Puerto Rico: the working class can defeat La Junta

After ten days of stormy mass protests and a general strike that brought the whole island to a standstill, the hated Puerto Rico governor Roselló was forced to resign. As the slogans on the streets are saying: “No renunció el pueblo lo sacó” (“he didn’t resign, the people kicked him out”). This is a first and very significant victory of the mass movement, which now wants to overthrow La Junta itself.

The defeat of Roselló by the mass movement in the streets is an extremely significant development. With it, Puerto Rico joins the ranks of the mass uprisings we have witnessed in recent years across the globe. This will also have an impact in the US. The obvious conclusion is: in order to remove Trump, what is needed is a mass movement in the streets and a general strike.

On 22 July, CNN journalist Leyla Santiago tweeted a photo of a sea-green freight container in the tow of an eighteen-wheeler semi truck. More trucks stood parked behind the container as workers waving the flag of Puerto Rico surrounded the vehicles, shutting down major highways of the capital city. Santiago captioned his photograph: “Container shows up. Protestors say it’s ready to ship the governor out.” Another CNN journalist interviewed protestor Leishka Flores, who explained: "We are tired of the abuse, of so many years of corruption. We are here to make a revolution."

Recent days have fallen like an avalanche on the political ambitions of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. The power of the working class has brought Mr. Ricky to his knees.

Mr Ricky thrown out by the masses

Rosselló, like those before him, can hardly be accused of shirking his responsibilities as Governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. He has diligently seen to the essential functioning of this “unincorporated territory” of the United States, namely, the around-the-clock transfer of wealth from the boricua workers and poor to the real masters of the island — its creditors and the behemoth of US imperialism they personify.

Pursuant to his responsibilities, Rosselló speaks in the language and dialect of his constituents, i.e., the language of the capitalists who ransack the island and rob classrooms from children. As revealed in the recent leak of messages between Rosselló and his inner circle, this is a language of sneering bigotry, brazen graft and corruption, violent fantasies, and sheer contempt for the victims of austerity. In chat logs, his financial czar described the teachers’ union as “terrorists” and said he was “salivating” to shoot its leader. Rosselló replied that this would be a “favour” to him. During the nightmare of Hurricane Maria, Rosselló joked about the dead and described their bodies as carrion.

The response has been earth-shaking. An estimated half-million demonstrators swept the streets of San Juan and surrounded the La Fortaleza mansion in siege formation. As demonstrators launched fireworks and threw bottles and cans at the governor’s mansion, police fired tear gas and shotgunned rubber bullets at close range before chasing and clubbing protestors. Fewer than 350,000 people call San Juan home, and on an island of a little more than three million, participants in the city’s Marcha del Pueblo (March of the People) accounted for one-sixth of Puerto Rico’s entire population. They opened a new chapter in history.

President Trump Visits Puerto Rico Image public domainGovernor Ricardo Rosselló was brought to his knees by a mass mobilisation / Image: public domain

On 24 July, Rosselló announced his resignation, following what was, in many ways, a political general strike. The 22 July action would be the largest general strike and one of the largest protests in the history of the United States. Rather than a general strike coming out of the workplaces, this was a spontaneous national stoppage affecting all sections of society, with no clear working-class leadership by organised labour or a working-class party.

There are many parallels to the 2018 huelga feminista (“feminist strike”) in Spain. In Spain, the action was called by feminist organisations, and some even argued that men should not participate. Fortunately, male workers joined their sisters in the streets and the working class blackened the eye of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who stepped down months later. In both Spain and Puerto Rico, general strikes with political and economic demands transformed the country but were not credited as general strikes. In Spain, some unions had officially called a general strike beforehand to give legal cover to the action’s participants. In Puerto Rico, however, given the pace and scale of events, no legal cover was necessary, as the labour organisations were unable to keep up and played no leading role.

