Puerto Rico: 120 Years of Imperialist Exploitation and Oppression

October 2, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


In 1898, U.S. military forces invaded and occupied Puerto Rico as part of the Spanish-American War. The victory over Spain established the U.S. as the unquestioned major power in the Caribbean and much of South America (and its seizure of the Philippines positioned it as a power in the Pacific and Asia).

The U.S., the self-proclaimed champion of “freedom and democracy,” denied the people of Puerto Rico the right to self-determination. It has continued to do that to this day.

“Waging War” on Puerto Rican People

The U.S. military outlawed the use of Spanish in schools and other institutions. It banned the national flag of Puerto Rico and jailed anyone caught displaying it. It appointed U.S. residents to be the governors and police chiefs and repeatedly carried out savage repression of students and others demanding Puerto Rican independence.

One notorious example: the Rio Piedras Massacre in 1935. University of Puerto Rico students called a meeting to discuss the program of the Nationalist Party, led by Pedro Albizu Campos. Heavily armed police surrounded the meeting place and commandeered a car with Nationalist Party leaders trying to get to it. They shot up the car and the surrounding area, murdering five people. A funeral for the murdered youths was attended by 8,000 people and addressed by Campos, who accused the governor and police chief of “deliberately murdering” the five. Police chief Francis Riggs responded by telling several newspapers he was prepared to wage “war to the death against all Puerto Ricans.”

In 1937, the U.S. governor instructed a new police chief to prevent contingents of students, cadets, and nurses from holding a permitted demonstration for independence in the city of Ponce. Marchers set off as a band played “La Borinqueña,” the anthem of Puerto Rico. Over 200 police armed with machine guns and rifles opened fire. According to one account, the police “shot a young girl in the back as she ran to a nearby church. They shot a man on his way home ... They split a fruit vendor’s head in two...”  Seventeen people were murdered and over 200 seriously wounded in the Ponce Massacre.

Pedro Albizu Campos, who fought courageously for decades for Puerto Rico’s independence and was the spokesperson for the Puerto Rican Independence Party, was imprisoned for 26 years by the U.S. He was repeatedly tortured and brutalized by prison authorities and died shortly after he was released from his last imprisonment in 1965.

In 1948, in the face of a growing movement for independence, the U.S.-appointed governor of Puerto Rico signed a law making it a crime to own or display a Puerto Rican flag, to sing a patriotic Puerto Rican song, to speak or write of independence, or to meet with anyone or hold any assembly in favor of Puerto Rican independence. This law remained in force until 1957.

A Century of Impoverishment and Dislocation

U.S. imperialism has subjected Puerto Rico to a distorted, lopsided development serving the interests of U.S. capitalism-imperialism, not the needs of the Puerto Rican people.

  • U.S. corporations bought up the best land and forced many small farmers to work on tobacco, coffee, and sugar plantations. In the 1930s they were paid an average of 12 cents a day for themselves and every member of their family. Thousands of people were forced into the slums of San Juan.
  • “Operation Bootstrap” developed U.S.-owned industries that assembled plastic and metal articles for sale in the U.S. People worked long hours at wages well below U.S. rates at these jobs—and far from “providing jobs,” the number of employed people on the island declined.
  • Women working out of their homes in needle trades were the largest single source of “industrial” employment in Puerto Rico in the 1930s, ’40s, and early ’50s. Tens of thousands of women, often with assistance from their children and occasionally their husbands, toiled at 1 to 4 cents an hour producing clothing sent to the U.S. and Europe.

Beginning in the late 1960s, pharmaceutical manufacturing giants like Bristol Myers and Eli Lilly moved into Puerto Rico. They were given lucrative federal tax incentives to set up plants on the island. Again, workers were paid less than in similar jobs in the U.S. But even here employment shrunk beginning in 2006, as these corporations sought greater profits elsewhere.

The dislocation and impoverishment capitalism-imperialism inflicted on so many people compelled “the Great Migration” from Puerto Rico, beginning and gaining intensity in the 1950s. The population of people from Puerto Rico soared in mainland U.S. cities, where people were subjected to harsh repression from the police and other authorities, forced to live in overcrowded slums, and ridiculed for their language and culture.

