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America's Colonialist Relationship with Puerto Rico

by Ben Kharakh 4 years ago in corruption

The US treats its largest and most populous unincorporated territory as second-class; that's just what America's Colonialist Relationship with Puerto Rico looks like.

Politicians are in league with corporations hellbent on destroying an entire American territory. High unemployment, high poverty, austerity measures, natural disaster, and an unwieldy amount of debt: it sounds like something an evil cabal would admit to in an 80s action movie right before the team of Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone blow the whole place up. But year after year, such justice doesn't come. And, unfortunately, too few Americans care because that territory is Puerto Rico.

The USA waves its false flag of liberation and enlightenment only to trap people in a cycle of debt from which escape is near impossible. That's the nature of America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, PR remains a powerful testament to the beauty, dignity, and power of the human spirit despite rather than because of the USA.

The Island's history is the history of the United States. All Americans must learn to truly appreciate what America has been and what it has the ability to become. So long as America doesn't do right by Puerto Rico, the USA will remain a garbage person who you shouldn't even trust to spend the night on your couch. "Hey, someone ate all the leftover pizza in the fridge." "Yeah, that was me, America. I also wet myself in my sleep. But you can just turn these cushions over. Aww, man, my piss went through to the other side. I'll give you an IOU on a new couch." That couch never comes and people get used to the stain. That's just America's way.

The Spanish American War

America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico begins with unrest in the Caribbean. America's involvement in Cuba's bid for independence from Spain was seemingly precipitated by the explosion of the USS Maine. The naval vessel was the Chinese Democracy of its time. It took so long for the ship to hit the seas thanks to its protracted construction, that by the time it was actually out on the ocean, it was as bloated as Axl Rose. The vessel was sent to Havana Harbor to protect U.S. interests. Then it exploded seemingly without provocation, killing nearly 75% of the crew.

The cause of the explosion was unknown even after an investigation, although plenty of experts thought it was a spontaneous combustion caused by the poor design of the ship itself. But by that point, it didn't matter. Thanks to "Yellow Journalism," the click-bait propaganda of its time, and public pressure, politicians forced the US to enter the war in 1898. After 10 weeks of fighting, Spain sued for peace. Two months later, The Treaty of Paris was signed, giving the United States control of the Spanish colonies of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines; Cuba became a US protectorate.

The Philippines objected to the terms of The Treaty of Paris, setting the stage for the Philippine–American War. The conflict lasted from 1899 to 1902 and saw America really bring its A game—that's atrocity game. If you didn't know that America was a bad actor on the global stage, you're about to find out now!

There were roughly 20,000 Filipino soldiers killed, and at least 200,000 civilians died during the war (some estimates are as high as 1.5 mil). There were concentration camps filled to max capacity, rampant illness, torture, and executions without trial. Insurgencies continued after the war's end until 1913, with Americans adding to their legacy of brutality. During the First Battle of Bud Dajo, fought against the Moro Muslim minority population, only 6 out of 1,000 Moros survived, earning this battle the more apt name of "Moro Crater Massacre." Hey, guess what, America is often the villain!

Early Occupation of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, which means that citizens can visit the rest of the US but they don't get equal representation in Congress. PR does, however, get subjected to unequal treatment. The project of “Americanizing” Puerto Rico began quickly. What that means is that elites began to govern the island and set the stage for pillaging its resources.

Charles Herbert Allen, for example, governed Puerto Rico from 1900 to 1901. In that time, he installed over 600 American expats into the Puerto Rican government. Then, once his year was up, Allen got to work on setting up a sugar company that, thanks to Allen’s connections, ended up controlling 98% of the sugar on the island. That company is today known as Domino Sugar. Hey, Charles Herbert Allen? Feel free to eat the wildflowers that you shouldn't eat!

In Puerto Rico, the government and corporations continue to work together to this day to funnel money away from the people and into the coffers of powerful elites. That's just what America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico looks like. This practice was there from the very beginning.

As Nelson Antonio Denis, author of War Against All Puerto Ricans, explains, in 1889, the US devalued the peso to 60%, and in 1901 passed the Hollander Act, which was a tax hike on every farmer. Farmers, strapped for cash, began to take out loans from US financial institutions with despicably high rates, which led to widespread defaults. Foreign investors than scooped up everything that was left over. The only consolation is that when the whole world plunges into The Road that not even their money will protect elites from flesh-eating scavengers. I don't remember any rich people in that book!

To top it all off, English was imposed as the language of education, which caused many to drop out. In 1899 the island’s name, which means “rich port” in Spanish, was changed to Porto Rico until 1932. 1899 was also when America began dictating the terms of all the island’s economic ties with other nations. All the while, Puerto Rico was forced to interact with politicians just as bigoted as President Sex Criminal. Maybe we do deserve Slenderman!

