One year ago, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, but U.S. colonialism prepared the ground for the deadly crisis. This week on Intercepted: Journalist Juan González exposes how Wall Street, the bipartisan Washington political machine, and climate change conspired to kill thousands of Puerto Ricans. González analyzes a new U.S. government report on Puerto Rican bankruptcy and explains the role of major financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers in destroying the country before the hurricanes ever hit. The Intercept’s Naomi Klein outlines the neoliberal economic attack on Puerto Rico and a shock doctrine in motion. Puerto Rican musician Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar, better known as iLe, talks about her new song, “Odio,” and the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.
Donald J Trump: Judge Kavanaugh is one of the finest people that I’ve ever known, finest people that I’ve ever known, finest people that I’ve ever known —
Bari Weiss: Brett Kavanaugh has a reputation as being a prince of a man frankly other than this.
Jason Chaffetz: But come on. This is a good decent person. I feel for this, this man’s daughters.
Tucker Carlson: Does anyone really believe this story would have surfaced if Brett Kavanaugh had pledged allegiance to Roe v. Wade? Of course, it wouldn’t have.
Laura Ingraham: This all has the whiff of a political smear masquerading as a sexual assault allegation.
Tammy Bruce: It was effectively an attempted political assassination of a character.
Ari Fleischer: Should that deny his chances later in life even for a supreme court job, a presidency of the United States, or you name it? How accountable are we for high school actions when this is clearly a disputable high school action.
Brett Kavanaugh: What happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep. That’s been a good thing for all of us. I think.
Jeremy Scahill: This is intercepted.
I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City. And this is episode 66 of Intercepted.
DJT: I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. We’re still helping Puerto Rico. The governor is an excellent guy and he is very happy with the job we’ve done. We have put billions and billions of dollars into Puerto Rico and it was a very tough one. Don’t forget their electric plant was dead before the hurricane.
JS: This week marks the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria ravaging Puerto Rico.
We still do not know the exact death toll, in fact, it’s continuing to rise, but it does appear at this point to be between three and five thousand people. Donald Trump, of course, now infamously disputes that and he has, in fact, praised himself for how he handled Puerto Rico.
DJT: We’ve gotten a lot of receptivity, a lot of thanks for the job we’ve done in Puerto Rico —
JS: Trump is rightly being derided, attacked, blasted for both his atrocious response, or lack thereof, to the hurricane a year ago, and also his continued inaccurate, offensive, inhumane public pronouncements. But I have to say it does a great disservice to the people of Puerto Rico to place all of the focus on Trump and his administration when we look at who is responsible for this death and destruction.
The reality is that U.S. colonialist history in Puerto Rico, the laws that the United States has imposed on this island nation and the ravenous Wall Street vultures that have descended at different times on Puerto Rico — all of these forces and factors have played a major role in this catastrophe. The disaster in Puerto Rico was certainly not just the result of the power of the hurricanes and extreme weather.
It was also man-made. It is in large part the result of colonialist policies even before hurricanes Maria and Irma hit Puerto Rico, there was a major crisis that was largely caused by imperial policies set in Washington combined with a vicious neoliberal economic attack aimed at looting Puerto Rico and its people.
This is a story that is actually hundreds of years in the making. It involves Christopher Columbus, the Spanish Empire, the Spanish-American War, the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, the illegal annexation of Puerto Rico, the revolutionary struggle for independence, and the violent crushing of those efforts. Today, we’re going to dig deep into the history of Puerto Rico and of those who have profited from its colonial status and continue to profit from disasters both natural and manufactured.
Puerto Ricans are of course U.S. citizens. Puerto Rico has a governor, but in reality, Puerto Rico is today ruled by a board — a board appointed by the president of the United States and made up overwhelmingly of non-Puerto Ricans. This has been the reality since 2016 when Barack Obama signed into law the PROMESA act. That stands for the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act.
Barack Obama: Through some amazing work by our Treasury Department, our legislative staff, and a bipartisan effort in both the house and the Senate: We finally have legislation that, at least, is going to give Puerto Rico the capacity, the opportunity, to get out from under this lingering uncertainty with respect to their debt, to start stabilizing government services and to start growing again.
JS: That law created this small council of political appointees who would take charge of restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt, which, all things considered: It’s massive. It’s $120 billion. What this effectively means is that this political board of non-Puerto Ricans is making decisions and setting policies that the people of Puerto Rico have no voice in, whatsoever. By the time PROMESA was signed into law, Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis was already exploding. Puerto Rico owed more than $70 billion in debt and more than $50 billion in unfunded pensions. On orders from Washington, the Puerto Rican government slashed funding for health care and public transportation services, more than 30,000 public sector workers were fired, and a hundred schools closed.
Later in the show, we’re going to be joined by my Intercept colleague Naomi Klein. She’s done some groundbreaking reporting from Puerto Rico over the past year. She also has a new book out about Puerto Rico, but first, we turn to journalist Juan González. He is the former New York Daily News columnist and still the co-host of Democracy Now!. Juan was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, but he grew up in the United States. As a young man, Juan was a leader of the Young Lords, a revolutionary political movement with similarities to the Black Panthers. Juan eventually became a journalist and then for many, many, years wrote a weekly column. He is one of the foremost scholars on the history of Puerto Rico, its battles for independence, as well as its current political economic and social realities. Juan is the author of many books among them “Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America,” “Roll Down Your Window: Stories of a Forgotten America,” and most recently, “Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities.” Juan is currently a professor of Journalism at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Journalist Juan González on Puerto Rico’s Huge Debt, and How Wall Street and the Bipartisan Washington Political Machine are Responsible
JS: Juan González, welcome back to Intercepted.
Juan González: Oh, my pleasure to be here, Jeremy.
JS: I want to do a deep dive into Puerto Rico’s history with you, but I want to start with some of the latest developments. Of course, it’s the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis. It’s the one-year anniversary of the hurricane hitting Puerto, Rico and something that’s gotten no attention. I haven’t seen it is that a report was issued last month, the final report of what we can loosely call the Puerto Rico Financial control board. This was set up by PROMESA, which is the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act. I want to talk about the results of that report and the findings of it. But first explain PROMESA and who this board is, who appointed it, what it does?
JG: In Puerto Rico, they call it La Junta. And it is now essentially the political body in charge of Puerto Rico. There’s still a governor. There’s still a legislature, but no act of that governor or the legislature — no budget, no spending — can be done without the approval of the board. And in fact, the board is constantly in battle with the governor. Just recently just told the governor that a whole bunch of his budget proposals are not acceptable. So the PROMESA board is essentially an outside control board that Congress set up to run Puerto Rico, to essentially deal with the debt crisis and supposedly put Puerto Rico back on a firm economic footing. However, it is deeply unpopular. It’s made up mostly of appointees from the United States and it is dictating the future of Puerto Rico. And is also negotiating with the bondholders over the $73 billion in bond debt that is still hanging over the people of Puerto Rico. And the control board’s expenses are completely paid by the government of Puerto Rico. By act of Congress, Puerto Rico must accept the control board and must pay for it.
