Puerto Rico Remade

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In “Puerto Rico Remade,” Frances Negrón-Muntaner (Columbia University) writes, “The historic protests that forced the resignation of Ricardo Roselló have not ushered in a revolution. But Puerto Ricans now believe they have a future and are willing to fight for it.” Please, read the full article at Dissent.

The massive protests that stirred Puerto Rico and its diaspora from July 10 to July 23 have been called a “revolution.”

To the chant of “¡Ricky Renuncia!” thousands took to the streets for thirteen consecutive days, demanding the resignation of the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP). Igniting the revolt was the leak of 889 pages of private chats that took place between late 2018 and early 2019. In these chats, the governor and eleven members of his cabinet and inner circle disparaged women by calling them whores, joked about LGBTQ people and feeding Hurricane Maria’s dead to crows, and congratulated themselves on making fools out of their own party members (and getting away with it). [. . .]

[. . .] But the term “revolution” is also not completely off-base. Puerto Rico, an archipelago that has been subject to U.S. colonialism for 121 years, experienced the moment as a rupture in relation to what came before and as the possibility of a new beginning. Hinting at the contours of another society, the protests were like no others in Puerto Rico’s history.

Thirteen Days that Shook Some Worlds

On July 17, half a million demonstrators jammed into the narrow streets of Old San Juan, breaking the record for protest size in Puerto Rico, which was previously held by anti-Navy demonstrators demanding the exit of the U.S. military from Vieques in 2003. Five days later, on July 22, hundreds of thousands more filled the eleven-lane Las Americas Expressway while countless others joined throughout the island as part of a national strike. If one of the most lacerating lines of the leaked chats was, “I see a splendid future. There are no Puerto Ricans,” the magnitude of the marches signaled that this was not happening any time soon.

As with prior mobilizations, the protests reverberated beyond the archipelago, particularly in the United States, where 5.5 million Puerto Ricans reside. But this time, protests also occurred nearly everywhere where even a small concentration of Puerto Ricans live, including Mexico, Spain, and Peru. Contrary to those who argue that Puerto Ricans do not make up a diaspora because migration is “easy” and “voluntary,” the protests showed that many form diasporic communities wherever they settle.

The protests, organized but decentralized and leaderless, staged a radically different way of doing politics. In place of traditional leadership, a handful of people, largely global reggaeton stars like Rene Pérez (Residente) and Bad Bunny, took on the public role of “convocadores,” issuing calls to their constituents, whether they were fans, followers, or fellow community members.

The demonstrations were the most multi-sectoral in Puerto Rico’s history and included a significant presence of “autoconvocados” (self-summoned) who had never before joined a protest and were not affiliated with any political organization. In a country dominated by an electoral system that divides the population into reds (status quo), blues (pro-statehood), and greens (pro-independence), many crossed party lines to reject the current political landscape, in which parties make each election cycle a plebiscite on status rather than a process to elect representatives that tend to their constituents’ needs.

For the first time in a mass national mobilization, queer people represented unity. At the head of the enormous July 22 march was the pop singer Ricky Martin, an openly gay middle-aged man met by wild cheers from a crowd full of young people, many of whom had not even been born when he debuted in the boy band Menudo at age twelve. But not only was Martin leading the pack, as other celebrities had done before. He did so waving not a Puerto Rican flag but the LGBTQ rainbow banner.

Equally significant, protesters did not attempt to become a single disciplined body. Valuing their differences, demonstrators participated as they wished: doing yoga, biking, horseback riding, performing acrobatics, and group dancing to the Macarena and the Electro Boogie. Among the most spectacular outings were the motorized cavalries led by social media influencer Rey Charlie, which on July 17 brought nearly 4,000 demonstrators, including reggaeton figures and public housing residents, on motorcycles to the front of the governor’s mansion. Another was the irreverent “perreo combativo” session on the steps of the old city’s cathedral, where largely young people engaged in a session of perreo, reggaeton’s signature twerking move.

