The transcript of Dialogos Radio’s interview with Déborah Berman-Santana, retired professor of geography and ethnic studies at Mills College in Oakland, California. This interview was recorded prior to the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, and aired on our broadcasts for the week of September 27-October 3, 2017. Find the podcast of this interview here.
MN: Joining us today on Dialogos Radio and the Dialogos Interview Series for our first broadcast of the 2017-2018 season is one of our regular guests, Déborah Berman-Santana, who is a retired professor of geography and ethnic studies at Mills College in Oakland, California. Deborah will speak to us today about the latest taking place in Puerto Rico, an island that especially recently has been ravaged on multiple fronts, and which presents many similarities with what we’re seeing on an ongoing basis in Greece. Déborah, welcome back to our program.
DBS: Thank you, glad to be here.
MN: Let’s begin with perhaps the most pressing issue of all, Hurricane Irma and its aftermath. What was the impact of the storm on Puerto Rico and how was the island able to respond?
DBS: Well, Hurricane Irma, which was of course a Category 5 hurricane and did major, major damage to the smaller Eastern Caribbean islands, we were very fortunate that the eye did not actually come to Puerto Rico. The major impacts were on the northern and northeastern section and some of our islands. We are an archipelago, our biggest island of Culebra [had] major damage and it’s still coming apart.
Right now in Puerto Rico, probably the most critical issue is electricity. There are many downed power lines and damaged posts, and of course it’s very mountainous, our country, so it takes some time. We can talk more about the politics around that too. There are also, in certain areas where, of course, more poor people live, in areas that are more flood-prone or the houses are not in as good shape, and there has been a lot of damage there too. But considering the incredible amount of damage that Irma has done in other parts of the Caribbean, I would say that we were pretty fortunate.
MN: Now of course, the storm couldn’t have hit Puerto Rico at a worse time for the island, with the economic crisis that it is facing and the severe economic assault it is dealing with across all fronts. Just as Greece has the so-called troika, Puerto Rico has the so-called junta, which of course is also a historically loaded word in Greece. What’s the latest as far as the austerity measures and cuts and reforms that the junta has been imposing, or attempting to impose, in Puerto Rico?
DBS: Yes, well, the United States Congress imposed a fiscal control board, which in Spanish is “junta de control fiscal.” It has been in place for a year. They have multiple fronts. Basically, when they do not approve of something in the Puerto Rico government’s budget, they say no, this is not acceptable, you need to cut this, this, this, and this. They do not necessarily have information on how best to operate, for example with the university, the public university of Puerto Rico, they want massive cuts. They do not even have information on the university, they have not asked for information to see if there must be cuts, where might be the best place to cut. It’s just basically taking a machete and chopping it up. However, they have also increased the budget for themselves.
The U.S. Congress bill, the PROMESA bill that we talked about last year, directed Puerto Rico to pay two million dollars per month for the expense of the junta. The new budget the junta inserted said that they must be paid five million dollars per month, and of course they use this for all their expenses, they use this to hire dozens of contractors for publicity, for legal fees, for lobbying, for who knows what. These are all their friends.
They have also created a new entity, which is basically the entity that is in charge of seeing how we can privatize and sell off public resources. I believe that [German finance minister] Schauble, last year or two years ago, created some fund in Greece, basically the privatization fund. Well this is basically what they inserted into our budget just now. And of course they’re saying that the pensions must be slashed and there must be more furloughs of public workers. The government of Puerto Rico is going through a theater, they’re saying “oh, we’re not going to cut.” We all know that the government of Puerto Rico is not going to really fight this. This is just a theater so that their supporters think that it is fighting the junta.
MN: A big issue during the hurricane, of course, is the proposed privatization of Puerto Rico’s energy utility. How have the junta and proponents of privatizations attempted to use the hurricane and its aftermath to make a case for the privatization of the electric company?
DBS: Interestingly, the case was actually made before [Hurricane Irma], for years now. Also the government lackeys who are the managers of the [energy] authority, not the actual workers of course, have been cutting and cutting and cutting and not re-hiring and re-training enough people to work, and trying to get contractors to work for less money. And so, the infrastructure has been deteriorating, and of course when people get upset, they say that it’s because it’s public and if it was privatized, if we had more competition, it would work out better.