JS: What’s the point then of Puerto Rico having a governor or any form of a government?
JG: Well, that’s the problem. It’s all at this stage, they’re all puppets because no one can do anything. They’re micromanaging every part of the economy. They are the ones that have essentially ordered that the electric company of Puerto Rico be privatized.
They are the ones that are ordering that all Christmas bonuses of employees of the government be done away with. They’re the ones that are ordering the cuts in the pension funds for all retirees — government retirees. They’re essentially a dictatorial body in charge of Puerto Rico’s finances. It ended, forever, the myth that Puerto Rico is a self-governing territory of the United States.
JS: Did this have bipartisan support when it passed in 2016?
JG: Yes it did. Unfortunately, there were quite a few Democrats who believe that this was the only way to assure some kind of resolution of Puerto Rico’s financial crisis because at the time Puerto Rico had no ability to declare bankruptcy because its power to declare bankruptcy was eliminated by Congress in 1984 in a special legislation. So that the government was faced with the fact that it was bankrupt, but could not officially go to a court and have a judge decide who gets paid what in the bankruptcy proceedings.
So, what PROMESA did do, one positive aspect, is that it did create a form of bankruptcy that Puerto Rico could use which it now is using to deal with the bondholders. However, it put an outside board in charge of that, in charge of negotiating the methods of how Puerto Rico would get out of bankruptcy.
JS: Now just a couple of weeks ago on August 20th, the financial control board released a 600-page report that purported to investigate the impact and root causes of the financial crisis as it affected Puerto Rico.
JS: You’ve been pouring over this 600-page report. What does it say? And what’s your analysis of it?
JG: Well, it’s fascinating. The report was issued by an outside firm, an investigative firm, called Kobre & Kim — that control board paid $3 million for this investigation. Supposedly, the goal was to figure out how the hell did Puerto Rico ever get in the shape that it was with so much debt. Who was responsible? Were there any things that were done illegally or unethically?
JS: How did Puerto Rico get into this much debt at what point? What year are we talking about?
JG: Well, the bulk of the debt — the 73 billion in debt — was contracted from about 2004 to 2018. There, there was a good-sized debt before that, but it wasn’t anywhere near. It exploded really after 2006, which was when the real economic recession in Puerto Rico developed. The island has been for 10 years now in economic decline.
This is against the backdrop of scores of lawsuits by bondholders claiming that other kinds of bonds are illegal that they never should have been issued in the first place. So, there’s all this litigation in the bankruptcy court now, in the federal court in Puerto Rico, basically, trying to sort out who’s in line. Who’s the first in line? Who’s the second in line? Who’s the third in line for whatever money Puerto Rico’s going to pay out to bondholders.
And I actually believe in reading the report, it was more aim to provide the bondholders a sort of a map of where they could possibly file lawsuits in which lawsuits might have more credence than to actually get to the root of the problem.
JS: Explain how the crisis was created in your research investigation?
JG: Well, in my research and interestingly the early part of the report, which deals with the history of Puerto Rico’s economic relations with the United States, backs up a lot of what’s already been known. One is that Puerto Rico had a structural problem — financial problem — as a result of policies adopted by Congress over many decades. For example, Medicaid reimbursements. Puerto Ricans are U.S. Citizens, but Congress for decades now has capped how much money Puerto Rico can get from the federal government for Medicaid reimbursement compared to all other states. Puerto Rico gets far less money in Medicaid reimbursements than even the poorest state in the Union — Mississippi — even though the income levels in Puerto Rico are dramatically less than Mississippi. That has meant that the Puerto Rico government to provide health insurance for the poor has to have much more money spent than would be spent by any other state. Every single federal program that is available to the other states has always been capped at a far lesser level by the Congress. That’s one example.
The other example, of course, is the Jones Act, which is the shipping laws that mean that anything imported into Puerto Rico costs more because it must be on a U.S. flag ship, and U.S. made ship, and with a U.S. crew. So that cost about $500 million a year in extra cost to the people of Puerto Rico for the shipping laws. When the financial problem got really bad after the tax exemption for a lot of corporations was removed in 2006, I’m sorry, 1996, but then it phased out in 2006. That’s when all the manufacturers started leaving Puerto Rico and then the crisis got even worse and the government just could not meet its bills. So why do we find? This report states that about $46 billion dollars in the debt that Puerto Rico contracted over several years was actually just money borrowed to pay back past debts. 70% of the 46 billion was money borrowed to pay previous bonds. It wasn’t to do anything new in Puerto Rico, build anything new. It was like, you borrow money to pay your credit card. You know, that’s what it was. The Puerto Rico government faced with the structural problems created by its colonial relationship was desperate for money.
And Wall Street says, “We’ll try all these instruments, you know we will lend you money to pay us back.”
JS: Who were the players from Wall Street that were at the lead?
JG: You name them — Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs — all the major players —
JS: Lehman Brothers.
JG: — Lehman Brothers. Were the ones who actually kept coming up with new esoteric financial instruments for Puerto Rico to solve what was essentially a structural problem created by Congress.
JS: And how were they doing this? Were they lobbying in Puerto Rico?
JG: Well, what they did is, for instance, Lehman Brothers, this great creation: Puerto Rico’s Constitution limits the amount of money that you can borrow — this is true of any state or municipality — your bonding capacity is usually based on the value of your property.
So, Lehman Brothers came up with the idea: Let’s create a sales tax. Before 2006, Puerto Rico had no sales tax. And then we’re going to earmark a portion of the sales tax to securitize new bonds that won’t be counted as part of your overall government borrowing capacity because it’s a whole new — it’s a revenue bond securitized by the sales tax.
Today, the sales tax in Puerto Rico is 11.5%. A huge portion of it just set aside to pay the bondholders — the new bonds that were created which [are] called the sales tax revenue bonds or cofina. So, they just created a whole new instrument, Lehman Brothers. Of course, Lehman Brothers was doing this in 2006 and 2007 and we all know where Lehman Brothers went in 2008 and because of these kind of shady operations.
And then Lehman Brothers came up with the idea of also doing what’s called capital appreciation bonds. What’s a capital appreciation bond? You borrow $85 million in 2007 for 49 years, you pay no principle. You pay no interest. So, for 49 years the $85 million dollars you borrow you don’t pay anything on. At the end of the 49 years, though, the interest has been accumulating on top of the original principal — after 49 years you owe $1.1 billion dollars on $85 million that you originally borrowed.
That is a complete payday loan for governments: You borrow money today that you don’t pay for 50 years but at the end of the 50 years the amount that you owe everyone knows you won’t be able to pay.
JS: When Lehman Brothers would come in with ideas like this. Where are they making their money?
