How to Boil a Puerto Rican

War Against All Puerto Ricans, the website and blog launched to promote Nelson A. Denis’s must-read text on the Puerto Rican independence movement and the U.S. efforts to thwart it during the mid-20th century, takes umbrage this morning at a recent article published by the Miami New Times:

In a recent article titled “Puerto Rico is Broke: What You Need to Know About Looming Bankruptcy,” the Miami New Times got a few facts wrong. It claimed that Puerto Rico owes $79 billion (not $73 billion) and that “millions” of Puerto Ricans are living in Florida.

But they did something worse. The entire article dealt with the devastating problems in Puerto Rico: a sinking economy, soaring crime rate, massive outmigration, inept government. Then after reciting all these grave issues, the article ended with this:

How are Puerto Ricans dealing with all of this? About as you’d expect:

“This is fine.”

A word to the Miami New Times: this is not fine.

Though just this week I compared the colony of Puerto Rico to “an old battered dog—too timid to bite its master’s hand and too afraid to flee,” the depiction of Puerto Ricans as cockeyed pups sitting contently in a burning house as they sip their cafecitos is inaccurate. The Miami New Times should have compared Puerto Ricans to frogs sitting in a boiling pot.

As the analogy goes, a frog dropped into boiling water will immediately leap for safety. But if you place a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature, the frog, being cold-blooded, will sit in the water until it is boiled alive.

The tale of the boiling frog is an old one and is now known to be based on a false premise. Frog will leap from warming water in order to keep their body temperatures within a safe range.

The same cannot be said of Puerto Ricans.

Back in 1898, the island of Puerto Rico and its people were placed in a red-white-and-blue pot, one in which many of them believed they would enjoy more freedoms than they had previously. But the U.S. government soon began increasing the water’s temperature, first with the Foraker Act of 1900 that imposed a U.S.-appointed governor and executive council, followed by the Insular Cases beginning in 1901 outlining the limited rights of America’s colonial subjects. The Jones Act of 1917 made Puerto Ricans second-class citizens of the United States, eligible to have their blood spilt in U.S. wars, but ineligible to vote for president or have full representation in Congress.

In an effort to clean its imperialist image after 1945 and appear as a model of democracy in contrast to the Soviet bloc, Washington granted Puerto Ricans the right to elect their own governor and draft their own constitution, the latter of which was approved by Washington only after Puerto Rico agreed to remove a section of its original bill of rights guaranteeing, among other things, the right to free primary and secondary education, the right to work, and the right to a good standard of living, including decent housing and health care.

Besides taking these steps, the U.S. government also has maintained a persistent campaign against the people of Puerto Rico — “a war to the death against all Puerto Ricans,” as police chief Col. Riggs openly declared in 1935 — in the form of persecution of independentistas and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies that has encouraged dependency and plunged the island into debt slavery.

I’m fine with people comparing Puerto Ricans to a dog sitting happily in a burning house, but then those people have to ask themselves: who started the fire? A common explanation of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is to blame the financial mismanagement of the colonial government, which always sounds to me a bit like imputing the shabby living conditions of a slave to his inability to spend a dollar wisely. Whatever hole San Juan has dug for itself, it has dug it under duress and out of desperation. Now on the verge of implosion, Puerto Rico’s economy has performed as all colonial economies are designed to perform.

The United States has always planned to boil Puerto Ricans alive.

[Photo: Patrick McDonald / Flickr]