A Pandemic Reckoning
By: Por: Yarimar Bonilla
In Puerto Rico, 2020 began with a jolt. The month of January brought the onset of an earthquake “swarm” that rattled the southern coast, bringing buildings, schools, and emotional nerves to the ground. In just one month over 2,500 seismic events were registered by the local seismic network, with over 272 “felt events” of magnitudes between 2.0 and 6.4. Most of the quakes came in the wee hours of the night. As a result, thousands found themselves sleeping in their cars, in tents, or on park benches, afraid to reenter their homes. That is, if their homes were still standing.
As with Hurricane Maria, the tremors were followed by scandals of political corruption, the mismanagement of emergency aid, and the failure of state agencies. Once again, locals were left to their own devices, forced to take recovery and community care into their own hands. While the Department of Education dithered in inspecting quake-damaged schools, parent groups and community organizations began setting up home schooling and donating tents for makeshift outdoor classrooms. While the government stalled in delivering aid, caravans of citizens created traffic jams bringing emergency supplies to earthquake-impacted neighborhoods.
Unpredictably but unsurprisingly, the earth kept shaking, and citizens eventually became accustomed to the unstable ground. Hurricane Maria taught many to live without electricity or running water. Now the earthquakes forced us to sleep in our running shoes, with our survival kits by the door. After all, Puerto Ricans are experts in resilience. We’ve learned how to live with state failure. We’ve become accustomed to crisis. Because of this, when the COVID-19 outbreak began in March, it was quickly treated as yet another chapter in our compounding disaster.
This feeling of layered crises is perhaps best seen in the popular memes that began to circulate on social media in the wake of the pandemic. One example is that of a book cover for an imagined illustrated guide to recent Puerto Rican history. It features three emblematic objects: a gas canister like the ones used to fill generators during power outages after Hurricane Maria; a backpack representing the survival kits that residents were exhorted to prepare during the onset of the quakes; and a surgical mask, the latest emergency object that residents are now obliged to acquire in order to mitigate the latest threat to the body politic.
Like other forms of crisis and emergency, the pandemic is a socially produced event, driven not by biological forces or natural hazards but by the deeply rooted social inequalities that shape our experiences of those hazards to begin with. The pandemic is thus also a disaster in the manner often described by anthropologists and other social scientists: a totalizing and disruptive event that reveals long-standing fragilities and creates new possibilities—both economic and political. Disasters do not only destroy or damage, they also reveal. They peel away the blinders of habit and routine, and they cast new light on what might otherwise remained obscured.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, many began to see Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship in a new light. Across the United States many “discovered” that their nation was actually an empire. As historian Daniel Immerwahr argues, one of the particularities of the United States is the way in which it has successfully “hidden” its empire. The very name of the country suggests a federation of sovereign states, when in actuality as a polity it is a collection of states, territories, tribal nations, and other ambiguously defined jurisdictions. This messiness is obscured by its contradictory name (or its lack of a name, as many Latin American writers have suggested) and by what Immerwahr describes as the “logo map” of the United States that veils its far-flung territories.
However, before empire could be hidden, it first had to be assembled. In its early era of colonial expansion, the United States was concerned less with hiding its colonial possessions than with reconciling its contradictions. While claiming to be “The Land of the Free” where British colonial rule was successfully challenged, the United States simultaneously asserted its “manifest destiny” as the site of territorial expansion. However, the affective tensions of asserting freedom, empire, progress, liberty, and expansion atop coerced labor, colonial warfare, and native genocide were not easily reconciled.
US political leaders were thus caught in a white supremacist liberal double bind: on the one hand, manifest destiny empowered them with a mission, nay a duty, to expand and join the ranks of imperial Europe. But the nation’s stated principles of equality and anti-imperialism made it difficult to justify the incorporation of new territories without offering them entrance into the union of states. As a result, expansion into places like Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines brought up thorny questions about the character and purity of the nation. Incorporating societies of “alien races” ran counter to the racist thinking of the time, which was focused on eugenics and ideas of racial purity. At the same time, acquiring these territories without incorporating them politically ran contrary to the liberal democratic principles of their new nation.
Double binds are typically thought of as moments of impasse, but that is not always the case. Aporetic moments can also be generative. In this instance, a new legal category was invented: that of the “unincorporated territories.” This would distinguish settlements like Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, which were incorporated but not yet admitted as states because they were still in the process of settlement, from sites that were un-incorporated and thus not intended for annexation. The latter were said to “belong to but not be a part of” the United States. They were described as “foreign, in the domestic sense” and placed in a legal category of their own—unfit for either citizenship or sovereignty.
In Puerto Rico in 1952, the status locally referred to as the “ELA” (an acronym for Estado Libre Asociado) was developed as a way of meeting the rising calls for self-determination around the globe. This status was glossed in English as “commonwealth”: an empty phrase that simultaneously evoked formulas of statehood, independence, and dominion. The English translation of Estado Libre Asociado similarly evoked a multiplicity of forms by suggesting that Puerto Rico would now be Free, a State, and Associated—when in fact it was none of the above. The slippery semantics of the ELA were a purposeful attempt at appeasing the various claims from local residents for independence, supported by a large constituency at the time, while also appealing to those who favored statehood, a formula which was locally growing in support even as Congress remained firmly opposed to the prospect.
