The transcript of Dialogos Radio’s interview with Déborah Berman-Santana, retired professor of Geography and Ethnic Studies at Mills College in Oakland, California, who spoke with us about the economic crisis and long history of colonial subjugation in Puerto Rico and the many similarities which exist with Greece. This interview aired on our broadcasts for the week of October 8-14, 2015. Find the podcast of this interview here.
MN: Joining us today on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series is Déborah Berman-Santana, recently retired professor of Geography and Ethnic Studies at Mills College in Oakland, California, who will speak to us about what has been happening recently in Puerto Rico, economically and politically, and the comparisons that have been made to the situation in Greece. Déborah, welcome to our program today.
DBS: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
MN: To get us started, Puerto Rico is, of course, not an independent or sovereign country, but a colonial territory of the United States. Share with us a brief history of the colonial exploitation, if you will, of Puerto Rico.
DBS: Well, Puerto Rico, along with Cuba, were the last of Spain’s colonies in the Western Hemisphere, and were both on their way to independence. Puerto Rico had an autonomous situation and, on its way, Cuba was of course winning a war against Spain, when the United States intervened in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuba got a conditional independence, and Puerto Rico was outright given to the United States. It was a taken, you might say, war booty, and since then, the United States has enforced various strategies of exploitation of the natural and human resources of Puerto Rico. First with the sugar cane exploitation, then when you get after World War II, actually the world’s first third-world development via export-led industrialization program, known as “Operation Bootstrap,” which went through various phases and always depended on generous exemptions to foreign corporations, mostly U.S. corporations.
In the 1990s, there was a transition to eliminate some of these special exemptions, which was completed in 2006, and of course, with the end of those exemptions, you had a lot of corporations packing up and leaving, and you see a tremendous expansion of big-box corporations such as Walmart. Puerto Rico actually has more Walmarts per square inch than anywhere else in the world, and before that it was the world capital of pharmaceuticals, and as we see, even with that, also beginning a real strong part of Puerto Rico’s current economic crisis. The latest method of exploitation is through the debt and the demands of the creditors, who are now mostly vulture funders, to basically impose the harshest austerity and privatization regime on Puerto Rico, to keep squeezing the orange.
MN: That brings us to today, where we hear Puerto Rico referred to in the press as the “Greece of the Caribbean,” while Greece has also, at times, been referred to as the “Puerto Rico of the Mediterranean.” Describe for us the so-called debt crisis in Puerto Rico as it is manifesting itself today, who is actually responsible for it and what the people are being told about it.
DBS: Well if you look at the media, you will say the government has been spending beyond its means, it has taken on much more debt than it could pay for, and the people of Puerto Rico are simply not industrious enough to make a big profit, and so that has exacerbated the crisis that we have got, we have very expensive first-world tastes but third-world pockets, and now we have to take some “bitter medicine,” or medicina madriga, as we say in Puerto Rico. But if you actually look at the crisis you will see that, first of all, it is a very small percentage of those in Puerto Rico who have benefitted, mainly the local oligarchy and the big corporations, mostly from the United States, and behind all of this is always the United States because Puerto Rico does not have any sovereignty, and that’s a really important thing to keep in mind. So I would say, if we did an audit they would probably say that much of the debt is odious and/or illegal, but I would say that regardless of how much of it is illegal, since we are a colony and we don’t have sovereignty, the “boss” (the United States), is responsible to pay this debt.
MN: One of the ironies here is that when the United States took over colonial control of Puerto Rico after defeating the Spanish, it refused to take over the debt that had accumulated under Spanish colonial rule. Now, the United States, which has colonial control of Puerto Rico, is insisting that the people of Puerto Rico burden this new debt. Is this indeed the case?
DBS: Yes it is. During the Treaty of Paris, when they were negotiating the terms of Spain and the takeover of Puerto Rico, Cuba was supposed to become independent, and the Spanish insisted that the Cuban government had accumulated a tremendous amount of public debt. The United States argued that it had been accumulated under a colonial regime and therefore was odious debt, and therefore should not be paid by Cuba, and in effect it was not. This is actually part of the basis for the whole idea of odious debt, unsustainable debt, that we see the anti-debt world movements use. So it’s very ironic that the United States basically helped Cuba to not have to pay for that debt with that argument, but there’s not even discussion of anything similar happening with its own colony, Puerto Rico.
