The Politics of Survival

Puerto Rico’s left is rebuilding in the wake of two disasters: Hurricane María and a neoliberal onslaught.

A Puerto Rican flag is waved outside the Torres de Francia complex as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on October 1, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Joe Raedle / Getty

Puerto Rico’s left-wing forces have long tried to unify, a goal that has proven difficult to reach and even harder to sustain. At its strongest, the Left has faced intense repression from both the United States and the island’s colonial government. Yet, activists and left-wing intellectuals agree that deeper differences account for the collective inability to build unity.

Historically, left-wing forces in Puerto Rico have split over the national question. Pro-independence groups, arguably the largest sector, have prioritized decolonization while socialists, feminists, and environmentalists have proposed a broader anti-oppression praxis centered on social and economic issues. Other groups, such as the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores, do not see these struggles as mutually exclusive, calling for the formation of a socialist republic in Puerto Rico.

Today a new wave of leftist organizing is emerging, one free from traditional Marxist or nationalist dogmas. This new Puerto Rican left is organizing for economic justice and against colonialism while putting a greater emphasis on gender, sexuality, and race. It aims to foster young leadership, articulate new solidarities, and revive the practice of community organizing. It is learning from the errors of the past while picking up the sediments of previous struggles.

But, if the Left wants to remain relevant, it must collaborate with the youth, community, feminist, farmer, and environmental-justice groups that are bringing new energy to the island.

The Struggle Against Neoliberalism

In 2010, Luis Fortuño’s conservative administration attacked the Puerto Rican public sector. The economy was in crisis, and Fortuño and his advisory council were confident that the problem had a familiar solution — economic austerity. His government went after unions, social policies, and most violently, higher education.

In response, a popular front came together in order to defeat a common enemy: Fortuño and the private interests he so faithfully represented. The island had seldom been so polarized, with neoliberal forces preparing to strike a fatal blow and opposition groups looking for ways to resist. The Puerto Rican left aimed to build an emancipatory struggle connected to the global wave of resistance that included Occupiers, Indignados, Pingüinos, and Arab Spring activists.

Labor leaders, scholar-activists, pro-independence leaders, feminists, the Christian left, environmentalists, lawyers, and other sectors seized the opportunity, forming a coalition of thirty-five organizations called Todo Puerto Rico por Puerto Rico. They aimed to ride the momentum built by University of Puerto Rico (UPR) students while preparing for the widely anticipated neoliberal attack on public higher education. Veteran organizers saw the student movement as a model to imitate as they expanded, sustained, and escalated the Todo Puerto Rico por Puerto Rico coalition.

The students used democratic decision-making and deliberative practices to plan direct actions, set the terms of negotiations with university administrators and government officials, and ratify the agreements made at the table. They also devoted significant efforts to recruiting new organizers for youth groups, including the Unión de Juventudes Socialistas, J-23, Juventud Hostosiana, Juventud del Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, Organización Socialista Internacional, Federación Universitaria Pro Independencia, and MASFALDA. These practices of democratic and inclusive debate — coupled with a strong organizational structure — allowed the students to occupy the UPR’s main campus for sixty-two days.

Thanks to this wave of activism, the Puerto Rican left scored important victories during the Fortuño administration (2009–2013). Not only did students stop a system-wide tuition hike and save tuition waivers for athletes, student workers, and honor students, but environmentalists also blocked the construction of a natural-gas pipeline and the development of the North Ecological Corridor, which would have sacrificed the area’s unique biodiversity in order to build luxury resorts. Civil-rights lawyers united to defeat a referendum in which the Fortuño administration tried to curtail the right to bail.

These sectors eventually came together at a massive People’s Assembly, where they organized an island-wide work stoppage and mobilized tens of thousands at marches. The movement began to resemble the campaigns that eventually drove the US military out of Vieques Island in 2003. It seemed like the stage was set for a broader emancipatory struggle, one that could transition from resistance to revolution. Unfortunately, the forces committed to continuing the colonial and neoliberal order in Puerto Rico proved to be stronger than those that fought to subvert it.

The Balance of Forces

The Puerto Rican left has resisted a number of neoliberal attacks in the past, but the fiscal and humanitarian crisis brought on by Hurricane María is testing this ability. In the wake of the storm, both veteran and new activists have had to migrate or accept jobs with entities complicit in neoliberal policy making. But left-wing activism is still taking place and, in some instances, deepening its practices.

Socialist, environmentalist, and youth-activist groups had set up a network of mutual-assistance centers, which grew in the aftermath of the storm. When these solidary brigades reached areas in the mountainous regions two weeks after María’s landfall, they discovered that residents didn’t need their help. They had already prepared, sourcing water from wells and storing enough food to last for weeks.

The organizers quickly recognized that the people’s needs entailed more than just basic goods. This lesson forced the Puerto Rican left to acknowledge that its relevance would depend on listening to and learning from these communities.

