network of micro-grids.

We need to rebuild with solar power, said Mayor Yulin, “I’ve seen solar street lights knocked down by the hurricane, but the light is still on – if we rebuild with grid, the same will happen again.”

Speaking about Congressional Democrats who voted for Promesa the mayor said ”They were confused, they drank the kool-aid and thought it would help – but it is not helping. Promesa and the fiscal control board took away $350 million from municipalities, $175 million this year and $175 million next year. Keep it in the news and not as a ‘good news’ story.”

She continued: “The entire island nation needs massive amounts of attention, but in Loiza on the Eastern side and in Vieques and Culebra, we don’t even know yet how many people are dead. We should be talking about the deaths, not the debt.”

This past week Yulin asked UN and UNICEF to speak out on behalf of people of Puerto Rico. She argued that access to drinking water is a human right, access to food, to education is a human right and denying them because of “logistics issues” or because “you can’t hack it” is unacceptable – noting that hundreds of volunteer relief workers from the labor movement, including SEIU, UAW, teamsters, machinists, nurses, teachers have given vacation time to come help.

She says that this shows the real spirit of the American people so “I asked the UN, UNICEF and any other international organization to stand up for Puerto Rico. Latin nations use your ambassadors… demand that what the US demands of other countries, they do here. Demand that as citizens of the world that the UN send a delegation here. This is a human rights issue and a human rights violation issue.”

In 1951, communist leader, William Patterson, and the Civil Rights Congress, presented a historic petition to the UN General Assembly. The We Charge Genocide petition. It said in part: “…The oppressed Negro citizens, segregated, discriminated against and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.”

The petition specified that It is sometimes incorrectly thought that genocide means the complete and definitive destruction of a race or people. The Genocide Convention, however, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, defines genocide to include any intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethnic, or religious group. Thus, the Convention states, “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” is genocide as well as “killing members of the group”. I was surprised to find that a section of the historic petition addresses:


“the cruel and inhuman policy of this government toward the people of Puerto Rico, the wanton exploitation and oppression by gigantic American concerns, through merciless frame-up and imprisonment of hundreds of its sons and daughters, this colony of the rulers of the United States reveals the moral bankruptcy of this government and those who control its home and foreign policies.

“History has shown that the racist theory of government of the USA is not the private affair of Americans, but the concern of mankind everywhere.” These are the words of the petition. I would add that the fact that hundreds of thousands are forced to leave their homes, because conditions are intolerable, that in itself is a form of genocide. The UN Special Committee on Decolonization has for many years placed Puerto Rican Independence and self-determination on the agenda of the UN.

Capitalism is not restorative and will not relinquish colonialism unless we fight with urgency and bold actions of mass struggle that can thwart the colonialist schemes. We should take up the issue of UN involvement into the situation in Puerto Rico as a result of the hurricanes and their aftermath.

We should kick off a nationwide campaign to demand our cities and public institutions divest from Puerto Rico’s creditors.

Last week activists at Yale demanded that the university stop investing in one of Puerto Rico’s biggest creditors. The group Hedge Clippers protests large companies that they say are trying to profit off Puerto Rico’s troubles. Activist Julio Lopez Varona says that Yale is investing in the Baupost Group, that demands the island settle its debts. “The pattern of investors in Puerto Rico over the last ten years has been a pattern of you give Puerto Rico terrible debt, you push Puerto Rico to pay and when Puerto Rico cannot pay, they push terrible austerity measures.”

Activists sent letters to 13 universities asking them to divest from Puerto Rico’s creditors last fall.  In New York City, through a long divestiture campaign and actions, we saw that pressure resulted in New York City beginning to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

“Paradise Performs” is the tagline today of the Department of Economic Development to encourage corporations in Puerto Rico.

The Communist Party has a long history of condemning colonialist plunder in Puerto Rico. William Z. Foster reported three quarters of century ago on a visit to the island’s impoverished areas. He wrote, ”I saw sights and heard stories of extreme poverty that will stay with me forever until my dying day. I burned with shame that such outrageous conditions exist in Puerto Rico and are caused by us.” Nearly 75 years later people again have no water, no light, infestations that threaten health and life of children and families. From its inception colonialism has meant that U.S. government agencies control all political, economic and social activities.