MN: We are speaking with retired professor of ethnic studies Déborah Berman-Santana here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, and Déborah, what has the official response to the so-called debt crisis been on the part of Puerto Rico’s government and on the part of Washington? It seems rather similar to what has been happening in Greece, with technocrats coming in and with proposed new austerity measures.
DBS: Yes. The government of Puerto Rico, and we have two alternating colonial parties, one that basically says that we can improve the current political status, and the other party says that we need to become a state. Those are the two main parties, and this particular government has finally said that this is not sustainable and we need to find a way out of this. What’s interesting is that the government in Washington, the federal government, basically says that we can help you with some technical assistance, but of course it’s not our problem, and what they mean by “technical assistance” is they will basically tell the government of Puerto Rico to contract certain “experts” from the United States to basically take care of this problem. Of course, this is with the Puerto Rican people’s tax monies that we’re paying for these “experts.” And who are these “experts”? Just to give you an example, Puerto Rico is not an independent country, so of course we don’t deal directly with the IMF, for example. However, one of the more important reports that has come recently, called the “Krueger Report,” from Ann Krueger, a former chief official of the IMF, and she is now working on her own and has other former IMF-ers that have been contracted by the government of Puerto Rico to put together a report. They were paid half a million dollars to spend about three or four months in sunny Puerto Rico, basically interviewing some Puerto Rican economists who had done some work and taking a report from the New York Federal Reserve, and they came out with a wonderful, for their half a million dollars, 26-page report which basically selectively cherry-picked some of the information, only looking at Puerto Rico’s economic situation since 2000, and then of course their recommendations all come from the IMF playbook. And this is very, very similar. Every time Puerto Rico has to come up with some kind of report or think of some kind of way of resolving a situation or maybe working at a way to do some kind of negotiations with its creditors, who do they contract? Mostly North Americans, once in a while someone from somewhere else, but generally North Americans, though Puerto Rico does have economists and, in fact, the government itself has economists who could also do this work. So it’s actually very lucrative for these top firms in New York. Or, for example, the judge who presided over the bankruptcy of Detroit has also been contracted by the government of Puerto Rico.
MN: In addition to this 26-page report which you mentioned, the Puerto Rican authorities have released their own “Fiscal Adjustment Plan” recently, as they call it. This phrase should be familiar to anyone who has also been following the crisis in Greece. Would you say that these documents are indeed similar to the memorandum agreements that we’ve seen successive governments in Greece sign?
DBS: I’ve taken a look at the memorandums and while there are certainly differences, I find a lot of striking similarities in the languages, in speaking about the “sustainability” of the debt and about the issue of making Puerto Rico more “competitive,” for example reducing or eliminating the minimum wage for young workers to make them more “competitive,” of streamlining the bureaucracy and making Puerto Rico a more “business friendly” or “investment friendly” environment, as if a colony isn’t friendly enough, such things as getting rid of the Christmas bonus for public employees, because somehow that’s supposed to be a really terrible thing that’s very wasteful, when the Christmas bonus, besides augmenting very poor pay, people will use that money to buy stuff for Christmas and that actually helps the economy. Also, the “restructuring” and also looking at privatization of the electric energy authority, the water and sewers authority, privatizing our highways, and one of the highways has already been privatized, and guess who is running it? It’s Goldman Sachs. And various other ideas for looking at public-private partnerships, when we actually spend way too much money on contracts rather than actually putting more investment in the public employees who actually do have the expertise to do the work that we need.
MN: We are on the air with retired professor of ethnic studies Déborah Berman-Santana here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, and Déborah, let’s talk about the impact of so-called foreign investment in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has been the recipient, if you will, of a tremendous amount of foreign investment from the United States and elsewhere, with the likes of Walmart, which you mentioned before, also companies like Walgreen’s having a heavy presence on the island, while Donald Trump and vulture capitalists seem to have passed through as well. What has been the impact of this so-called “investment” in Puerto Rico, and how has this also impacted local business and industry?