The pressure and energy of the mass movement have created a vacuum and a lead forward is needed. In this context, the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (CFC) stepped forward to call demonstrations. When the message scandal broke, Rosselló was on a cruise ship vacation in Europe. He rushed home to be greeted at the airport by CFC protestors. Ironically enough, Rosselló had mocked a CFC member with a chauvinistic taunt in his now-public messages.

Formed in 2014, the CFC became well-known for its mutual-aid relief efforts after the 2017 hurricanes. The CFC manifesto describes a mission of “radicalizing the struggle and political action against the [PROMESA] Junta and its austerity policies.” It proposed a “general strike” to negotiate with creditors, citing the 2009 French Carribean general strike as an example. The manifesto demanded a series of reforms in healthcare, education, labour rights, union representation, the environment, etc. The manifesto also raised the demand for “self-determination and decolonialization” for Puerto Rico.

Thanks to its influence in the protests, the CFC has received more English news media coverage than any other organisation. In this context, it’s significant that the CFC publicly opposes capitalism. Just as the media won’t refer to the Marcha as a general strike, it unsurprisingly leaves out that the CFC declares itself against capitalism as well as colonialism in the first section of its web pages.

Disappointingly, the CFC has not mentioned its position against capitalism or the right to self-determination in its recent statements and social media posts. Notably, CFC last mentioned capitalism on Facebook on July 8, just before the movement began. These topics are also absent in their New York Times and NPR interviews.

At the beginning of such movements, the masses know what they are against—Rosselló, La Junta, austerity, etc.—but do not yet have a clear idea of what they are fighting for. However, the militancy of the workers should not be underestimated, notwithstanding the broad, multi-class appearance of the surface of the movement. Popular T-shirts depict a hand wearing the Puerto Rico flag dangling a decapitated Rosselló. The viral song by Residente, Bad Bunny, and iLe begins with “Llegó  la hora de un combo de miles en motoras / Patrullando  las veinticuatro horas, boricua de cora / Con el puño arriba, a la conquista” (“The hour has come for thousands on motorcycles / Patrolling twenty-four hours, boricua from the heart / with raised fist, towards conquest.”) It continues: “Le doy fuego a la Fortaleza como se supone / Y al otro día voy a la iglesia pa' que me perdonen” (“I set fire to the governor’s mansion / And the next day I go to church to ask forgiveness.”)

The slogans of the movement are far-reaching and in some ways ahead of the demands of the CFC and other organisations: “Ricky renuncia y llévate a la junta!” (“Ricky resign and take the Junta with you!”); “Dónde está Ricky? Ricky no está aquí. Ricky está vendiendo lo que queda del país.” (“Where is Ricky? Ricky’s not here. Ricky is selling what is left of the country”); and, most significantly: “Esa deuda es ilegal, no la vamos a pagar!” (“The debt is illegal, we’re not going to pay it!”)

Pre-revolutionary situation being prepared

A pre-revolutionary situation is being prepared on the island—which means there is precious little time for the unions as well as socialists to catch up with events and stand at their fore. In uprisings such as these, the first strength of the masses is their spontaneity. No police barricade can block their way, and the regime faces a foe that can be everywhere at all times. But very quickly, the spontaneity of the revolt is transformed into its greatest weakness, and the regime takes advantage of the stalemate to manoeuvre, as La Junta is plotting to now.

"La Junta" refers the PROMESA board created under Obama in 2016 to technocratically administer a “shock doctrine” of looting and austerity to pay Puerto Rico’s creditors. Wanda Vázquez, who is constitutionally slated to become Governor upon Rosselló's stepping down, has announced via Twitter her decision not to accept the job. Instead, she proposes that Rosselló appoint a new successor himself. However, a Rosselló-picked successor will enjoy even less legitimacy than Vázquez, who is already unpopular.