The interesting thing is that the only reason we are recovering much more quickly [from Hurricane Irma] is that it’s a complete lie. For example, before the hurricane hit, the government head of the [energy] authority said that it can take five to six months before we can put [the grid] together, because the electric energy authority is so bad. Well, here we are a week later, almost all of Puerto Rico is back online. San Juan is, interestingly, not completely, although the mountain towns are, and the union of workers is claiming that they are being deliberately impeding them from finishing in San Juan, so that people will still be angry and demand privatization.
This is the most militant union in Puerto Rico, and they’re wonderful. They are really our best union that’s left, and they’re of course left. They’re working 16-hour shifts, unbelievable photos if you saw them, and they are working, doing heroic things to get Puerto Rico back online. So the interesting thing is, Irma has actually not been good for the arguments for privatization.
MN: Just as in Greece, Puerto Rico is being sold the promise of foreign investment and large-scale, critical infrastructure projects which supposedly are meant to foster economic growth and development and recovery on the island. What sorts of projects are being proposed and what would their actual impact likely be?
DBS: Part of the PROMESA bill is for “critical infrastructure energy projects,” not for the distribution infrastructure but for [combustible] energy, gas or coal. That’s not what we actually need. If they actually wanted to do something, the maintenance and reconstruction of the transmission, that might be helpful but that’s not where the money is, that’s not where the profits are.
So the critical infrastructure energy projects basically say “we want to streamline the permitting process.” There are many processes, of course we are a colony of the United States, so we have their laws and ours, and the process of permits takes years for any massive project because there’s the environmental issues, there’s land use issues, there are public hearings you have to do, so it takes a few years. They want to streamline it to, I think, 90 days, which means that you have a project and we don’t want to tell the public, we want to get it done as quickly as possible, also because they want to avoid protests.
For example, the popular protests have stopped two projects for gas ducts. This is over the past years, not just now. These would be gas lines that they would start from natural gas [fields] in the south and they would blast through the mountains—remember that Puerto Rico is very mountainous—and go to the northern side where San Juan is. We have had civil disobedience, we have had legal teams basically stop these in the courts and challenge them in the courts, we’ve prepared testimony for all the public hearings. Well, they want to bring [the pipeline proposals] back, but without the public hearings, and the local government has passed laws to criminalize civil disobedience.
So this is how they intend to this, they have a energy-generating project, burning garbage to create energy, and we don’t even have enough garbage! And they don’t say this, but what the project really is, is to burn the garbage [from] all around the Caribbean. But of course it doesn’t matter what happens to us because they’d like to get rid of us anyway. We have managed to stop it, but I am sure—they have just contracted a coordinator of the critical energy projects. He is a Puerto Rican-born, I’m not going to say he’s Puerto Rican, U.S. military man that they’re going to put in charge of putting this together. I have seen him interviewed several times and they asked him questions. He knows nothing! He is completely ignorant, he is just there to facilitate this [project], the gas ducts.
I am sure they have other things that they are planning, things that they have tried to do before that they could not do because of protests. If they get rid of the protesters, then they can just shove it all through. Of course, gas projects, coal projects, maybe mining. We have copper, we stopped the copper mining plans 20-30 years ago. Maybe that’s coming back again.
MN: Recent big news in Greece is the sudden departure of Canadian mining firm Eldorado Gold from the Skouries gold mine in northern Greece, which has been a hotbed of activist activity in recent years due to its environmental impact and dubious economic benefits, despite being described as the biggest foreign investment in Greece. We are seeing something similar though in Puerto Rico with the controversy over a privately-owned coal-powered plant and the dumping of the coal ash from this plant. Tell us about this issue.
DBS: Yes, well even though our electric energy authority is public, we do have a few private plants, and of course some of the energy-generating implements are private. For example, we do have a couple of projects of windmills from Siemens. They’re looking at Puerto Rico as, I guess, as Greece in the Caribbean, and we have various others.
In the 1990s, Applied Energy Systems (AES), which is a multinational corporation based in the United States, proposed a “clean coal” plant in Puerto Rico that was supposed to generate, give more energy generation capacity for Puerto Rico. And of course there’s a myth that Puerto Rico does not have enough energy-generating capacity, and that is [supposedly] why our energy bills are so high. So that was their argument.