DBS: Yes. I would like to talk for a minute about Walmart. Walmart, which is the world’s biggest corporation, they have actually received subsidies and tax incentives in order to establish, in Puerto Rico, far more than the local businesses do. And, as is true elsewhere in the world, where Walmart establishes itself, it tends to drive out local businesses. And instead of full-time businesses and full-time employment, with circulation within Puerto Rico of our income and our spending, you now have these part-time workers with no benefits, and Walmart basically takes most of the profits outside of Puerto Rico and gives little to nothing as far as any type of tax investments or any kind of contribution to Puerto Rico. Once in a while they will have some nice little publicity things, if you go there during Christmastime, you will see all of a sudden Puerto Ricans coming out in their typical dress and singing and dancing, and if there’s one thing we’re known for, it’s singing and dancing, and it’s very entertaining. But you get the idea that this is their contribution while they are bleeding us dry. I’ll say a little bit about Donald Trump. Donald Trump has this reputation of being this billionaire who, if he is interested, he’s going to bring in a lot of investment, and of course he gets heavily recruited. He was going to do the “Trump Estates,” a big luxury golf resort, and he does it through his various businesses, and he didn’t actually put his own money, he actually got a big loan from the Puerto Rico Development Bank, and not only did he not build this luxury investment, but that particular company went bankrupt and Puerto Rico cannot collect on that money. So Donald Trump can go bankrupt and owe Puerto Rico money, but Puerto Rico does not have the right to go bankrupt.
MN: Local businesses and companies in Puerto Rico also seem to have been impacted by the so-called cabotage rules being enforced by the United States, which create difficulties as far as the import and export of goods to and from Puerto Rico. Tell us about these rules and their impact.
DBS: Yes. These are incredibly important. This has really been since the early part of the 20th century, that Puerto Rico is forbidden from having anything come into the country or go out of the country except on U.S.-registered ships with U.S. crews. Now, if you know anything about the United States merchant marine, they are the most expensive, least efficient, most obsolete, and least competitive merchant marine on the planet. If we were able to do our business with anyone, Liberia, Greece, anybody, it would immediately lower our costs for everything. We have been lobbying for years to get this changed, and this is actually a point of agreement among all of the political status persuasions in Puerto Rico. The United States Virgin Islands doesn’t have this, and the reason that we have it basically is that the U.S. merchant marine would probably disappear if it was not for Puerto Rico, plus the U.S. Navy says that those leaky ships are actually an auxiliary in times of national emergency, and they don’t have to maintain them, because Puerto Rico’s maintaining them. And that is basically the reason that we have the cabotage laws.
MN: Now interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, it has been recently announced that there are likely significant oil and gas reserves off of the shores of Puerto Rico. We’ve heard similar things in Greece as well. Is this indeed the case?
DBS: Well it’s interesting, because we have gone through many years where the old doctrine was that Puerto Rico has “no natural resources,” and so because it is so bereft of natural resources, that means it cannot be independent and we are so lucky that Uncle Sam wants us. Of course, any place has natural resources, because there happen to be any facets of nature that human beings find profitable, and they wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t something there that they could make profit on. So we’ve gone from years when they would say that we have nothing to, well, perhaps we have some oil and gas resources, but they’re too expensive to exploit, and now that we’re getting to the time where the oil and gas reserves in the world are the ones that used to be not cost-effective to exploit, have now become cost-effective. So now there is some interest in granting concessions, and of course the United States controls all this, Puerto Rico doesn’t have any control over this. This has been very quiet. You have to actually look for this information because you don’t really see it in the media, but I’ve been following this for some years, and I know that there is definitely some interest. There is some interest in trying to connect all of the islands of the Caribbean basically with tubes and to generate energy in Puerto Rico, more than we need, to sell to the rest, and in fact there is a project which Puerto Ricans are fighting against right now, to build a giant incinerator, supposedly a waste-to-energy incinerator, which basically will fill up Puerto Rico with toxic waste in order to generate energy, and actually, since we don’t have enough garbage, they would actually be looking to burn the garbage of other places. The person who is in charge of this actually had his start in Albany, New York, which is kind of interesting, and he’s now living in luxury in the Virgin Islands.
