"It Was Never Just About The Chat": Ruminations On A Puerto Rican Revolution

Authored by Miguel Cruz-Diaz via Counterpunch.org,

“In the colonial context there is no truthful behavior. And good is quite simply what hurts them most.”

- Frantz Fanon

“And I say that between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance; that out of all the colonial statutes that have been drawn up, out of all the memoranda that have been dispatched by all the ministries, there could not come a single human value.”

- Aimé Césaire

“Puta”

- Ricardo Rosselló

Let’s get something out of the way quickly: this was never about the goddamned Telegram group chat. The chat messages were the proverbial anvil that fell on the camel and broke its back, drowning the poor dromedary in a cup that runneth over, but it was not the sole reason why Fortaleza Street was on fire a few nights back. Yes, I have no doubt that any mentions about current Puerto Rican woes will focus exclusively on those cursed chat messages. And why is that? Well, simply, put, because it’s much more damned convenient to blame a group chat filled written by privileged men-children with the most reprehensible content imaginable than it is to engage with the more complex reality. This revolt-in-progress is the end product of a simmering anger fed by five centuries of uninterrupted imperialism, free-market disaster capitalism, an imposed dictatorial fiscal control board controlled by the very same people that bankrupted the island, and a storm of the century which was fueled by climate change. Avoiding these small troublesome details allows for the creation of a happier narrative that both conservatives AND liberals can get behind; a nice, convenient way to pretend that whatever the Hell is going on in that dog patch of a shithole island in the middle of all that “big water” has absolutely, positively nothing to do with the good ol’ US of A. It’s all just corrupt brown people with funny sounding names that speak Mexican being stupid.

Now, having written all of that, allow me to learn ya’ somethin’ nice and neat about how this whole mess really got started. This article that you have taken the time to peruse through, dear reader, is a meandering mess, a free-flow rumination on resistance to ruination, and an on-the-fly primer on Puerto Rican revolution, so it would behoove you to not expect a polished exegesis on the intellectual fundamentals of post-colonial resistance designed to impress an academic audience. No, this piece is not intended to be a blow-by-blow replay of how we got here. Think of this piece as a scream against authority. More than a last hoorah about a failed governor, it is but one small part of a particularly loud “fuck you” to one of the worst mass-murderers in the history of my very own and beloved forever colony: Governor Ricardo Rosselló, son of former Governor Pedro Rosselló.

As you’ve seen by now, dear reader, this article will be seasoned with expletives, both my own and my governments’, as well as jubilant dirty words as I celebrate how my people have taken to the streets as one. Seasoning is a Caribbean thing, so please be mindful of its presence. As a famous Internet meme says, we Latino and Caribbean folk keep seasoning until our ancestors tell us to stop, and they have not said a word to me about stopping. On the contrary, our honored departed demand justice. And justice is what this revolution is all about. Justice for the living as well as justice for the dead.

The current upcoming generation of Puerto Ricans has galvanized those that came before in a way never before seen on the island. What musician and up-and-coming founding parent Bad Bunny called the “no more” generation has taken to the streets. Hell, they have taken the streets! And they keep coming back, day after day, beating after beating carried out by cops driven more and more unhinged. They have pushed back the armored thugs of the Puerto Rican Police Department, consistently ranked as the worst and most violent in the United States, as well as its vaunted SWAT teams. Plastic pellets shot at point-blank range and gas canisters purposefully fired into the crowd had little effect on a moving, living sea of outrage and anger other than to piss people off even further.

The sight of the government’s testosterone-and-steroid-filled storm troopers driven back—to see actual terror in their eyes—was an Earth-shattering event for me. I have been face-to-face with these thugs in uniform before, as a student attending the University of Puerto Rico, where it’s almost a sacrament required to confront these beasts every time we would go on strike. State repression on the island is an old story, regardless of the party in power, but more on that later.