The U.S. Congress exercises exclusive jurisdiction over Puerto Rico’s foreign relations, citizenship, travel, armed forces, military recruitment, foreign commerce, customs, transportation, exchange notes, post offices, radio, television, bankruptcy proceedings, patents, quarantine laws, and the administration of courts.sssssss US -appointed agencies can prohibit the entry of any product into Puerto Rico. They regulate sea and air transportation. All sea traffic must be in United States-owned ships, this is the Jones Act – the law that impedes relief to Puerto Rico and has kept the cost of living high due to the exorbitant cost of shipping goods to the island. Neighboring Caribbean countries could not send aid after the hurricanes; Dominican Republic, Cuba, Latin American countries offering desperately needed help and prevented by the laws of the colonialist power.

The struggle against colonialism in Puerto Rico has been a movement for independence and self-determination. For decades Puerto Ricans have marched, picketed, organized labor strikes, university sit-ins and shut-downs, boycotted, demonstrated, testified, petitioned, rallied and protested, they have been arrested, been beaten, imprisoned, tortured, gone on hunger strikes, shot at and murdered. This is the legacy of the martyrs and heroes of the resistance, among whom is Oscar Lopez Rivera, political prisoner with his sentence commuted by President Obama after imprisonment for 35 years. Oscar Lopez Rivera is living in Puerto Rico and traveling widely as international voice of the people. Colonial oppression intensified by environmental disaster led to the mass exodus of hurricane refugees.

As conditions worsen, families are displaced, forced to migrate to the U.S. mainland, starting life over from zero – facing further hardships as hurricane refugees in hotels. Cities have made educational accommodations in classrooms, but housing is a continuing crisis– families moving several times from homeless shelter hotels, to relatives’ homes.

Maria destroyed around 75,000 houses and damaged around 300,000 others. The deadline set by FEMA to cut housing aid is March 20,2018. People don’t know where they will go, homeless hotels say there is no room. Even in cities like New York, were schools have taken measures to assist children, the education is disrupted throughout the school year attending multiple schools.

Many young people have been recruited and sought employment in the Midwest. One young woman, a university student when the hurricane struck, and whose story appeared in the Washington Post, accepted a job from a recruiter in Kentucky – in a poultry processing plant. Long hours with no benefits and low wages. The company pays the airfare and housing and then garners the wages for repayment: super exploitation and modern day indentured servitude.

When hurricanes Irma and Harvey devastated parts of Florida and Texas, federal aid and resources poured in with reasonable efficiency. The FEMA response made a major difference, but after Irma hit Puerto Rico, Trump harped on debts as a pretext for not sending aid. The full force of the military could have been used for air-dropping food and water, for setting up temporary towers for communication. Instead, as people struggled and set up makeshift water-pipe hookups, drank from streams and rivers, the presence of the military was more of a message than a massive force for help … more of a show of force than of aid. A message from the oppressor that you can be resilient, but not revolutionary.

“There is ethnic cleansing in Puerto Rico,” charged activist Harvey Wasserman. “Not enough food, water, medicine and medical care. People dying in hospitals Why? Because they are black and brown people who speak another language. While the GOP tax bill gives the rich a $1.5 trillion tax cut, Republicans do not want to spend $90 billion rebuilding the Caribbean,” he said.

FEMA was due to shut down, but the public outcry forced them to extend, “But from the beginning, says Yulin Cruz, “they were asking people to apply for aid online … people without electricity. They kept asking for memo after memo to be written as a prerequisite for aid. It was as if this were the first disaster they had ever encountered.” People stopped hoping “’they’re coming to help’. They realized ‘they were coming to control us”.


As the exodus of refugees continues, it creates a billionaire’s playground and converts the island into a billionaire’s paradise-ethnic cleansing for the super-rich.

The Pentagon expropriated lands

In Vieques, for 60 years the U.S. Navy used the small island as a bombing range and military training, contaminating the island with toxic chemicals, Agent Orange and causing a health crisis. The US peace movement and climate action supported the struggle of Puerto Rico and the military was forced to withdraw.

