This summer Puerto Rico made headlines around the world as hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets in massive mobilizations. The U.S. press covered the initial stages of protest, but failed to stick with the story as the resistance evolved. In addition to highlighting present circumstances on the island, these untold stories reveal Puerto Rico’s long social and political history, which created the injustices that Puerto Ricans are now protesting. The press’s insufficient coverage of the sustained dissent on the island has left the United States with the distorted narrative that these protests are merely about one administration’s corruption. In fact, these protests are much more complex; they are directed at a broader issue that affects all Puerto Ricans — namely, their lack of political autonomy, which is rooted in the island’s colonial history.
The protests in Puerto Rico began after the Center for Investigative Journalism released over 800 pages of offensive and criminally implicating text messages between former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and other high-ranking government officials in early July. On July 25, Puerto Ricans made history by using massive mobilizations that cut across geographic, generational and cultural dividesto force their governor to resign.
Puerto Ricans exerted the power of the masses by creating space for all sects of Puerto Rican society to participate in protest. There were protests for 11 consecutive days in front of the governor’s building, and a national strike saw over 500,000 Puerto Ricans occupy a central highway in an inspiring demonstration of solidarity. People protested both on the island and in the diaspora. Forms of protest ranged from music, visual art and dance to acts on horseback, boats, kayaks and motorcycles. Some protesters even took to banging on pots and pans around the island every night at 8 o’clock.
The American press focused on the scandal that broke out in Rosselló’s administration, on the magnitude of the political mobilizations and on the creativity of the forms of protest. Consequently, the media’s narrative made Rosselló’s administration seem to be the root of the problem, downplaying the movement’s radical nature in the process. While the governor’s text messages originally ignited the mobilization, the issues that these protests actually address are much graver.
Puerto Rico has been devastated by an unconstitutional and unpayable national debt, generated by decades of government corruption across several administrations and by Hurricane Maria and the disaster that was the post-hurricane relief effort. Puerto Ricans are protesting, above all, centuries of colonialism that cannot be described as anything less than criminal — today, this history manifests in the Fiscal Control Board undemocratically imposed on Puerto Rico by the Obama administration. The many ways in which people protested should be seen not merely as a charming story that illustrates Puerto Rican creativity. They should be seen rather as a demonstration of the lengths that Puerto Ricans will go to express themselves politically, since they lack legitimate political representation — especially given that democracy in Puerto Rico exists only as a well-constructed fallacy.
A different narrative lies in this hard truth. Puerto Rican indignation developed not just because of corruption in local government, but because of the lack of democratic exercises in this modern colony. The absence of a real democracy has allowed the island to be governed not as a nation of sovereign people, but as a rich source of wealth, which has been the case ever since Spanish colonizers first landed on Puerto Rico’s shores. I, for one, am outraged more by the continued exploitation of Puerto Rico’s resources than by the media’s over simplified narrative of political corruption on the island.
It seems that this sentiment is shared by many who continue to resist on the island. Puerto Ricans continue to resist the new governor Wanda Vázquez along with the Fiscal Control Board, since both are complicit in this exploitation. They continue to resist the unconstitutional and unpayable debt as well as the island’s colonial status. Though the wide-scale mobilizations have subsided, people now coalesce in public assemblies across the island to discuss what a better, more sustainable and more just Puerto Rico would look like. More localized forms of radical political mobilization continue within the island’s traditional sources of social activism such as university campuses and political unions.
But these stories have disappeared from the front pages of newspapers in the United States. The current political climate in Puerto Rico has also disappeared from the mainstream political discourse. Given how quick we were to support and celebrate Puerto Rico’s success in holding a corrupt administration accountable, we disrespect the island by forgetting the continued efforts of its people to undo the damages of its colonial history. We must do more to acknowledge and advance the ongoing anticolonial movement in Puerto Rico in all its complexities.
Marysol Fernandez ’21 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.