If I meander a bit more, dear reader, I do humbly apologize, but I must be frank with you. You see I have barely slept since this whole business with the governor started. “Ah, the chat messages”, you might be tempted to say. Alas, no. What did I just say about the chats? No, if my obsession-driven insomnia were chat-based, then it would have granted me a couple of days of sleep that I did not get. No, I am referring specifically to the arrest-a-thon performed by the (usually hated by me, but for this they get a pass) Federal Bureau of Investigations last week, when they arrested one of Rosselló’s minions: former Secretary of Education, and generally unpleasant person, Julia Keleher.

Keleher, known by many as “the gringa”, is, well, a gringa brought to the island by the opposition party to the one currently in power (remember when I said that it didn’t matter who was in charge? We’ll get back to this in a bit). She was tasked with an “advisory” role in education. In reality, Keleher is cut from the same cloth as Betsy DeVos, another creature of darkness. Keleher was brought to the island with just one goal: to destroy the public schools system and force the adoption of private charter schools, changing the public system into a for-profit one. Dozens of schools were closed and sold off. One, I believe, was sold to one of the reactionary far-right anti-everything churches that favored the incumbent New Progressive Party for one dollar. It was a holiday of corruption, and lo, everyone in power and in Wall Street was merry.

“Ah”, you might be tempted to say, dear reader, “then that means that President Trump was right when he called your government out on its corruption.” Well, let’s play that one by ear, shall we? And oh, joy, it seems like we have reached the obligatory history lesson! Now, now, please, indulge me. I’m a historian by training, so I must bore you at least once per piece, but I’ll try to make it interesting. In order to explain the Puerto Rican government’s corruption problem, I have to explain just what the Hell Puerto Rico is, and that would be a colony.

First, what is colonialism? Well, allow me to attempt a creative example: Imagine that you own a house. Then, one day, someone that is whiter than you because it’s always someone that is whiter than you, walks in one day and says that they own this house because they say so. They’re bigger than you are. If you resist they beat you up. If you don’t resist they beat you up a little less. Then, after they steal your house they wreak its foundations and strip it of every piece of furniture. That nice silverware that grandma left you? Gone. Then, to add insult to injury, imagine that you are forced to pay rent to live in your own house, and when you complain about how messed up the house is they turn around and blame you for it. Then they beat you up again and take away what little you had left. Now, imagine that another set of white dudes comes in, kicks the other white dudes out, and keeps your home for themselves, saying that you now have to pay them rent. Stretch that little drama for five hundred years and that, dear reader, is Puerto Rico’s colonial experience. It is what I grew up with back home, where we are all abused tenants in our own home.

Trump is the new head mobster of the American Empire’s Cosa Nostra, the crew that’s had their boots on our necks since 1898. We cannot make any commercial deals without their consent. We cannot move any goods without using their merchant navy. Once they decided to take away their heavy industries to places where they could pay lower slave wages they did, leaving us without a huge part of our economy. We were granted citizenship in 1917 so that we could be used as cannon fodder during the First World War, but we are unwanted second-class citizens at best. We are reminded of that fact any time we move around the United States. A whisper here, a comment there, and so many dirty looks. We were, are, and always will be unwanted spics. We knew this to be a fact, so we looked inward. We fought amongst ourselves over politics, by design, and drank the status Kool-Aid.

I have used this analogy before, and it bears repeating here. Puerto Rican politics are a three-headed bloated hydra. Each head is a political party. Two of those heads, the Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrático, or PPD) and the New Progressive Party (Partido Nuevo Progresista, or PNP) are roughly the same size. The third head, almost vestigial, is the Puerto Rican Independence Party (Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, or PIP), and it is almost inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. All three parties are tasked with managing the colony and keeping the status quo. To that end they have created a local political class, like in all colonies: a group of collaborators mostly drawn from historically rich families, most powerful attorneys, all career political operatives. Some kingmakers, others no more than useful fools, but all responding to the interests of the elite, regardless of any claims to the contrary. In the past few years a few non-traditional political movements have come into existence here and there, similar to Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, but on a much smaller scale. They are, if anything, small warts on the hydra’s body politic, nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

What is most important about all of this, dear reader, is that all political life on the island is subservient to the needs of maintaining the colonial status quo running smoothly, just like all political activity in the United States is designed around keeping capitalism intact. This is where the wicked genius of the colonial system in Puerto Rico shines: they have convinced the populace that by voting for a particular party they are in fact voting to maintain or alter the current relationship with the United States. As such, loyalty to the party must be unquestioning and absolute. For voters of the party currently in office, the PNP, this means voting for statehood, or permanent incorporation into the union. They have been trying this since there were 48 stars on the American flag. They’re still trying.