I actually participated in the campaign to stop them from getting built. So what they did, this was in the south coast, and they brought the local community to one of their clean-looking plants in the United States, and they took them out and basically told them we’ll give you many jobs and it’s very clean and you shouldn’t listen to these “radicals,” like me, who don’t even live in your community, they’re against everything.
So they finally did get the permits to build, because they promised that they would not dump the coal ash in Puerto Rico. They finally built it in the 2000s, back in 2004 is when they finally started, and they were dumping the coal ash in the Dominican Republic. What happened in the Dominican Republic, people started getting sick and they [did] a campaign against them. Eventually the Dominican government—there was a trial, they had a settlement, and part of the settlement is that they would stop dumping in the Dominican Republic. They are actually in the Dominican Republic, they have other types of plants, they don’t have coal plants. But they still had the contract [which said] they could not dump in Puerto Rico. There were some illegal dumps.
Finally, they also had another idea, that they would take some of the ash, you put water on it and it becomes something called “agrimax,” and you can use that as building material, and they built roads in Puerto Rico, they built homes in Puerto Rico. This is the asbestos of the 21st century. I mean someday we’re going to look back and say, this is the asbestos [of the 21st century]. [Agrimax has been used] in many, many communities, mainly in the south of Puerto Rico, and San Juan is in the north. In San Juan [the prevailing attitude] is, what happens in the provinces stays in the provinces.
So in 2014, the government of Puerto Rico did a secret amendment to the contract, which allowed AES to dump the ashes in two of the landfills in Puerto Rico. One of them is actually not far from where I live, and the other one is in Peñuelas [in the south], in an area where we had the old petrochemical complexes, still dealing with a legacy of pollution. So they filled up the one near where I live and they couldn’t dump there any more for a while. They started dumping in 2015 in the one in Peñuelas, but that community has been dealing with the legacy of contamination for many years, and they started the protest camps, they started doing civil disobedience. It became an issue. With this government, the government agreed because there was a lot of pressure, and we’ve had a lot of arrests, a lot of civil obedience.
[Recently] there was a trial, in San Juan, of the last group of people arrested there. At this point, the government of Puerto Rico has said we’re going to pass a law that prohibits the dumping of the ash, but they inserted a little amendment at the last minute that was written by the company, that said that the ash is only what’s dry. If you put water on it, it becomes Agrimax. And so, they started again with the dumping. They’ve had to dump at night with four hundred police [officers] to protect them, and there’s still people protesting, so this is a big deal.
Of course, they couldn’t do anything during [Hurricane Irma]. We found out that they did not even bother to cover the mountain of ash that they have next to the plant. Who knows where this ash is right now. It’s everywhere! And so the struggle continues. That is the story, and they’ve also said “oh, you need our generating capacity,” because they have a plant. But they only generate maybe 11 percent of what we need. They close every time there’s a problem. The public plants never close. We don’t even need their plant, because Puerto Rico has twice the generating capacity that it needs, and if we maintained everything we would never need them. In fact, we don’t need them now.
MN: In yet another similarity with contemporary Greece, where there is an activist movement that has sprung up surrounding the case of a student by the name of Irianna, who is facing charges under Greece’s anti-terror laws for participation in a terror group, in Puerto Rico there is the case of political prisoner Nina Droz. Why has she been imprisoned and what are the similarities in your view with the Irianna case?
DBS: I think the main similarity has to do with using a test case to see if you can turn the public against this person, for many reasons, and also to scare people, to make them afraid to protest. Specifically in the case of Nina Droz, who is a student, [she] was not really involved in any organized critical activism, a student, a model, teaches also. She is a party girl, lots of tattoos, so there could be a lot of prejudice against her because of how she looks.
[On] May 1, we had a massive demonstration in Puerto Rico against the junta, against austerity, and most of us against the [colonial status], because some of us know that the real problem is not the junta. The problem is that we’re a colony. It was a massive, massive protest. On one side there was a group of masked students or masked people, who knows who they were, all dressed in black. Many of the banks were actually boarded up and protected, except for our most important bank, Banco Popular de Puerto Rico. The nephew of the head of Banco Popular is the president of the junta, to give you an idea. They did not cover up their windows, and there was a moment where all the police withdrew, and there was a group of people in masks who broke the windows. No police around.
