Why Congress (And John Oliver and Lin Manuel Miranda) Can’t Save Puerto Rico

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“There are certainly better voices than mine to speak on behalf of Puerto Rico”

-John Oliver

Can’t argue with that. Oliver’s awkward tittering about vejigante masks and sex at Loiza’s annual carnival notwithstanding, the debt crisis is no joke, and resisting the Republican Congress’s attempt to impose a fiscal oversight board—as well as a raft of austerity measures–on the island through its pernicious bill HR 4900, is not show business. For several minutes Oliver makes some decent points, until finally, tapping into what Puerto Ricans call El Zeitgeist, he makes the transition between tragicomedy and farce by throwing it over to the evening’s featured slam poet, Luis Manuel Miranda, to do some lyrical lobbying that would make K Street envious.

Progressives rejoice—it’s our Pulitzer Prize Favorite Son dropping science on economic facts/and the triple tax/we lacks/knowledge of. If you detect cynicism/I’m talkin bout cataclysm/I’m sayin I get no jism/from his paroxysms. Sure, you could say that Miranda is going far beyond what his peers, like Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, or even Benicio del Toro or Iris Chacón have done, but we need more than that. We need leadership that, rather than dance, prance and offer perks like tickets to the Broadway show Hamilton, confronts the US on its 100-year + exploitation of Puerto Rico as a colonial dry run of the free-trade panopticon it’s imposing on the rest of the world in the 21st century.

Colony is not a word that appears in Manuel’s 282-word son guaracha a lo freestyle, delivered as a coda to Oliver’s cheeky analysis of the Puerto Rico debt crisis. Apparently Miranda has conveniently ignored the impact of the amicus brief filed last December by the US’s own lawyers that asserted unambiguously that Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory with limited authority over its affairs—not quite a “commonwealth with no wealth.” Territory/is no glory/the loans be predatory/be happy don’t worry/get ready for a flurry/as Wall Street bombs you/like they were Steph Curry.

Oliver’s breakdown of several aspects of the debt crisis has a certain usefulness for the liberal sympathizer position—it does define Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory, refers to the provision of the constitution that requires it to pay back certain debts before any local expenditures, the mysterious elimination of bankruptcy protection in 1984, and trashes the ridiculous recent policy of inviting the super-wealthy to the island in the hope that they would create a significant number of jobs. Yet the economic underpinnings of the crisis are described with a typical lack of historical context—Oliver, like many liberal commentators stick to the line that the economic problems began with the phase-out of the tax-exempting Section 936 of the IRS tax code between 1996-2006, with a convenient flashback to the mysterious 1984 change in bankruptcy laws.

Manuel’s lament over “suicidal tax incentive declarations” and his Tupac-era reference to Strom Thurmond busting “a cap at a chance for Chapter 9” conveniently ignores, like Oliver and the rest of the financial press, that because of the colonial economic and political control imposed by the US since taking over the island in 1898, the island has always been a) a tax-haven bonanza for US corporations b) a captive base of consumers that produced billions of dollars of profit for those corporations and c) has never been able to develop a sustained productive economy that generated reinvestment on the island, or a viable tax base that would support government expenditures. Such omissions are key to Miranda’s message, which is a submissive, throw yourself on the mercy of the court plea rather than a demand for civil rights.

One need look no further than the words of US Federal Appellate Court Judge John Torruella, whose stirring speech at a recent conference about the Puerto Rico debt at John Jay College pulled no punches. It’s striking that someone who was nominated to his position by arch-conservative Ronald Reagan would have far more incisive and passionate things to say about Puerto Rico and its people’s subjugation to colonialism than Miranda, a New York-raised member of the liberal elite who recently surrounded himself with Democrats like Charles Schumer, Elizabeth Gillibrand, and Melissa Mark Viverito offering a quid pro quo to House Republicans (tickets to the play Hamilton) in the hopes they’d soften their stance on returning Puerto Rico to the days when military governors were appointed by the President to rule the island. Done like a true Resident Commissioner.

Consider this: Torruella begins his remarks by saying:

“Congress is now considering legislation entitled the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act,” to which some cynic with a sickly sense of humor has attached the acronym “PROMESA,” which in Spanish means “promise,” pursuant to which the Government of Puerto Rico will be placed in virtual trusteeship by the U.S. Government and Congress… What Congress will produce is anyone’s guess, but judging from the so-called “discussion draft” of PROMESA, it does not appear that Puerto Rico is about to be released from the colonial grip of the plenary powers that were authorized by the Insular Cases.”