JG: They’re making their monies originally on the fees for putting together the deal — fees for the lawyers, their fees for the underwriters. So, they get their fees up front. So, the more bonds you issue the more money Wall Street makes. And if you’re issuing a new bond to pay off the old one, they made money on the original one and their making money on the new one. So, they make money off the top on their fees. All of this is in the report.
JG: However, and here’s the amazing thing and why I believe the entire report is a whitewash: Congress gave to the PROMESA board subpoena power to do an investigation of the finances of Puerto Rico. The report acknowledges we had subpoena power, however, we chose to do everything with voluntary interviews. They interviewed over 120 people as part of the report with no transcripts. So, they interviewed all these people and then they didn’t take minutes of their interviews.
JS: Did they interview the people from Goldman Sachs? Lehman Brothers —
JG: Yes. They interviewed people from the Puerto Rican government. They interviewed people from — the business people. They interviewed bondholders. They interviewed the issuers. They interviewed everybody who was involved.
JS: No transcript?
JG: No transcripts. Nobody under oath. So, basically, it was on a voluntary basis what you come to tell us and there was no actual investigation using the subpoena power that they had.
Let me give you one example of why I think the subpoena power would have been important. According to the Puerto Rico government people that were interviewed by this investigation group, Goldman Sachs was essentially trolling the halls of the Puerto Rico legislature trying to convince the elected officials to do what’s called credit swaps on their bonds. This is another esoteric — like collateralized debt obligations. Credit swaps is when a city or public entity borrows a whole lot of money at a variable interest rate, but then they want to make sure that if the interest rates go up they don’t have to pay more. So, they do an arrangement, a bet, with the counterparty that the counterparty will assume the money if interest rates go up. Well, what happened? Throughout the 2000s interest rates kept going down. So, all of these swaps that Goldman Sachs was pushing ended up being a gravy train for Wall Street. Puerto Rico paid according to this report over $1 billion in termination fees on bad credit default swaps — a billion dollars.
Now Goldman was going around everywhere trying to sell these swaps and even offering money up front. At one point, they told the Puerto Rico government, “If you’ll do this credit swap will give you 80 million dollars off the bat.” Another time, they went and said, “If you’ll do this credit swap, we’ll give you a hundred million dollars in cash up front.”
This investigation clearly says Goldman Sachs was actively peddling this. So, let me read to you what the report says about when they interview at Goldman Sachs official. This is not again, this is not under oath. This is just an interview. “We interviewed the lead banker on Goldman’s Puerto Rico team in 2005 who was identified by officials in the Puerto Rico government and in contemporaneous documents as having proposed a legislation or advocated for the swaps. When we ask this senior Goldman investment banker if he was involved in drafting or commenting on the 2005 legislation he told us, he did not recall. We also asked him if someone on his team would have been designated to comment on or the draft legislation. He told us, he did not recall. When we asked the senior Goldman investment banker about the geo basis swaps specifically, he told us he did not recall the specifics of any swap transaction including where an issuer received upfront money as part of a swap and did not recall any pitches Goldman made in connection with swaps.”
So, Goldman does not recall anything about what they were doing in Puerto Rico to peddle this suspect debt. They just, basically, did a voluntary interview situation here with all of these people and they didn’t use the subpoena power that Congress gave them. That tells me that they didn’t want to find out what was legal and what was not legal about how the debt in Puerto Rico ballooned to the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.
JS: I’m sure, I and anyone listening knows the answer to this, but was anyone held accountable, sanctioned, anything for these actions in Puerto Rico over this period you’re describing?
JG: Well UBS was held criminally liable for pedaling a specific type of bond to people in Puerto Rico. There were many Puerto Rican retirees who ended up losing all of their savings because UBS was pushing them all into a certain group of funds that they were going to benefit from. There’s been many —several fines levied against UBS for its activities, but it’s only on the portion of the huge debt that they sold to Puerto Ricans not that they’ve sold all across the United States and that’s in every, every major municipal bond fund in the country. That no one’s been held accountable for.
JS: So, how did Puerto Rico’s economy then implode? How did this impact the bankruptcy of Puerto Rico and the state it was in?
JG: Well simply happened, what simply happened was that for more than a decade, Puerto Rico’s budget was in huge deficits and the way the government kept running the government is by borrowing more money. They kept borrowing more money to pay off the past bondholders and to paper over the debt, but eventually, the debt became unsustainable because Puerto Rico not only owes $73 billion dollars to bondholders, it owes $49 billion in unfunded pensions to its current and retired government workers. So, the total is north of $122 billion dollars that is the total debt of Puerto Rico right now. 122 billion, you put that in context of Detroit, which was a largest previous bankruptcy in American history. Detroit was 18 billion. Puerto Rico is 122 billion total debt. That’s a magnitude of financial collapse that’s never been seen before in American government history.
JS: How did all of this impact the state that Puerto Rico was in when Hurricane Maria hit and the subsequent deaths and lack of any true rebuilding of the infrastructure by the U.S. Government in Puerto Rico?
JG: Well clearly the fact that the island had been for so long basically, you know, putting Band-Aids on everything because they had no money to really spend meant that the electrical system was in disrepair. The water system had not had major investments and so as a result, when the hurricane hit the physical infrastructure of the of the island was paralyzed — not only paralyzed but then it took over almost a year for everyone to get electricity back. The Puerto Rican government, since it wasn’t paying its bills, nobody wanted to do business with them. Nobody wanted to sign contracts with them because they said well, “How can we sign a contract with you? You haven’t paid anybody else? How do we know if we’re going to get paid?” So, they had a problem being able to respond effectively because there were essentially bankrupt at the time.
What I feel is the wrong narrative is that Puerto Rico brought this on itself. That is not accurate. The reality is even this report recognizes that there were structural problems as a direct result of U.S. colonial policy in Puerto Rico that created a structural imbalance that had to be remedied. Wall Street stepped in with garbage debt to paper it over for 10 or 15 years. But sooner or later, it was going to become evident that the economic model of Puerto Rico that Congress has created and controls is not sustainable for the people of the island.
JS: And again, I mean this isn’t just Trump Administration policy. This is U.S. government policy and approach toward Puerto Rico for quite a long time. In 1898 the United States officially invades Puerto Rico. What was the mindset at that point of the U.S. government toward Puerto Rico?
JG: Obviously, it’s the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico was not really the main prize of the Spanish-American War. It was really Cuba and the Philippines. The difference is that the others — the Philippines, was eventually allowed its independence as a result of two long guerrilla wars, and Puerto Rico remained a United States territorial possession. Throughout most of the 20th century, the governors of Puerto Rico were Americans appointed by the president. 1898 until 1946, there were all Anglo-American governors appointed directly by the president to run the island. By the period of the Roosevelt administration, they began to realize this was going out of fashion — this direct colonial control. So, in 1946, they appointed the first Puerto Rican Governor Jesús Piñero. And then in 1948, they allowed Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor.