According to some of the TV coverage and some photos, there is a young woman who has since been identified as Nina [Droz] who was with an unidentified masked man. They are next to one of the windows on the sidewalk that’s been busted. It looks like perhaps they’re trying to light a piece of paper, and nothing happens. But, one of her feet is inside the bank, and based on that, the U.S. federal government says—there were some other people arrested but they were in the Puerto Rican system—they said [Nina Droz] is in the U.S. system because she is inside the bank and the bank is involved in interstate commerce and it’s [covered under federal law]. So she has been charged in the media and by the federal court with conspiracy, attempted terrorism, for trying to “blow up” this building with a little piece of paper which may or may not have had some fire on it.
[As of the time of this interview] she has not had a trial. She was assigned a federal defense attorney, a public attorney. There is a gag law against her attorney, so they cannot respond to anything in the media, and she’s been demonized in the media. She is in the federal holding court, she originally plead not guilty to all charges. After about two months she agreed to a plea deal to conspiracy, which is very vague, in exchange for reduced time. But she still [as of the time of this interview] has not been sentenced, and there have been issues such as, for example, her birthday. Some of us were going to [organize] something outside the prison with a sign, “happy birthday,” just a little thing, and the prisoners can normally see that. Right before that, there was some “infraction,” who knows what, and they put her in solitary, and she was in solitary for almost a month, was not given the reasons for it, because there’s a process, everything was delayed, and now they say she cannot even have visitors, not even her mother, if you can imagine that. Her mother can’t visit her.
She’s still not been sentenced. The sentencing [was] supposed to be at the end of October, and even the prosecutor has suggested two years [imprisonment], her attorneys have suggested one year, but the judge could give her more. You never know what can happen. Evidently, she is not as obedient as they’d like, and there she has complained about things, and the only reason we know anything about what’s happened is [because] she can receive letters. I myself have received a letter from her. And, there is a friend who is an attorney, who is not her attorney but she is able to visit her and able to talk a little bit about the situation, with a lot of care. She’s very careful.
Actually I’ve talked to [the attorney] before I came here [to Greece] to discuss what she thought I could talk about here in Greece. So when I heard about the Irianna case, it struck me that, I know there are differences, but it struck me that the system criminalized her for supposed associations, alleged associations which may or may not be true, and to use it to justify a very long sentence for a young woman who basically, if she has to serve a whole sentence, it’s a terrible, terrible thing. The same thing with Nina [Droz].
Nina, her letters [are] wonderful to read, it made me cry when I received it, and she says “we should never be afraid to speak up for justice, to speak up for what’s right, and to give a voice to those who have no voice, and you can count on me to give my voice until the end of my days.” So I just wanted to share that, I’m actually hoping maybe to buy a nice card here in Greece and have people sign and send. I don’t know whether it will get to her, but it might get to her, because people are writing to her and we want her to know that she’s not alone. This is a little different situation from some of our early political prisoners, who spent many years in organizations and they had a very strong political formation which enabled them to survive many years in prison. Nina [Droz] doesn’t have that background, but she’s one of us.
MN: Continuing this theme of parallels between Greece and Puerto Rico, in Greece the current U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Pyatt was until recently the U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine. In Puerto Rico, an individual by the name of Natalie Jaresko, who herself attained infamy in the Ukraine, is now the executive director of the junta in Puerto Rico. What is Jaresko’s background and what is her role now in Puerto Rico?
DBS: Natalie Jaresko was born in the United States, in Chicago, of Ukrainian parents. She has a graduate in economics from the University of Chicago, which is infamous for its economics department there. She has worked in the U.S. State Department, she has worked with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], and we generally think she is a CIA asset. She’s also a fellow at the Aspen Institute, and you can also see pictures of her with “Open Ukraine” behind her, and that may ring some bells to some people, anything that’s “Open Society.”
She is definitely accused of enriching her own company in the Ukraine from the privatization and sale of the telecommunications network in the Ukraine. She was only there for a couple of years. They gave her Ukrainian citizenship, I think, within one day. She was named to be the finance minister right after the coup, so she was basically put in as the Ukraine’s finance minister by the United States, and the little minor detail that she wasn’t a Ukrainian citizen [was overlooked], so they gave her Ukrainian citizenship.