Voters of the PPD believe that they are preserving a mythical “estado libre asociado” or “commonwealth”, a nicer word for colony that is somehow a “pact” with the United States, even though we are not, and have never been, equal. Voters of the PIP believe that independence for the island is achievable via the ballot box and respond to a watered-down rhetoric of cultural nationalism. Traditional nationalists, much lower in number than even the PIP voters, do not vote at all in what they consider to be an imposed imperial system, a laudable conclusion. Their rhetoric and heraldry are reminiscent of earlier Twentieth-Century nationalisms, and just as problematic.

At this point, dear reader, you might be asking yourself, “why the info dump?” The reason is obvious: you need to understand how the colony works in order to see how it no longer works.

There are two main reasons as to why the colonial system has broken down so severely recently.

The first was Hurricane María.

Hurricane María made landfall on 20th September 2017. It was a devastating natural disaster made worse by the austerity policies imposed by the dictatorial fiscal control board, a grandiose victory of bipartisanship that essentially sold off what was left of the island to vulture capitalists for the next four decades. Puerto Rico faced the uncertainty of a complete collapse of communications, utilities, and transportation in the storm’s wake. And all of this happened with an incompetent president in the White House and an incompetent governor entrenched in his mansion of La Fortaleza, San Juan, like some overgrown tick. While mainland liberals rediscovered Puerto Rico for a few weeks after Trump’s paper towel-throwing incident, they paid no attention to the island’s Democratically aligned petty tyrant. For weeks Ricardo Rosselló engaged in a public relations campaign. Instead of desperately needed food and water, Puerto Ricans got Rosselló on a helicopter, or Rosselló with a military helmet on, out on the road with the National Guard (even though he never really goes anywhere). Attempts were clumsy and haphazard, FEMA was completely useless, and President Dumbass insisted that it was difficult to move aid to the island because of all the “big water”. The island’s First Lady gifted small handmade candles to the mayors of the municipalities that were hit the worst by the monster hurricane. One candle per municipality, mind you. ONE. Many of these places had been without power for months. Their very public responses were less than delicate.

Nearly five thousand people died after María. Some to suicide, others from preventable illnesses. Some died due to complications from not receiving dialysis treatments. I lost someone because of that. Some people asphyxiated from a lack of oxygen or power. Newborn babies died in hospitals. Some starved, some died of thirst. The old and infirm died in their homes, sometimes alone, sometimes with relatives. Many were buried there, in their backyards. Many more would never be found. To this day both the federal government and the Puerto Rican government are in full denial of the thousands of lives lost. But the dead demand justice.

The second reason for systemic collapse is the recent arrests of Keleher and others of her ilk in charges of conspiracy to defraud as well as a host of other crimes. Keleher was intimately connected to Rosselló and his government. She knew secrets. Widely despised, she resigned earlier this year, then moved back to the United States, where members of the Puerto Rican diaspora occasionally hounded her. She was widely known to be corrupt, but no evidence had been provided. When she was finally arrested it was like a psychic damn had been broken. Elation followed by rage was palpable. How could the government feign ignorance? Ricardo Rosselló’s father, former governor Pedro Rosselló, had presided over the, until recently, most corrupt government in the history of the island. His son has not only carried on the family’s legacy of corruption but also made it his very own, besting his father’s record in every way.

