Uncertainty rises in Puerto Rico as the Fiscal Control Board presented the 2017-18 government budget. For this reason some Puerto Ricans are preparing for what could be the worst austerity period in the country’s history, which may include: massive layoffs, tuition hikes, and a corporate takeover of Puerto Rico’s natural resources.
However, Puerto Rican activists are organizing on many fronts. After ending a statewide strike, the student movement at the University of Puerto Rico remains vigilant while an autonomous civic group (Frente Ciudadano por la Auditoria de la Deuda) is organizing to audit the debt, and a feminist collective (Colectiva Feminista en Construcción) is proposing a general strike. But last month in Michigan, a group of activists and artists established a Solidarity Network with activists from Detroit to learn from their experiences resisting an emergency management.
Similar to Detroit in 2013, this last month of May Puerto Rico filed bankruptcy. But Puerto Rico’s debt is far larger than Detroit’s. In a segment on Democracy Now! about Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy, journalist Juan González reported “There’s a total of $123 billion that’s owed. Now, you’ve got to understand that number. Detroit, the largest previous bankruptcy in American history, was only $18 billion. This is nine times greater than the Detroit bankruptcy.” As a solution to Detroit’s financial emergency, an unelected Emergency Manager was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to oversee the financial operations of the city. In Puerto Rico the US Congress approved the Puerto Rico Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which imposed a control board of seven unelected members that would act as Emergency Managers for an entire country.
The network between Puerto Ricans and Detroiters began at the 2017 Allied Media Conference when Sofía Gallisá, Teresa Basillo, and Adela Nieves organized the Puerto Rico/Detroit Solidarity Exchange. The purpose was to build a space for the exchange ideas and experiences between the two localities, as the city of Detroit underwent an emergency management and Puerto Rico is in the first year of a control board regime.
Shea Howell is an activist from Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. According to Howell, the financial emergency management is an instrument to redefine the “system of capital”. In this sense Howell affirms that the impression of Detroit’s improvement after the emergency management is a myth, instead the result was the gentrification of the city. In a panel at the Puerto Rico/Detroit Solidarity Exchange, Howell stated, “There is no comeback. What there is… is the orchestrated financial crisis to make Detroit whiter, wealthier, and smaller […] it is changing to become a playground for white people.” The issue of gentrification was recurring during the exchange. A lot of parallels can be drawn between the displacement of communities in Detroit and Puerto Rico’s attractive incentives to foreign investment.
Water was another issue raised at the Puerto Rico/Detroit Solidarity Exchange. Detroit (as other cities in Michigan) enjoys proximity to 21% of Earth’s surface freshwater. Taking into consideration Puerto Rico’s large supply of underground freshwater and aquifers, Detroit water activist Monica Lewis-Patrick (known as the Water Warrior) warned Puerto Ricans that corporate interests are also coming for the water, “Water is the new gold […] so it (the bankruptcy) was about taking control of the largest water system in the world. We seat on 21% of the world's freshwater.”
One major learning outcome from the exchange is that Detroiters were able to resist austerity through sustainable projects. This is something that Puerto Rican environmentalists and agriculturalists are aware of. During the exchange, Tara Rodríguez Besosa stated, “We are trying to decolonize throughout agriculture. The practice of ecological agriculture is the only way to preserve our natural resources." Rodríguez Besosa, leads Departamento de la Comida in Santurce, which is a project to promote sustainable and organic agriculture in Puerto Rico.
*Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi contributed to this story.