MN: Now, one thing that we hear a lot in Greece is that the country does not produce enough food and enough resources in order to sustain its population, that the country cannot survive without the European Union and without its membership in the Eurozone, and this sounds very similar to what you were just saying about Puerto Rico. Is this a narrative that is heard, even about issues such as food production in Puerto Rico?
DBS: Absolutely. At the time that the U.S. actually invaded and occupied Puerto Rico at the turn of the 20th century, Puerto Rico was not only self-sustaining, but was exporting to other islands as well. So you had a situation where nearly all arable lands were taken over by sugar, and the local production of foods actually dropped dramatically, and instead the big corporations, for example California Rice, began to import to Puerto Rico to feed people, and also with the idea that we need to industrialize, our water resources weren’t that important, our soil wasn’t that important, and we needed to fill them all up with cement, industrialize, urbanize, and we could import all of the foods we need. And what has happened in Puerto Rico is there has been created a preference for imported goods. And so, to this day, somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of all the food in Puerto Rico that is consumed is actually imported, and it’s not the good stuff. It is the eggs and the chicken that they can’t get rid of in the United States, it comes to Puerto Rico. Not coincidentally, you see the incidence of diabetes and cancer and all kinds of hypertension, all kinds of gastrointestinal diseases have increased. Despite all of this, Puerto Rico has incredibly fertile soils, has a terrific climate, has a very diverse climate, and we actually have abundant water. A drought that’s happening nonetheless, it’s mainly an issue with distribution, we do have abundant water, we have over 200 rivers, thousands of creeks, and enough soil still that if we were able to turn our people back to growing what we need and coming back to loving our own food, and Puerto Ricans do love our own food, we’re very attached to our food, to our culture, to our music, but making that an object of preference and actually providing distribution of products and making them more available to people so that will buy our own products and generate our own food and businesses.
MN: We are speaking with retired professor of ethnic studies Déborah Berman-Santana here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, and Déborah, let’s talk now about what the system of governance looks like in a colony. What is the political and electoral system like in Puerto Rico, what sort of representation does the island have or not have in Washington, and what is the mentality of voters in Puerto Rico towards their political parties?
DBS: Well, Puerto Rico has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as an “unincorporated territory, belonging to but not a part of the United States.” In the early part of the 1950s, the United States promoted a cosmetic change in the government of Puerto Rico and defined it as an “commonwealth,” or “associated free state.” We say that we’re not associated, not free, and not a state. That was meant to get Puerto Rico taken off the United Nation’s list of non-self-governing territories, because if you’re on that list, the colonizer needs to report every year. And for the past 33 years, Puerto Rico has come before the committee on decolonization in the United Nations, and they have voted every single year to bring it before the General Assembly, and of course the United States has vetoed it every year. What the government looks like is, we have two houses, we have a governor, and we have voting every four years. We have also a non-voting resident commissioner who sits in committees in the House of Representatives in Washington but does not have a vote. He does have a vote on committees and can speak, but he cannot vote on the floor. So that is our representation, which is less than what we had under Spain. We cannot do our own economic treaties, we do have different relations where we do some economic things, but if there’s ever any issue the United States can step in and basically veto it. Generally, we have a huge apparatus called the “Federal Building,” or Colonial Building, which looks something like the U.S. Embassy in Greece or in many other countries, only bigger. We have the U.S. Federal Court, the colonial court, which is only in English. The judges at the moment are all Puerto Rican, but you have to do everything in English there, and this is actually a circus. You go in there and they’re all speaking in English, even though most Puerto Ricans do not speak English. They call it “El Difícil,” the difficult one, because people don’t want to speak it, but even if they speak English, when you’re in the federal court proceedings, people will not speak Spanish, so you have to have a translator, and many times the translator knows less English than the people in the audience. So this is a real carnival. At the same time, you also have the Puerto Rican courts, which are based on Roman Law, just like all of the Latin American and the Mediterranean countries, whereas of course the federal court is Anglo-Saxon law, and one will supersede the other. To give you an example, Puerto Rico does not have the right to declare bankruptcy, Chapter 9, as do the states. So in order to try to deal with this debt crisis, the Puerto Rican government actually passed a law, sort of like a local law, our local Chapter 9, and the creditors basically sued in federal court and won. So we can’t do that either. So I criticize, I have a lot of criticisms about our government, they’re just as corrupt and despite the government not having sovereignty, they do have the right to use the budget to give contracts to their friends. And, you know, people in Greece will probably be very familiar with this. But they did actually make some effort to try to come up with some situation, and because of our colonial status, so far we’ve not been successful in anything.
