Puerto Rico’s crisis isn’t natural disasters — it’s colonialism

A father and son recount their longstanding connections to Puerto Rico and what they have learned from its peoples’ ongoing struggle for liberation.
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From hurricanes to earthquakes to global medical pandemics that frighten the world, Puerto Rico in 2020 faces an overwhelming burden of problems that all relate to its colonial relationship with the United States. Similar to other still-colonized peoples, the ongoing Puerto Rican resistance struggles have much they can teach anyone interested in furthering the project of people’s liberation.

Since the U.S. Marine occupation of the island in 1898, there has been massive organizing among local community groups, civil disobedience against the U.S. Navy bombing of Vieques and conscientious objection to fighting in U.S. wars. There have been several generations of resisters jailed for supporting and fighting for independence — followed by successful efforts to win their release. Meanwhile, there continues to be both local governmental and non-governmental actors working to rebuild and create sustainable sources of energy.

One doesn’t need to live through an earthquake or live under colonial conditions to comprehend the significance of building people-centered alternatives. Nonetheless, in a very short time frame, at the beginning of 2020, these cataclysmic experiences set the context for an activist gathering and many discussions of how grassroots organization can help mobilize efforts for a better tomorrow.

In the following essay, as father and son, we share some of our personal stories from Puerto Rico — from Michael’s experience with January’s earthquake to Matt’s decades-long solidarity work. Then, together, we offer a joint reflection on the inspiring gathering that shows the way to a just future for Puerto Rico. As the world comes together through 2020, there are lessons here for all of us.

Michael: I had never experienced an earthquake before. I was on vacation, my first trip with my girlfriend Eimile McKinnon, and we had arrived in Puerto Rico just one day prior. This was not my first trip to Puerto Rico; I had been twice before with my dad and my godfather: human rights activist and educator Luis Nieves Falcon. Although he passed away a few years ago, I still remember his stories of how U.S. control over parts of the island held back his people and general economic and political development. But this visit was just going to be a standard vacation.

My girlfriend and I spent our first day at the beach and bars, exploring the west coast town we picked because of the great waves, getting to know the local food scene, and buying groceries. On our first night, I slept through a somewhat minor quake, but it was after 4:30 a.m. the next morning when the major earthquake hit.In what is now historical record according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the blast on Jan. 7, 2020 had a magnitude of 6.4, considered “very strong” on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale. It was the island’s worst quake in over 100 years. Perhaps even more significantly, there were an additional 11 significant quakes of an intensity over 5.0, a total of 82 ranging from 4.0 to 4.9, and many hundreds of mini-quake after-shocks of 3.0 or greater which continue to rock southern Puerto Rico.

While we couldn’t even feel some of the minor pre- and post-shocks, Jan. 7 was different. I was literally shaken awake and could tell something was wrong. It felt like the entire building was moving up and down and from side to side. Everything was bumpy, like an airplane taking off on a windy day. It took a few seconds to figure out what was going on. As soon as we did, we threw our clothes on and were out the door and down the stairs.

Once outside, we were greeted by the sound of a blaring alarm. Scared and confused, we looked for anyone who seemed to know what we were supposed to be doing. After a few minutes, we were told that the siren was a tsunami alarm. Being no more than a couple hundred feet from the shore, we raced inland to safety. A quick Google search revealed that the nearest shelter was the hospital in town, about a 20-minute walk from where we were staying. By the time we made it to the hospital, it was clear that the threat of a tsunami was at least temporarily over, so we returned to our AirBnB. Though exhausted, we made our way back, only to find that the power had gone out—but we didn’t care. We assumed everything would be all better by morning, not that dozens of after-shocks were still to come.

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With no electricity, mobile phone batteries running down, and especially the quakes which kept coming, we decided to accept an offer from a family friend, who picked us up and brought us in-land to his home in Aguadilla. Luis Rosa Perez is a well-known activist in his own right, who worked with the Puerto Rican Campaign for Human Rights, which my godfather Luis Nieves Falcon had founded. After years at the University of Puerto Rico as a noted sociologist, author and chair of the Department of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Nieves Falcon left his post to become a lawyer specializing in the cases of the imprisoned Puerto Ricans who had taken action against U.S. colonial control of the islands — including Luis Rosa.

While it was wonderful to learn about Luis’ amazing life and work since his release in 1999 after being granted clemency by President Clinton, we spent too much of our time hopping from one air-conditioned fast food restaurant to another in search of functioning outlets to keep our phones charged and some relief from the heat and worry. Eimile McKinnon planned, along with Luis Rosa, a stateside effort among our college friends and contacts to purchase and send back a much-needed resource to Puerto Rico: a solar and hand-powered unit which included a flashlight, a radio with National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration support to keep up on natural disasters, and a USB output for charging phones. As McKinnon put it: “Having a charged phone isn’t just a modern convenience, but essential to keeping in touch with family and calling for emergency services if needed.” Our “vacation” had turned into something else entirely.

