In July, Fire This Time interviewed Puerto Rican revolutionary activists Jocelyn Velázquez and Rogelio Maldonado in Puerto Rico. ("We are the best example of the disaster that has been created by the capitalist system," FTT Volume 12, Issue 7)
This month, we continue the important discussion about Puerto Rico with Frank Velgara, a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora living and organizing in New York City. Frank is with the Coordinating Committee of Call to Action on Puerto Rico, which formed in 2015 to confront the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) that was being passed by the Obama administration. He is also with the New York Committee of the Socialist Front of Puerto Rico.
Fire This Time (FTT): Over one year since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, it has been exposed, even in mainstream media, that at least 3,000 people died. This is a devastating death toll that the U.S. government continues to deny. How does this, and the destruction that the hurricane brought to the island, demonstrate the complete failure of the Trump administration towards the people of Puerto Rico?
Frank Velgara: First, it is important to note that with the establishment of the fiscal control board to oversee all of the institutions: legislative, cultural, economic, on the island, the Trump administration, after the Obama administration passed the PROMESA bill, was ready to encourage investment in Puerto Rico, working tandem with the colonial government. They passed several laws to make it easier for U.S. corporate interests to invest in Puerto Rico.
They were already in the process of doing that in coordination with Ricardo Rosselló, the pro-statehood governor. So, when the hurricane hit, the infrastructure of the colony, which was already weak, collapsed and the legislature convened, and the pro-statehood governor reached out to the Trump administration. Their response was to send FEMA aid supposedly. That said, containers of which are still rotting today in the Port of San Juan, never reached the people and the Trump administration saw it as another opportunity to put another feather in the cap of their administration.
Rosa Clemente, one of the activists here, went to Puerto Rico and sent back video of the FEMA people partying in the hotels, and getting drunk, meanwhile, the people didn’t have food and water and had difficulty travelling because all of the roads were blocked.
This is a classic empire-colony situation, an expected response to the disaster. It happened with the British in India; it happened with the French in Algiers and other parts of Africa with the British. It underscores the colonial relationship that each administration has had with the colony of Puerto Rico.
The hurricane, the level of devastation, the response of the Trump administration of “why are these Puerto Ricans whining” or “it's not that bad, FEMA is there.” The idea that the colonial government was trying to help it not true.
The comrades Jocelyn and Rogelio, that you interviewed previously, who live in San Juan were alerted immediately after the hurricane struck that an elderly person who needed oxygen wasn’t getting it, so they took the lady to the offices of the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín, and they said, “Look there is nothing that we can do, just call us when she dies, and we will send somebody bags.” All of that was sanctioned by the Trump administration.
It was difficult for the people, even the mainstream media, to believe the level of incompetence that was going on.
FTT: How do you see the current political situation in Puerto Rico? It seems there have been increasing struggles, strikes and protests over the past year.
FV: Several things have happened regarding the growth of resistance on the island. That resistance started with the first meeting of the financial control board under Obama at the Condado Hilton Hotel. Thousands of people, mainly young people and students, shut that down. They called the tactical police force, the local police, the Puerto Rican National Guard – what we call la fuerza de choque. There was rock throwing, and a bottle was thrown, and confrontations like those that hadn’t been seen. That was before the hurricane.
Already, people like the folks who you interviewed when your comrade went to Puerto Rico, the movement la Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas, were forming a coalition with youth and a lot of the pro-Independence folk to stop that first meeting, while we were doing the same thing here down on Wall Street. We coordinated with them to shut-down the first meeting. People were arriving in their limousines, and they were jumping back into their cars. We had people inside, people outside picketing.
That was the beginning of us realizing here in the diaspora that there was a new crop of activists and militants, people that saw what was happening with bringing minimum wage down to $4.25 from $7.30, or the raiding of the pension funds for retirees. There was already the beginning of that effervescent movement.
It was good that that was happening, because the people that joined that beginning resistance, who were from the Comedores Sociales initiative, who were already doing work in the communities to feed the homeless, people from the feminist movement, and the LGBT movement, they were all involved in beginning to form what was to become the la Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas movement.
When the hurricane hits, on the one hand, there were these people who were already beginning to organize themselves. The best thing that happened was that the building that housed the teacher’s federation of Puerto Rico wasn’t touched. It became the coordinating base for all of the progressive and community organizations. That resistance began.
The same type of movement began within the unions; the Dock Workers Union (UTM); the Independent Union of Airport Workers (UITA); the UTIER (Union of Electrical Workers) historically has been one of the most militant unions on the island, and one of the most powerful because they control the electrical infrastructure; and the Teacher’s Federation (UMPR). Those historically have been linked to the independence movement.