MN: An issue that seems to be a political hot potato in Puerto Rico is that of independence, similarly to how “grexit” is a hot potato in Greece in recent years. How is the issue of independence viewed by the majority of the Puerto Rican people, and how do you view this issue?
DBS: The issue of independence has been criminalized in Puerto Rico. There has been tremendous repression. We have had many political prisoners, we have one at the moment named Oscar López Rivera, who has been in prison for 34 years of a 75 year sentence for “seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States in Puerto Rico.” He has not been accused or convicted of any violent crime, and we are currently in an international campaign to pressure President Obama to free him. And we’ve had many others, there have been many violent deaths, there have been many forced exiles, and a tremendous amount of fear, of repression, and we’ve been taught, basically, that Puerto Rico does not have the capacity, neither the human capacity nor the natural resources capacity, to be independent, and most people believe that. When you go to school in Puerto Rico, there used to be a geography book about Puerto Rico that you started getting in the 2nd grade, by a North American by the name of Mueller, which said that “Puerto Rico is a small island without natural resources and it’s overpopulated, and so it cannot be independent and it needs to rely on the United States.” That was the first thing you learned. So one of the things that I myself have had to do, I’ve basically had to decolonize myself. This has been one of my own inspirations for going off to school and eventually becoming a professor. It was the whole idea of “why am I told that I’m less than everyone else? Why am I told that I have to depend on someone else?” And it’s a personal thing but it’s also a national issue. So, at the moment, the people who openly support independence, and there’s open and there’s also hidden support for independence, is really small. We do have an Independence Party that gets maybe 4 or 5 percent of the vote, maybe. It’s has more at times, at other times it’s had less. Most pro-independence supporters don’t actually support the party, because there’s a tremendous amount of division among the Puerto Rican independence supporters. We’re very, very fractured. When we unify, we can actually achieve some wonderful things, but we are incredibly divided for many, many reasons. Then there are other people who will vote for one or the other majority parties for some strategic reason, to keep the other one out, and some people will actually vote for the statehood party because they think that if Puerto Rico asks for statehood, of course Congress will say no, while others will vote for the colonialist party, saying we can’t vote for statehood under any circumstances and maybe we can get some autonomy. And then there are many people who refuse to vote, because it is a colonial process. I personally, and I don’t come from a political family, I come from a very poor family, I personally believe that we really have no way out unless we can basically take some responsibility and have some power to decide our own future. Independence does not guarantee it by itself, but there is no way that you have the possibility of having enough sovereignty to make your own decisions without independence. To be independent, we could actually do some federation or join with the wonderful unifying collaborations that are happening in Latin America right now. We are a Latin American country. There is a saying in Latin America that the independence of Latin America is not complete without Puerto Rico. I believe that. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Latin America, and the thing that’s always impressed me is that we have been so isolated, so part of a “iron curtain” of colonialism, so affected by an embargo at least as strong as that of Cuba and less known, that we don’t even know that we’re not isolated, we don’t even know that we have what we call a “patria grande,” a greater country, and that’s Latin America. I believe it’s our destiny, I believe we won’t survive unless we do it, and I also believe that if we can see our way to knowing that we have the ability to rely on ourselves, I think it would happen very quickly, because despite everything, Puerto Ricans, even those who say that they support statehood, we are very strong in our national identity, our cultural identity. I’m sure, here in Greece, you saw what happened in 2004 when the Puerto Rican Olympic basketball team beat, very badly, the United States, and when Carlos Arroyo puffed out his jersey, I was watching that. We have never forgotten that and he is loved for that one moment. I understand here in Greece you were all chanting Puerto Rico, and we are very grateful to Greece for that as well.