Generation after generation, millions of Puerto Rican people have created enormous wealth for U.S. imperialism. The imperialists have used this to make further profits all around the world while impoverishing the Puerto Rican people, who have been left with an economy that has been utterly devastated. It is complete and utter bullshit when anyone, especially the fascist Donald Trump, accuses the people of Puerto Rico of wanting “everything to be done for them.”

An imperialist-created crisis has been engulfing Puerto Rico for several years before Hurricane Maria hit. Like vultures fighting over a carcass, parasitic U.S.-based hedge funds have been scrambling to bleed the country in what the media and political leaders call Puerto Rico’s “debt crisis.” The crisis has been the suffering inflicted on the people of this beautiful island.

Hundreds of thousands of people—out of a population of 3.5 million—have been forced to leave Puerto Rico to try to find a living in the U.S. This includes many doctors and health care professionals. Speaking of the cuts in health care, the chairman of the Puerto Rico Healthcare Crisis Coalition said, “These are a cascade of cuts that will have disastrous, gigantic implications... Health care in Puerto Rico is headed for a collapse.” This was well before the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

About 60 percent of the workforce was unemployed before Maria. The majority of those employed did not have full time jobs. With most farmers driven from the land, 85 percent of the food in Puerto Rico must be imported.

Utility bills in Puerto Rico average more than twice the cost in the U.S. Soaring utility costs impact the cost of everything, in particular the ability of basic people to survive and obtain lighting, transportation, water, and other life necessities. Some communities in San Juan do not have even a basic sewage system. One woman said that in her neighborhood, when it rains, water flows into a canal and wastewater backflows into the pipes carrying drinking water, and even floods into their homes. “What keeps impacting us is the problem of polluted water ... our children have to put their feet in polluted water....”

Eighty-four percent of Puerto Rican children grow up in impoverished communities. Cutbacks in funding for schools and public health, and steep reduction of all government services, have resulted in the closing of dozens of schools; deep funding slashes have crippled public higher education.


Ending the Nightmare of Oppression

This nightmare of exploitation and oppression will finally end when the imperialist chains that shackle Puerto Rico are shattered through revolutionary struggle. There is a proud history of resistance of the Puerto Rican people—on the island and in this country. One of the high points in this struggle was the courageous and bold struggles in the 1960s by the Young Lords Party within the U.S. This fighting spirit and struggle needs to be revived, and taken much further—into a fight for revolution based on Bob Avakian’s new synthesis of communism.

Right now is one of those rare times when the media and politicians in the U.S. are actually talking about Puerto Rico—and the real truth about Puerto Rico and the possibilities for great advance in overcoming oppression in today’s situation must be made known as widely as possible in all society. On this scientific basis, support for the struggle of the Puerto Rican people to break the imperialist chains must be built as a part of building the movement for revolution—and with the seizure of power the hold of the U.S. on Puerto Rico will be broken.

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, authored by Bob Avakian, explains how the future socialist society will view and relate to the nation of Puerto Rico:

The Nation of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans Within the New Socialist Republic in North America.

  1. Puerto Rico and its people were subjected to brutal conquest and domination—first by the Spanish Conquistadors and then by U.S. imperialism, forcibly seizing Puerto Rico at the end of the 19th century—with devastating and even genocidal consequences for the first inhabitants of the island and then the enslaving exploitation of others. Through this process, however, a Puerto Rican nation was forged on that island territory, even as Puerto Rico itself continued to be held as a colonial possession of the imperialist United States of America. As a result of the revolution which brought into being the New Socialist Republic in North America, the hold of U.S. imperialism over Puerto Rico has been broken, and the New Socialist Republic in North America recognizes the independence and right of self-determination of the nation of Puerto Rico. At the same time, the New Socialist Republic in North America works to develop relations with the nation of Puerto Rico on the basis of the internationalist orientation and other principles and objectives set forth in this Constitution, and remains open to the possibility of a union with the nation of Puerto Rico, in a larger socialist state, on this basis.
  2. With regard to Puerto Ricans within the territory of the New Socialist Republic in North America, the principles and policies that apply to minority nationalities which were oppressed and discriminated against in the imperialist USA shall be applied, including the right to the establishment of autonomous areas in cities and other places where there are significant numbers of Puerto Ricans.



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