Newscaster: Puerto Rico, strategic Caribbean Island, climax is half a century as an American territory with the inauguration of the first governor elected by the people of Puerto Rico. In San Juan, the Chief Justice administers the oath to Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, whose popular Democratic Party won a sweeping victory last November.
In his inaugural, Governor Muñoz Marín hails the islands new democracy where Puerto Rico’s people, may within the smallness of their territory, realize the greatness of their destiny.
JG: But then in 1952, in the wake of the creation of the United Nations, it became a real international embarrassment to the United States that it was still holding a colonial territory.
So, they then worked with Muñoz Marín to establish a new compact which was called The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which was created in 1952 that was supposedly granting the people of Puerto Rico self-government. So, then the disguise form of colonialism was created, which is the Commonwealth where the Puerto Rican people supposedly had self-government, but all of the acts that created the Commonwealth made it patently clear that Puerto Rico was still a territory of the United States, which in the words of the Supreme Court in the insular decisions: Belongs to but is not a part of the United States. Puerto Ricans were still colonial subjects. That idea of the commonwealth as a form of voluntary union with the United States persisted from 1952 until the creation of PROMESA ––
JS: In 2016.
JG: From 1952 on until 2016, the world was led to believe that Puerto Ricans had freely chosen their relationship of commonwealth to the United States. The United States exercises complete sovereignty over Puerto Rico. That means Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, is subject to the whim of Congress. And so, Congress then exercised that whim when they created the financial control board to oversee the island. And now it’s stuck with a mess that its own policies created and most members of Congress don’t even want to be bothered with Puerto Rico. However, the financial crisis on the island has gotten so big that it threatens the viability of the municipal bond market of the United States. So, therefore, Wall Street wants a solution. Wall Street is afraid that if Puerto Rico is allowed to get out from all under this debt then any state will start trying to get out from under its debt –– Illinois or any of these other states that are in huge debt made then try to use the precedent of Puerto Rico to get out from under its bond debt. So, the colonial situation of Puerto Rico created the problem, but Congress has no will to end the colony.
Wall Street is demanding a solution, but the solution that they want is to crush the Puerto Rican people even more. And so, you have all of these forces trying to press their agenda and no clear solution in sight.
JS: Given this history that you’re describing, why do you believe that Puerto Rican Independence wasn’t achieved? I mean you have remarkable fierce resistance in the modern history of Puerto Rico, particularly after the U.S. invades and then creates these legal structures that you’re talking about. You had amazing figures Pedro Albizu Campos and Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, and attacks on the U.S. Congress, and an attempt to kill President Truman.
Newscaster: A nationalist uprising in American Puerto Rico in the West Indies is linked with the attempt on President Truman’s life. Two of them attempted to assassinate President Truman in Blair House where he is staying during repairs to the White House. Approaching from opposite directions they opened fire on the police car. The president’s doctor attends to two wounded guards. One of whom has since died.
JS: I mean maybe explain that, but like this sort of fierce resistance, but also why it never succeeded?
JG: Well, I think the Puerto Rico independence movement never succeeded because Puerto Rico was the colony of the most powerful country in the world. And as a result, even as a colony it got better treatment than the colonies of France and England — than India or Pakistan, or Algeria, or whatever. Because it became a colony when the United States was a rising empire in the world, the economic level of its people was generally higher than those of other colonial peoples.
Because the United States, especially after the Cuban Revolution, was deathly afraid that the idea of the Cuban Revolution would spread throughout Latin America, Puerto Rico was needed as an example of another way, you know an example of capitalism succeeding. So, the United States invested heavily in making Puerto Rico a comfortable colony, a less obvious scene of exploitation.
In addition to that, the Luis Muñoz Marín popular party was a Social Democratic Party. Many of the programs that he developed — especially with FDR’s last Governor in Puerto Rico, Rexford Tugwell, who was clear socialist — were to create state-owned Industries. That’s why you have a state-owned electric company. That’s why you have a state-owned water company. That’s why you had a state-owned government development bank. There was a lot of New Deal, you know, Tennessee Valley Authority type programs that Muñoz Marín implemented in Puerto Rico that meant that the people felt that the government was at least addressing their economic needs. And so, in essence, the Muñoz Marín social democracy co-opted a lot of the fervor of the independence movement in addition to the massive repression of the independence movement.
In the 1950s, it was illegal to fly a Puerto Rican flag in Puerto Rico. You could be arrested for flying a Puerto Rican flag. You could be arrested for advocating for independence. There was a complete repression of the independence movement in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. So all of that means that the independence movement gradually waned. In addition, increasingly as more and more people try to come to the United States the fact that Puerto Ricans had U.S citizenship meant that they had easy entry back and forth into the United States. Look at all the people that come to the U.S. undocumented. Puerto Ricans come to the U.S. and they’re documented from the moment they step in. They don’t have to worry about that. So, U.S. citizenship is like a trump citizenship in the world. If you have it, you’re treated differently.
So, Puerto Ricans realized that there were certain benefits to the colony and so they gradually adapted to the conditions. However, here’s the problem: All of that said, Puerto Rico is still a separate country. It’s a territory of the United States, but it’s still a separate country. Because it’s an island. Because it has always spoken Spanish and therefore has a complete linguistic and cultural difference. So how do you reconcile that with being part of the United States? How can Puerto Rico become a state? Every state that’s been admitted to the Union by the time it became a state was a majority or a plurality of white Anglos, including Hawaii and including Alaska, which were the last two to come into the Union.
The settlers went out into the territories, settled them and then petition for statehood. That’s how states became states. The Anglos never settled, Puerto Rico. A hundred and eighteen years later 90% of the people are still Spanish-speaking. So, Americans never settled Puerto Rico, therefore Puerto Rico never changed its culture, and its language, and its traditions.
So, therefore, you have the problem that Puerto Rico is part of the United States, but it’s completely different from the United States. That’s the unsolvable issue that Congress has to deal with and that the Puerto Rican people have to deal with.
JS: Well Juan Gonzalez, thanks so much for sharing all of the history, analysis, particularly also of the latest developments there. Appreciate it. Thanks for joining us again on Intercepted.
JG: Thank you.
JS: Juan González is a veteran journalist born in Puerto Rico, longtime columnist at the New York Daily News, still the co-host of Democracy Now!. I have to say all of Juan’s books and journalism are great but do make sure to check out “Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America.” Juan is currently a professor of journalism at Rutgers University.
Naomi Klein Outlines the Neoliberal Economic Attack on Puerto Rico
JS: As we all know, last month the death toll in Puerto Rico made it back into the news after an official report asserted that nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans had died as a result of hurricanes Maria and Irma and their aftermath. Last week, it became a media flashpoint when Trump falsely tweeted the following:
“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000…”
Donald Trump went on to Tweet, “…This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising Billions of Dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico.”
