In 1898, the exhausted Spanish empire illegally gave away Puerto Rico to the United States at the end of the Spanish-America War.
Gen. Nelson Miles, an architect of the massacre of indigenous peoples in the 19th century in this country, then invaded Puerto Rico and established a military outpost that led to the banishment of the Spanish language from the schools and a long list of other heinous crimes, some which have been corrected and others that have gone unchanged.
Now Congress debates whether to address the mammoth $72 billion debt Puerto Rico holds due to its own corrupt officials starting in the 1990s, the greed of hedge fund managers who lent the island money in return for usurious fees, and Congress itself.
“The fact is that the Congress of the United States retains plenary powers over everything in Puerto Rico,” said Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., recently at a congressional hearing about the debt: “Let’s restructure this debt.”
Because we don’t control our shores nor sky – the U.S. military does.
We don’t control our commerce – the U.S. manages that also.
Everything we buy arrives on U.S.-flagged ships, making everything more expensive because we can’t buy directly wholesale from any business.
In fact, big business points to the U.S. Constitution to avoid paying an increase in taxes.
Wal-Mart filed a lawsuit in December against the government of Puerto Rico, saying it was violating the U.S. Constitution. The Puerto Rico government wants to raise businesses taxes by between .5 to 4.5 percent.
With the swagger of a conqueror, Wal-Mart, which makes $3 billion a year in sales there, threatens to leave Puerto Rico and close its 55 stores (Including Sam’s Clubs and Amigo supermarkets) that employ about 15,000 people if the court does not rule in its favor.
We have a representative in Congress who does not have a vote, only the power of vocal persuasion. We have a Wal-Mart empire bullying Puerto Rico.
We have been sent to wars by presidents we could not vote for, we pay federal taxes that are hidden in the price of imported goods.
In this country, we look at statues from the Spanish-American War in Greenfield and Easthampton and elsewhere honoring the American soldiers whose sacrifices led to our being taken over by the U.S. and we have hollow parades to spur pride even as we remain impoverished and marginalized.
Creditors who bought municipal bonds in Puerto Rico at .30 to .50 cents on the dollar want to get a complete dollar back plus interest. That’s why they’re called vultures.
Against this backdrop of greed and colonization, Gutiérrez implores his colleagues: “Can’t we provide the people of Puerto Rico the incentives to create jobs, jobs, jobs? Economic activity instead of expansion of more welfare programs in Puerto Rico? What we need is jobs so that the people of Puerto Rico can use their intelligence, because when the people of Puerto Rico leave and vanish from that island to come to the United States of America, guess what they do? They come here to work.”
Miles was from Westminster, about 60 miles east of here.
Connections bind us through centuries, geographies and personal histories.
My grandmother was a 29-year-old public school teacher in Puerto Rico, 1937, when she testified before an ACLU commission. She told them that forcing students to learn all their subjects in English marred their opportunities to succeed.
She was fired within hours.
She wrote to then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, asking for help: “It is hard for us to believe that a policy of economic sanctions against public servants for their opinions and beliefs would have the approval of the highest authority.”
The first lady replied: “I can see that you would feel the necessity to express your convictions, but I do not see how it would be possible for you to remain in the public school system holding those convictions, for if you think the children should study primarily in Spanish and that Porto (sic) Rico should be free, you would naturally find it difficult to teach in English and to point out the advantage of being part of the United States. With deep regret that I cannot be of any assistance…”
Spanish was restored as the language for learning in 1949.
By that time, my grandfather, who met my grandmother at that ACLU hearing, had been elected governor of Puerto Rico. He issued an executive order.
When my abuela died, an elementary school teacher and her students threw flower petals at abuela’s funeral car as it rounded a curve in the mountains of Puerto Rico, where she was buried next to her husband in tiny Barranquitas. They yelled, “Adiós, maestra!”
We lose some. We win some.
What’s next is up to Congress.
Listen to the Vaya con Muñoz segment on The Bill Newman Show on Wednesdays 9:30 am and Saturdays at 10 am on WHMP 1400 AM.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.