On October 23 a hideous plume of black smoke filled the sky in San Juan, Puerto Rico, emanating from a gas tank explosion at a storage facility of the Caribbean Petroleum Corporation (CAPECO) in the nearby municipality of Bayamón. The explosion and ensuing fire, which forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 people and caused President Obama to declare a federal disaster, is an ominous metaphor for Puerto Rico’s current state. The combination of a four-year recession, a $3.2 billion deficit and a toxic Republican-style governor, Luis Fortuño, has turned the island into a political powder keg.
After the explosion, the head of the FBI’s office in Puerto Rico announced a federal investigation into whether the explosion was the result of sabotage or terrorism (the investigation has ruled this out). This dovetailed neatly with the strategy employed by the island’s ruling New Progressive Party (PNP) of denouncing as terrorists labor leaders who had organized a general strike the previous week. Using Plaza Las Américas–the Caribbean’s largest shopping mall and the most glaring symbol of US consumerism on the island–as a staging ground, the unions had amassed tens of thousands of protesters to denounce Governor Fortuño’s recent announcement of layoffs of government workers, which would bring the year’s total to about 17,000. In an economy where government workers make up 21 percent of the total workforce, these measures–employed ostensibly to protect Puerto Rico’s credit rating, which is threatened with junk status–struck a deep chord of resentment among Puerto Ricans. And no wonder, since the official unemployment rate is 16.2 percent–closer to 25 percent if the underemployed are included.
The week after Fortuño’s announcement, during a press conference about the development of an eastern port near a recently closed military base, the governor had to dodge an egg hurled at him by Roberto García Díaz, a 44-year-old former employee of the base. The huevazo, or “egg-throw,” became a major news story, echoing the famed shoe-throwing at George W. Bush in Iraq and indicating that the island’s usually raucous political environment had been kicked up a notch. While PNP functionaries fearmongered about an element that wanted to sow chaos in Puerto Rico, García Díaz became something of a folk hero.
Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the United States since 1898, and although its residents were granted citizenship in 1917, the UN and much of the world still recognize it as a colony (in June the UN Special Committee on Decolonization called on Washington to expedite a self-determination process). Since 1952, when its euphemistic status as a commonwealth or “free associated state” was coined, the island’s leadership has oscillated between the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which favors the status quo, and the PNP, which favors statehood. The Independence Party, which consistently garners between 2 and 5 percent of the vote, represents a constituency that has been repressed by the US federal government since a series of nationalist uprisings that began in 1937.
Although the PNP’s leaders have historically oscillated between the mainland Democrats and Republicans, the new regime seems to be living out a GOP fantasy of regaining power lost in last year’s presidential election. In addition to his government-downsizing measures, Fortuño–a board member of the Republican National Hispanic Association, which includes party loyalists such as Senators Orrin Hatch and John Ensign, RNC chair Michael Steele and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform–has emboldened a social conservatism that is suddenly ascendant on this largely Catholic-yet-carnivalesque island. A few weeks ago it was announced that several far from obscene books, such as Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá’s El Entierro de Cortijo and Carlos Fuentes’s Aura, would be banned from public school libraries because they contain “coarse language.” Austere legislative measures, including closing bars much earlier and lowering the blood alcohol limit for drivers to .02 percent from the standard .08 percent, are close to being enacted.
Fortuño’s policies even earned him a tongue-lashing on MTV Latin America’s awards show, which was held on the day of the general strike. After sporting a T-shirt that read, Fortuño–Dodge This! alternative rapper René Pérez Joglar, a k a Residente of the group Calle 13, denounced the governor as a “son of a whore” because of the layoff announcement. The PNP tried to spin the insult as an attack on Puerto Rican women, and San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini promptly canceled Residente’s much-anticipated show at the island’s largest arena. But on November 2 a group of female activists held a semi-nude protest against Fortuño’s policies, saying his cutbacks to agencies advocating for women deprived them of human rights.
Denouncing Residente’s edgy, Rabelaisian rants as trafficking in obscenity masks the obscenity of an economic policy that compounds the worst effects of this deep recession. Edwin Meléndez, an economist who directs Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, suggested the Fortuño government needs to look more closely at other options, such as offering early retirement with full pension guarantees and renegotiation of debts incurred by government programs with attached revenue streams.
Despite the massive public protest against his policies, Fortuño is sticking to his guns. He announced in early November that 7,000 of the layoffs would be delayed until January because of faulty paperwork by a private consulting firm. The move seemed like an attempt to lessen the immediate impact of the layoffs while refusing to reconsider them.
For many Puerto Ricans, the current problems stem from a deeper, much more long-term malaise: the island’s unsettled political status. Yet another plebiscite proposal, which critics say is stacked toward getting Puerto Ricans to vote for statehood, is creeping through the House in Washington. Now more than ever, it’s time for a strong coalition of Puerto Ricans on the island and the US mainland to come up with an alternative–a people’s movement, perhaps seeking stronger economic ties to the Caribbean and Latin America, to demand social justice for 4 million effectively second-class US citizens.
As Residente said on MTV, “Latin America is not complete without Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is not free.”