May 27, 2024

'Puerto Rico Has Become a Microcosm for the Worst Kind of Capitalist Ideas' – FAIR

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Janine Jackson interviewed Center for Popular Democracy’s Julio López Varona about Puerto Rico colonialism for the  September 30, 2022, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Puerto Rico is in dire need of fuel for generators as they deal with the devastation of Hurricane Fiona. But a ship carrying fuel has been idling offshore, unable to enter a port, because it’s Puerto Rico, where the Jones Act—requiring that all goods be brought in on a US-built ship, owned and crewed by US citizens, and flying the US flag—makes critical goods more expensive, or in this case, out of reach. (The White House has just announced it will temporarily waive the Jones Act.)
Bloomberg (9/28/22)
Investment firms in mainland states can’t act as advisors to the government in the issue of bonds while at the same time marketing those bonds to investors—but they can in Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico, you can get tax breaks, including zero income tax on capital gains—unless, that is, you were born on the island. Only non–Puerto Ricans qualify.
Puerto Ricans themselves are ineligible for Supplemental Security Income, even though they pay payroll taxes.
All of which is to suggest that the story of Puerto Rico’s ability to prepare for, withstand and recover from natural disasters starts long before the storm.
We’re joined now by Julio López Varona, co-chief of campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy. He joins us by phone from San Juan. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Julio López Varona.
Julio López Varona: Thank you for having me.
JJ: There are a number of ways you could illustrate the tangle of predatory policy and political disempowerment and just exploitation that are the ongoing crisis for Puerto Rico, before and after any natural disasters.
Center for Popular Democracy (8/22)
But I know that you worked recently looking at how that all plays out in one very important sector: pharmaceuticals. What did that research show about how things work in Puerto Rico?
JLV: We have been interested in looking at how the colonial economy of Puerto Rico plays out in different sectors for a while.
We’ve been specifically interested in thinking about how pharmaceutical companies are, in many ways, doing what they said they would do with the billions of dollars that we give them every year through tax exemptions.
This is part of a decades-old practice to give billions of dollars of tax exemptions to pharma, which have phased out, in many cases, because of changes in our economy, but still remain.
And we were interested in thinking through how these tax exemptions were actually helping communities have a good life, how they were allowing people to actually have a dignified salary, and all those things.
And when we dug in, we started talking to workers in the security and cleaning space, and in those cases, we found thousands of workers that, in many cases, were subcontracted by pharmaceutical companies, and were getting paid minimum wage, had the baseline of benefits that Puerto Ricans get.
And it was really interesting for us, because the pharmaceutical company for a long time had been sold as, what I say parallels to the “American dream,” the “Puerto Rican dream”: This is how you get out of poverty. This is how you have a family. But we find these thousands of workers that are actually not doing that.
And it brings about the question what is the economy? And why are we providing these tax exemptions when they are not benefiting Puerto Ricans? And, more importantly, who are they benefiting?
Emisférica (2018)
Why are we continuing to do this, and why are we not being able to take advantage of the billions of dollars that could be put for our economy, and more in moments like this, one where we have hurricanes happening, and where we have people struggling with issues with relocation, issues with droughts and flooding.
In the case of Hurricane Fiona specifically, we have workers that we’ve been talking to that lost their homes while working [for] these pharma companies, that say that they’ve been the first ones to step up after other hurricanes.
So we have a really interesting moment, where pharma says it’s ready, but we have thousands of thousands of workers that are struggling in a moment of crisis.
JJ: In some ways, it sounds very familiar to the kind of promises that companies make here on the mainland as well, that, you know, “Give us these tax breaks and we’ll create all these good jobs that will lift people out of poverty.”
And there’s often very little follow-up to see whether they’re actually creating that many jobs to begin with, before you even get to whether their wages are actually really lifting people out of poverty.
Politico (9/19/22)
JLV: Yeah. We often say that Puerto Rico has become a microcosm for the worst kind of experiment on capitalist ideas. We’ve seen those ideas be translated into extreme privatization, like what’s happening right now with the electrical grid, which still is not able to provide electricity to all Puerto Rican families, like 12 or 13 days after Hurricane Fiona.