Neither Oliver nor Miranda even mention PROMESA’s oversight board, which would only include one member that lived on the island—not necessarily a Puerto Rican—and would not allow the governor or anyone else in Puerto Rican government to interfere with any of it decisions. All that Oliver and Miranda ask for is a bill that “if it were done right”—the vaguest of caveats, would save Puerto Rico. Miranda pleads, “The hard part is convincing Congress that Puerto Rico matters so their heart is in the fight for relief/not a bailout but just relief/a belief that you can pass legislation to ease our grief,” without specifying what the terms of that relief would be.

According to Oliver and Miranda, help will arrive if the bill were done “right.” But how? Say, by increasing the amount of Puerto Rican members of the oversight board from 1 to 2, and perhaps cutting the minimum wage for workers under 21 to $5.25 instead of $4.25, and to allow only 66% instead of 85% of publicly held land in Puerto Rico to be auctioned off to vulture fund debt holders, then the hurricane metaphor that is threatening the island will be averted. Maybe that’s not what Oliver, Miranda, or the Democratic Party that is trying to organize Puerto Rican voters so they can win Florida want, but we haven’t heard one bit about how increased austerity will inevitably be involved in debt restructuring in anything that was broadcast on HBO or anything Hillary Clinton has said up to now.

Rather than formulate their own demands, they have apparently placed it all in the hands of Antonio Weiss, a “progressive” financier turned Treasury Department honcho, who received a $21 billion golden parachute from his former Wall Street firm, Lazard, which was instrumental in encouraging investment in distressed Puerto Rico debt in 2013, to negotiate a fair austerity deal for Puerto Rico, because, as he said at the Hunter College forum for What the Diaspora Can Do to Stave Off the Hurricane Metaphor Threatening Puerto Rico last week, “time has run out.”

Time has run out is the phrase that bondholders want to hear. They don’t want to hear anything about a moratorium on paying the debt, they don’t want to hear anything about auditing the debt to see if any of it is illegal and that there may be a chance that it’s not actually $70 billion. They want the Puerto Rican people to believe in the following narrative: The debt arose from factors that arose in just the last 20 years; it is almost entirely the fault of inefficient, lazy, sloppy, and corrupt management by Puerto Rican politicians, the clock has struck midnight, time is up, and if we all pull together and accept that Puerto Ricans are incapable of running their own financial matters, then maybe in 10 years the minimum wage will be back up to $7.50.

Nowhere has it been heard, from Oliver, Manuel, or the mainstream Democratic Party–with the exception of Luis Gutiérrez–anything like the Reagan-appointed Judge Torruella said at John Jay:

“Even as we proceed well into the 21st century and this country actively promotes our democracy to the rest of the world, we unfortunately do not always practice what we preach. This is particularly true with reference to the constitutional and political rights of those who reside in our various outlying non-state jurisdictions, in areas which we euphemistically refer to as “territories” or “possessions,” when, as I will attempt to convince you, they are, de facto colonies.”

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These words from Torruella would have been nice to see on HBO:

“Almost overnight, in fact by 1900, Puerto Rico became one huge sugar plantation, mostly exploited by mega-enterprises from the Mainland, the largest of which were based in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Sugar cane acreage almost tripled from what it was in 1896, and, by 1917, a relatively small number of individuals, partnerships, and corporations owned almost all of the arable lowland of Puerto Rico. The Island’s economy and population became totally dependent on that one crop, with the raw sugar cane being turned into molasses and shipped in bulk to the Mainland for refinement into table sugar.

These sugar giants produced dividends as high as 115% on investment, with the four largest boasting an average return on investment between 1923 and 1930 of 22.5%. Three of these sugar growers distributed more than $60 million in dividends to their stockholders between 1920 and 1935 — more than $1 billion in today’s dollars. The vast majority of the earnings produced from the work of the local labor left Puerto Rico, never to be seen again.

The crypto-plantation period created a large landless population which lived below the poverty level, barely above subsistence requirements. The rural population, was eighty percent landless. Although between 1915 and 1925 wages in the sugar industry went up from 60 cents per day, the cost of a minimum family diet in the sugar producing areas was 55.5 cents per day.