Natalie Jaresko, she still goes back and forth to the Ukraine, and part of her contract with Puerto Rico is we pay for business class trips once a month from Puerto Rico to the Ukraine. So she was named by the junta to be the executive director. She is of Ukrainian background so she at least speaks Ukrainian, but she knows nothing about Puerto Rico, zero. She is there to do the same thing or worse in Puerto Rico, that she did in the Ukraine.
When I write about her, I always say Natalie “Carnicera de Ukrania” Jarekso, that’s Natalie “Butcher of the Ukraine” Jaresko. I just have to give you some of the terms of her contract. Her annual salary, which we are paying for, [is] $625,000 a year. That is more than $200,000 more than the president of the United States earned. Plus, she has all of her expenses [paid for], she has a private suite in a luxury hotel, she has an entire security detail and all of her communications, and plus she has her nice business trips to the Ukraine and anywhere else she wants to go.
In exchange for that, she basically comes in and says well, you need to cut and slash, for example, the university budget, the University of Puerto Rico needs to be more like the United States’ public universities. In other words, we should slash the government’s share of the budget to the university and students should all go into debt and become debt slaves, like they are in the United States. It’s [currently] relatively inexpensive.
The University of Puerto Rico is an excellent, excellent university. It is the best university system [on Puerto Rico] with 11 campuses. Of course, they want to slash, cut all the campuses, maybe 2 or 3 left. Much better than the private universities, and it is the vehicle for people, the best students in Puerto Rico, especially if they’re poor, to get an education and to contribute to the future of Puerto Rico. They’re an incredible resource, and it is also a very militant university.
The students have had many strikes. They had one a few months ago, they shut it down for two months, and the issue was the cuts. It was interesting, they actually had a personal meeting with the junta, face-to-face, that lasted all day, which is something that the government of Puerto Rico has not even had. The students managed to do that and actually had a list of demands, none of which have been put forth, but just to give you an idea.
Natalie Jaresko has also said that I am here to help Puerto Rico, you need to listen to me, I’m going to cut everything. By the way, the government of Puerto Rico said we are not going to hurt the most vulnerable. They never identify who are the most vulnerable. The PROMESA bill says “essential services” must be protected. They are never defined, what are “essential services.” They also have hired a special security detail and they are lobbying to expand the new criminalization law to further criminalize protests against the junta. So this should give you an idea of what the “Butcher of the Ukraine” wants to do in Puerto Rico.
MN: Let’s turn now to the hot-button issue of Puerto Rico’s political status. A few months ago we saw a non-binding referendum on statehood take place, in an issue which from what I understand remains extremely divisive in Puerto Rico and parallels the debate that we see in Greece regarding continued membership in the European Union. Describe for us the current state of affairs regarding the island’s political status and the political divisions in Puerto Rico.
DBS: As I’ve spoken with you before and been published before, Puerto Rico is a colony, is an “unincorporated territory belonging to but not part of the United States.” That is its official designation according to the Supreme Court. We do not even have the limited sovereignty of an Indian tribe, just to give you an example. In the United Nations, we’ve been trying for many years to get the issue [of Puerto Rico’s colonial status] on the agenda of the General Assembly, but have not managed to do so.
It has been extremely divisive, because the issue of independence has been demonized and criminalized for many, many years in Puerto Rico. There have been many, many imprisonments, there have been many deaths, there have been many disappearances, many people that were unable to find work. And so, many people, most people in Puerto Rico are either very afraid of it, or they believe we have no chance, we need to depend on the United States. Most Puerto Ricans are not quite knowledgeable about our own history.
At the present time, one of the major parties is a party that says our current status is okay if we can increase our autonomy. The other major party, which is currently in power, says no, we need equality, we need to become a state, the 51st state of the United States. And then there’s a smaller party and many people who do not vote at all, who say that without independence we cannot even begin to have this conversation because we don’t have control over our own affairs.
Puerto Rico has had five referendums since the 1960s about our political status. None of them are binding. The U.S. Congress has never committed to respecting the results. The last one was in June, and I actually wrote an article that was published in Greece in March, that the interesting thing about that particular proposal, that there would be only two options: one was statehood, and the other was some kind of sovereignty. Now, that’s kind of a loaded term, not always understood, but many independence supporters thought that this might be an opportunity, if we can actually have a very good showing of people who reject statehood and want some kind of sovereignty, then we might be able to push something. So many people who don’t even vote were going to register.
