ERNIE GOTTA SPEAKS WITH PAUL FIGUEROA

Recently, Miles Taylor, a former leader of the Department of Homeland Security, made accusations regarding President Trump’s remarks about wanting to sell Puerto Rico because it “was dirty and the people were poor.” This type of comment by the president underscores the U.S. government’s abusive colonial attitude to the island. For many generations, way before Trump, the people of Puerto Rico have been exploited, robbed of their resources, and rendered unable to determine their own future.

A massive debt accrued through predatory U.S. financial institutions and management by corrupt politicians tied to Washington have crippled the island’s economy. The U.S. government used the accusation of “mismanagement” as an excuse to impose the PROMESA bill in 2016. U.S. officials took even deeper control of the financial decision-making through a fiscal control board that enforces austerity.

The people of Puerto Rico have shown tremendous resilience despite the added onslaught of natural disasters. Climate catastrophe has been made increasingly devastating for all the above reasons. The struggle for self-determination expressed last year through the mass movement that ousted corrupt sexist and homophobic Governor Ricky Rossello Nevares was only the most recent expression of a profound discontent.

Paul Figueroa, a Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) candidate for city council in San Juan, here discusses the colonial relationship, the demand for a “no” vote on the non-binding statehood referendum, and more:  

Ernie Gotta: Can you discuss the upcoming elections, the controversy around the statehood vote, and primary votes?

Paul Figueroa: Puerto Rico’s two establishment parties, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (NPP) and pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party (PDP) were scheduled to hold their gubernatorial and down ballot primaries on Aug. 9, and I can’t help but emphasize that nearly $1,000,000 was taken out of our government’s COVID Relief Fund to pay for these primaries. Yet many ballots were not printed or delivered on time, inhibiting the public’s voter access, and causing people to wait in line for hours in the middle of the pandemic to get the opportunity to vote. In light of the voting delays, many municipalities shut down their voting centers, and the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled in favor of a second round of primaries on Aug. 16.

The primaries were mired in possible corruption, with NPP nominee Pedro Pierluisi being accused of having illegal communications with the Electoral Commissioner shortly before the primary, and connections with the company hired to print the ballots. The primary’s inefficiency was also partly blamed on the electoral reform law passed by the NPP under Pierluisi’s primary opponent and current governor Wanda Vazquez Garced. The electoral reform was rejected by opposition parties for its potential for election tampering and voter suppression.

Aside from the potential illegalities that may have happened, the message of the primaries was clear, with voter turnout being at a historic low. After the scandals of the Rossello Nevares and Vazquez Garced administrations, the onslaught of FBI arrests of NPP and PDP government officials, legislators, and mayors, people are fed up with establishment politics and looking for new options and radical change.

The NPP, knowing that their position in power is threatened due to their own gross incompetence and corruption, approved $3.2 million for a referendum on “Statehood Yes or No.” This referendum has been rejected by the U.S. federal government, is non-binding, and was only approved for the NPP to turn out its base to assure they win this year’s election. That’s why I am calling on all Puerto Ricans to vote no in the referendum, not only as a rejection of statehood, but as a rejection of government corruption and manipulation, and as a mobilization of a true and binding process of self-determination that includes all status alternatives and does not prioritize one over the other.

EG: You are running for a city council seat in San Juan on a pro-independence and socialist platform. Can you talk about your campaign and the response from workers and students?

PF: This year’s elections come at a critical moment when the failures of capitalism and the United States’ imperial experiment in Puerto Rico are out in the open, and now more than ever we need to use our platform as candidates to push for a viable pro-independence and socialist agenda.

San Juan is experiencing rampant gentrification and displacement of the poor, working, and immigrant classes while poverty increases and wages continue to decrease. We have seen how big banks strangle the working class through deals like COFINA, which will raise taxes on Puerto Ricans over the next 40 years to pay back loans the banks gave the Puerto Rican government at 700% interest rates, while simultaneously lobbying for legislation in favor of and granting loans, property, and investments to American vulture capitalists that a Puerto Rican native could never even dream of obtaining.

In my conversations with workers and students, I see that people are more receptive to change. People are beginning to realize that the failures of the system in place are so great, and our situation is so dire, that we need to take more radical positions moving forward. 

The Puerto Rican Independence Party’s (PIP) ticket of city council candidates, and our candidate for mayor Adrian Gonzalez Costa, propose the following:

  • The Plan LIBRE, which provides for economic development from, for, and by communities by establishing neighborhood economic development led directly by residents of those same communities, opening the door to municipal banking, participatory budgeting, and a sustainable, cooperative economic model that will empower communities and protect them from outside vulture investors that contribute to the gentrification of our communities.
  • I have advocated for rent control laws and greater protections for communities facing gentrification and displacement amid our social and economic crises.
  • The PIP has proposed a universal health care plan for Puerto Rico, and in San Juan has proposed common sense measures to make health care public and accessible to all of our residents before, during, and after the pandemic. 
  • Strategic measures to expand public housing and paths to homeownership, protect green spaces and sites of historical and cultural importance that keep getting displaced, replaced, and exploited by American disaster capitalists.

While the PIP can make progress towards a socialist agenda in San Juan and elsewhere on the island, at the end of the day the root of our problem is our colonial status. The United States currently does not grant us sovereignty over our land rights and economic policies, and U.S. capitalist interests prevent the advancement of socialist policies.

Puerto Rico needs to be able to handle our own affairs, and [that is] why I believe independence is the only viable path forward in Puerto Rico. That being said, it adds to why this referendum is not merely a rejection of statehood, but for people of all political ideologies with respect to status to reject the referendum in favor of a true and binding process of self-determination where Puerto Ricans can take matters into our own hands, and decide our own fate, something that we have shown in the past four years we are ready to do, and is long overdo.

EG: How has the combination of climate disasters like hurricane Maria and the earthquake combined with the COVID-19 and economic crisis shaped the political consciousness of Puerto Ricans today?

PF: The past three years have been years of consciousness building and growing pains for the Puerto Rican people. The gross abandonment of Puerto Rico by the federal government after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the earthquakes, and now COVID-19, and the way citizens and organically forming, grassroot mutual aid movements emerged in the absence of the government, as well as our popular uprising last summer that led to the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello Nevares, has demonstrated to the people the farce of our relationship with the United States, and that self-determination is possible.

EG: What role can Puerto Rican’s living abroad in the diaspora play in the fight for independence?

PF: It sounds a cliché, but Puerto Ricans in the United States can get involved by using their voice and applying political pressure by every means necessary. For 122 years, Puerto Ricans have been advocating for changes to our political status and to decide our own future. The federal government has never felt pressured to move because Puerto Ricans are not truly represented in government and purposefully disenfranchised from the political process.

Since Puerto Ricans in the diaspora can participate more fully in the U.S. political process, they are a critical part in our decolonization process. There are many organizations they can join to become a part of that process and many forms of resistance, but first and foremost, they can call on their leaders to reject non-binding blanket statement plebiscites that will do nothing to decolonize Puerto Rico, and support resolutions for a binding and inclusive process of self-determination for Puerto Rico.   

Illustration by General Strike Graphics