These two things had primed the country towards an explosion. Puerto Ricans had desperately clung to a sense of normalcy after María. They believed that going back to their ways would work, just as it had before. But something was fundamentally broken. The island never felt the same way again. Everything came off as performative, precisely because it was. Beneath a veneer of normalcy stood a stark reality of a permanent state of emergency. It was communal post-traumatic stress disorder. The whole island was in shock.

The text messages broke that shock, and it became incredulity. Incredulity, however, quickly turned into outrage, and then into anger. Once the chat was uncovered Puerto Ricans finally had proof. Proof that what they imagined about their political class was true all along: That the parties played favorites with the local press; that they manipulated news and figures, buried stories, lied every minute of every day; that they made fun of ordinary citizens behind their backs; that they used sexist and homophobic remarks in a sickeningly casual way; that they held democratic institutions in contempt; that they considered themselves above the law. Anger quickly set in.

Then the jokes about the dead surfaced. After María there was no room for the corpses. They were placed in cargo containers, waiting to be processed. It became a national scandal that was clumsily buried by the press, like so many scandals. The hundreds of thousands of pounds of supplies in hidden caches all over the island, and how this life-saving cargo never arrived for mysterious reasons. But the jokes about needing carrion birds to devour the dead, that was the lit match. The chat messages didn’t start this. They primed the fuse. The detonator was Ricardo Rosselló himself, when he refused to step down. Anger gave way to rage, and here we are.

Historically, there has never been a successful revolution in Puerto Rico. Both major attempts in Lares in 1868 and in Jayuya in 1950 ended in failure after fierce repression. This, however, is different. There have been huge marches before, yet there has never been such a monumental shift in Puerto Rican attitudes. After the messages broke, the political class deployed its old weapons of misinformation and partisanship. They bounced off the populace. They then shifted to their old allies in the media, with Rosselló using the very same people singled out in the chat as the government’s stooges to try and sway public opinion. It backfired, and the rest of the press, emboldened by communal rage, has not allowed the Rosselló regime to lie its way out of this situation.

After the first Battle of San Juan this past week, when police attempted to sell the lie, saying that protesters had thrown tear gas canisters at police, the press aggressively pinned them down with a barrage of questions and with photographic and video evidence showing that it was in fact the police that had initiated hostilities. Faced with an enraged press the government took the unbelievable course of action of abruptly calling off their very own press conference. From that point on the regime has known no peace with the press, as the crowds swell up every day. And I choose to call this government a regime, as it has no backing from the people whatsoever. Meanwhile, as the very last survivors of the post-Chatergate purge insist on television that all is normal, the streets overflow with Puerto Rican flags in their normal colors as well as in black and white, the mourning flag, adopted after the fiscal control board took over the island. There is no sign of this momentum stopping. Perhaps for their first time in history, Puerto Ricans have found a voice so loud that even Secretary of State and CIA straw man Mike Pompeo himself was forced to cancel his announced flash visit to the island.

Puerto Ricans have long accepted the imposed opinion, first by the Spaniards and then by the Americans, that they were a peaceful people who abhorred violent confrontation and welcomed authority. It played well during the Cold War, but after Hurricane María Puerto Ricans discovered something about themselves: that they could do anything. Left to rot, they rediscovered community and strength through unity. They realized that, perhaps, the Americans really did not give a damn about them after all. And while they tried to bury that realization behind a comfortable masquerade of normality, it never worked. The spell was broken. The arrests proved that they were indeed living a lie, and the revelations of that Telegram chat proved to be too much. This rage, this new reality, has proven that the Puerto Rican will is strong, fiery, and founded on resistance, and resistance breeds determination. Determination breeds bravery. And when a population that has been crushed for centuries discovers its inner bravery, well, that’s when history is made. As of the writing of this article, there were more than 50,000 people in Old San Juan alone, with countless thousands still flooding towards the old city, and thousands more marching across the island. With the whole country on the move, the governor still refuses to budge. The people are not budging either. So excuse the mess. We’re carrying out a revolution and putting our house back in order. You might get an eviction notice, dear reader. Please, don’t take it personally. This house was never yours to begin with.