Matt: I still remember my first trip to Puerto Rico quite vividly. My dad had been drafted into the U.S. Army at the very end of the Korean War, just as he was completing his license to teach High School English. The brass gave him a choice: He could go to Asia to fight, or he could go to a beautiful spot in the Caribbean and teach young boys just enough English so they could be sent instead. Dad was neither a leftist nor a peace activist, but that choice plus experiencing Puerto Rico in the 1950’s — as the Nationalist Party was mobilizing tens of thousands and being repressed almost as quickly — was enough to turn him around.

He developed a love for the island and its people, which he wanted to share with me as soon as I “became a man.” The expansive greenery of the great El Yunque Rain Forest, the fresh coconuts, fish, and fruits I’d never heard of, and the warm, smart, and friendly people wherever we went, left their mark on my developing consciousness. My privileges were amplified, decades later, as I was able to call Luis Nieves Falcon my mentor, working as an international coordinator of the strategies he devised to build mass movements to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners and prisoners of war, and work to rid Vieques of U.S. Navy bombing and occupation. From the mid-1980s until May 17 2017 — when Oscar Lopez Rivera, the man widely regarded as “the Mandela of the Americas,” was freed by Barack Obama after over 35 years behind bars — I travelled to the “Caribbean paradise” on too many occasions to count. Several of those trips included my very young son Michael, who had been named godson by our dear Nieves Falcon.

Puerto Rican hero Oscar Lopez Rivera (left) with Mexican Congress of Indigenous leader Betina Cruz and Venezulan leader Livio Rangel (WNV/Matt Meyer)

One Vieques trip was especially memorable, taking place in 2000, just a short while after Luis Rosa and his comrades had gained their freedom (and a few months after Michael was born). Nieves Falcon had put together, with my assistance, a tribunal linking the island struggles for an end to the U.S. Navy occupation and bombing of Vieques with the international call for release of the remaining Puerto Rican political prisoners. Most of the just-released prisoners were there, carefully seated in separate rows as their parole conditions still required that they not have contact with one another. South African poet laureate Dennis Brutus, himself a former prisoner held by the racist apartheid regime (in the same cell used decades earlier to incarcerate Mohandas Gandhi and adjacent to the one that held Nelson Mandela) served as Chair of the Tribunal. He was joined by a panel of fellow jurors, including legendary Puerto Rican educator Antonia Pantojas, Catholic Pax Christi leader Bishop Walter Sullivan, veteran peace activist Dave Dellinger and others.

It was hard not to get caught up with those towering figures on the panel and in the audience. The tribunal, however, was not memorable simply because of their presence. What made this gathering especially poignant — attempting as it was to link mass movements that could shift politics throughout the region — was the countless hours of testimony from Vieques community members. They spoke from a range of fields, ideological perspectives, and communities as if with one voice.

They recounted decades of lies and corporate manipulations, genocidal practices of forced and sometimes secret sterilization of women, illegal uses of radioactive materials causing substantially increased cancer rates well above any average population sampling, and harsh repression against anyone who spoke out. In short, they told of the ways in which the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico was, and had long been, at the center of a looming catastrophe connecting extensive human rights abuses and the contamination of the land.

It was thus a sense of clarity and new visions of 21st century solidarity that led me to organize, in 2018 with Luis Rosa, a post-Hurricane Maria delegation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest U.S.-based inter-faith peace organization for which I served as National co-Chair. Our intensive travels included visits to Ajuntas, where the mountain community group Casa Pueblo had been at the center of extraordinarily successful alternative energy relief efforts, using solar power and Indigenous methods to rebuild in the wake of the climate crisis induced devastation. We were shown around the communities of Comerio and Loiza, where the mayors of those towns showed us how local government was playing a positive role despite the recalcitrance of the federal U.S. authorities. We spent time in Vieques and throughout San Juan, meeting with people from all political parties, including the historic pro-independence leader Rafael Cancel Miranda. Oscar Lopez Rivera, whose foundation served as the local host of the trip, accompanied us for much of our time together.

Our summary observations were clear: There is, as the headlines proclaim, a great crisis in Puerto Rico today. The name of the crisis, however, is not Maria or any other natural disaster. The name of the crisis — a human rights, political and economic crisis complicated by man-made environmental factors — is colonialism.

Michael and Matt: Planning for a convergence called the “Gathering of the Americas: Resistance, Environments, Decolonization, Indigeneity” had begun well before thoughts of earthquakes or global pandemics crossed our minds or headlines. Set to take place from Jan. 17-20, 2020, under the auspices of the International Peace Research Association, delegates from across the Caribbean basin gathered in the occupied nation of Puerto Rico. As Luis Rosa noted, “The timing could not have been better to spotlight the problems of a people not able to shape or control our own destiny. The delegates from across the Americas saw both the difficulties and the spirit of fight-back bound up in the Puerto Rican experience.”