Notice how he says, I was raising these billions of dollars, as though he’s not president and he’s just running a private company and he’s doing some charity. Anyway, then the FEMA administrator Brock Long made the rounds on the Sunday shows this past weekend to defend Trump.
Brock Long: You know, the other thing that goes on there’s all kinds of studies on this that we take a look at. Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse, you know after disaster on anybody.
JS: Puerto Rico’s Governor formally updated the death toll from the hurricanes to 2,975 people in August, after multiple news outlets and universities demonstrated that thousands of people died during the days and weeks after the hurricanes. A Harvard study meanwhile estimates that the death toll is likely closer to 5,000 people.
In response to Trump’s tweets and accusations San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz had this to say:
Carmen Yulín Cruz: President Trump continues to be on his high horse and does not realize the mistakes that were made and he doesn’t take care of them. He never got it. This was never about politics. This was always about saving lives. To him, this is about positioning himself as a great savior. Well, you know, he isn’t.
JS: Before hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico it was already in the midst of another disaster. As a result of the massive debt we talked about earlier, these neoliberal economic policies imposed by Washington, Puerto Rico was on a path to privatize its public assets, already having privatized its airports and highway toll system. Puerto Rico was already in a state of shock when these record-breaking hurricanes hit the island.
Joining me now is Naomi Klein. She is, of course, the author of the “Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” Naomi also has a new book out on Puerto Rico called “The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists.” Naomi has also recently been appointed the Inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair of Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University.
Naomi, welcome back to Intercepted.
Naomi Klein: Thanks Jeremy. It’s great to be with you.
JS: Also nice to have you here in person.
NK: Yeah, it’s the actually the first time we’ve done this in person.
JS: I want to dig deep into talking about Puerto Rico not just Trump’s comments, but an overall view of what’s happening right now in Puerto Rico, But before we talk about Hurricane Maria, I wanted to ask you about the financial crisis that Puerto Rico was in prior to all of this. And Puerto Rico owed more than $70 billion dollars in debt and had more than $50 billion in unfunded pensions. How was the Puerto Rican government and the state of Puerto Rico, what condition was it in prior to Hurricane Maria regarding these issues?
NK: Well, that’s a really critical question and it has a lot to do with these much-debated numbers about the deaths post Maria, you know, whether we’re talking about the 3,000 figure or the 5,000 figure, because the vast majority of those deaths had a huge amount to do with failing public infrastructure. And the failing public infrastructure in Puerto Rico had everything to do with this economic war that was being waged on Puerto Rico well before Hurricane Maria.
You know, it’s tough to know when to begin this story, right? I mean you could begin at 500 years ago, you could begin [with] the story when the U.S. took over from the Spanish in Puerto Rico, but you know for the sake of argument, let’s begin with the most recent economic crisis in Puerto Rico, which is 2006. When a series of tax breaks that had lured American companies they had been phased out and they were finally phased out in 2006. And so, you had Capital flight.
Amy Goodman: And the government of Puerto Rico has been shut down after it ran out of money following a dispute between lawmakers and the islands Governor. Puerto Rico’s 1,600 state schools have been shut, leaving half a million students and 40,000 teachers with no classes. Nearly 100,000 government workers have been temporarily left without jobs.
NK: So, this is 2006. And then that’s a significant year because it is right before the global financial crisis. So, Puerto Rico suffered this one-two punch where their economy started crashing before the world economy started crashing. But, of course, they were impacted by the world economy crashing. So that’s when you have this debt crisis that you referred to — the debt exploding.
JS: When you say that there was this economic war against Puerto Rico prior to this and we’re talking right now about 2006 some of the significant events then, who were the perpetrators or the aggressors? And what were they seeking?
NK: I’ve written a lot in the past about how economic shocks, economic crises are so often exploited not to fix the underlying reason behind the economic crisis not to create [an] actual sustainable economy that is going to serve the interests of the people who live there, but just in a very opportunistic way you use the economic crisis to push through the wish list of policies that rear their head and have reared their head through the whole neoliberal period dating back to the 1970s. So, it’s privatization of public assets and the profits that flow from private players getting control over previously public monopoly, other attacks on the public sector opening up to private players.
All of it: Deregulation, privatization, economic austerity. So that’s what happened in Puerto Rico. They had an economic crisis much like Greece had an economic crisis after the financial crisis. And much like in Greece, in Puerto Rico it was exploited in very opportunistic ways not to deliver a healthy economy for Puerto Ricans, but for other people to profit. And so, this really culminated in the creation of the financial oversight board where Puerto Ricans really lost control over their economy. And the governing structure was all about paying Puerto Rico’s debtors rather than serving the interests of Puerto Ricans. And in the name of fiscal responsibility and paying off their creditors this brutal austerity program was introduced. And that has a huge amount to do with why Puerto Rico was as vulnerable to these dual hurricanes because it wasn’t just Maria it was also Irma, why their public infrastructure was as brittle as it was. Right? And so, you know when Trump says it’s not all my fault, you know, these aren’t deaths that were just from the wind and the waves, he in a way –– OK I don’t want this to be taken out of context. But it is true that the responsibility for these deaths cannot just, you know, be put on the Trump administration. And indeed, it is bipartisan like so much else.
It was Obama and Congress, pre-Trump that created the financial oversight board that imposed this regime of brutal economic austerity on Puerto Rico — an entirely bipartisan project that Obama signed off on.
And what we see now with Florence, you know, just this week and what we saw last year with hurricane Harvey in Houston, is just how important it is for there to be a functioning public sphere when it is tested by these record-breaking storms. Right? You know whether 9-1-1 is working the way it should be working. Whether first responders, you know have the resources that they need. And in so many cases they don’t, but in Puerto Rico, it was so much worse and it was so much worse because of the sustained economic assault. And the reason for that is not about the corruption of Puerto Rico’s local elites, which is you know, what we often hear in the analysis here. It has everything to do with colonialism. Things were done in Puerto Rico after the financial crisis that were not done in the mainland.
JS: Who are the greatest beneficiaries of the way that the Trump administration handled Puerto Rico and the greatest beneficiaries of the fact that this massive hurricane did so much destruction? You talked earlier about you know, how I mean I remember from reading this in the “Shock Doctrine.” This notion that has been popularized by the Neocons that history ultimately will be written by the people who are able to seize the moment of a crisis and realize that that’s the moment to push through your agenda. So, who’s benefiting from the hurricane and the way that the administration responded?
NK: Yeah, I was thinking about that when Trump used this phrase, “The unsung, the unsung success in Puerto Rico.”
DJT: I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success. Texas, we have been given A pluses for. Florida, we’ve been given A pluses for. I think in a certain way the best job we did was Puerto Rico, but nobody would understand —
NK: I thought well, you know, I think there are corners of Wall Street where they’ll be singing the praises of what the Trump administration has done for many years to come because they are benefiting precisely from the failure, right? Because it creates its own logic. I’ll give you an example around electricity. There started to be talk of privatizing Puerto Rico’s electricity grid before Maria even made landfall. You started to see speculation in the business press that this was clearly going to mean — this would be the moment to privatize.