Events like the Washington, DC Puerto Rican solidarity roundtable being planned for March with activist brothers and sisters in the movement can raise public consciousness about colonialism – when Maria struck, half of the American population did not even know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. As well, these actions and connections can help grow the Party.

We can play a unifying role – bring Puerto Rico solidarity work into our work in the labor movement, the peace movement, climate action movement, international liberation and solidarity movements. Dock workers played a pivotal role in anti-apartheid struggles when they refused to unload ships. There are Puerto Rican workers in the ILWU in Florida, where the international cargo for Puerto Rico is unloaded and then reloaded on US ships. Including a leader in the union in Puerto Rico and a comrade in the ILWU in Philadelphia. How can we contribute to build class consciousness and Puerto Rico solidarity among the ILWU membership and pressure union leadership?

The actions we are taking in support of the Teacher’s Union Federation is having an impact in terms of the educational and humanitarian crisis. YCLer’s took a leadership role in the Party and movement to establish close ties with the teachers’ union in Puerto Rico. They subsequently formed the Solidarity Campaign that is sending school supplies directly to the union to benefit 2,000 public school students.

Bold, consistent actions to support Puerto Rico can help to create a tipping point in the resistance, turn the tide and force the hand of big business and result in tangible relief and changes for Puerto Ricans on the island and the refugee population. Puerto Rico solidarity events take place almost daily throughout the country.

In Connecticut, Puerto Rican Rally and Lobby Day will take place at the State Capitol. Comrades there have been working with the CT Puerto Rican Agenda, Make the Road CT and allies and supporters in the community as well as social media to ensure participation in large numbers. A resolution requested and approved by the Brooklyn Progressive Action Network was written by comrades, highlighting our common class enemies in the struggle of working-class New Yorkers and the Puerto Rican people.

The decisiveness of this moment is evident, when you consider that today even the hedge fund vultures are now in competition with a whole new breed of virtual finance vultures, looking to create on the island what they are calling a cryptoutopia – a new city where money is virtual. They call themselves PuertoUtopians –These crypto currency vultures had been searching for a location and after Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and cryptocurrency prices began to soar, they saw their opportunity to build their “paradise.”

They take over hotels, a children’s museum in Old San Juan to set up the first cryptocurrency bank. Literally start a city in Puerto Rico to have their own cryptoworld, describing themselves as “benevolent capitalists.” Because it is in essence a Ponzi scheme, what started as bitcoin using laptops now requires huge and ever-increasing amounts of electricity to operate on ever increasing networks of computers, depleting the energy resources of the island. The bitcoin mining network now consumes more electricity than 159 countries of the world. “Puerto Rico has been a hidden gem,” says the director of bitcoin and now founder of a start-up which owns a custom virtual currency whose value of tokens is around $6.5 billion – he has ties to Steve Bannon and has been sued for fraud. Yet, the Puerto Rican Department of Economic Development and Governor Rosello is set to speak in March at a Puerto Crypto summit .

Puerto crypto’s compete with hedge fund managers to buy up hundreds of thousands of acres, like modern day robber barons. “We are the tax playground for the rich “says Andria Satz, of the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. “Outsiders get tax exemptions and locals can’t get permits.”

Under the umbrella of a “Just Recovery and Relief Aid Package for Puerto Rico”, grassroots leadership on the island has developed a set of demands in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. We should support the call for massive funding to deal with the deadly shortages of water, food, medicine and other basic needs. In addition, support the demands in the full “Just Recovery and Relief Aid Package” that would put the island on a path toward regenerative energy, economic democracy, food sovereignty, control over land use, and community autonomy, as delineated in conjunction with the Climate Action Alliance.

Support for Puerto Rico is part of the resistance movement and we have to frame it as such in our political work. We have to fight for Puerto Rico and fight to win. I’d like to end with Mayor Yulin Cruz quoting Rosa Parks, “The more we obeyed, the worse they treated us.”

Image: Wikipedia Commons



    Carol Ramos is a retired NYC public school teacher living in Brooklyn. She is active in the struggle for Puerto Rican social justice.

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