The dominant narrative about Latinxs in the U.S. goes like this: A rapidly growing segment of the population, Latin(o)(a)s are a force to be reckoned with, and now that Donald J. Trump has continually demonstrated that he really is an unrestrained bigot preparing to unleash a deportation brigade on a sanctuary city near you, he has lost the support of even the most conservative Hispanic political leaders, and this will spell his doom, and marginal arguments can be made that Latin(o)(a)s can/will be instrumental in his defeat in key swing states like Florida.
Certainly over the last week Latinxs have become central to the narrative of the defeat of Donald J. Trump, validating the Democratic Party’s current strategy of portraying increasing inclusiveness in their coalescing narrative of American exceptionalism. Yet as the center-liberal media relentlessly hammers home the vid-bytes of Trump snarling, Trump and Mexican President Peña Nieto looking like fools at the podium, and even the latest red (hot) herring, #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner guy Marco Gutiérrez, it becomes more and more evident that we are being distracted by nonsense from the serious issues that face Latinxs and Latin Americans alike.
By that I mean, What role has neoliberalism played in the deterioration of conditions for Mexicans north and south of the border? How have US military strategies to control the border and fight the “Drug War” created extreme violence in northern Mexico? Will justice come to the families of the murdered 43 students in the small town of Ayotzinapa? Will police violence continue to be directed against striking teachers unions in places like Oaxaca? Why do both U.S. and Mexican elites ignore the staggering increase of wealth inequality in Mexico, where almost half the country’s wealth is held by the richest 1%? These are questions that might best be directed toward Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but Trump’s circus of the absurd and her own problems with email and Clinton Foundation scandals have made her unavailable for possibly as long as until the first debate towards the end of September.
At the same time, another major issue that should concern Latinxs in the U.S. is the evisceration of democracy in the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico, set into motion by the odious piece of legislation known as PROMESA, which mandates a fiscal oversight board composed of 4 Republicans and 3 Democrats with virtually complete control of the island’s economic and by extension political affairs. President Obama named the board earlier this week (the same day as Trump’s disastrous visit to El D.F.), and it’s already being criticized because of the unsavory nature of three of its members. Obama actually only appointed one member–he approved the other members as nominated by Congressional Republicans and Democrats.
The three Republican appointees who have been singled out for objection are Carlos M. García, who was previously a Government Development Bank head under former governor Luis Fortuño, who not only added vastly to the debt by accelerating the government’s reckless bond sales, and helped to worsen the economy through a previous version of austerity that involved laying off 20,00 government workers; José Carrión, who is resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi’s brother-in-law, and whose sister (Pierluisi’s wife) runs a consulting firm that is involved with Puerto Rico bondholders; and Andrew Biggs, an American Enterprise Institute scholar whose main claim to fame was helping devise ways to turn Social Security into a kind of privatized 401K system for George W. Bush’s administration policy.
While some local Puerto Rican politicians have threatened to formally protest the naming of these three, there seems to be little that they can do about it, and the repercussions of the naming and implementation of the board have not really been felt yet. There are widespread rumblings of distaste for and strong expressions of anger against the board, but there is also a kind of haze of uneasiness and wary acceptance evident among the people, and it’s clear that they are not fully aware of what is about to happen. This could be because island Puerto Ricans have at least subliminally known that they have only had limited control over their political affairs anyway, and the PROMESA era appears merely to be some new phase of the 500-year colonial doldrums that have blunted a fully formed sense of self-efficacy, at least in the political sphere.
Listening to this broadcast of “Puerto Crítico” on Bonita Radio featuring Carlos Pabón and Argeo Quiñones (hosted by Juan Carlos Rivera Ramos and Miguel Rodríguez Casellas) this morning really helped tease out some of the issues involved in Puerto Rico, and Latin America and the world in general. The naming of several PROMESA board members of Puerto Rican or Latinx ancestry was designed to deflect criticism of the potential lack of Puerto Rican representation on the board. Yet it reveals how the colonial mode continues to operate through the selection of Puerto Rican elites who have cooperated with the conservative tendencies in the financial sector in the past and do not represent the interests of the Puerto Rican people.
(The implications raised by those named by Democrats–Arthur González, a senior fellow at New York University’s School of Law and former Chief Judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York; Jose Ramón González, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York; and Ana Matosantos, who served as California’s budget director from 2009 to 2013–have not yet been analyzed or revealed, but their strong ties to the financial sector and lack of direct involvement with Puerto Rico on an economic or political level is concerning.)
Pabón makes some great points: After decades of not being critiqued in a serious way (outside of a dedicated core of leftists), neoliberalism is beginning to show a lot of cracks, and unfortunately the dominant responses to those cracks seem to becoming from the far right. The Brexit phenomenon and the Trump candidacy got a lot of traction from working people’s marginalization by neoliberalism, but did so by appealing to racist and nationalist sentiment, which is natural since globalization threatens national identity. Yet at the same moment that neoliberalism is reeling from a crisis in confidence, as well as its inability to stem the growing problem of wealth inequality, the U.S. has chosen to impose one of the most direct and undemocratic neoliberal projects ever on Puerto Rico.