Puerto Rico was already in the midst of a pretty classic experience of what I’ve called the shock doctrine before right? Using the economic crisis to push through this agenda of privatization and deregulation and austerity. Before Maria hit there was a lot of pushback. And so, it was already on the agenda of the financial oversight board in Puerto Rico – it’s called the junta – to privatize the electricity system, to cut the budget of the University of Puerto Rico, and have to close down, you know an additional 300 schools. But they were facing resistance.
[May Day march chants.]
NK: On the May Day, before Hurricane Maria hit in September, there was the second largest protest in Puerto Rico and it was against austerity. I think it was a couple hundred thousand people on the streets saying no to the junta, calling for Rosselló’s resignation, saying the debt is illegitimate that the debt needs to be audited —
[May Day march chants.]
NK: And saying no to austerity. You had a student strike at the University of Puerto Rico that lasted for almost three months that shut down the university against precisely this type of austerity.
[Student protest chants.] And then Maria hits.
CNN Newscaster: Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico making landfall as a category 4 hurricane with winds of up to 155 miles per hour.
NK: And all of these ideas come roaring back with a vengeance. So, in the case of Katrina, which you and I both covered, they kind of came up with the plan right after. In the case of Puerto Rico, it’s even more insidious because the plan was literally already there. The plan was the playbook of the financial oversight board. They had been able to do a lot of it, but they hadn’t been able to do all of it. So, they didn’t even need to do any more planning because they had it all ready to go and they just pushed it through in this moment where most people on the island still don’t have electricity.
So, while this mass displacement is going, on you have these same ideas. The secretary of education announces there’s going to be a closure of 300 schools, that’s in addition to a recent closure of, I think, 165 schools. It’s extraordinary. And it’s just the most blatant exploitation of people’s emotional trauma and the fact that they are in this state of emergency and it’s so hard to fight back under these circumstances.
That said, Puerto Ricans are fighting back. I mean the Puerto Rican teachers have gone on strike, have been in the streets opposing plans to privatize the education system. We know that there has been communication between New Orleans and the Puerto Rican secretary of education about how New Orleans went about pushing through an unprecedented privatization program of education in the aftermath of Katrina. Same thing is happening in Puerto Rico. They introduced a law to open up the school system to charter schools. Puerto Ricans have resisted this up until this point. But in this moment of trauma and emergency, they were able to get that through.
JS: And what’s happening with the public utilities in Puerto Rico?
NK: So, the people who stand to profit the most are people who would be getting a piece of Puerto Rico’s public infrastructure. Puerto Rico has a huge publicly-owned electricity utility that, though it has a huge debt, still makes money. And so, it looks like it’s going to be auctioned off in various pieces that the public will be stuck with the debt. That Puerto Ricans will be stuck with the debt, but the profitable pieces of their utility will be sold off to private players. So, they’ll be making money there. The whole charter school industry, which Betsy DeVos is intimately connected to — they’re descending on Puerto Rico. There are other pieces of public infrastructure that it looks like are going to be sold off, you know, highways, the ferry between Vieques and the mainland.
And then there’s this other piece of it which is, we’ve heard about a lot of it around the cryptocurrency guys, right? But there is also this other realm of profiteering going on that has to do with tax evasion, which has to do with so-called high-net-worth individuals that are moving to Puerto Rico because the Puerto Rican government was offering as an incentive to relocate your primary residence, relocate the address of your hedge fund of your business to Puerto Rico and then: you don’t pay capital gains tax, don’t pay tax on dividends interest. I mean, it’s the whole, you know ballgame. So, if you are a financial speculator of some kind and all you need is access to data, it’s a pretty sweet deal. And you only have to stay there for, how many days of the year is? It’s basically winter, you know?
JS: Is this the kind of series of events or moment in history where you think it would — I’m just talking about your sense — I’m not asking you to speak for all of Puerto Rico. Do you have a sense that it’s going to impact people’s views one way or the other on independence?
NK: You know a lot of people in Puerto Rico talk about Maria as this sort of unveiling that it unveiled a lot of pre-existing crises. And this is true in so many ways including the poverty that was already there, you know, the winds just ripped the roof off of houses and what people saw was just how poor their neighbors were and how precarious their lives were.
But there’s no doubt that one of the things that was unveiled in Trump’s paper towel throwing and continuing on to his denial of the deaths, is just the complete disdain with which the U.S. government treats Puerto Ricans and the fact that they are not, you know considered by any means U.S. citizens – they are not treated like U.S. citizens.
So, I think there are different interests in Puerto Rico that are latching onto that.
I do know that I heard a lot of talk when I was there about the importance of sovereignty. But not just political sovereignty in the way this debate is usually or traditionally debated of just sovereignty being seen as something that you achieve through a strictly political fight and that just has to do with national boundaries – like whether you are your own independent nation that being sovereignty. It’s a much more complex and deeper kind of sovereignty that I heard a lot of Puerto Ricans talking about and a lot of Puerto Ricans who I think identify with the movement for independence.
And so, I think there’s an understanding that in this moment in history with such an interconnected economy and such an interconnected ecology. I mean Maria – we have to talk about climate change when we were talking about these storms. And that the pollution in one part of the world plays out as, you know, flood waters rising, and super typhoons, and unprecedented storms in another part of the world, right? So what does sovereignty mean in that context?
So, some of the most interesting political work and this is the work that we’re supporting with the book with, “Battle for Paradise.” and all of the royalties going to this coalition of groups called JunteGente. This is 60 groups that have come together to come up with a really coherent political program that will bring sovereignty to Puerto Ricans, but not just not just political independence. Like it isn’t framed as a fight for political independence. It’s framed as a fight for true sovereignty, right? So, what does it mean to have independence for their food? To never again find that on this incredibly fertile Island there’s no food to eat because you’re getting 90% of your food imported through a single port and that port is knocked out by one storm and suddenly there’s no food, right? Or most of the crops are being grown for export and they’re monocrops and it all gets wiped out, right? Also, energy sovereignty. I mean if you are getting your power through these power plants in the south of the island and they’re being pumped — carried through these wires that were knocked down by Maria that’s much more precarious than if you’re getting your power from solar panels, on a microgrid in a community and then if somebody loses their roof in the storm, you can get power from somebody else in the microgrid and if the whole grid goes down you can unplug from the grid and you have that resiliency.
So, what I think is most interesting about the way in which Puerto Ricans are responding politically is in this deeper definition of sovereignty. It’s not a severing from that long fight for independence. I wouldn’t say that at all, but it is something new and, I think, [is] really exciting that learns from the experience of having been abandoned in the way that Puerto Ricans have been.