We’ve seen the impact of what you were referring a little bit earlier around tax exemptions for the rich, and this idea of trickle-down economics—like the rich come, and everybody’s better.
And then we’ve seen what’s happening with all of these corporations. Pharma is a great example, but we also know that Puerto Rico has the highest density of Walmarts and Walgreens, and those companies are also displacing Puerto Rican local companies.
So all of the things that neoliberalism has preached for a long time, that are the way in which you make capitalism flourish, are happening in Puerto Rico, and in many ways the agenda is one that has been accomplished successfully.
It’s really good if you have money. It’s really, really bad if you’re a person that doesn’t have money, and isn’t able to take advantage of all the programs that benefit the wealthy.
CNN (9/24/22)
JJ: And isn’t able to jet away to your second home when a hurricane comes.
Part of the “Misery, Yet Again, for Puerto Ricans,” which was part of a CNN headline, part of that narrative is Puerto Ricans are in such a perennial hole because they can’t pay off their debt.
Now, we can’t do the long version of this, necessarily, but I just don’t know that you could get into an elite media conversation by explaining that, in reality, Puerto Rico has paid any debt that it rightfully owed long ago, yeah?
JLV: I would even say, if we simplified very much, there is a historical reason why Puerto Rico was in its debt crisis, and it is at the center of it because of colonialism.
Puerto Ricans, like Puerto Rico’s economy, have been controlled by the US since the US came to Puerto Rico.
If you look at the change in the way in which we went from our own currency to US currency, that’s benefited people from the US. When we see the changes that happen when it came to the crops that were used in the ’20s. And then when we looked at pharma and the companies that came, or the military invasion, there are many examples of how the Puerto Rican economy has been driven by the interests of the US.
So even if we argue that the final result of this was that there was a debt crisis that was made in Puerto Rico, that would not tell the whole story.
New York (4/17/19)
And even if you told that story, you should also account for the fact that this debt, in many cases, was illegal.
This debt that, in many cases, as you said, was already paid. And that the people that are currently negotiating that debt are the same people that, in some cases, make money out of it.
So it’s a very, very complex situation that at the end has to do with colonialism, economic control of Puerto Ricans’ future, and greed. Greed in the worst way possible. Greed when it comes to hedge funds that decided to come to Puerto Rico, knowing that Puerto Rico would default, and extract as much wealth as they could. And greed when it came to the people that were running Puerto Rico, and decided that they wanted to move forward with an agenda that, at the end of the day, was extremely good for those that had money—which is kind of a theme in this conversation—and really, really dire for people that live here, and in some cases have been driven out of Puerto Rico because of those economic conditions.
JJ: Finally, when we’ve spoken before, it seems we always come around to talking about dignity, to talking about leading with the dignity of human beings in the policies that we make.
And I just wanted to add, there is, when you learn about what’s happening in Puerto Rico, you see that there is, beyond pushback to each new indignity, there is long-term organizing and growing happening that provides a way to at least look forward. Isn’t that true?
Julio López Varona: “What Puerto Ricans want and deserve is respect. They deserve a voice in the decisions that are made about their economy and their future.”
JLV: Yeah. Five years ago, when Hurricane Maria happened, everybody talked about Puerto Rico se levanta, “Puerto Rico rises up.” This time, after Hurricane Fiona, people are talking about solo el pueblo salva al pueblo. So “only the people save the people.”
People understand that what’s happening in Puerto Rico is wrong. People understand that we cannot trust the government anymore, and that we need to organize and support each other.
We’ve also gotten to the point where “resiliency” is not a good word. “Resiliency” is actually a bad word. What Puerto Ricans want and deserve is respect. They deserve a voice in the decisions that are made about their economy and their future.
And they deserve, in many cases, reparations. They deserve that the people that have put us in this position step up and actually allow us to have the resources we need so that we can rebuild ourself, without the oversight of anybody, but with the power of the people at the center of the conversation and the actions taken.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Julio López Varona, co-chief of campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy. They’re online at Julio López Varona, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
JLV: Thank you for having me.
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Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director and producer/host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR’s newsletter Extra!, and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC‘s Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.
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