Well, at that point the Attorney General of the United States Jeff Sessions said to the governor of Puerto Rico that in order to have this referendum, you also need to include the current status. Now this is a referendum for the decolonization of Puerto Rico, that’s the name of it, and he said one of the options has to be to remain the colony. So one of your options to “decolonize” is to stay the way you are. The government said okay! And with that, all of the pro-independence, pro-sovereignty people said forget it, we’re boycotting. Then, the other major party, that wants the current status with autonomy, also boycotted.
You had, in June, only one party [that] was represented, the pro-statehood party. No more than 23 percent of the voters even voted, and because there was no oversight by the other parties, it may have been even less than 23 percent. 97 percent of voters voted in favor of statehood.
With that, the government went to Congress and said 97 percent of the voters want statehood. They were completely ignored! Then they chose seven people and said “here are our Congressmen and we’re sending them anyway,” and they’re completely ignored, but they’re spending Puerto Rican public money that we supposedly don’t have, and they’re all sitting in Washington. I’m not sure what they’re doing there, probably eating well and staying at a nice hotel, but Congress is completely ignoring them. They said we’re going to meet with President Trump. Okay. As far as I know there’s been no meeting. So we have not solved any problem, everything is exactly the way it was, except they spent $10 million of money that we don’t have, on the stupid referendum.
MN: Within this context of the broader economic crisis that Puerto Rico is experiencing, has the independence movement been able to gain any traction?
DBS: That’s always an interesting question. It’s not really easy to answer. One of the problems is that the independence movement, the left in general, is extremely divided. We have many, many little groups. People spend a lot of time, for example, on Facebook attacking on each other. It’s very tiring. Sometimes when we have a meeting or protest people do show up together.
The interesting thing is, it’s not easy to say if we have support for independence or more support for independence. What I can say is, maybe there is more understanding that the United States is not going to help us—as if they ever did—that perhaps we need to figure out some way of not waiting for them to “rescue” us or to give us better power or to give us statehood.
The other thing is, because of what’s visibly happening in the United States, it’s always been happening, but the visible attacks, the visible oppression that is now getting a lot of media attention throughout the world, people are starting to believe that well, even if we became a state, we’re still Spanish-speaking, we’re still to a large extent of African descent. How is it for the blacks and the Latinos who live in the United States? They have statehood, do they have equality? So it’s beginning to open up things a little more.
The problem that we had is a question of getting rid of our own colonized mentalities, our colonized minds. I think that’s probably our biggest challenge. And to not just speak to ourselves, the people on the left, but to speak to our neighbors, to talk about this, and I constantly am talking to many of my neighbors, none of whom are independence activists, but they always want to ask me what I think about what’s going on, to give you an idea.
MN: One of the biggest stories of the past few months in Puerto Rico is the release of Oscar López Rivera, who was imprisoned in the United States for 34 years and was granted clemency by President Obama in the last days of his administration. Oscar is now back in Puerto Rico… what has the response to his release and repatriation been and what has he been doing since his release?
DBS: Oscar is now physically free, he has been spiritually free for a very long time, freer than many people I know, but he has been physically free, without restrictions, since the 17th of May. There has been a tremendous overwhelming response among Puerto Ricans to his release, to basically being around. To be around him—I’ve been around a lot of political prisoners, and many of them, it takes a long time to adjust. His adjustment—he may have some adjusting to do that you don’t see, but you meet him in person, the smile, the hugs, he is very, very physical with everyone, for very good reasons.
He is constantly talking about unity, he is talking constantly about the decolonized mind, he is constantly asked to speak. So he has been not only speaking at many activities in Puerto Rico, but also for example in the United States. He wants to thank communities all around the world for supporting him and for campaigning for him, so he’s been in many, many activities. He also went to Nicaragua, was at a conference, and President Ortega gave him the highest recognition of Nicaragua. He is scheduled to visit Cuba in November, and of course they were very, very active in working for his release, as well as release of earlier prisoners. So he is making a lot of the rounds still. It’s still only a few months.
