“The hurricane as a natural phenomenon has unmasked the very unnatural causes of the situation in Puerto Rico,” Jose E. López tells me.
He’s calling from the office at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, a community initiative which over the last few decades has created a high school for Puerto Rican dropouts and an LGBTQ homeless shelter for Latinx youth. López, who came to Chicago during the wave of mass migration from Puerto Rico during the ‘40s and ‘50s, has dedicated his life to the Puerto Rican independence movement, publishing extensively on Puerto Rican identity and its relationship to Western colonial thought.
In January López’s brother, Oscar López Rivera, had his sentance commuted by Obama after serving 36 years in prison for his work with the militant Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN. (Full disclosure: He is also a godparent of our news editor, Jack Mirkinson.)
Since Hurricane Maria hit the Puerto Rican coast almost a month ago, Puerto Rico has been treated first with sluggish, grudging acknowledgement by its colonial American government, then with outright vitriol: On Thursday morning, the president tweeted a series of statements blaming the island (once again) for its own troubles and threatening to abandon it entirely, while fewer than 20% of residents have electricity and many have resorted to drinking toxic water.
As San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz wrote in a statement texted to Rep. Luis Gutiérrez and shared with Splinter : “Without your robust and consistent help, we will die.”
For anyone familiar with the history of America’s occupation of Puerto Rico—our longstanding refusal to grant the island Constitutional protections while destroying it ecologically, for instance—the abandonment isn’t surprising. “No president of the United States has actually been a president that has understood the Puerto Rican reality, and that includes Obama himself,” López told me.
I spoke with López to get some context for the government’s treatment of the island, and to see how the recent disaster will affect the Puerto Rican independence movement going forward.
What were some of the major issues for the movement right before Maria hit?
What we—and I mean the sort of radical sector of the Puerto Rican community—were doing in PR was mostly a lot of work against the oversight board, and against the imposition of the PROMESA law [which restructured Puerto Rican debt during the Obama administration].
But as for the community in the United States, we’ve been doing work for years around the connection between the colonial situation of Puerto Ricans and the marginalization of Puerto Ricans in the United States. So in particular I can speak to the work that we’ve been doing in Chicago for the past 50 years, creating a series of parallel institutions to serve the needs of our community.
That includes issues of housing, education, health, employment—all of the things that fall by the wayside when you are not considered an integral part of the society and are not allowed to fully partake as a full citizen.
And the hurricane as a natural phenomenon has unmasked the very unnatural causes of the situation in Puerto Rico.
Its not just a question of class, or of the relationship to people of color. For these populations, it’s a colonial question.
Hurricane Maria and its impact on the island has to be seen against the prism of the U.S. colonial enterprise in Puerto Rico. And what that has meant since 1898: Puerto Ricans have never ben able to self-actualize, nor self-determine. And right now as we look at the contempt that President Trump holds for the Puerto Rican people, it’s really unmasking that colonial reality. It’s been a hidden struggle, and we’re finally breaking through, and people who might not know much are talking about Puerto Rico and its unnatural relationship to the United States.
What’s the relationship between the work you do in Chicago and the broader Puerto Rican independence struggle?
Most people understand, or at least have a concept, of what a direct colony is. Colonialism as a system is pervasive all over the world: Most of the countries in the world are in a neo-colonial relationship to the United States. And then there are the internal colonies within the dominant colonies. For example, if I look at the conditions of Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx, the conditions of African Americans in the Mississippi Delta, the conditions of Native Americans that have lived in the occupied lands of New Mexico, so many of them would have the same lack of housing, lack of education, lack of quality of live. There’s something systematically wrong with the U.S. in terms of its relationship to these people. Its not just a question of class, or of the relationship to people of color. For these populations it’s a colonial question, as well.
And what are you thinking about how recent events are going to shape this colonial relationship?