You know, one of the things that I think has escaped attention as people have rightly been focused on Trump denying the deaths of Puerto Ricans is this formulation of Trump and his surrogates coming forward and saying, Trump said, “I raised billions of dollars for Puerto Rico” and you know his surrogates saying “Trump rebuilt Puerto Rico.” And there’s this formulation where it’s somehow like Trump personally did this. It’s really the first time I’ve seen disaster response and rebuilding being framed as sort of noblesse oblige of like the monarchical leader. It is setting up this I think increasingly transparent idea that you don’t have an inherent right as a human being to be saved, right? I think we’re starting to see an erosion of a rights framework in the context of disasters and it’s becoming framed as a privilege.
JS: Hmm. Trump’s position on NAFTA and other so-called free trade agreements and the way that he’s using tariffs as a kind of cudgel in his — at least in his public pronouncements about how he’s going to deal with all sorts of big businesses. I want to ask you a very simple question that probably doesn’t have a simple answer. Would Trump’s position if it’s fully implemented be better for workers in the United States and around the world then the existing framework that has been in place since the early 1990s under Bill Clinton?
NK: He ran attacking the agreements and saying I’m going to get a better deal, you know and put America First. That’s not actually a trade plan. What it allowed was for people to project their desires onto that blank slate. Right? But if you look at who he appointed it was always clear whose interests he was going to be fighting for and it’s not the interests of workers. So, no.
I mean, I actually think that Trump and his administration could actually come up with worst deals for workers left to their own devices.
I don’t think there’s any — I don’t think it’s a given that just by renegotiating these deals just by opening them up we end up with something better. No, I don’t.
But I do think this is something that progressives need to look very hard at, right? Because this used to be terrain for progressives. This used to be terrain where you had really large muscular mass movements responding to corporate free trade and putting forward alternatives, and being very vocal, and very out there. And those movements have gradually been contracting. Those coalitions have broken apart. One of the most interesting parts of that movement — they were international movements, right? They were coalitions across borders. And that kind of international organizing is something that the left really doesn’t have right now — not anything as organized. And there’s the beginning of a rekindling of a left internationalism. And there’s more discussion of it and Yanis Varoufakis is talking about it. And I was glad to see, I think the DSA is sort of gradually stepping into that —
JS: You’re talking about the Democratic Socialist of America that at this point now the most prominent person that everyone will have heard of now is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But again, that institution that organization has been around for decades. But as part of the ricochet effect of the Sanders campaign started getting a lot more attention being paid to it. But they’ve been around for quite a long time. But there’s this sort of rebirth in the last couple of years.
NK: Mhmm. But I think there is an urgent need for this resurgent left movement including its electoral expressions to say a lot more about foreign policy including economic foreign policy and to rebuild some of these alliances across borders because if we don’t then these right-wing populist and fascists step into that space. And that has happened in the U.S. with Trump. It happened in France with Marine Le Pen. You know, if you look at Marine Le Pen, what she ran on in France and what she’ll run on again. It is, you know anti-globalization, it is the worker left behind, and it’s white supremacy. You know, that’s the brutal cocktail. And same thing with Brexit, right? It was that combination of the failure of economic globalization mixed with racism and xenophobia and stir. So, this territory cannot be ceded by the left. It’s always tempting to focus on the issues closest to home. But I think there’s tremendous danger in ceding the terrain of internationalism to the right.
JS: No, I mean absolutely and yes, when you when you look on the left like no one is going to say that they oppose single-payer healthcare or that they want socialized medicine. I mean that that is a firm position when it comes to fights to increase the minimum wage –
NK: So, you talk about the safe stuff
JS: Yeah and the safe stuff right now —
NK: has changed.
JS: Right. Exactly —
NK: Which is good.
JS: Right. I mean, yeah used to be, well, of course, we’re all against the war. You know, talking about the Iraq War. Well, now, first of all, there’s many wars going on when you just talk about the militaristic wars. And there’s a big debate on the left about those wars, which again, I think is a good thing that there’s actual debate. But I don’t see how you can run electoral campaigns that challenge this sort of entrenched two-party system when you’re going to have a kind of cannibalistic mob that eats itself alive at the expense of fighting the actual villains in society.
NK: When I sort of zoom out and think about what has happened to discourse on the left and the fact that so much of the discussion is happening in these minuscule little dispatches on Twitter, or Facebook, as opposed to deeper dives and you know, I don’t want to romanticize the pre-social media discourse — it wasn’t perfect by any means. But when you combine that with the fact that these structures are owned and controlled by six guys who are getting richer than we could have ever imagined, right? That we are losing control of our intellectual property at the same time as we are feeding this new oligarch class. There’s just not nearly enough discussion about our own participation in building systems that are ultimately — I see it as this is the final capitalist enclosure. It began with the enclosures of the commons of the land and the buying and selling of bodies in the first stage of capitalism. And you know, we’ve been talking about the stage of neoliberalism, which is about, you know, privatizing state assets. But what we are living and participating in and not debating nearly enough is the privatization of our very selves. The commodification of our relationships, right, and of our movements. Because our movements are living in these spaces that are owned and controlled by Mark Zuckerberg. And our movements are worth more than just handing ourselves up so willingly.
JS: Naomi Klein thanks so much for joining us.
NK: Great to talk with you, Jeremy.
JS: Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist. She is my colleague at The Intercept. She’s also the author of several books her latest the “The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists” was published by Haymarket books in cooperation with The Intercept.
We should note that all of the royalties for that book “The Battle of Paradise” go to JunteGente, a network of organizations fighting for solidarity and sustainable Puerto Rico. Visit juntegente.org for more details.
Puerto Rican Musician Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar, Better Known as iLe, Talks About Her New Song “Odio”
We’re going to end today’s show with the Puerto Rican artist, Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar better known as iLe. When she was just 16 years old, Ileana became part of the internationally renowned and celebrated group Calle 13, which was led by her two older brothers, René and Eduardo.
[Calle 13’s “Pa’l Norte” plays.]
JS: Back then Ileana rapped under the moniker PG-13, a nod to her young age. But after 10 years with Calle 13, Ileana decided that it was time to give it a shot on her own. First, there was the name change, she would be known as iLe from now on. And her first album as a solo artist iLevitable, which was a contemporary take on classic bolero and salsa songs, some of which were penned by her own grandmother. earned her a Grammy in 2017.
[“Canibal” by iLe plays]
JS: Now a year later iLe is back in the studio has a new song to share. It’s called Odio, the Spanish word for hate. The music video for that song is an incredible portrayal of a dark event in Puerto Rico’s history, the Cerro Maravilla Massacre. We’ll hear from iLe in a moment about the story of the murder of two pro-independence students at the hands of police and the subsequent cover-up of their deaths with the help of the U.S. government.