His plan, actually, is trying to set up a foundation to give him a little bit of independence, so that he can work in Puerto Rico. He was a community organizer before his imprisonment. He wants to do it in Puerto Rico, and he says he specifically wants to work on alternatives, community-based alternatives, which already exist, but to unify them. He wants to unify the various activists, unify the people of Puerto Rico, speak to the people who are not necessarily activists and to break through this division that we have. He has the stature to force people to at least listen. I can’t wait, I mean, some of us are a little impatient, we want to do this already, but he’s still speaking on many occasions. Sometimes it’s difficult to contact him, he has some people helping him because he will never say no to anybody, so some of the people who are helping him are trying to shield him a little bit. It’s a little bit of a coming out process, so to speak.
MN: A famous quote from Oscar López Rivera concerns the struggle for independence and the anti-colonial struggle, which according to Oscar, begins with the decolonization of the mind. How are his words relevant in the present day, both for Puerto Rico and also for Greece, even if the country is nominally independent?
DBS: I think part of the problem with the colonized mentality is, the one who was colonized begins to believe the lies that have been told by the colonizer: that we are inferior, we are backward, that we would be poor, that we would have no hope if it was not for a more developed, more civilized, more powerful entity, for example, the United States, and in parallel, Northern Europe and Germany for the European Union. That we need to be developed, we need to be more advanced, we need to be more like them and less like the Global South. I mean, Puerto Rico is without a doubt part of the Global South. But you get that idea, that we need for them to help us because we cannot help ourselves. We should not depend on ourselves because look how advanced are, how happy they look, how well off they are, even if it’s not true. And if we believe that, it’s very difficult to do any of this. We won’t believe that we can make decisions on our own. We won’t demand our sovereignty, because we will think that we’re not capable of making those decisions by ourselves.
For many years we were told if we were independent, Puerto Rico would be like Haiti. That, of course, completely ignores that Haiti, which is nominally independent, is under military occupation which benefits a very small oligarchy and keeps everyone else poor. If Haiti really could take sovereignty for itself, you would see a different Haiti. But that’s what they say to us.
There’s also the issue of, we are not a European people, we have some European ancestry from the colonizers, but we are mainly not a European people. We are a Latin American-Caribbean-African-indigenous people with a very long history. We didn’t start our history when Columbus came. We have a history that goes back 7,000 years, and we have a lot of information about it. So we could draw on that and also our own history as Latin American people.
We’re under a lot of isolation. Everyone knows about the blockade the United States has against Cuba, but we have one also. It’s different, it’s very difficult for us to have direct contact, direct trade with the rest of the world. We have to do everything through the United States. And so we’re isolated. I’ve heard many people in Greece say “I don’t know this story, why haven’t I ever heard this story?,” and I say you haven’t heard this story because it’s a blockaded story, it’s blockaded history. It’s one of the reasons that I’m here [in Greece]. And I think that the colonized mind is our biggest obstacle. I have seen that when we work together and we fight against the oppressor, the oppressor cannot stand against that. So that’s our biggest, I think it’s a bigger problem than U.S. military might or anything else that they can threaten us with.
MN: The anti-colonial and independence movements that we’ve seen across the world, including those of the 1960s and 1970s, were by and large nationalist movements. Today though, we see arguments from many who associate nationalism with fascism, with racism, with xenophobia. How do you view the issue? Do you believe nationalism can be compatible with internationalism and a more cooperative worldview?
DBS: This is a very interesting question. I’ve had this conversation with many people. I know that in people there is a specific historical context of nationalism and fascism. I understand that. But the interesting thing, particularly in Latin America, the issue of nationalism has to do with national sovereignty, of controlling our own destiny, making our own decisions and not allowing the imperialists or neo-imperialists to make those decisions, whether it’s a European power or whether it’s the United States or whether it’s another country, for example.
So in the context of Latin America, nationalism has been, there is a nationalism that is called “anti-imperialist nationalism.” There is a tremendous amount of literature. It is not a nationalism that says we are better than everyone and we want to control others. We want to control ourselves.
Puerto Rico has had a very long history with the Nationalist Party. It’s very small right now, not very active. It was tremendously repressed. Our great martyr, Dr. Albizu Campos, was martyred, really, literally. He was the leader of the Nationalist Party. His politics, his economics, you could say were social democrat, more or less. But one of the main leaders was also Juan Antonio Corretjer, who was a communist. There are some revisionist historians who want to say that he was fascist, [but] there is no evidence for that.