At the moment of its founding, the ELA was described as an agreement “in the nature of a compact”—a legal euphemism that sought to mask the fact that it was not an agreement between two equal parties, or even a binding piece of legislation. The language of the Public Law 600 was so vague that political scientist Peter Fliess wrote at the time: “Even if it were binding, one still would not know what was binding.”
Luis Muñoz Marín, the main proponent of the commonwealth and Puerto Rico’s first locally elected governor, assured Puerto Ricans that this new status would put a definitive end to “all traces of colonialism” and grant freedom, dignity, equality, and a permanent union with the United States. Nevertheless, within Washington the bill’s sponsors assured Congress that the law would leave the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States intact; Muñoz Marín himself testified in a Senate committee hearing that “if the people of Puerto Rico should go crazy, Congress can always legislate again.”
The main outcome of the slippery and ambiguous ELA was thus a symbolic one, though it did allow the United States to successfully petition the United Nations to remove Puerto Rico from the list of non-self-governing societies—thus freeing the US from submitting routine reports on its political conditions. The symbolism of the date chosen for the ELA’s signing, July 25—the same day as the US Navy’s landing on Puerto Rico’s southern coast in 1898—further served to cloak Puerto Rico’s colonial status while inadvertently creating a palimpsest.
Although often viewed as a unique relationship, the formation of the ELA was part of a larger process of political experimentation following the end of the Second World War. Around the same time of the establishment of the ELA, both the Dutch and French Antilles were engaging in similar forms of non-sovereign incorporation to their metropoles, while in the British Caribbean the West Indies Federation and later the Commonwealth of Nations were taking shape. Meanwhile, in what became independent nations, forms of decolonization were being forged that allowed for “flag independence” while severely limiting economic and other forms of sovereignty.
During the mid-twentieth century, residents of both independent nations and of the many commonwealths, departments, and other postcolonial experiments in the Caribbean were offered the promise of a bright postcolonial future by both local political elites and former imperial powers. Throughout the region, modernism, development, and economic growth appeared to beckon on the postcolonial horizon. In the first decades following the formation of the ELA, Puerto Rico did experience rapid industrialization and economic progress, due in great part to the postwar New Deal policies and tax incentives that lured American manufacturing to the island. These results were celebrated as exemplars of US-led capitalist development, and Puerto Rico was showcased as an alternative to the left-wing politics in other parts of the region. A 1970s promotional film for Puerto Rico went so far as to describe the territory as “Progress Island” and represent it as a site of rapid development and unstoppable growth. However, the main beneficiaries of these policies were not Puerto Rican residents but rather American companies that reaped profits, tax breaks, and a captive market for their products.
As in other parts of the Caribbean, the promises of decolonization in Puerto Rico soon began to fade. As early as the 1970s—as the global economy experienced significant shocks due to rising oil prices—it was already becoming clear that development via foreign investment was not leading to sustainable growth. By the 1990s, when the Clinton administration removed the tax incentives that had once lured manufacturing industries to the island, Puerto Rico’s economy began a historic downturn. As a result, local administrations turned to heavy borrowing—with direct assistance from Wall Street—to compensate for and mask a deflated economic base.
By 2015, Puerto Rico’s governor had declared that the territory was at risk of descending into what economists describe as a “financial death spiral.” For many, this was just a confirmation of the looming sense of doom that had already presided over the society for decades. Following the governor’s declaration that Puerto Rico’s debt was “unpayable,” the federal government denied the island the right to declare bankruptcy. Instead, the government passed what is known as the PROMESA law (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act), which allowed for the imposition of a undemocratically appointed fiscal control board to manage the island’s finances in what for many represented a return to a previous era of overt colonial rule.
Our colonial status, long adorned by euphemisms and legal sleights of hand, was suddenly and violently asserted by the federal government as it became clear that we had no ability to negotiate the terms of our foreclosure. Caught in a political limbo with neither the protections of a state nor the fiscal sovereignty of a nation, we found ourselves unable to define the nature of our debts, the severity of our austerity, or the limits of our endurance.
When President Trump arrived in Puerto Rico hurling paper towels in lieu of emergency assistance, many in the United States were scandalized. But in Puerto Rico, Trump’s spectacle was simply an unvarnished version of the state violence that has long tied us to the nation. His tweets and stunts are but an extension of how Congress has long treated federal programs as colonial benevolence rather than a national responsibility.
In Puerto Rico some have speculated that COVID-19 might become the United States’ “Maria moment”: the point at which residents discover that they live in a “failed state” with gutted infrastructure, inefficient state agencies, and a populace that emerged from the 2008 economic crisis with stark divisions between those who can live through a hurricane, an earthquake, or a pandemic, and those who cannot.
This might also be the moment in which Americans discover that the future is a cancelled promise. Puerto Ricans, and many others across the globe, long realized that climate change, neoliberal austerity politics, the dismantling of social safety nets, and unsustainable global capitalism were heralding a troubling future. Long before Maria, young people in Puerto Rico were grappling with bleak prospects of even finding employment, much less achieving a better standard of living than their parents. It is thus with great irony that we view a headline from the Wall Street Journal lamenting the state of millennial graduates from top universities in the United States who, due to the COVID crisis, are now said to be “walking into a hurricane.”
This feeling of déjà vu is not exclusive to Puerto Rico. Within the United States itself, what is for some a sudden crisis is for others simply the extension of an already existing state of insecurity. While some only begin to discover a negligent government capable of putting their lives at risk, residents of Flint, Michigan, enter the pandemic on the sixth