I should say, there’s been a rich history of resistance against colonialism in Puerto Rico. And at various points, there have been militant independence movements. The indigenous people, the Taíno, fought Spanish colonialists, repeatedly. And when the U.S. illegally annexed Puerto Rico, the rebellions continued. The U.S. basically turned Puerto Rico into a plantation for major agribusiness, used its territory for military maneuvers, and bomb testing, and at times even made it illegal to wave a Puerto Rican flag. Independentistas tried to assassinate President Truman. They launched an armed attack in the U.S. Congress and eventually there were multiple guerrilla resistance groups that had taken up arms against the U.S. government and military in the name of Puerto Rican independence. The U.S., of course, waged its own dirty wars against these independence leaders and groups, but overwhelmingly, Washington has used economic and political weapons to maintain Puerto Rico’s colonial status.
The question of independence is a complicated debate in Puerto Rico to this day. But our guest is clear where she stands. She’s explicit in her support for an independent Puerto Rico. Here is iLe’s story.
Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar: Bueno, my name is Ileana. My artistic name is iLe. And I’m from Puerto Rico.
[“Te Quiero Con Bugalú” by iLe’s plays.]
IMCJ: I grew up in a big family. I’m the little one. They called me the sponge because I absorbed a lot of things from them, from my parents, ideals to the musical taste. I remember waking up every time listening to music, salsa singer like Héctor Lavoe.
[Héctor Lavoe’s song “Periodico de Ayer” plays]
IMCJ: Juan de Guerra. He’s from the Dominican Republic.
[Juan de Guerra’s song “La Cosquillita” plays]
IMCJ: I remember when I was little, I loved to imitate things that I hear people singing. And one day my brother René picked me up from school and he said, “I want you to sing something that I’m doing with Eduardo” — my other brother. And he played me this song in the car and he said, “well do this chorus like Christina Aguilera.”
[Christina Aguilera’s song “Genie in a Bottle” plays]
IMCJ: Do this chorus like La Lupe, that is a Cuban singer.
[La Lupe’s song “Puro Teatro” plays]
IMCJ: And he said, “Now, do it like yourself.” And I said, “I don’t know how to do it like myself. I don’t I don’t know how to sing,” I said. He said, “Yes, you do. Find a way.” So that’s when the song La Aguacatona — that was the song that he was showing me.
[“La Aguacatona” by Calle 13 plays]
IMCJ: I know a lot of people expected that I was going to do rap because of my brothers’ music, but I’ve always felt like that was my brothers’ project. And I’ve always loved salsa, boleros. And I’ve always loved especially women in songs. So, for me, it was important to express myself through this music that I feel so identified with and it’s part of who I am and where I come from.
[iLe’s song “Triángulo” plays.]
IMCJ: Because we’ve tried so hard to transform music and do something new. We start forgetting about our roots and our musical history.
But it has been a lot of things in our history.
Newscaster: In armed clashes in Puerto Rico, 23 are killed. 15 of them policemen. Trouble broke out when agitators launched attacks on the Governor’s palace, police stations, and other public buildings. Though the island has virtual self-government, hotheads want to sever all connection with America.
IMCJ: We have the Ponce Massacre. We had the Río Piedras Massacre.
[IMCJ: So in 1978, Cerro Maravilla became the most famous one because it was a cover-up from the government Puerto Rico but as well as the government of the United States. Basically, the story was these two young students from the University of Puerto Rico —
Newscaster: Twenty-three-year-old Arnaldo Rosado an 18-year-old Carlos Soto were the two who were killed. They belong to a radical group called the Armed Revolutionary Movement, which wanted independence for Puerto Rico rather than the commonwealth status it has now.
IMCJ: They suddenly met also a young guy. He was like 20 years old. He studied in a school. But since he wanted to be a policeman they like said, “OK. Well, you can do this.”
Newscaster: That third man was Gonzalez Malave, police undercover agent who had infiltrated the group and led Rosato and Soto to the ambush.
IMCJ: They actually thought that this guy was a good guy.
Newscaster: July 25th, 1978 marked the 80th anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Puerto Rico. And Soto and Rosato came up here to this Mountaintop called Cerro Maravilla where the transmission towers of a local television station are located.
IMCJ: Supposedly they were going to burn communication towers just to make a statement like all we want freedom for our country.
Newscaster: But instead of bombs their knapsack contain barbecue starters, matches, and these homemade handcuffs.
IMCJ: The whole police group knew everything so it was like an ambush. And when they arrived there the policemen started to shoot. They started shooting.
Newscaster: The police, Puerto Rico’s justice department, and the Governor claimed the two alleged terrorists had been shot by police in self-defense.
IMCJ: The only purpose by that time for the police was to kill independence. Because by that time, the government was the Statehood Political Party.
Newscaster: The Puerto Rican Senate concluded the two had been executed and that the facts in the case had been kept from the public in a massive cover-up by government agencies in Puerto Rico. They also claim that the U.S. justice department, including the FBI, went along with the cover-up.
IMCJ: They did three investigations where they were all covered.
Newscaster: All of those investigations came to the same conclusion: Rosato and Soto were terrorists who had planned to blow up the communications towers. They had attacked the police who then killed them in self-defense.
IMCJ: Everything that goes on in Puerto Rico, the United States has a lot to do with it.
Newscaster: The U.S. justice department did indict 10 policemen in the shooting of Rosato and Soto, but only after the truth of the killings and the cover-up were disclosed in the Senate hearing. And those indictments were for perjury.
IMCJ: The important thing is that how hate was involved here inside these policemen. And how hate made them do these violent horrible things.
[iLe’s song “Odio” plays]
IMCJ: We in Puerto Rico are living in so much humiliation since being a colony of the United States and being a colony for so many years.
We’ve never had a moment where we were a free country. It has been decades of a lot of abuse and so much abuse that we start believing it and we start believing that we aren’t capable and believe that we are not worthy and we need someone else to be ourselves.
DJT: Now, I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack. Because we spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico and that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives. If you look at the ––
IMCJ: I lived the whole Hurricane Marie. I was there in my house. And I was observing everything – the changes, the people talking, the people reacting. I had to wake up every morning wondering, “what can I do now? Where can I go? Who needs food who needs water? Who needs a solar energy? What can we do to make so this cannot happen again? Or if this happens again, what can we do to help ourselves?” And it’s something hard to do, but it’s not impossible. So. I hope Puerto Rico becomes an independent country.
I think that younger people in Puerto Rico are more conscious than my generation that is still young. But that makes me feel hopeful. This song, I hope it’s a way to make people at least question, what should we do with ourselves and try to at least find ways to help each other?
[iLe’s song “Odio” plays.]
JS: That was the Puerto Rican artist iLe. She spoke to our producer Jack D’Isidoro.
JS: That does it for this week’s show. One note next week we are going to be having a special guest on, Noam Chomsky. You’re not going to want to miss that.
If you’re not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted log onto theintercept.com/join. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply.
Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our Executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.