The Puerto Rican sugar industry, despite paying its work force miserably low wages, could not compete with other sugar-producing areas without substantial assistance from the federal government. This sugar-related dependence on federal aid was the beginning of a pattern of reliance on federal crutches of various kinds that increased exponentially, becoming a “permanent” feature of the Puerto Rican economy and eventually contributing, when such aid was not available or not proportionately available, to its collapse.”

 I imagine this was what Miranda was referring to by saying “we got here through a million misguided loopholes,” but it would have been nice to get the full story. I guess it’s because of today’s information-overload cliché: we have short attention spans. Who wants to hear about 100 years of history? Maybe the Republican members of Congress who want free tix to see how Alexander Hamilton created the US financial system—the same one Miranda is complaining about–by not so reluctantly allowing all those slavery-profit dollars from the South fill up his Federal Reserve Bank like a nest egg that no one in Europe  or St. Croix could ever have imagined.

So, whether it is intentional on his part or not, Manuel’s Disneyfied rhymes, ostensibly designed to get “more eyeballs on the crisis,” are effectively priming the liberal American public to accept and ultimately embrace legislation that will continue to impose severe austerity on Puerto Ricans, will most likely involve the selling off of public land for private development, and in no way change the fundamental colonial reality of the island: it has no way to function independently enough to develop a sustained economy. Which means the fiscal oversight board will be permanent, like our current global recession.

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Last but not least, that “100 miles across” thing, that little poignant hook at the end of the Miranda performance is the worst part of the whole cha cha cha. What does that mean, anyway? That we’re this little tiny island and we need to be saved from a big bad Huracán by a Magic Congress? Don’t we already have Yukiyú for that? If you follow hurricanes, you know that more often than not, when that bad wind blows from the east, those rainforest árboles stand up and take the punch, and none of those perfumados in San Juan ever suffer the indignity of having a single hair of their colonized moño blown out of place.

Take it from someone whose roots are in the mountains, where most of our original people went to escape from the Spanish authorities long ago. What we need is for people to say, we don’t accept the $70 billion debt until it’s properly audited. We may not have sovereignty on paper, but we have it in our hearts, and we are not going to beg Paul Ryan, Orrin Hatch, or any of those Republican nitwits to give us a break and soften up their discipline and punish PROMESA plan. We are not going to play quid pro quo politics and line the revolving door’s pockets.

Bottom line: Congress can’t save Puerto Rico, only Puerto Ricans can save Puerto Rico. And despite what some people say about Puerto Ricans on the island not being able to vote for President or have voting representation in Congress, and suggesting that the diaspora should somehow carry the water for them, Puerto Ricans have plenty of power. They showed it in Lares in 1868. They showed it in Ponce in 1937. They showed it in Vieques in 1999. They showed it when they stood up to Luis Fortuño’s Republican austerity and mano dura in 2011, long before anyone at HBO, Salon, vox.com, Buzzfeed, Fusion, Mother Jones, and NPR was paying attention. It seems to me we should be underestimating less, and reaching out more to people who actually live on the island, and ask what they need us to do.

After all, up here in the States, all we can do is vote for Clinton Democrats.

And that/Is wack/as crack/

19 Comments

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  1. Now this deserves a standing ovation!

  2. All points well taken. I am all for the Boricuas on the island having self determination. But I think the heart surgeons can wait to have a debate about how to help the patient thrive long term after they perform the heart surgery.

  3. Why does it seem like you’re trying to prove how more puertorican you are than miranda?
    “Take it from someone whose roots are in the mountains, where most of our original people went to escape from the Spanish authorities long ago.” If you’re puertorican you should know that like it or not our “original people” is a concoction of races that includes those Spaniard authorities.
    You make good points but why be so dismissive of Miranda? In an ideal world puertoricans would stand up and fight the social injustices that have taken place, as they did in the examples you pointed out. But over a 100 years of colonial life does not leave the nation unscathed. Everyone is completely focused on blaming our current administration in office in puerto rico, and do not get me wrong they definitely have blame to take, but they don’t realize the U.S. has just as much fault in this and it’s not a matter of begging for help, but about them owing us that help. Those who aren’t focused on the reds and blues are numbed out, there is no reaction, no movement, no outrage. If nothing else, people like Miranda are giving a voice to Puertoricans living on the island who are not on the mainland, where the most important decisions regarding our future are made. It’s also unfair to make the distinction between puertoricans on the mainland and puertoricans on the island. Both sides have just as much right to state their opinions on what we want and need for our island.
    Puerto Rico is suffering a serious crisis and a lot of people don’t know what to do, instead of creating more divisions to separate who is more puerto rican than who, you should be trying to use your voice to unite us all together.