I just want to share something very interesting: only a few months ago I was in Cuba, and we had this conversation, because I had my conversations in Greece in mind when we had this conversation [in Cuba]. The people who I was talking to said “of course, you will never find people more nationalist than Cubans. We love our country. We want to keep our culture. We want to defend our country against outside control, but we are internationalists. We want other countries to be able to defend their own sovereignty as well. We want to have relationships of mutual respect.” And that, for them, is nationalism. And they also said, we understand there is a different history in Europe, but I think we need to rescue this word.
Now I am seeing with the very open racist attacks in the United States, I have heard some European friends say “oh, fascism is coming to the United States.” I say “no, that’s not exactly. You’re seeing white supremacy, which is the founding principle of the United States, because it’s a European settler-colonizer regime that destroyed many indigenous nations and it maintains power through white supremacy.” That’s not necessarily the same as fascism, and I believe the word fascist is thrown a lot, but we are not talking about the actual alliance of the state and the private industry and the oligarchy. That seems to be lost a little bit.
So that’s a conversation that I think is very important, because I believe, also in Puerto Rico, because sometimes there are people who have read a lot of literature from Europe and they start saying “I don’t care about independence because it’s nationalist, I care more about socialism,” and I say “okay, but if we’re not independent, how are we going to be socialist? As a colony or as a state of the United States, are you expecting to be socialist? Are you expecting the communist ideal this way?” It’s less likely, I would say, and so I think it’s important to have this conversation in Greece as well.
MN: This is the third consecutive year that you are visiting Greece, where you will be making a public appearance. What has brought you back to Greece for a third time, and where will you be speaking?
DBS: I’m very happy that I have been invited back to speak at the Resistance Festival, which will be the 29th and the 30th of September at the Fine Arts School. I’m very, very happy to be working together with “Dromos tis Aristeras,” the wonderful weekly which I’ve also been able to send some updates on Puerto Rico and which was very, very active in the campaign to free Oscar.
For me, I have a lifelong interest and affinity with Greece. I even have some Greek ancestry, this is going way back, but it’s been a lifelong interest, a lifelong appreciation of the popular culture, the music, and of course, with the issue of the austerity, with the resistance, with what’s happened with the troika, I immediately saw the similarities with what was happening with Puerto Rico. And then they started calling Puerto Rico “the Greece of the Caribbean.” It’s a very superficial way that it’s used in the news, but there is a deeper truth there. Sometimes in my writings, I’ve talked about Greece as the “Puerto Rico of the Mediterranean,” because I think that we can learn from each other.
I’m hoping to increase the solidarity, increase learning about each other. At first it was really just me, I kind of had this idea, now there is starting to be more interests. There are a couple of organizations in Puerto Rico who have contacted me to try to bring some people to speak from Greece, and there is more interest here. There are a number of different organizations who are now trying to make contact with me. I am open to speak anywhere, with anyone, in English, in Spanish. I’m learning Greek, I’m still not speaking very well, but I’m reading more and I’m hoping at some point to be able to speak well enough to be able to present, if we have someone come [to Puerto Rico] from Greece who does not know Spanish or English, hopefully I’ll know enough to help with that.
But I am hoping that we can continue this collaboration, we continue solidarity, maybe we can have young people from both countries visit each other, cultural exchange with the idea of helping each other’s struggle for a just society, for the ability to take care of ourselves and to stop this continued bleeding of our countries, the continued bleeding of our people, where our young people feel the need to leave. I don’t want to see a Greece without Greeks. I don’t want to see a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans!
MN: In closing, what message would you like to share with our Greek and international audience?
DBS: Μου αρέσει πολύ η Ελληνική κουζίνα, οι Ελληνικές πόλεις, αλληλεγγύη, ελευθερία για την Ελλάδα, ελευθερία για το Πουέρτο Ρίκο, και Viva Puerto Rico libre και Viva Grecia Libre!
MN: Well Déborah, thank you very much for returning to Greece and for returning to Dialogos Radio and for taking the time to speak with us today.
DBS: Thank you.
Please excuse any typos or errors which may exist within this transcript.