Given the circumstances immediately and undeniably before us, the gathering’s focus turned to the connections between human rights, self-determination, and basic environmental and personal safety. In attendance were representatives of movements from Venezuela, Haiti, Trinidad, Indigenous Mexico, and the disputed territories of the United States — including from the lands of the Lenape, Ute, and Haudenosaunee (six nations) Confederacy. As the Consortium of North American Peace Programs Founder Hakim Williams of Trinidad noted, we came with a shared commitment that peoples have the right and power to “radically decolonize and re-envision their own communities on their own terms.”

Delegates were hosted by the Oscar López Rivera Foundation and worked closely with Puerto Rican former political prisoners Rosa Pérez, Adolfo Matos Antongiorgi, Alberto Rodríguez, Alicia, Ida Luz Rodríguez and López Rivera himself. Through multiple formats on multiple days, these delegates came together to discuss the intersection of ecology, climate change, and anticolonial resistance in order to understand more deeply one another’s liberation struggles and build a shared strategy for overcoming the extractive capitalism that is ripping the Earth, the biosphere and its peoples apart. Attendees renewed and updated their shared commitment to human liberation within a practice of restoring global ecological balance, rooted in the advancement and growth of non-capitalist and Indigenous-centered modes of production to be essential and irreducible.

Matt Meyer (right) with other participants in the Puerto Rico gathering (WNV/Meg Starr)

The stakes could not have been higher. Arriving directly after the recent mega-earthquakes, the convergence of this delegation concluded with the eruption of a spontaneous series of mass protests and calls for a general strike. The discovery of hoarded and criminally-unused water supplies in a warehouse in the city of Ponce — whose existence only came to light due to activists who broke into an EPA storage facility — highlighted the connections between colonial occupation and climate-induced genocide, which is especially prevalent in the Caribbean. With López Rivera and a cadre of Puerto Rican former political prisoners now active throughout the island, and the effects of Hurricane Maria and the new wave of earthquake devastation still deeply embedded in the consciousness of most people, Puerto Rico stands at the precipice of both climate catastrophe and a post-neoliberal revolution.

Within this overwhelmingly dramatic framework, delegates were moved to learn of a paradigm shift in how resistance work is conceptualized. At Casa Pueblo, the community center based in the mountain town of Adjuntas which hosted a key part of the delegation’s activities, the revolutionary activism of the Puerto Rican independence movement has been both institutionalized and advanced in exciting and essential new eco-centric directions. Beginning with anti-mining campaigns in 1980, Casa Pueblo has evolved into a project of “communal self-administration,” which includes a coffee cooperative, a butterfly nursery, solar panel production and distribution, and a massive reforesting initiative led at the grassroots and communal level.

Having planted over 30,000 trees, Casa Pueblo moves beyond top-down reforestation by ensuring that community mobilization, from below and to the left, is at the core of its ecological practice. Reforestation efforts become sites of political education, a kind of people’s school for learning about how plant, animal, and environmental systems interact. Families name the trees they plant in order to ensure intergenerational connections to the land. While whole new ecosystems are being produced, “new” human beings are emerging empowered through Freirean practices of liberation pedagogy.

The founders of Casa Pueblo, Tinti Deya and Alexis Massol González, rose to prominence in the 1980s as leaders of the successful movement to thwart the U.S. government’s “2020 Plan,” a top-secret program designed to clear the mountainous region of central Puerto Rico through ethnic cleansing. The 2020 Plan, discovered by clandestine independentistas who raided a government facility, was a widescale extractive mining project that included the construction of industrial parks and military research facilities — all of which were supposed to be completed and operational by this year. Also included was an experimental program associated with manipulating environmental catastrophes in order to generate outcomes beneficial to the U.S. empire — a precursor to the ongoing U.S. military apparatus now known as HAARP.

Massol González is now a Goldman Environmental Prize recipient and well-respected scientist and local leader. He shared a hug with original solidarity activist Meg Starr of the Free Puerto Rico Committee, who helped to lead U.S. support efforts from the 1980s onwards. Together they noted the need for continued vigilance because the 2020 Plan — despite being stopped in its original form — lives on in related efforts under other names.

Nevertheless, resistance continues, often in simple acts of everyday organizing and the building of alternatives. Holding up a solar light bulb system developed and used in rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts throughout Puerto Rico, Massol González chuckled: “This might not look like a tool or weapon of revolutionary activity, but it is!”