US Citizenship

In March of 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship. Two months later, President Woodrow Wilson instituted a draft, which meant that roughly 20,000 Puerto Ricans were forced to serve in World War 1.

Puerto Ricans were subjected to discrimination by the US military, and Puerto Ricans of African descent were made to serve in all black units. The Puerto Rican Infantry, also known as Borinqueneers, suffered disproportionate casualties because they were often placed on the front lines. Nonetheless, they served with great distinction and in 2016 received the Congressional Gold Medal.

The first shots of the first World War were actually fired in Puerto Rico when a German ship attempt to leave a port to provide supplies to other German vessels. It was stopped with gunfire, which was returned; the ship was eventually boarded by US forces who confiscated the ship's supplies.

After the war, the Puerto Rican Regiment became the 65th Infantry Regiment, which would serve in WW2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War. This long history was the subject of the documentary The Borinqueneers, which aired on PBS in 2011.


America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico meant that the US Government felt free to use Puerto Rico as a policy laboratory. This was motivated by the fear that poor nations were susceptible to Communist influence. This series of experiments in Puerto Rico was dubbed "Operation Bootstrap." Chief among these experiments was the sterilization of Puerto Rican women.

Many of these sterilization were expressions of well-informed women making their own decisions; many others, however, were coerced by an ideology that hypersexualized Puerto Rican women and blamed them for their own poverty. And while the issue continues to be debated to this day, the numbers themselves are clear: in 1955 16.5% of Puerto Rican women were sterilized and a decade later that number was 34%. Women of Puerto Rican descent, both in PR and in the US, were 10 times more likely to undergo sterilization, which makes it easy to infer the influence of systemic bias.

It's also easy to infer the influence of systemic bias because we're talking about America. Have you seen the news?! Are you familiar with America's rich tradition of white supremacist lingo and conspiracy theories?! Do you need help understanding men's rights activists and their lingo or did you just look around the USA and figure it out real quick? Yeah, USA! USA! USA!

Medical Experimentation

Between the 1950s and 1970s, human radiation experiments were conducted on Puerto Rican prisoners without their consent by American scientists. Wow. Whelp. Shut down America, I guess, right? Enjoy falling down this Wikipedia rabbit hole of yet another reason why the US has no moral authority whatsoever thanks to unethical human experimentation in the United States.

It's truly perverse that someone would even think America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico permits medical experimentation. Dr. Mengele would nudge Hitler over this stuff and say, "Hey, these Americans have some good ideas!" And then Hitler would say, "Sure, but one drop of black blood making you black is too much! Let's just stick to one Jewish grandparent making you Jewish. Tone it down, America! Oh, have you not read how U.S. law inspired the Nazis? Well, I'm Hitler and I'm telling you to check it out!"


Inhabitants of the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, are more likely to die of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer than residents of Puerto Rico and the mainland US. Meanwhile, beginning in 1948, the US military would regularly test its bombs on the island until 2003. Additionally, the island is home to over 22 million pounds of military and industrial waste. This is basically just another form of Mengele level medical experimentation deemed permissible given America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico. "My ears are burning!" says Dr. Mengele! Mengele loves it when you talk about him. He's a real ham!

Unfortunately, the US military still owns the bases on Vieques and, as a result, scientists are forced to make inferences as to what the causes of the increased illnesses are because the US is just not being as cooperative as it could be, especially given the stakes. And without a causal link between the increased rates of disease and the military presence, the US will simply not provide medical care and Vieques will remainPuerto Rico's invisible health crisis.

Offshore Banking

Act No. 22 sounds like a short story by Kafka wherein the protagonist is driven to madness by an indifferent bureaucracy that exists only to turn human labour into fuel for the bureaucracy. In a way, that's exactly what it is. This innocuous sounding name belongs to a law meant to attract wealthy individuals to the island by allowing them to not pay income taxes on all dividends, interest, and capital gains.

All the wealthy have to do is spend 183 nights a year in Puerto Rico. These wealthy individuals can afford to build hurricane proof mansions while the rest of the island is decimated by mega-storms. Meanwhile, the equally harmless sounding Act No. 20 taxes corporate profits at 4% while allowing dividends paid from profits to be 100% tax-exempt to individuals. As is always the case, tax breaks for the wealthy have not made things easier for anybody else. But that's just the nature of America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico.

The Jones Act

Since 1920, The Merchant Marine Act, also known as The Jones Act, has been one of the most delicious pieces of protectionist legislation crafted by the United States. It states that if a ship is transporting goods between US ports that it be US owned and manned mostly by Americans. So Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens, have the pleasure of not being able to vote for President but do have the pleasure of being at the mercy of US manned ships when they are waiting for precious resources in the aftermath of the 1-2 punch that was Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. Thankfully, The Worst of Us waived The Jones Act for 10 days. JK; that was far from enough and people died while waiting.

