Socialist Alternative

Puerto Rico – A Spiraling Crisis of Debt, Austerity, and Colonialism

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A U.S. colony in all but name, Puerto Rico faces a  debt crisis which is the byproduct of over a century of subjection by U.S. imperialism combined with the wreckage caused by contemporary casino capitalism. Widely compared to Greece, Puerto Rico is facing unending cuts to social services, mass unemployment, and a privatization bonanza carried out under duress. $70 billion of unpayable debt has accumulated – owed to Wall Street investors, retirement funds, banks, and individuals.

Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory without statehood or independence means it can neither seek relief from international lending institutions nor seek bankruptcy protection. There are severe restrictions on who the island can trade with, as well as limited taxing authority – denying it income from its role as  an important shipping terminal and making consumer products very expensive. To make matters worse, the U.S. government is stalling on providing a lifeline in this crisis, lecturing Puerto Rican leaders about their profligate spending even though the crisis is largely a creation of U.S. colonial policy.

The U.S. Congress made the island a tax haven for multinational corporations in 1976. Having denied Puerto Rico those taxes for decades, U.S. corporations abruptly left the island in 1996, when the tax exemption ended due to U.S. legislative horse-trading – ensuring another dramatic loss in tax receipts.

Politicians have implemented severe austerity so that debt service payments to Wall Street bondholders and others can be continued. They laid off over 30,000 public sector workers in 2009 and raised the sales tax from 7.5 to 11%. Official unemployment is at 12.5%, with poverty at 41% overall and 56% for children. The multinational corporations that treated Puerto Rico like a playground are relatively unscathed.

There is growing anger and despair among the Puerto Rican people, with some protests and strikes by students and workers. However, there have not been mass strikes and political resistance on the scale of Greece, which had over 30 general strikes against austerity.

Part of the reason is that over 300,000 people – nearly one-tenth of the island’s population – have fled to the mainland in the last decade. Historically, emigration – made easier because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens – has created an escape valve. Who can blame them? The jobs have disappeared and what remains is largely temporary, part-time, and low-wage. Yet Puerto Rico’s creditors demand more austerity for the poor and none for themselves.

The “solution” that some legislators in the U.S. Congress are proposing, S. 2381, is to create a Financial Control Authority that will eliminate all democratic pretenses and “unilaterally restructure the workforce of the Commonwealth government,” freeze public pensions, and ensure “the payment of debt obligations”.

We join with workers and youth in Puerto Rico demanding a cancellation of the debt and a reinvestment to create jobs and fund services for Puerto Rican workers and poor. No new bailouts for the banks and vulture fund bondholders. Let the Puerto Rican people decide their own fate.US workers should stand in solidarity with their Puerto Rican brothers and sisters as they demand a reversal of all the austerity, privatization and anti-democratic measures.

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