The fact that the Teacher’s Federation had the physical building to be the coordinating base helped and helped us to identify who needed funds. We set up a GoFundMe in the first three or four months that raised about $10-12,000 to be distributed by the people we have known for years down there.
The Santos father and son, who were the leaders of the Electrical Workers, also began to call a meeting of Procol. ProSol was Pro-Solidarity, and it has been around, but it has been mainly dormant, until the resistance of the control board and then the total lack of aid coming from the Trump administration after the hurricane hit.
This has been very encouraging for us who are organizing the pro-Independence diaspora here in the United States and working with progressive and left forces here to do that.
The other thing is, is that this resistance is multi-generational. For a long time, the people leading the movement were my generation or older, so the fact that there is a whole new crop is encouraging. An interesting note is that when the first giant demonstration was called against the fiscal control board in San Juan at the Condado Hilton, the traditional Independence organizations were slow to respond. The young people talked to the youth arms of the PIP (Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño), of the MINH (Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano), and the MST (Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores). The young people from these organizations just joined. They didn’t wait for a big discussion, for the leadership to discuss, they just went out into the streets.
It was great because, I went to the last Congress of the MST as an observer, but of the roughly 80 or 90 full members, over 70% were young people. They were the sons and daughters of a lot of the comrades I have known. I was a founding member of the Socialist Front; I used to go to the island six and seven times a year, I was a founding member of the MST when the MST fused with the PSR (Partido Socialista Revolucionario). My connection to Puerto Rico has been solid since my grandmother was a Nationalist activist.
FTT: What are the immediate needs of the people of Puerto Rico today?
FV: There is a need for material aid. What we have done since the hurricane hit is identified left and progressive forces and Unions and environmental groups that have been there for years because we know that because of their anticolonial stature they are not getting aid.
For example, one of the biggest non-profits, in the U.S., which is United Way, made a special call to raise millions to send water to Puerto Rico, and do you know what they did? They sent it to WalMart in Puerto Rico three months after the hurricane, and they proceeded to sell the water to the people that could get to the WalMart.
There is an issue of material aid, but what I was telling the audience at the People’s Forum is that we need to identify the people that have history and that represent the new resistance because we have to come up with ways to support them.
We brought organizers from Se Acabaron Las Promesas on tour during the United Nations hearing to meet with different communities here, and we had to raise money to do that. Call to Action on Puerto Rico is more focused on raising political support. The interview by Fire This Time from Puerto Rico was excellent, that is the kind of support, political and moral along with raising aid for the people that we know are there that are part of the progressive and left and resistance movement on the island.
Also, educating the diaspora here, which is what we are trying to do building this network. When the hurricane hit, we had people in Nashville, Tennessee, in Connecticut, in Boston, in Philly, in Newark, New Jersey, Jersey City, New York City. All of us have family and comrades in Puerto Rico, so the lack of communication created a lot of trauma for many of us. But, we knew that we had to reach out to the movement folks there because we know that they are not going to get any aid.
La Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas, when they do their pickets and demonstrations, they have to scramble around for funds.
FTT: Considering all the difficulties facing Puerto Rico today, is one of the biggest steps to help the island and the people of Puerto Rico the independence of Puerto Rico from the colonial United States?
FV: Yes. One of the wake-up calls that the masses of people in Puerto Rico have started to awaken to is that the U.S. administration is not our friends. The response of the Trump administration and the U.S. non-profits has created a new level of consciousness among people. That is one of the elements that are fueling the resistance movement because people who were not that active, or not active at all, are now like, “Oh no, this is messed up, we have to stop these people, they are not helping us, we have to help ourselves.” That little bit of self-reliance has been fed by the response of the U.S. Federal government.
The new crop of activists was not waiting for the debate to happen in the Independence movement. They hit the streets, and even though it is multi-generational, it is mostly younger people. We are talking about people in their 20’s and 30’s that are very progressive, they come from traditions of independence, out of organizing in the student movement, etc. They have been hit hard too. Before the hurricane, they had closed 340 public schools in Puerto Rico. Since the hurricane and the installation of this the education person that was sent by the Trump administration, they have closed another 400. They are giving them away to the evangelical movement, to the private charter movement. Puerto Rico was one of the few places where charter schools were not imposed on the public school system, and now they see it as an opportunity to do that.
FTT: Is there anything else that you would like to say?
FV: We appreciate the internationalism and the solidarity you comrades have shown in reaching out to us to educate folks around the reality of the colony of the Empire of the United States, Puerto Rico.
FTT: Thank you.
Follow Alison on Twitter: @Alisoncolette
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