The Jones Act is responsible for the insane mark up on so many goods sold on the Island. There are more Walmarts and Walgreens per square mile on Puerto Rico than anywhere else in the world, which sounds like a detail from the short-fiction of George Saunders but is actually the consequence of how the government of PR is forced to operate within an exploitative tax-framework imposed by the United States. LOL! Puerto Rico often sets record sales for new franchises. There's no better way to show gratitude for America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico!

National Debt

In 2015, Puerto Rico's Governor Alejandro García Padilla said that his government simply could not repay PR's billions of dollars in debt. This sentiment was echoed in 2018 when Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rosselló said that it won't be until 2022 that the island would have any money to start paying back its debt.

Of course, this debt is very much the result of economic policies meant to suck the island dry of its resources. Remember, it's "America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico"; not "America's egalitarian relationship with Puerto Rico." Even the hurricanes themselves and the larger lack of action on climate change may be seen as another way to make money. As Yarimar Bonilla rhetorically asked in The Washington Post, "Why would anyone in Puerto Rico want a hurricane? Because someone will get rich."

This isn’t even the first time the island has been ravaged by a storm in this way. In 1899, San Ciriaco caused destruction comparable to Hurricane Maria. The US is quick to take but slow to give, so aid was very slow to arrive from America. Around 5,000 Puerto Ricans left the island to seek employment elsewhere in the same way many are leaving now. Unfortunately, even before the Hurricane, it was accurate to say that Puerto Rico's debt crisis claims another casualty: its schools.

Poverty in Puerto Rico is at 44.9%, and in October of 2017 the unemployment rate was 12%. Yet the government continues to impose austerity measures and a 7-person panel was established by Obama to help manage Puerto Rico's debt thanks to the passage of The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). Rather than invest in the island, the panel chooses to focus on repaying debts.

Known as "La Junta" to many on the island, the panel has not proven to be popular. In 2018, the New York Times reported that May Day protest in Puerto Rico over austerity measures ended in tear gas thanks to police. Because, you know, when you're on the side of the people you douse them with tear gas. It's good for the skin!

Hurricane Maria

All that takes us to where Puerto Rico is now. Not much has changed since the beginning. America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico is primarily written by bigotry that sees Puerto Rico as just another avenue to wealth. The hurricane has left the island decimated and it will take years to rebuild.

Recovery for PR is not a "good news story," as acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said in September of 2017. Duke's misinformed and offensive proclamation prompted Carmen Yulín Cruz, San Juan mayor to say, incredulously, "Dammit, this is not a good news story....This is a 'people are dying' story." Puerto Rico's recovery continues to not be a good news story. Even eight months after the winds settled, there are still blackouts because the underlying infrastructure is in dire need of repair. 5 of the Island's 16 major dams have not been inspected since 2013, and one hasn't been looked at since 2012. It's just a recipe for inevitable disaster.

Meanwhile, a recent survey by Morning Consult revealed nearly half of Americans don't know Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens. This gets at the core of what's wrong with a lot of Americans (and more particularly the "white moderates" identified by Martin Luther King—those who stand by the sidelines and just let immoral acts occur). If you asked them if they're worried about climate change or discriminatory policies meant to exploit and destroy, even if they believed in these things, they'll talk about the future as opposed to the recent past or present. Now, just as before, these problems exist in Puerto Rico and beyond.

A People Ignored

Puerto Rico gave the world salsa, piña coladas, and some of the best coffee around. It's an archipelago full of natural beauty, and its people have a rich culture and history. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Lopez, and Aubrey Plaza are just some of the actors from the island that provide joy to millions.

Unfortunately, too many Americans only ever think of Puerto Rico when it's struck by tragedy. If they took the time to celebrate Puerto Rico more, they might find themselves compelled to help their fellow Americans more as well. Then the right choice may emerge as the choice the USA actually makes: to invest less in the debtors who wish to bleed the island dry and more into the people who call the Island their home.

Changing America's colonialist relationship with Puerto Rico would mean providing reparations for over a century of exploitation, neglect, and the psychological trauma of colonization. And while America has yet to provide the same treatment for its black or Native American citizenry, it doesn't mean that it can't or won't. The struggle is in getting America to do the right thing; it's a struggle that belongs to us all. It's in struggle that right and wrong, heroes and villains are identified. Don't make the choices that will merit Slenderman reigning over America.


Ben Kharakh

Manic pixie dream goth. With appearances in Fortune, Vice, Gothamist, and McSweeney's.@benkharakh

Read next: The 8th Amendment

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