The demonstrations incorporated a range of arts, such as plena music and carnival practices like stilt walking, which turn protests into spaces of community renewal. As in other demonstrations, the significant presence of the arts was due to their fundamental role in the reproduction of national identity, one that often grants artists—the guardians of collective memory—a higher status and legitimacy than politicians. But the July protests went further: they mobilized art as a form of protest and fashioned protest as an art form. People wanted to be and be seen anew. [. . .]

The Uses of Catastrophe

In a country that not that long ago was still referred to as a “happy colony,” and more recently has been called an “emptying island,” how can we account for this revolutionary surge? One answer is: catastrophe—not only in the common sense of disaster but in the etymological sense of “overturning,” a moment in which a realization can lead to a change of fortune.

Since 2006, Puerto Ricans have endured a relentless economic recession and the imposition of austerity policies that have resulted in the layoffs of thousands of government employees, cuts to education, and privatizations of public services. The economic crisis deepened after the then-Governor Alejandro García Padilla announced that the government had incurred an “unpayable debt” of $72 billion, in addition to $50 billion in pension obligations. This was followed by the approval of the federal PROMESA law, which led to the appointment of a seven-member Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (pejoratively called the “junta” by Puerto Ricans) that has significantly decreased local political autonomy and brought about even more severe budget cuts.

Then came Hurricane Maria. Almost two years ago, the Category 5 storm destroyed Puerto Rico’s electric and other infrastructure, leaving half a million residents with damaged or destroyed homes and a blackout that lasted a year. Neither the island nor federal government provided adequate and timely assistance to Puerto Ricans, resulting in hunger, homelessness, loss of livelihoods, the deaths of at least 4,645 people, and the migration of over 100,000 residents—4 percent of the population—to Orlando, New York, and other cities. Poverty rates soared to nearly 50 percent.

In this context, the spectacle of corrupt power became the last straw. On July 10, the FBI arrested several ex-government officials, including Julia Keleher, the widely condemned former secretary of education responsible for the closing of a third of Puerto Rico’s public schools, and charged them with thirty-two counts of fraud and money laundering in relation to awarding contracts totaling $15.5 million. Then, on July 13, five days after the release of a small trove of the private chats, the independent Center for Investigative Journalism released all transcripts. The chats revealed something that people knew: that government officials were negligent and dishonest. But the chats also conveyed something new: that they cared for no one and laughed at everyone, including Hurricane Maria’s dead. People took it personally.

The young, sometimes termed the “yo no me dejo” (don’t even try it) generation, came out in full force. Their presence was not surprising. The crisis had particularly affected young people. By 2019, of the estimated 500,000 residents who have left the island since the austerity crisis, half were under twenty-four. Moreover, the closure of hundreds of public schools, the promotion of charter and private schools, and the slashing of the University of Puerto Rico’s budget are, among other things, direct assaults on the young.

Women also marched en masse. The chats attacked or mocked women and groups such as La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción. Reacting to a photo of a Colectiva member with a T-shirt that read “Antipatriarchal. Feminist. Lesbian. Trans. Caribbean. Latin American,” the governor quipped in the chats: “That has to be a kind of record, no?” The joke did not sit well: for two years prior to the marches, La Colectiva had been demanding that Rosselló declare a state of emergency to address the growing number of women, at least 3,906 cases since Maria, who were killed with impunity, including by police officers. The governor refused, saying that he did not consider it an emergency. Fittingly, La Colectiva was one of the first groups to take to the streets.

LGBTQ people of all ages had their own motives to come out. The chats included a direct hit at Ricky Martin’s sexuality and multiple instances of homophobic slurs such as “cocksuckers” during a time of surging violence against queers. The protests allowed LGBTQ people, specially activists, to set everybody straight. They shot back at the PNP: although Rosselló’s party has prominent (closeted) queer members, the party’s coalition includes religious fundamentalists who consistently demonize queer people and oppose LGBTQ rights legislation. By insisting on being seen, they also refused the invisible role that the left had historically assigned to them. Chanting “no hay libertad política sin libertad sexual,” they declared their sexuality and their selves as indispensable to any revolution.

The “people’s” wrath, however, was not the only reason that Rosselló resigned quickly; protesters had history on their side.  [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/puerto-rico-remade

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