Our ability to actually see both the colonial government’s plans and the longstanding community’s resistance to them produced a visceral reaction in the delegation, especially those who are fighting against similar top-down, colonialist, extractivist and eco-genocidal plans in their own contexts. Shirley Fabre, a Haitian-American activist, founding member of immigrant defense network Proyecto Faro, and U.N. representative of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, remarked that such industrial parks have already been built in Haiti. The destruction of subsistence farming and land access fueled its labor force and ensured that the Earthquake of 2010 was uniquely destructive. Indigenous and Human Rights defender Bettina Cruz noted that these plans looked remarkably similar to the current neoliberal program of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is planning to build a massive industrial corridor connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The Mexican government plan is considered one of the largest mega-projects ever conceived of in the Americas. Its impact on ecologies, human rights and Indigenous patrimonies would be devastating and irreversible. The Istmus megaproject, as it is known, has already constructed thousands of windmills on Indigenous cornfields without the consent of the local peoples — and is expected to construct thousands more. “They finally found a value for air,” joked Cruz, a member of the Indigenous Government Council for Mexico (an initiative of the National Indigenous Congress of Mexico).

Thus is raised the essential question of not only renewable energy technology itself, but also who controls and consumes it: “the peoples or the corporations that have produced the climate crisis.” This is an important distinction that the historic struggles of Indigenous communities call upon all peoples to answer. Casa Pueblo provides one such answer in the context of the Caribbean, characterized by Cruz as an honorary “Caracole of Resistance” — a Zapatista reference to small, independent, self-sustained spaces in the face of globalization.

Venezuela-based Trueke (bartering) organizer and water-sower Livio Rangel also commended Casa Pueblo and their “sowing of forests” as a meaningful and essential activity of decolonization and ecological regeneration. In the wake of the massive fires in Australia and the Brazilian Amazon of the past year, this activity is especially essential. Noting that capitalism now systemically produces mass ecological catastrophe especially of this variety, the sowing of forests is vital not only for restoring ecological commons and producing oxygen, but also to serve as buffers for future hurricanes. Citing the First Ecosocialist International’s Plan of Action and noting that we were meeting over the weekend widely celebrated as the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., Rangel noted: “We must dream and act without sleeping!”

Guinea-Bissau revolutionary strategist and leader Amilcar Cabral once noted, “Just as occurs with the flower in a plant, the capacity (or responsibility) for forming and fertilizing the germ which ensures the continuity of history lies in culture.”

Our time together in Puerto Rico emphasized the role of culture in germinating its experimental commons. One of Casa Pueblo’s early anti-mining events, we were told, had several speakers but only one attendee — a heartbreaking image — but with the mobilization of communities through dance and music, their numbers grew into the thousands. “The culture of an oppressed group is always revolutionary,” Massol González reflected.

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Understanding the Caribbean as a cultural heart of resistance to colonialism, we celebrated the production of anticolonial musical forms that have dominated popular consciousness and the language of liberation — such as salsa, bomba y plena, meringue, reggae and hip-hop (whose pioneers include many Jamaican emigrants to the north). Our own opening event featured a spotlight on the Puerto Rican folk styles of iconic singer and guitarist Marta Rodriguez, whose contributions included a version of Boricua en la Luna, the classic poem of Juan Antonio Corretjer put to music by Roy Brown. After the official gathering was completed, some remaining delegates were able to meet with the people who inspired that poem, Lucy and Alicia Rodriguez, and visit Taino sites in Loiza and the El Yunque rain forest.

The Afro-Yaqi Music Ensemble — which fuses jazz, Indigenous Mexican opera, and many other cultural forms — also played an important part in our time together. Co-founders Gizelxanath Rodriguez and Ben Barson noted that “Louisiana also forms an essential part of the Caribbean, and all those committed to the elevation of culture as an essential part of our shared human rights work must help to recuperate ancestral cosmologies and modes of production and social reproduction.” Their words and work blended perfectly with the hand-made maracas and percussion instruments brought to the gathering from Venezuela and played by all participants. We must understand that politics and culture are equivalent and codependent expressions of human existence and self-determination.

With these lessons, meetings, and examples firmly engrained in our minds, delegates agreed to develop a strategy that will help unite an anticapitalist, anticolonial movement in the Caribbean basin in which the self-determination of peoples is linked with ecological regeneration and the restoration of ancestral modes of production. We also agreed to stay in contact with and send representatives to related future gatherings in Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and beyond — towards the possible formation of a Caribbean Anticolonial Ecological Network. A vital part of these continuations includes linking with another new, related global initiative, the Network of Occupied Peoples, and remaining sensitively in contact with Indigenous peoples from throughout the Americas.

We encourage all people of conscience and all those who struggle for the survival of humanity to learn more about each of these initiatives and movements, and help us achieve our objectives.

This story was produced by IPRA Peace Search

Founded in 1964 to advance research on the conditions of peace and the causes of war and violence — with five regional associations covering every corner of the planet — the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) is the world’s most established multi-disciplinary professional organization in the field of peace, human rights and conflict studies.

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