The Politics of Survival

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.

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 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…

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