U.S. and World Politics

Fanon’s Knife and Puerto Rico

By José Tirado

Colonialism only loosens its hold when the knife is at its throat. —Frantz Fanon

There are many reasons to oppose colonialism. And there are many images which seer into the mind the utterly destructive nature of colonialism. My own favorite example is a horrific picture from the “Belgian” Congo of a despondent Congolese man on the sunny porch of some Euro-style home looking with total forlornness at the severed hands and feet of his children. As was policy at the time, they probably did not work hard enough for the rapacious chocolatiers and paid the price with their limbs. Only one word emerged from my lips the first time I saw that picture: revolution. This is what the word was meant for. No human relationship that so devalues a child’s life (and by extension, their parents’ and their entire culture) deserves to stand. It must be destroyed forever. Fanon’s knife needs to be drawn on occasion.

Some might say the recent Puerto Rico crisis is nowhere near the alarming brutality of those times. Regularly counseled patience and indoctrinated to believe the U.S. ultimately has its interests at heart, too many Puerto Ricans have abandoned their own dignity to apologize for the relationships’ many failures. There are now more Puerto Ricans on the mainland (4.9 million) than living on the island (3.5) and Puerto Rico has more people than 21 U.S. states. So one would think the news of Hurricane Maria would be regular, the media coverage vigorous, and the convoys of aid immediate. No such luck. One-point-five million people now lack potable water. Since last week. The pictures of devastation are sobering. And as of last night (the 26th), the first reported deaths due to generators failing (there still is no electricity) have been relayed. This is an enormous crisis. There are many who suspect that there is no surprise here. That the slow starvation of Puerto Ricans out of their homes, over to the U.S. where they will then “assimilate” and call themselves “Americans” proudly while the vultures buy and chop up the island into manageable pieces for their rich cronies, has been the goal for years and is de facto the plan. There will be plenty of quislings to help them, too. If we needed any more proof (we really don’t) of the U.S. attitude and intentions to Puerto Rico, it’s here today.

But what are the options? A bit of historical context might illuminate the problem a bit.

When the U.S. took over Puerto Rico in 1898, Puerto Ricans fed themselves. Their economy was primarily agricultural. Around 40 percent of the land was given over to coffee, 32 percent for growing food for local consumption, 15 percent to sugar and one percent for tobacco. Over 90 percent of the farms and agricultural resources were owned by local Puerto Ricans. Within a few years, U.S. tariffs required that Puerto Rican coffee had to be sent to the U.S. before it could be sold in Europe. The 1899 hurricane and the adoption of U.S. currency on the island was the death knell of Puerto Rican coffee production. U.S. companies then began buying up land and soon sugar became the dominant crop, production increasing by an incredible 1200 percent by 1929 with 80 percent owned by U.S. sugar companies. In the years between 1899-1929, unemployment went from 17 percent to 36 percent with one-quarter to a third of workers unemployed most of the year. Eventually local food production collapsed and export-dominated agricultural production became the norm. By 1940, 80 percent “of all farmland was owned by large corporations or landlords with 500 acres or more.” (Perez, 1976, pp. 6-7). Thus, during the Great Depression and up to the Second World War, Puerto Ricans were dirt poor, dependent upon the largess of the U.S. for food and other resources amid a remarkable set of political machinations which mandated English, actually banned Spanish, and in open correspondence its overlords regarded locals as  “mongrels” and “cannibals” whose “race mixing” as unsettling.

Growing during this time were a class of “pitiyanquis” (little Yankees), the “quislings” of Puerto Rico who managed to ingratiate themselves to the U.S. and benefit as minor officials in the local government, whose positions were always at the mercy of their obsequiousness to their colonial masters. They morphed into the pro-statehood and pro-commonwealth parties who couldn’t imagine living without their connection to the U.S. and whose descendants remain dominant in Puerto Rican politics to this day. It is a classic colonial mindset Fanon would have recognized and deplored.

But once upon a time there was resistance. The first was the independence strand within the Puerto Rico Union Party, which also had statehood and local autonomy trends within it. After the 1917 Jones Act was passed, the Union Party broke into factions of which the Nationalist Party (formed in 1922) took the banner of full independence. The Socialist Party had left and right wing trends which eventually also ended up splitting into a Liberal Party (the left trend, fully in favor of independence) and a Socialist Party, which joined forces with the Republican Party (founded in 1899 and assimilationist.) It was the charismatic Pedro Albizu Campos who led the Nationalist Party into challenging the corrupt alliance of the SP and the Republicans and forcefully advocating for independence. However, years of suppression by the dominant U.S.-backed local government leading to massacres, imprisonment, repression of Nationalist speakers, and finally COINTELPuerto RicoO disruption of ANY independent movement all led to a conclusion many Puerto Ricans quickly absorbed: advocating for independence can lead to brutal suppression or even death.  Joining up with the U.S., keeping one’s head low and subserviently accepting U.S. domination of all aspects of life can lead to safety within the confines of a colonial relationship. To this day, this sentiment prevails, with emotional support for independentistas high but practical political support always going to the deferred parties of the status quo. No matter how many referenda are held, Puerto Ricans back down, fearing being cast adrift without help. Just like they are now.

As of this week, 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s agricultural sector has been destroyed. Its electric grid is dead. Potable water is scarce and, already laboring under the crushing neo-liberal regime of debt repayment (aka squeezing blood from a plantain) with a U.S.-appointed fiscal control board fully committed to the Greecification of Puerto Rico, prospects for the average Puerto Rican look awful. As if it wasn’t bad enough. Schools have closed, unemployment is already 12 percent, there is a 46 percent poverty rate and, with a median income of less than $20,000, Puerto Ricans have an income rate LOWER than the poorest U.S. state, Mississippi. Puerto Rico is a broken colony, with a broken people whose imaginations seem to have died. Statehooders will cry and beg their masters asserting that liberation is “too risky” and they’ll continue to drink off the rapidly drying teat of colonial milk cows who will be buying up more land and pushing out more people, year after year. But this is unsustainable.

So, is the U.S. just waiting for all the people in Puerto Rico to just leave or die so they can buy up all the land for rich people to play in their newly concrete fortified hotels nine months a year? I don’t know, but it sure appears that way from where I and many other Puerto Ricans I have spoken with stand. And remember, the hurricane season is not over, and the storms are getting bigger. If this doesn’t wake us up, what will?

Nevertheless, for the immediate future some things are changing, even as I write this (perhaps this Administration is getting beaned over the head enough to finally respond): apparently Senator McCain has said a repeal of the Jones Act is long overdue and the USNS Comfort has just been sent.

But the long-term future of Puerto Rico looks bleak, in fact, very bleak unless Puerto Ricans unite to claim their unique identity and reclaim their island. It is time that a vibrant, revolutionary movement arise to demand what was stolen years ago: our independence and with it, our self-respect. We cannot continue to be beggars in our own land crying for help when disaster strikes while the land is bought from under our feet and the resources privatized.

Time to end the colonial relationship once and for all. ¡Viva Puerto Rico libre!

José M. Tirado is a Puerto Rican poet, Buddhist priest and political writer living in Hafnarfjorður, Iceland, known for its elves, “hidden people” and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano’s Journal, The Galway Review, Dissident Voice, La Respuesta, Op-Ed News, among others.

CounterPunch, September 29, 2017