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.