Since the storm, the farmers’ and food-sovereignty movements have drawn support from Vía Campesina and the climate-justice movement to provide rapid response to frontline communities affected by the disaster. Mutual-aid groups from the Puerto Rican diaspora and the Climate Justice Alliance have joined local activists to get supplies to local farmers, rebuild ecosystems, and coordinate relief efforts with local and US labor unions.

They are resisting the nonprofit, corporate, and government-led network that has raised millions of dollars in donations since the disaster, calling attention to the fact that funds raised in the name of relief have yet to reach the Puerto Rican population and denouncing government efforts to implement false solutions, such as privatizing public utilities and education. They are working to politicize the recovery process, which has already produced widespread frustration, manifesting as roadblocks, picket lines, and occupations of government buildings.

On the other hand, right-wing forces have strong allies not only among the Republican-led government in Washington but also within the island’s major political parties: the New Progressive Party (NPP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP).

The NPP’s base includes religious fundamentalists, and its ample campaign funding comes from local capitalists. Sheltered by the darkness that swept the island after the hurricane, the NPP exploited the crisis to side step legislative hearings, silence the opposition, introduce a religious-freedom bill, grant no-bid contracts to dubious providers, and push conservative criminal-justice reforms.

In January, Governor Ricardo Rosselló confirmed his intentions to continue the legacy of his father, former governor Pedro Rosselló, by selling the island’s besieged power authority. A week later, he announced the privatization of the primary and secondary public school system. Last week he announced a sweeping labor reform and the closure of a number of government agencies.

His father had tried to win public support for similar schemes by claiming that the revenue gained from privatizing public goods would fund social spending, including public employee pensions and universal health care. Instead, his administration took on expensive mega-projects, which handed lucrative contracts over to campaign donors but failed to raise the money necessary to sustain welfare programs.

The government’s efforts to privatize Puerto Rico’s Public Power Authority (PREPA) and public education prove that the Puerto Rican right feels strong. The NPP has long wanted to enact these policies, but previous administrations deemed public sector unions — and the Left more generally — too strong to undertake such an attack.

The crisis that followed Hurricane María opened the door for the Rosselló administration to consolidate its plans. Line workers are exhausted, toiling around the clock to restore power while facing attacks from citizens who blame them for the government’s inability to restore power. Meanwhile, many teachers are working in schools without electricity.

The privatization announcement was carefully timed. Vulture funds have been looking over the governor’s shoulder, pressuring him to include PREPA’s privatization in the fiscal recovery proposal. Though it’s ironic that someone who ran as an erudite technocrat with a sophisticated plan for every possibility failed to prepare for a natural disaster. Selling off the few remaining public assets was always part of his vision — even if he never revealed it on the campaign trail.

A week after the announcement, UTIER, the PREPA workers’ union, issued a call for solidarity across all sectors of the Puerto Rican left to renew their resistance to privatization. Many have answered.

The new generation of leftist organizers has shed much of the old left’s baggage. While they disagree about tactics, these debates have not been as divisive as they once were. Younger activists did not have take sides on the extremely divisive issue of armed struggle, as those groups have mostly disbanded. Now debate centers on electoral participation, on mutual-assistance projects, and on diversification.

The Electoral Question

Pedro Albizu Campos once referred to ballot boxes as coffins designed for the burial of the Puerto Rican nation. Under his leadership, the nationalist party militarized, rejecting the electoral process. The Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) stepped in to provide an electoral alternative for left-wing voters. Though these two sectors have come together to resist militarism, right-wing influences on public education, the displacement of marginalized communities, repression, and environmentally hazardous projects, the disagreement over electoral participation has persisted.

In 2016, the Obama administration created an unelected Fiscal Control Board with the power to impose fiscal policies in order to recover Puerto Rico’s ballooning debt. That year’s elections revealed a growing discontent with the island’s three main parties and with the electoral process more generally. Between 2012 and 2016, Puerto Rico experienced a remarkable 22 percent drop in electoral turnout (from 77 to 55 percent). While these numbers are still higher than turnout in the United States, Puerto Rico has historically experienced voter turnout nearing 80 percent.

The Left has not figured out how to address voters’ obvious frustration. Leftists who reject the electoral process argue that participating in elections legitimizes the colonial order, while others argue that boycotting will limit the Left’s ability to curtail government corruption and hold elected officials accountable. This group is further divided between those who support the PDP in order to defeat right-wing candidates and those that who support the more left-wing parties, the PIP and the Working People’s Party (PPT). The first tactic handed the PDP slim victories against two recent NPP reelection bids: both Rosselló and Fortuño lost by a margin of less than .6 percent. Without the Left’s support, Puerto Rico would have had uninterrupted NPP rule since 2000.

In recent elections, neither the PIP nor the PPT has passed the 3 percent threshold necessary to remain in the ballot for future elections. The pro-independence party has failed to do so since 2004, but have been able to win at large seats in the House and Senate. The PPT, which participated in elections for the first time in 2012, has never had legislative representation. Given this landscape, the Left’s ability to claim electoral victory seems significantly limited.