Many schemes will be cooked up in Washington and San Juan to disorient the masses, but the ruling class has a clear perspective, as voiced by a recent Washington Post editorial: “Aggressive law enforcement is an effective antidote in rooting out corruption… A federal oversight board was created by Congress in 2016 to help manage Puerto Rico’s recovery from its debt crisis, but its effectiveness has been hampered. Not only has it been locked in battles with local authorities who have resisted its reforms, but also it doesn’t have authority to ensure operational changes. Congress should take steps to strengthen the board. A good model is the D.C. fiscal control board created in the 1990s that made the hard decisions and effected the structural changes that helped put the city on firm fiscal footing.”

La Junta member David Skeel, Jr. is a seasoned legal warrior for austerity policies in Flint, Detroit, and Atlantic City. A 2016 paper he co-authored reads:

“Deep financial distress is emblematic of the failure of a city’s democratic processes. Displacement of those processes in an effort to restore the financial stability that a well-functioning democracy would pursue arguably is far less problematic than it might be with a city that is already providing the local public goods that localities are created to deliver.”

At the same time, the United States judiciary has imposed a 120-day moratorium on litigation pertaining to Puerto Rico’s debt, which could cause “chaos that I’m trying to tamp down,” as the judge explained. This was welcomed by all legal parties. According to Bloomberg, the lawyer representing La Junta “said that ‘recent events’ on the island haven’t changed the board’s legal positions.”

The endgame of this manoeuvre is clear, as Bloomberg notes:

“The political problems could create an opening for the federal oversight board to consolidate power and impose deeper budget-cutting measures as part of the more than two-year-old bankruptcy. The crisis may undermine opposition to unpopular cuts demanded by the board, by strengthening the view that the government is inefficiently run and rife with overspending, potentially freeing up more money for creditors.”

The imperialists have already estimated how long the masses will give them trouble: two months or so, and then another several weeks until things are back to normal. But 120 days is a long time in these conditions. Clearly, the demands of the #RickyRenuncia movement cannot be achieved under capitalism. The debt will not be nullified. The island will not see a reversal of austerity with reforms that address the social problems of the people. Puerto Rico will not enjoy any basic provisions to prepare against future hurricanes like Irma and Maria, increasingly severe and frequent thanks to climate change. And so, there will be no solution to Puerto Rico’s status as a US “territory” (read: colony). The gangster corruption of the local comprador bourgeoisie and the oppression of women, LGBT people, nonwhites, etc. will also continue unabated.

Which way forward?

In discussing which programme should be advanced in the movement, it is noteworthy to look at the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores (MST), which calls for socialism, revolution, and an independent Puerto Rico. The MST has participated on the streets and struggled against the regime with their class, defending the militancy of the movement and its right to self-defense and explaining the need to “overthrow the dictatorship of capital.” The MST exhorts the masses to rely on their own strength and militancy to go forward in the struggle.

We say this to the comrades of the MST: history provides many examples of revolutionary situations in which small groups can explode in size and play a decisive role. It is urgent and vital to put forward your slogans in the movement and raise the banner of revolutionary socialism high. There should be no barrier between a “minimum program” of day-to-day struggles and the “maximum” aims of socialism, the defeat of imperialism, etc.

Peurto Rico protest 3 Image fair useFor an all-out general strike to defeat La Junta! / Image: fair use

The MST demands the criminal prosecution of Rosselló and a national emergency to be declared to stop violence against women. The CFC also demands that a national emergency be declared. We have a comradely objection to these formulations. Who will preside over the criminal prosecution and under whose jurisdiction? Under whose authority would a national emergency be declared? Puerto Rico’s capitalist state is incapable of meaningfully prosecuting Rosselló or of combating capitalism’s endemic misogynistic violence. No door should be open for bourgeois demagogues to exploit the situation and manoeuvre the repressive forces of the state to “fight corruption” or “fight machismo,” which would be a lie and a dangerous sham. Just look at the farcical “prosecution” of Hosni Mubarak. Only a workers’ state could govern in the interests of the majority.

