New Class, New Awareness for Puerto Rico
The “Ricky, Renuncia” (“Ricky, Resign”) movement was the umbrella that gave voice to over a third of Puerto Rico’s population, who took to the streets this past summer and forced governor Ricardo “Ricky” Roselló Nevares to resign. They rose up against his corrupt and insulting behavior toward the island’s most vulnerable groups, the first time in U.S. history that such a huge mass movement forced a state or colonial governor to resign.
This huge struggle followed almost a decade of austerity measures, resulting in the wrecking of the public schools, deteriorating health services (especially for the elderly), and the impoverishment of a growing mass of people. Profits remain high for industrial and commercial corporations, and above all for speculative financial capital. In fact, when Puerto Rico’s government bonds bubble burst and generated a financial collapse, the U.S. federal government imposed a dictatorial fiscal control board upon it. Meanwhile, the federal government’s neglectful response to Hurricane María’s disastrous impact on poor people and natural ecology continues to this date.
U.S. Census Bureau data clearly expresses the colony’s political importance, with Puerto Ricans accounting for 1.7 percent of the 2016 U.S. population and 9.5 percent of the nation’s Latinos, with a growth rate more than three times that of the U.S. population as a whole (17.9 percent compared to 4.7). These trends have been accelerating ever since the imposition of the Financial Control Board in the summer of 2016 and Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017. Puerto Rico’s population is larger than that of 21 U.S. states, and its poverty rate is worse than the most impoverished state, Mississippi.
A New Movement Arising
The movement was an opportunity to see the various ways in which Puerto Rican political culture organizes itself nowadays, outside the weakened but still hegemonic traditional political realm of mass domesticated colonial party politics. It was a collective scream of outrage and a celebration of mass power displaying a stunning diversity, with youth-led groups in dialogue and celebration with people of all ages and social walks of life. Popular stars from the music and entertainment industry played visible roles, attracting mass media coverage.
However, the leading poles were students (the majority facing endless loans, and precarious low paying jobs); young people excluded from the formal and legal job market and forced to hustle in the underground economy; older workers facing pension downgrading; and middle age workers, whose stagnating and declining wages and benefits have forced many to migrate to the U.S. mainland. To all these people in motion, the 2019 summer struggle showed that fighting and uniting against the few can lead to victories for the many.
Whether the flashes of consciousness expressed in mushrooming People’s Assemblies, fronts against corporate capitalist abuses, and cooperative and mutual aid community projects can result in transforming society to meet the people’s needs will require developing a larger vision, based on understanding the economic system in which these struggles are embedded.
A History of Struggle
The current climate of outrage and frustration with traditional colonial party politics and the elites that control it is not new in Puerto Rico. It has been heating up at different temperatures for the past ten years. The May 1st demonstration in 2017, the most widely attended and militant in more than two decades, and the “Renuncia, Ricky” uproar this past July are examples of both highly organized and more spontaneous boiling outbursts of protest. Along with such massive expression of discontent and mass action, the Puerto Rican social and political landscape has been dotted with protests from below in every social sector.
Today’s situation has gone beyond the evolution of capitalism in Puerto Rico from the early 1900s. At that time, the colonial governor Charles Allen stated, that Puerto Rico needed men with capital. On the other hand, poor rural workers had to take the chance of going abroad to sell their labor power in other parts of the United States, such as Hawaii sugar cane fields and Arizona cotton fields. Import surplus capital and export surplus labor power: that has been the colonial formula applied to the growth of industrial enclaves in the countryside and the suburban areas of the Puerto Rican archipelago.
A good deal of the class struggle in the continental U.S. also played out with local variations within the Puerto Rican archipelago. Puerto Ricans became members of the working class exploited directly by absentee U.S. capitalists, particularly the investors in U.S. Sugar and Tobacco Trusts. In response, with a leading role by anarcho-syndicalists and social democrats, during the early 1900s the Puerto Rican Free Federation of Labor joined the Puerto Rican craft unions organized by the American Federation of Labor. It then expanded its membership to the sugar cane factories and fields, where the largest sector of the Puerto Rican rural proletariat was employed.
Later, in the 1930s during the New Deal years and following the Second World War, radical socialists, communists and nationalists working in tandem with the CIO, the American Communist Party and anti-colonialist social democrats pushed Puerto Rican politics in a more militant direction. Such progressive anti-capitalist and anti-colonial motion was short lived, due to the anti-communist Cold War offensive that bribed, smothered and repressed the leading forces of the emerging mass labor union and anti-capitalist movement in both “USAmerica” and Puerto Rico, its Caribbean colony.
That formula provided room for the development of a working class and petit bourgeoisie with enough purchasing power and credit to soften the edges of capitalist exploitation. It came with a modest welfare state, first under Roosevelt’s New Deal, and later on, thanks to bonds and revenues managed by a Puerto Rican government, that claimed to have shed the worst features of colonial rule. There was the appearance of enough political autonomy to persuade the United Nations to remove Puerto Rico from the list of colonial territories in 1953, at the height of the spiraling Cold War and anticommunist ideological and military offensive.
Those were the years when Puerto Rico became the social democratic and economically “progressive” showcase of the Americas, a time when the U.S. corporate iron grip on Latin America was thinly concealed in the silk glove of economic progress. It was the era of the Alliance for Progress, a united front of bourgeois Latin American regimes against the potential threat of Latin American nationalism and communism, embodied by the triumph of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Teodoro Moscoso, Puerto Rico’s point guard for U.S. political and diplomatic imperialism, became chief officer of the vaunted Operation Bootstrap, a post-World War II industrialization strategy to exchange local labor for U.S. absentee capital, in the service of private capitalists in Puerto Rico and their counterparts in Central, South America and the rest of the Caribbean. Crucial to this economic and political maneuvering was the massive migratory labor escape valve that accompanied this process in cyclical waves throughout the 50s and 60s. Over a third of the island’s working class migrated to work in the agricultural fields and urban factories in U.S., mostly in Eastern states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York.
New Class Eruptions
Currently, the image of the so-called Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has no clothes, and a growing mass of people are taking notice. Its legitimacy is melting very quickly and the “Ricky, Renuncia” movement was just a tip of the iceberg. Looking beyond and beneath the surface of such events reveals the source of the rising everyday resistance to the rule of capital: people are fighting for survival at every level because they face the contradictory motion of the economic system of private property. On one hand it destroys living labor and replaces it with technology, generating an abundance of leisure time and goods for some. On the other hand, as automation advances so does the impoverishment of a mass of Puerto Rico’s people.
The Puerto Rican workers have increased the ranks of the working class in the “USAmerican” mainland, and are now facing the elimination of the jobs that once fed illusions of achieving the American Dream. They are being pushed into competition with the growing mass of the permanently discarded and excluded. They come from the favelas, ghettos, alleyways, and streets of mega-cities. They are the old and the young, the fathers, mothers, children, and grandchildren, and they confront the rulers of the world’s Silicon Valleys. They are joining the ranks of a new global proletariat with no attachment to property, whose lives are in jeopardy.
The massive “Renuncia, Ricky” protests are actually part of the popular eruptions of this new objectively communist class, challenging austerity policies imposed by ruling classes from Perú to Chile, Argentina to Colombia, and resisting neofascist uprisings from Brazil to Bolivia. These events are the ink with which the revolutionary writing on the wall is being drawn. RC
January/February 2020. Vol30.Ed1
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011