  4. Jane Becker Whitaker April 26, 2016 — 2:58 pm

    Medicare parity. We pay the same amount in; get far less benefits back.

  5. Thanks for your post!

    So, how are you not preaching a politics of respectability? The issue of capital wealth has hardly ever been in the hands of Puertoricans, along with the wishful idea of statehood and actual snow falling if we became 51st state… You’re reasoning appears to be circular, while you admit that Oliver’s work reflect on the definition of Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory, yet say it doesn’t offer important historical context – that in itself is the historical context. We were never meant for anything more than “good business”. Should this critical discourse be prominent among politicians and voters on the island? Yes. Should that discourse talk of the many years of suppression and state violence on Puerto Rico? Yes. Are we a modern day colony? No doubt about it… But if what you expect is that a british guy man-splains the colonial history of Puerto Rico and tell Puertoricans to “do better”, then I’m sure you can just pick up any of the US history books we grew up with on the island, and get just that.. Also, the segment serves primarily a critical assessment of the economic issue on the island, which helps quiet down those many ignorant voices who claim that the debt is due to our irresponsible “takings” from State money.

    Would appreciate your reply!

  6. Boy did you save yourself with that last paragraph. Because criticizing Lin Manuel and Oliver does them an injustice. More people saw and now know more about the PR situation than anything Judge Torruellas could ever say. For the intelectuals in the US and PR who are spewing this crap, you should know one thing, when you speak
    the only one’s listening are yourselves. Meanwhile John Oliver and Lin-Manuel (and I am not disagreeing with your basic argument) have gone viral with the message that at least somethng positive has to happen in Puerto Rico.

  7. But island residents HAVE told you what they need from you. They want statehood. They want equality. It is misguided Puerto Ricans on the mainland, living their statehood who wish the island to break its ties to the US that are not or don’t want to listen. WAKE UP!

  8. Excellent analysis. I hope you write in the future about the revolving door political-business elite here in NYC. Cui bono?http://www.mansaequity.com/luisMiranda.php

  9. Jose Luis Venegas April 26, 2016 — 6:53 pm

    Never a mention of “War Against All Puerto Ricans” by Nelson Denis. La Mordaza, El Vengador del Silencio” By Yvonne Garcia. Once and for all, We are all Puerto Ricans….Lin is the son of Luis Miranda..of the lobbying firm MirRam—Miranda & Ramirez, used by Viverito. Luis Miranda is the former President of The Hispanic Federation which controls many of the social services agencies that keep us under subsidized poverty Many in the Democratic Party political establishment use the ” not for profit” establishment as a base for their personal and political gain, not for the purposes of developing the best interest of any community. Feel the Burn…has shaken a lot of ppl up. Good to see new blood come into the political proces. Sad to see Puerto Ricans fighting each other while they are taken to the slaughterhouse. Nothing new under the sun.

  10. I will love that Judge John Torruella will come to Oliver Show. For the Judge Torruella has a full grasped of colonial history and understanding of the law and how it applies to Puerto Rico and its current condition.

  11. Boricua From The Island April 27, 2016 — 11:42 am

    I can’t believe I wasted almost 20 minutes of my precious life reading this bitter article… here’s a guy who wasn’t even raised in PR, who’s using all the resources he can to bring awareness about the fiscal crisis in PR.. to at least do something… and you write a whole article about how they “failed” to mention this and that in a 20 minute show?? seriously?? Can he save PR? of course he can’t… can he use his stardom to make congress pay attention to the crisis and our island? yes!….

  12. Mr. Morales allow me to commence my statement with a brief & obvious disclaimer…

    I am obviously not as smart nor as well versed as you with regard to the topic being discussed in this forum, your post is informative, it’s eloquent on many points you have enlightened me as well as educated me and for this I sincerely thank you.

    I am the son of two uneducated honorable Boricuas, I proudly state que yo soy el hijo de dos Jibaros!

    It was those Jibaros with their minimal education that taught me never speak against our people (Boricuas) when they are endeavoring to do right.

    Your comparative analysis of Lin Manuel and Judge Torruellas has so saddened me, we all have different platforms Lin Manuel’s platform is an artistic one, the Honorable Judge Torruellas platform is Judicial/legislative.