The responsibility resting on our shoulders is to explain to our class the need to fight chauvinistic violence with revolutionary, working-class methods and the socialist transformation of society. We must clearly state the intrinsic connections between the capitalist system, misogyny, racism, and colonialism—and this must be stated, not only in the abstract, but concretely. The task of socialists is to orient to the masses and in a positive way raise transitional demands to immediately connect their conditions to a revolutionary perspective.

The CFC demands an audit of the debt and “public management,” i.e., a rollback of PROMESA. The MST is more clear in demanding an end to privatisation, regressive taxation, and negotiations with La Junta on the payment of the debt. However, concrete proposals are required for how to stop austerity and the payment of the debt. The workers’ movement should fight for the immediate nullification of the debt accumulated over decades of bone-breaking austerity. Every door must be closed shut to any debt “solution” from the PNP or PPD and their capitalist, colonial state. A sweeping programme of transformative reforms in working conditions, education, healthcare, housing, etc, paid out of the coffers of Wall Street, should be implemented to undo the damage of austerity.

However, there is no solution to the problems of the Puerto Rican people within the limits of the island. And as long as Puerto Rico remains a colony of the US, there can be no hope of ameliorating austerity, corruption, oppression, and chauvinism.

A workers’ state in Puerto Rico would find ready friends among the masses of Haiti, who themselves have experienced a revolutionary upheaval in recent months. The Cuban masses would also respond enthusiastically, as they have every interest in stopping the market “reforms” currently flooding Cuba. Only Cuba has successfully withstood decades of imperialist encroachment, another small island which was in all but name a possession of the generals and gangster businessmen in New York, Washington, and Miami. The imperialists have not forgotten the Bay of Pigs and neither should we.

A new chapter for Puerto Rico!

Ultimately, a revolutionary movement on the island would need to be extended throughout the region in order to assure its conquests are not rolled back. A class appeal can be issued offering a vista of universal healthcare, free education from the cradle to the grave, a 20-hour workweek with no loss of pay, and more. In the Bronx, Chicago, Miami, and elsewhere, boricua workers have a key role to play in the revolution on the mainland itself. Today socialism holds unprecedented popularity in the United States. In 2018, Puerto Rico’s teachers foreshadowed a wave of teachers’ strikes in the United States. In the same way boricua workers can put the socialist revolution on the agenda in the belly of the beast.

La Junta’s manoeuvres are clear as day and the masses have only just begun to move. A new chapter is open, but only the first lines are written. On their own initiative, ordinary workers have placed a “before” and “after” point in the island’s history, and they are ready to fight Rosselló's successor, the creditors, La Junta, and the capitalist system itself.

The unions must mobilise for an all-out general strike until the debt is nullified. Committees of struggle should be set up in every neighbourhood, school and workplace, and these should be linked up by a network of elected delegates throughout the island, to give the movement a democratic leadership that is accountable to the masses. These mass assemblies can organise the defence of the Marcha from bullets, batons, and tear gas⁠—an injury to one is an injury to all!

Independent labour candidates can drive out the PNP and the PPD—the cronies of the debt. Backed by strikes, mass demonstrations, and occupations, the committees of struggle could form the backbone of a socialist Puerto Rico⁠. The working class can topple La Junta, provided they find a leadership that can measure up to the energy and aspirations of the movement.

Workers in the United States should follow events in Puerto Rico closely, organise meetings and demonstrations in solidarity, and take the battle to our own Ricky Rossellós to overthrow La Junta of the Fortune 500 companies and Wall Street.

For an all-out general strike to defeat La Junta and its cronies!

The working class can rely only on its own forces! Form revolutionary committees of struggle linked up across the island!

For the immediate nullification of the debt and a crash programme of social reforms to reverse decades of austerity!

For a Socialist Federation of the Americas—clear out the capitalists and imperialists from San Juan to Manhattan!