It’s pretty clear one of the most important aspects of this moment, particularly for progressive people in this country, is realizing that Puerto Rico is a direct U.S. colony. And that in many ways much of the progressive movement in this country has totally ignored the question of Puerto Rico. It’s time to really begin to analyze that, to say, ‘We have been complicit in this colonial enterprise, even on the left.’
U.S. history is formulated against the backdrop of denial of a culture of empire.
I think it’s that people have a really difficult time, even progressive people, dealing with the U.S. as an imperial power. U.S. history is formulated against the backdrop of denial of a culture of empire. We never study the movement and the killing of Native Americans as a colonial enterprise. We don’t see the U.S. taking over Hawaii as an imperial design. We don’t see the U.S. taking over Alaska as an imperial design. So we don’t see Puerto Rico as an imperial design. So when we don’t acknowledge that, we also have a problem of trying to deal with it.
Do you expect the U.S. government’s disastrous response to the hurricane to reinvigorate, or change aspects of, the independence movement?
In Puerto Rico there has been a long history of resistance against U.S. colonial rule. It began the very moment the U.S. established control of Puerto Rico in 1898. We have a list that shows over 2,000 people, historically, were incarcerated in Puerto Rico because of their activism in the Puerto Rican independence moment, and in their struggle for social justice. And if we add, for example, the incarceration rate in 1950, when Puerto Rico rose up against colonial rule in an armed uprising, we could make the list even longer.
But there is a long history of political incarceration, a long history of political persecution, that has been waged by the U.S. government, particularly through the FBI and its COINTEL program, that has been around since the late ‘50s. But as a matter of fact, last year we were able to free my brother, who was the last political prisoner. He was in prison for 36 years of his life, for his activism, for his advocacy, for his work around PR independence.
But I think the movement is already reinvigorated. The Puerto Rican people, many of them who were blind to the colonial reality, are awakening to the fact that the only thing they can count on right now in Puerto Rico are the efforts of the Puerto Rican people themselves.
You have to eliminate the debt. This debt will only fill the coffers of the hedge funds and the bankers.
President Trump talks as if FEMA was there, and had done this great job. But how can you say that on an island that was just devastated, where people are very ill, where people were ill before the hurricane, where so few people have been helped?
I mean, right now you have a bunch of supplies in the port of San Juan that have not been delivered to people. There’s nothing in place. Because in Florida and in Texas, FEMA and the government already had a plan of how you were going to deal with this catastrophe. Here there was no planning.
What do you think needs to be done, policy-wise?
You have to eliminate the debt. That’s the first thing that we must demand. Because this debt can never be repaid, this debt was never incurred by the Puerto Rican people, this debt has never been audited. We don’t really know how much is owed, and this debt will only fill the coffers of the hedge funds and the bankers. It will do nothing for Puerto Rico.
I think we gotta figure out the Jones Act, which limits any shipping to and from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico should be able to receive ships and food and supplies from any part of the world. Right now it means that Puerto Ricans are paying at least 15 to 20 percent more on any good that’s shipped to Puerto Rico. And the other thing is: We must undo this oversight board. And in addition to that there should be a process that guarantees Puerto Rico equity in terms of Medicare and Medicaid.
And what do you expect to see in this movement, going forward?
In all the Puerto Rican communities there has been a lot of organizing effort, and it must lead to something that is long-term. That has a commitment to rebuilding Puerto Rico, to rebuilding the kind of infrastructure that guarantees a process that will continue to ultimately invest in a future Puerto Rico.
I think Carmen Yulín Cruz is probably the only effective voice in Puerto Rico today—she has become a symbol, obviously, a voice that has taken on the imperial voice of the United States as expressed by President Trump. I think she has a keen sense of where Puerto Rico is at, and where it’s going.
But there are 3.5 million Puerto ricans in Puerto Rico, 5.5 million in the diaspora. And I think the diaspora is going to play a key role in the future of Puerto Rico. And in developing and carrying out an agenda that guarantees that a new Puerto Rico emerges out of this horrible situation.