Photo of Puerto Rican capital building by Mariam S.
By now, most Americans are aware of Puerto Rico’s financial woes, which are comparable to those of Greece and Detroit. The U.S. territory’s public debt has ballooned to more than $72 billion, and the government is already defaulting on its payments to bondholders.
Some members of the U.S. Congress are proposing a fiscal control board that would have totalitarian powers to squeeze Puerto Rico’s economy. Such a body would likely slash spending on health, welfare, education and basic infrastructure, privatize government functions, lay off thousands of public employees, raid pension funds, and even lower the minimum wage.
In April, “Hamilton” star Lin Manuel Miranda made a plea for his native Puerto Rico on John Oliver’s show on HBO. His rap was educational indeed, but he did not call for debt forgiveness. He pretty much assumed that we Puerto Ricans must pay up, albeit with favorable terms and an extended timeline.
Same thing with Vermont senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who came to Puerto Rico on May 16, looking for support in the local Democrat primaries, which will take place early next month. He decried austerity and Wall Street greed in his rally at the University of Puerto Rico theater. But he did not question the debt itself.
Well Lin Manuel and Bernie, I’ve got one proposition for you and other Americans: Puerto Rico owes nothing.
Back in 1898, when the United States defeated Spain in a war over Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, the Spanish government asked about the money it was owed by Cuba, some $400 million. The U.S. delegation responded that Cuba owed nothing, given that the Caribbean island nation had been ruled by an undemocratic, unaccountable colonial power.
In other words, the U.S. government declared that debts under colonialism are not valid, that only a free and sovereign people can assume responsibility for a debt. In fact, this negotiation between the United States and Spain led legal scholars to formulate the concept of odious debt.
Sanders said the United States is treating Puerto Rico like a colony. Pardon me senator, but Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and has been since 1898. According to the agreement known as the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. Congress has sovereignty over Puerto Rico. That treaty has never been abrogated and is still the law of the land, 118 years later.
Residents of Puerto Rico have no presidential vote, no representation in the U.S. Congress, and cannot join international organizations like the United Nations. If that’s not colonialism, what is?
In fact, we can rightfully argue that the United States owes Puerto Rico reparations.
In June, the United Nations Decolonization Committee will review Puerto Rico’s case once more. We should all take the opportunity to tell the U.N., the Obama administration and the world: Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S., therefore Puerto Rico owes nothing.
Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican author and journalist. He is a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. His Twitter account is @carmeloruiz.