    I do not expect for the car mechanic to perform a surgery nor do I expect the surgeon to fix the car, I do however expect for both the car mechanic and the surgeon to do their best in their respective fields.

    Lin Manuel as you have rightfully stated is one of the very few Puertorican artist who has spoken about the issue at hand, therefore let us not do to Lin Manuel as they did to John the Baptist the voice that cried out in the wilderness, let us not behead him for speaking truth to power, and if he is to be beheaded (metaphorically speaking) let it not be from a sword held by one of his own brothers.

    With regard to Mr. Oliver I welcome anyone who will break down my door to tell me the building is on fire!

    In the animal kingdom there is what is called a Copidosoma floridanum, this is a type of parasitoid wasp, it has a disgusting way of reproducing.

    To breed, an adult wasp will seek out an unsuspecting caterpillar, paralyze it with her sting, and then inject one male egg and one female egg into the living body.

    Once inside, those eggs “clone” themselves until the still-alive caterpillar is teeming with hundreds of larvae.

    Strangely, about 50 of the females emerge with large jaws and no reproductive organs.

    Their sole purpose for living?

    To devour as many of their brothers as they can, since only a few males are needed to fertilize their sisters.

    Mr. Morales your writing demonstrates that you are smart, intelligent articulate, you’re a thinker (Eres orgullo de nuestro pueblo) your platform is powerful!

    It was Nathaniel Hawthrone who once said… “Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”

    I would respectfully submit to you Mr. Morales that in many ways your post “Why Congress (and John Oliver and Lin Manuel Miranda) Can’t Save Puerto Rico” has been scripted in a mind that is more colonized that what it cares to admit.

    Mr. Morales, let us not eat our own!

    Vamos unire nuestra voz!

    Con mucho respeto mi hermano Borciua!

  13. Jibaro, thank you for your wonderful reply and for putting my thoughts into the perfect words.

  14. Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Oliver have brought far more attention to the matter of Puerto Rico than many could have. We are in a day and age where celebrity social media power trumps intellectual voice and debate. Thank you Lin for your voice, unfortunately these issues are so complicated, and short of revolution, the powers that be will be hard pressed to give up control. Mr. Morales, you should make your point without denegrating what Lin and Oliver have done. There is plenty of fault on all sides of this issue, plenty of hands in “la masa”, and until the status issue is resolved Puerto Rico and many Puerto Ricans will continue to suffer from a lack of equity.

  15. Why this article attacks a comedian and an artist?

    John Oliver only raised attention to this topics, the viewers certainly can use Google to search for more information. You’ve taken this issue far too seriously.

    Also why I have the feeling, that bashing “liberals” (whoever they are) and other scapegoats is more important to Mr. Morales than actual fact-based journalism.

  16. Mary Ann Lucking May 1, 2016 — 7:33 am

    Why attack Miranda and Oliver for doing what no corporate press is doing- getting this issue out there to the people……..

  17. Hedge Funds and Vulture Hedge Funds have been deeply involved, walking the hallways of Washington Dc lobbying against Puerto Rico. They are powerful giving millions to 2016 campaigns to both Republicans and Democrates. It is interesting to note:
    BLUE MOUNTAIN CAPITAL, a very aggressive Hedge fund who investments are in “PREPA” PUERTO RICO is fighting against bankrupcy for Puerto Rico . The founders of BLUE MOUNTAIN CAPITAL is Andrew Feldstein a former Harvard Law class mate of Barack Obama, that played pick up basketball with him and contributed to his campaign and Stephen Siderow. STEPHEN SIDEROW has served on the board of ARS NOVA, a non profit theatre company in New York City’s Hells Kitchen – Stephen Siderow is a backer of Broadway Shows including “HAMILTON”.
    MONARCH CAPITAL -;Andrew Herenstein is backing and gave a nice patry to Marco Rubio as well as Vulture Hedge Fund Paul Singer. Paul Singer was involved in destroying Argentina Economy. Paul Singer made BILLIONS of Argentina! !!!
    Democrates are also receiving money from Hedge Fund and Vulture Hedge Funds, this also includes Hillary Clinton.
    Donald Trump says he’s funding his own campaign, but now that he is the Republican Candidate, will not be able to, for he will go BROKE!!! So it will be interesting to see where his money will be coming from!

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