In some ways this reminds me of some of my youthful summers in Puerto Rico, when I’d go to a store to buy soda and find cans of Fresca, or Tab, discontinued brands that were dumped on the island for second-rate consumer-citizens. Puerto Rico has always been a laboratory for biological, social, and economic experimentation, but it is also a repository of failed commodity or ideological production. Social security privatization is laughed out with the Bush administration, let’s bring it to Puerto Rico…Scott Walker’s extreme austerity attempts deflected in Wisconsin–not too late to try it again on these less-than-citizens. And what is the motivation for this? To make sure that the muni-bond market isn’t disrupted and the states or non-bankruptcy protected entities that run up massive unplayable debts realize what their fate will soon be. And, of course, so that all those vulture fund guys can own half of El Condado and have new branded cocktails named after them.
In a sense the PROMESA board, or La Junta, which is what isleños call it, is a takeover of elected government by finance-sector technocrats. As Pabón says, it is part of normalizing the taking away of political power from the people and obliterating democratic spaces. According to Pabón, outside of the noisy protests held Wednesday at a conference held at the Condado Plaza for the business sector, La Junta has been largely met with a strange brew of applause and indifference, as if there was a chilling inevitability to it.
As Quiñones observes, the board represents a daunting reality that the same people who caused the crisis are now going to take their shot at fixing it. While former governor Fortuño quickly announced to the press that he had no hand in lobbying for García or Carrión, in a way it doesn’t matter. One of Fortuño’s confidantes in devising his economic strategy was conservative economist Douglas Holz Eakin, who apparently had a hand in the PROMESA bill–it’s more about the methodology or ideology they represent than who recommended who. Quiñones also points out significantly that there is going to be no analysis of what caused the crisis or who benefitted from it. Puerto Rico needs a Truth Commission about its colonial disaster. One that names names. But instead it’s left with this board, which is just going to be “a more efficient form of exploitation.”
So where do we go from here? Pabón insists that there is a positive aspect to all of this that needs to be seized on. That is, that at this moment a growing number of Puerto Ricans now perceive both of the colonial political parties (one of whom favors the current status–whose semi-autonomous aspect has been designated to the dustbin of history–the other, statehood–which will never be supported by the Congress that passed this bill, with the help of key Democratic support) to be corrupt and ineffectual. What needs to be done is use that perception to drive a movement for change–independence?–rather than yield to the colonial mentality that Puerto Ricans are incapable of running their own affairs and needs a board of finance-sector people to decide everything.
The above comments, made Wednesday by Puerto Rican economist Antonio Fernós Sagebién at the Condado Plaza Promesa Conference, demonstrate such a colonial mentality, even if disguised as an argument of the superiority of financial thinking over political thinking. Fernós was not simply saying that “Puerto Ricans are slow” as my much-retweeted tweet implied a couple of days ago. He was saying that the unwieldy nature of the false politics created by the island’s colonial reality has created a natural state of slowness in the government or economic planner’s actions. Yet not only is this another argument that justifies the displacement of democracy by finance-sector “experts,” it reeks of the all-too-familiar self-deprecation of Puerto Ricans with colonized minds. When he said “somos slow by habit y by nature,” he was effectively pushing the colonized buttons that we have to work so hard to move past, and creating that perfect justification for the imposition of this board to restore “order.”
This is why it’s important to believe there is potentially an opportunity in this situation–what needs to be replaced is not the island’s democratic system of government but a colonial politics that turns on options for political status that were never taken seriously by Washington. Not only did the actions of the demonstrators, who five years ago had predicted the onset of this situation, seem more in tune with the people than ever, but even watching the gubernatorial debate last night, you could begin to see how the rhetoric of candidates like Rafael Bernabe of the emerging Working Peoples Party and María de Lourdes Santiago of the ripe-for-change Independence Party, were beginning to show the promise of being a mainstream narrative in Puerto Rico.
Pabón said correctly that things come late to Puerto Rico–in this case the imposition of the Chilean experiment of the 1970s. But in an important way, Puerto Rico is ahead of the curve–it’s seeing how the American two-party system is a charade and does not represent their interests. Rather than being swayed by American exceptionalism, it sees the blatant hypocrisy of the U.S.’s “exporting of democracy.”
It’s easy to be held in the thrall of being revulsed by Trump, and claim the moral high ground that is obvious to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of what it means to have humanity. But what continues to go under the radar is that, not only is Mexico convulsing in a NAFTA-made, life-threatening paroxysm that has exacerbated previously existing flaws in its politics, there is a growing mass of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million second-class American citizens who are increasingly aware that the emperor, no matter which one is elected, has no clothes.