MN: Now, having discussed all of this, how did you personally develop your own interest in Greece and in the Greek language, and what brought you to Greece at this time?
DBS: Well it’s interesting, I’ve had a lifelong interest and affinity in Greece. I grew up partly in New York, that’s why I speak English well, and I’ve lived there and in Puerto Rico. I have some background in my father’s and grandfather’s family in Ottoman areas, Constantinople, Palestine, and possibly in Crete as well, and I always felt an affinity for the music, for the culture, for the food, and years ago, I actually spent some time in Greece. It was, to be honest, the only part of Europe that I’ve visited that I would care to visit again. I felt very close, I felt a lot of affinity, and I’ve always looked for ways to make that connection again. A few years ago, I began to get an opportunity to actually study Greek, so I am actually studying it, I can’t speak very well but I can read and I am beginning to understand. And also, the issue of the crisis happening in Greece and in Puerto Rico at the same time, I’ve been reading both and have been noticing how similar the stories are. I’m thinking in my mind about how we can do things about not only protest and resistance, but also to promote our solidarity and our own tourism and perhaps some exchanges.
MN: We are on the air with retired professor of ethnic studies Déborah Berman-Santana here on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series, and Déborah, based on your own experience from back home in Puerto Rico, and also having followed the developments in Greece, would you characterize Greece at this time as a sovereign country or one which more closely resembles a colony? And as a second part to this question, what do you believe the people of Greece should do to overcome this crisis?
DBS: Well, speaking of course as an outsider, but as an outsider with some similarities and some affinities, Greece of course is officially a sovereign country, has all the trappings of a sovereign country. It reminds me very much of Latin America before the recent 20-30 years, where you have those trappings of a sovereign country, but in terms of real governance, very colonial, an oligarchy of course that benefits from it and is only too happy to serve the interests of the outside powers. It seems to me that the membership in an unequal union, such as the European Union, and especially the Eurozone, where all members are not equal, has actually taken away more of Greece’s sovereign ability to make its own decisions. For example, if you want to do things with your economy, say devalue the currency, control more what comes in and what goes out, it’s impossible to do in the Eurozone. And I found very interesting, because the first time I was here, Greece was not part of the Eurozone, I found it very interesting to see the EU flag next to the Greek flag almost everywhere that I go, and all I could think of is in Puerto Rico, where we are in many cases forced to have the United States flag next to the Puerto Rican flag, and actually most Puerto Ricans won’t do that, but in official ways. We call the U.S. flag “La Pecosa,” which means “the freckly one,” and I was looking at the EU flag and I was saying “that’s another Pecosa,” and where would we be without her? That’s a saying in Puerto Rico for the people who are pro-statehood, not that they love the United States but where would we be without her? I find that so similar, and a number of the things that I’ve heard from Greeks in talking about their fears about going back to the “bad” days of the drachma, which I didn’t think they were so bad when I was here, but of course I’m not from here so of course I can’t say, but I’m saying, there’s a part of me that says “what are you afraid of?” And even Puerto Ricans said, you at least have the trappings of sovereignty. You can actually take them and do them. We have much further to go than you do. And I’m almost saying, as a Puerto Rican, do it and give us hope that we can do it too.
MN: Well Déborah, ευχαριστώ πολύ, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today on Dialogos Radio and for these very interesting insights as to what has been happening in Puerto Rico.
DBS: And I’ll say, “Que Vivo Puerto Rico Libre, Que Vive Grecia Libre.”
Please excuse any typos or errors which may exist within this transcript.