Intense emotions, both positive and negative, filled this past week for the Puerto Rican community. There was the drama of the Puerto Rico debt crisis with the passage of the PROMESA Act with its financial control board in the House of Representatives (with Senate approval expected any day now) and the recent Supreme Court decisions reaffirming Puerto Rico is under the complete control of the US federal government. On the more positive side, there was the National Puerto Rican Day Parade and all the festivities associated with it, along with the record number of Tony Awards garnered by Lin-Manual Miranda's play, Hamilton.
It was also a week that saw the release of Luis Guzman's newest film, Puerto Ricans in Paris. It was a week that began as well with the Presidential and Gubernatorial primaries in Puerto Rico, adding to Hillary Clinton's delegate count and narrowing down the candidates vying to lead the financially and politically bankrupt Island government.
On top of these developments was the horrific domestic terrorist attack on the gay nightclub in Orlando leaving more than 50 dead in a city with a large Puerto Rican concentration, sadly overshadowing media coverage of the Puerto Rican Parade. All this has had significant diasporic reverberations.
Puerto Rico's debt crisis has put its diaspora in the recurring role of an indispensable lobby within the United States since it elects four boricuas to the US House of Representatives, and Puerto Rico only elects one non-voting Resident Commissioner to that body that governs the territory. Getting a Republican-controlled Congress to pass legislation to aid Puerto Rico was a long shot, but with the hard work and leadership of New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez with the support of Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano and Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez (and even that given grudgingly by Tea Partier Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador), the PROMESA Act was adopted with minor changes.
However, while there was a strong push by the White House and the Congressional Democrats to get this legislation passed, which required compromising with Congressional Republicans pushing to include "conservative" elements into it, the result was a bill no one was entirely happy with, proof of its rare bipartisan nature. In fact, the poor reaction to it among the Puerto Ricans it was meant to help brings to mind the old saying, be careful what you ask for... you might just get it.
The Puerto Rican community, both on the Island and stateside, is very divided over this legislation. Much of the mainstream political leadership seems to have accepted it with qualifications, while labor and left elements have opposed it. In the Congress, while Velazquez, Serrano, Pierluisi and Labrador support it, Gutierrez and New Jersey US Senator Bob Melendez opposed it. VAMOS4PR and the SEIU have also opposed it. At the same time, coalitions like the A Call for Action on Puerto Rico collective, who support independence, have publicly attacked and picketed against Velazquez and Serrano for their support of this bill.
A network organized by Congresswoman Velazquez with the coordination of the CUNY Center for Puerto Rican Studies, called the National Puerto Rican Agenda, has taken on the task of unifying the diaspora on this issue at a national summit they are planning to hold on July 24th in Camden, New Jersey at the time of the National Democratic Convention (July 25-28 in Philadelphia). They are doing this in collaboration of the recently-formed Caucus of Puerto Rican Elected Officials that was established under the leadership f NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Bronx Assemblyman Marcos Crespo.
Meanwhile in Puerto Rico, they are preparing for their election for Governor, which is an open seat. The Island's House of Representatives adopted a resolution opposing the PROMESA Act, but this had no impact. There is also a growing movement involving over 200 community organizations to stop the adoption of the financial control board, with a Coalition to Oppose the Control Board organizing a major rally on June 25 in San Juan led, in part, by the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin.
The PROMESA Act also includes a provision calling for a plebiscite on the future political status of Puerto Rico to be held in January, while others, like the Puerto Rico Bar Association, are calling for the convening of a constituent assembly to address status and related issues.
Although at this point it is not entirely clear how this all comes together, there are some things that need to be done over the summer:
1. Whether or not you support it, the provisions of the PROMESA Act need to be fully analyzed regarding their projected positive and negative impacts on Puerto Rico. While the legislation is being approved by Congress, it is important to note that the Presidential election could result in a major change in who runs the White House and Congress in January. If Hillary Clinton becomes President and the Democrats increase their power in the Congress, this opens the possibilities of making significant changes in the PROMESA Act. It is important, therefore, to view this legislation not simply in narrow technical terms but for its broader political implications.
2. There is going to be the need to identify an independent mechanism to monitor closely the implementation of the PROMESA Act. This would include the close vetting of the individuals chosen to serve on the seven-member control board, as well as its staff. One issue is to assure that these are individuals well-versed in the realities of Puerto Rico and who are politically independent.
3. Making sure that the independent 17-member. Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit is adequately funded and completes its analysis identifying which parts of the public debt were illegally issued above a limit and which complied with the Securities and Exchange Commission's financial disclosure rules.
4. There continues to be a need to develop legislation to promote sustained economic growth in Puerto Rico that addresses the funding disparities of programs like Medicare and Medicaid, the exemption of Puerto Rico from the merchant marine restrictions of the Jones Act, the need to make major financial investments in infrastructural and other economic development projects to Puerto Rico, among others. This also includes exploring ways that the Federal Reserve and other US government bodies can play in assisting Puerto Rico out of its economic depression.
5. Raising the case for Puerto Rico's decolonization at the United Nations and other international bodies now that the self-governing nature of the Commonwealth status has been fully exposed as being illusory as a result of the PROMESA Act and the recent Supreme Court ruling. It appears the case can now be made that the United States misrepresented to the United Nations the autonomy it supposedly granted to Puerto Rico in 1952. This may also be the right time to test whether the notion of Puerto Rico being the victim of an "odious debt" is actionable in international forums. Hearings on Puerto Rico are being held on June 20th by the UN Decolonization Committee.
6. There is a need for a major communications campaign to educate the American public and the world community about the situation in Puerto Rico and the increasingly problematic nature of its relationship to the United States. The release by the Hedgeclippers' organization of the documentary, Preying on Puerto Rico: Forgotten Citizens of HedgeFund Island, is a good example of the type of educational tools that this movement needs to develop.
The PROMESA Act is clearly not the solution to Puerto Rico's long-term economic problems and what its short-term effects will be are not all that clear as well.
Rather than seeing its adoption as either a victory or defeat, the adoption of the PROMESA Act can be an opportunity for progressive political action in the Puerto Rico case. The actions outlined above are but a few starting points in positioning the struggle for greater Puerto Rican self-determination.
This will require an unprecedented unity within the Puerto Rican community that must include a more organic connection between the Island and the diaspora, as well as a major effort to build major coalitions with other Latinos and communities of color, progressive Whites, and faith-based and labor groups.
The big question is whether the current Puerto Rican leaderships both on the Island and stateside are up to this challenge.
Reprinted from National Institute of Latino Policy's (NiLP) newsletter.
Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy, for which he edits the online information service, The NiLP Report on Latino Policy & Politics. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information on NiLP, visit www.latinopolicy.org.