Puerto Rico’s masses bring down the government

Nobody can claim credit for this moment, because there are no leaders in this movement. This is an organic movement. But it’s not spontaneous. This is the culmination of years of grassroots work, community work, and social political organizations.[1]   —Shariana Ferrer, of the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans—on an island with a population of a little over three million—took to the streets against vile, lying, robber-baron, misogynist Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló and his entire corrupt administration. No one “led” them. It was the unity of spontaneity and self-organization—of mass activity in unity with thinking over years—that brought Puerto Rico to this decisive moment. Let us follow it in more detail.

TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK AN ISLAND

In the second week of July, a blogger made public hundreds of pages of text messages between Governor Rosselló’s chat group of 11 top-ranking officials, friends and lobbyists that contained sexist and racist comments about many Puerto Ricans. Outrage throughout the island began building immediately. Rosselló was forced to leave his “European vacation” on July 11 and fly home, where he was met by hundreds of protesters at the airport, organized primarily by Colectiva Feminista, a group in the Black feminist tradition that had previously confronted the governor demanding an end to violence against women and for gender equality. When all of the text messages were revealed by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism—889 pages worth—it was like a bomb. It was not only the insults, but the texts revealed manipulations that Rosselló’s administration and his New Progressive Party were using to stay in power.

By July 15, mass protests began centering on La Fortaleza, a colonial-era palace and Rosselló’s home. Protesters sang and chanted in front of La Fortaleza; hand-painted signs were everywhere; videos showed a mass line dance of the Macarena in the street demanding Rosselló’s resignation. In New York City’s Grand Central Station, Puerto Ricans and their supports danced the Macarena in solidarity and a demonstration was held in front of the White House.

Hundreds of bicyclists rode in front of the palace; residents of Old San Juan held a candlelight vigil; scuba divers held an underwater demonstration and kayakers another. Songs from Puerto Rican history were sung, and music was everywhere. The demonstrations were called “autoconvocados” (“self-convened”).

Demonstrations persisted despite brutal attacks by the “forces of law and order” who again and again met peaceful demonstrators with billy clubs, tear-gas and pepper-spray used dangerously against protesters in tight quarters, as well as shotguns loaded with rubber bullets.

Nothing stopped the moment. On July 22 hundreds of thousands massed in San Juan. And two days later the governor resigned.

Zoán Dávila-Roldán, a spokeswoman for Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, said, “Women have been some of the main participants. It’s been a lot, a lot of us. Women from all kinds of occupations have taken to the streets. And I think it’s been because of that recognition of state violence, and how the state enacts violence on them.

“A slogan that we use and that we have in one of our campaigns is, ‘Let’s build another life.’”[2]

Perhaps the most meaningful sign was held by a woman dancer in front of La Fortaleza: “Puerto Rico que lindo que te vas vestido de revolución” (Puerto Rico, how beautiful that you are dressed as a revolution).

DECADES OF IMPERIALISM, RACISM AND SEXISM

This uprising came after the hard work of organizing by activists, and, of equal importance, the thinking and actions of Puerto Rico’s masses struggling against being a U.S. colony, which inflicted decades of racism, sexism and class exploitation. This included the corruption and greed of government officials and U.S. “businessmen.” The status of Puerto Ricans has always been decided by the U.S. government without those who actually live there having any say.

It is that colonial status in combination with local government corruption, and the massively destructive Hurricane Maria, that brought bankruptcy to the island. U.S. hedge fund vultures have sought to profit from Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy, demanding the funds that were meant for education, healthcare, and worker pensions. The recovery from the May 2018 hurricane involved an almost complete deliberate failure of Donald Trump’s administration to provide meaningful relief. The death toll came, not from the hurricane itself, but from the lack of timely relief afterwards.

The difficult question of course is Where to Now for Puerto Ricans? who remain under the thumb of the U.S. and of their own corrupt government. It is not an easy question, and by themselves, they have little room to maneuver. They need allies, particularly from social activists and exploited sectors in the U.S. And yet that sign in the protests—“Puerto Rico, how beautiful you are dressed as a revolution”—contains a profound message. This is not an abstract utopian thought. It is only by tearing up root and branch the old system—capitalism in all its various guises and ramifications—that the masses, not alone in Puerto Rico, but throughout the world, can construct anew a human society. As the women of Colectiva Feminista en Construcción proclaim: “Construyamos otra vida”—“Let’s build another life.”

—Eugene Walker (translated and excerpted from Praxis en América Latina)

[1] “15 Days of Fury: How Puerto Rico’s Government Collapsed,” by Simon Romero, Frances Robles, Patricia Mazzei and Jose A. Del Real, The New York Times, July 7, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

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