By Luis Quiles
As a kid, visiting Puerto Rico was like visiting the motherland, a Caribbean paradise I was not born on, but where both sides of my family come from. My father is from Lares on the northern side of the tiny island, while my mother is from the southern municipality of Guanica, on the opposite side of the island. Each visit entailed driving around the entire circumference of the island to visit each side of the family and stopping every few towns to meet an old friend. I was amazed by the culture and lifestyle on the island, one that small communities in Miami, Chicago, and New York only mimic. My family lived in the slums where drugs were pushed, and in the mountains where sustenance was found in mountainside farms. Even though everything on the island was beautiful, from the pulse of the Caribbean sun to the tropical landscapes, I understood early on that there were greater disparities on the island than in the United States, so I thought I was pretty lucky to not have been born on the island. Since then, I have only heard of things getting worse for Puerto Rico from family and the media. While taking into consideration the historical narrative Puerto Rico has with women being used as birth control test dummies, and the coast as a place to test bombs, it came as no surprise when a bill –with a title that translates to promise—passed that gives more power to the people in D.C. than to people of the island, provoking resistance from domestic and foreign Puerto Ricans alike. The year 2017 supposedly celebrates the centennial U.S. citizenship of Puerto Ricans, but has the United States stuck with their promise to treat Puerto Ricans with the same level of respect and citizenship as those on the mainland?
On June 13, 2016, President Obama signed a bill known as the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), nicknamed the rescue bill and Spanish for promise. PROMESA established a seven-person economic oversight committee to create a fiscal plan for the island and negotiate with debt collectors. The bill came at a point at which the island faced lawsuits for it’s $70 billion debt after defaulting on loans several times. Writing for The Atlantic, Gillian B. White argues that PROMESA must include funding for the island’s pensions, currently underfunded by more than $40 billion, and the restructuring of debt including the option to use a bankruptcy-like tool, which the island is currently not allowed to do because it is not a state in the union (“Puerto Rico’s Problems Go Way Beyond Its Debt”). Some argue that Puerto Rico would be in much better shape if the island were able to file for bankruptcy like Detroit and Orange County have done in the past. PROMESA saves only one seat on the control board for a citizen of the island, leaving most of the reorganizing and fiscal planning to people who are not from Puerto Rico. PROMESA abolishes the fiscal sovereignty of the nation and basically allows members of the control board to run the island under the new federal law. Less than two months after the signing of PROMESA, the White House released the names of the committee members, three from a Democratic list and four from a Republican list. The names of members were vetted to ensure no conflicts of interest. In addition, most had some relationship to the island of Puerto Rico. Along with influence over the fiscal control board, the President has the power assign and revoke control board membership. Under the current Trump administration, I am not sure what to expect for the future of the committee.
Before the signing of PROMESA, protests erupted across the island and the U.S. Many compare this control board back to the times before Jones-Shafroth when Puerto Ricans did not have much choice, as a people, to decide how they wanted to structure island government and politics.
Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in December 1898 as part of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. In 1900, a Congressional act created a civil government for the island”[to replace its governing military regime at the time]. “On March 2, 1917, [President] Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, under which Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans were granted statutory citizenship, meaning that citizenship was granted by an act of Congress and not by the Constitution… The act also created a bill of rights for the territory, separated its government into executive, legislative and judicial branches, and declared Puerto Rico’s official language to be English. As citizens, Puerto Ricans could now join the U.S. Army, but few chose to do so. After Wilson signed a compulsory military service act two months later, however, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were eventually drafted to serve during World War I. (“Puerto Ricans Become U.S. Citizens, Are Recruited for War Effort”)
In addition, Puerto Ricans were not able to pursue American citizenship before 1917 if they wanted to keep their Puerto Rican citizenship. The United States tried to instill its system of governance onto Puerto Rico, yet Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation under the Jones-Shafroth Act since the President can veto anything deemed unconstitutional, irrational, or inappropriate. There is also no accountability for Puerto Rico’s decaying resources and economy. It feels sad to be from an island with growing debt and a minimum wage of about half of the national American average.
According to the ReFund America Project, nearly half of the debt owed by Puerto Rico is not actually money that the island borrowed, but instead interest owed on bonds underwritten by Wall Street firms, where bondholders are set to make astonishing profits in what has been compared to a payday-lending scheme. Many believe that the island should not be required to payback this illegitimate debt (Gonzalez). Nonetheless, PROMESA promises the people of Puerto Rico nothing but conservative oversight and restructuring, without the input of their people. The year 2017 marks the centennial citizenship of Puerto Ricans, two months before President Wilson entered the country into World War I. Many will argue that the passage of the act was a military move in which the United States sought recruits to build a bigger, stronger army. It seems as if the easiest way to increase the size of the military was to broaden the criteria for citizenship to include people from the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. According to Linda Martin Alcoff, whiteness is affirmed through the legitimization of colonial conquest (76). PROMESA exemplifies a form of contemporary colonial takeover, similar to the U.S.’s acquisition of Puerto Rico from Spain and subsequent utilization of Puerto Ricans for the military. By extension, with such significant historical weight that Jones-Shafroth and PROMESA carry for Puerto Rican identity, a New York artist has created a space to discuss fiscal matters of the island, while celebrating national Puerto Rican identity, with a new, darker finish.
In an exhibit showcased as “Island Promesas: A Conversation on the Economic Crisis in Puerto Rico,” Miguel Luciano has created an art exhibit titled “Ride or Die” to express his Puerto Rican nationalism through his passion for art and bikes. Using an older style Schwinn bicycle, Luciano draws the attention of viewers to the aesthetic and colors of the bike that match the color of the Puerto Rican flag, once red, white, and blue. But now, people have darkened the flag to reflect the diaspora, resistance, and resilience of the nation. The exhibit comes at a time when the organization Black Lives Matter stimulated mobilization across the western hemisphere, causing groups to stand up against oppression and represent the people holistically. In his work, Luciano also used the phrase “Se acabaron las promesas,” or the promises are over. In doing so, Luciano is using both art and rhetoric as tools to resist the colonial powers of the United States, most notably PROMESA, a bill that effectively grants Puerto Rico’s power to a small group of U.S. politicians and practitioners.