It has become common to say and hear lately that Puerto Rico, a fellow colony of the United State is in crisis. Numbers I have come across cite more than $70 billion in debt, with the island suffering with an unemployment rate of 11.4% and a poverty rate of 45%. Basic public services in health care and education have been dramatically affected and the island is experiencing a rapid brain drain as those who have the means to leave, seem to be doing so.
But what type of crisis this is or the causes of it are almost always lost in the discussion. The usual colonial or developing nation narratives ties problems like this to why islanders can’t take care of themselves. In this way, the problems Puerto Rico is having are about local corruption, political immaturity and a cultural unwillingness to become more civilized. All of these things lead to the notion that Puerto Rico must therefore be saved by those who are politically or economically better than it. Curiously enough, throughout recent human history, this sort of discussion is largely self-serving and the saviors tend to be those who lust after the lands of others, or are already trying to justify their control.
More than 100 years of being a territory of the United States points, far more than anything, to the crisis in Puerto Rico as being a colony one. It is an example of how colonialism, that most wretched of human institutions, can still lurk beneath a façade of friendliness or benevolence. On Guam, this is something of which we must be wary. Even though there is a difference in name between Puerto Rico and Guam, with one being a Commonwealth and the other an unincorporated territory, we occupy the same basic subordinate status, as being possessions of the United States.
There are cries by some on Guam that we should enhance our current status by writing a new Constitution or even just rewriting parts of the Organic Act to serve as our foundational document. This debate was thought to be settled decades ago when voters decidedna ti maolek anggen un na’fo’na i kareta kinu i karabao, but it continually resurfaces as a seemingly easy or simpler way of solving a complex problem. The crisis in Puerto Rico does not give much hope for this thinking, as the Constitution of the territory and the problem with crafting one while still a colony is the source of most of their problems.
Submitting a constitution to your colonizer doesn’t end the colonial relationship and doesn’t really improve it. It simply legitimizes it. It adds a veneer of formality and respectability to something the United Nations and the majority of the world’s nations have decried should be eradicated. Under Guam’s current status, any Constitution is supposed to be submitted to the US Congress for their approval. But far more than simply approve it, the US Congress would have the right to reject it or change it as they see fit. This is tragically true for Puerto Rico, which over the years has been restricted and hindered in its own ability to self-govern by various provisions that have been inserted into their foundational document.
In the Puerto Rican constitution, there is a clause that prioritizes the payments to the debtors of the territory over any other obligations. This means that instead of using what funds it has to protect the people of Puerto Rico and ensure that they are safe, healthy, educated, employed, the government is constitutionally required to take money away from all other needs to pay its debts first. Another issue is that according to US law, Puerto Rico is simply not allowed to file for Chapter 11 or declare bankruptcy in order to restructure its debt or its finances. The current representative has sought to gain this right from the US Congress, but the body has refused to consider it.
These restrictions are all tied to the island’s long-standing status as a laboratory of neoliberalism and neocolonialism. Various predatory social and political policies that have become common in the ways in which First World and extra-national economic bodies deal with the developing world, were tested in Puerto Rico. These economic restraints are just another example of the ways the United States has sought to keep the island open and friendly to the interests of US corporations and hedge funds, even at the expense of the millions that live there.
Recently the US Congress proposed a bill named PROMESA which means Promise in both Spanish and Chamorro. It stands for “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act” and it is meant to stabilize Puerto Rico prior to its possible default on almost all of its debt at the start of next month. The key feature of this bill is the creation of a seven-member oversight board that could theoretically have control over the laws of the island and its public and natural resources. The bill itself empowers this oversight board, with authority that supersedes any local laws of Puerto Rico.
The use of the word PROMESA in the title of the bill is meant to refer to the obligation the United States is supposed to have to their poor Caribbean colony, to save it from itself and keep it a lucrative cash cow for US corporations and hedge funds. I find this to be ironic because the promise that the United States should be recalling and taking seriously, is their obligation as a nation that claims to stand for freedom and democracy, to decolonize their own territories.