Various voices within the Left have suggested forming a party combining the PIP and the PPT, but party leaders don’t agree — at least not yet. Some argue that the Left must address its internal differences and define the purpose of these alliances before uniting. These critics only feel compelled to join a coalition focused on building radical democracy, as opposed to one that prioritizes the question of status.

Power to the People

Despite these electoral failures, left-wing forces have shown their strength in the streets and in communities.

Umbrella organizations like Jornada Se Acabaron las Promesas and the Concertación Puertorriqueña en Contra de la Junta have joined culture workers like Papel Machete and AgitArte to mount a sustained campaign against the Fiscal Control Board.

Feminists from growing organizations like the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción have built popular resistance to patriarchy, neoliberalism, and authoritarianism. They disrupted two of the island’s main highways on two separate occasions, mobilized hundreds for a feminist assembly, formed a mutual assistance center, and forced the resignation and prosecution of Guaynabo mayor Hector O’Neill for sexual assault against a municipal employee.

An amalgam of leftist organizations called for an island-wide work stoppage and thousands flooded Puerto Rico’s financial district in Hato Rey during the May 1 demonstrations.

The farmers’ movement has grown dramatically in the past decade, with a growing number of independent and sustainable farming projects underway. Activist leaders have joined other activists at the United Nations climate-change negotiations and have strengthened their ties with the anti-capitalist farmer’s movement Vía Campesina.

The environmental-justice movement has successfully mobilized against pipeline projects and used the media attention following Hurricane María to call for a just energy transition.

The network of mutual assistance centers throughout the island has breathed new life into the Left. They are working to meet the needs of isolated communities that the state, local, and federal governments have ignored, moving the people from resilience to resistance.

While some have warned that the Left should also pressure the state to meet its responsibilities to the population, these activists have criticized the false dichotomy of bottom-up and top-down approaches to organizing. The vitality of the Puerto Rican left, they argue, must come from a synthesis of these approaches.

Emancipatory Diversity

Puerto Rican feminists argue that the Left’s vitality will also depend on its ability to build more inclusive leadership groups. While left-wing groups have long fought to diversify government, schools, and other societal institutions, some have resisted internal diversification.

Historically, the Puerto Rican left has been at its strongest when it has identity, ideological, and tactical diversity. The upsurge that it experienced in the 1960s came when leaders focused on organizing marginalized groups and workers, fostering unity in diversity, strengthening youth and student groups, opening dialogue across different sectors of the Left, and developing international relationships of solidarity. These approaches encouraged collaboration despite disagreements about tactics, electoral participation, and organizing priorities. It also allowed the Left to deploy new tactical repertoires, mounting massive campaigns, organizing strikes, and supporting cultural work.

Some have dismissed these calls to diversify, expressing a desire to avoid what they consider a postmodern or neoliberal concern for identity. But others see diversity as a form of strength. Adopting this second approach entails building opportunities for dialogue despite differences, amplifying marginalized group’s voices and perspectives, and prioritizing the issues of oppressed groups while fighting against shared grievances. Most importantly, it involves building leadership from the bottom up and trusting those without prestigious educations who possess the knowledge that comes from the pedagogy of the oppressed.

New groups have taken important steps in this direction. Members of the Juventud Hostosiana, which took a prominent role in the most recent student strike, have embraced diversity and declared themselves intersectional feminists, anti-colonialists, and ecologists.

The leaders of the feminist organization Colectiva Feminista en Construcción also played active roles in the student movement. The Colectiva, now a powerful force within the Puerto Rican left and in Puerto Rican politics more generally, has adopted an intersectional feminist organizing praxis and pushed the Left to fulfill its commitment to ending oppression by aiming to defeat capitalism and patriarchy simultaneously.

The Path Forward

Moving forward, the American and international left must refrain from using Puerto Ricans as a pawn in their battles against the Trump administration and afford them a substantive role in these efforts. Rather than framing the urgency of supporting Puerto Ricans in terms of their US citizenship, advocates must ground solidarity in the values of radical democracy and emancipation.

This orientation runs counter to how mainstream American politicians treat Puerto Ricans. The Democrats have launched voter-registration campaigns in hopes of using recent migrants as cannon fodder for the war against the Republicans — a cause that few Puerto Ricans seem eager to join. Liberals hope to enlist the Puerto Rican diaspora in the 2018 midterm elections, forgetting that Puerto Ricans, and Latinxs more generally, have often failed to reap the promised benefits of Democratic electoral victories.

In the days that followed Hurricane María, Puerto Ricans took matters into their own hands. Groups of retired line workers and electricians restored power in isolated sectors. Communities came together to rebuild their own bridges, literally and metaphorically. Collectively, they dispelled the myths that portray them as lazy and dependent on the government.

Hurricane María did not only bring devastation to the island. It also opened opportunities for both the Left and the Right. In the next months, the Left can defeat the neoliberal attacks on its public services and institutions, but only if it continues to embrace the energy of the alliances of unions, environmentalists, farmers, students, and scholar-activists that have formed on the ground, in the Puerto Rican diaspora, and internationally.