Puerto Rico

A map of the Caribbean with Puerto Rico circled

The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico (PR) has passed from one colonial ruler to another. Today, the ‘US territory‘ is going through a massive debt crisis. And, as Washington dithers, a longstanding movement for meaningful democracy in PR is growing.

***Key points***

    • US territory and lack of democratic rights.
    • Historical independence movement.
    • Ongoing debt crisis which has sparked mass exodus to US.


PR is a strategic foothold for Washington in the Caribbean. But while the mainland ‘makes the rules’, Puerto Ricans can’t have a say in presidential elections after voting in US primaries. This is one reason among many behind the island’s ongoing independence movement.

Colonialism continues in the 21st century

In 2016, Maru Gonzalez wrote in the Huffington Post that:

Since the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898, Washington’s relationship with Puerto Rico has been one of exploitation and convenience. From the Ponce Massacre and government-sanctioned programs aimed at forcibly sterilizing working class Puerto Rican women to unethical testing and human radiation experiments on Puerto Rican prisoners, the U.S. government has a shameful track record of transgressions on the island.

Powerful interests, meanwhile, have sought to capitalise on natural and man-made disasters in recent years to try and privatise the island’s energy sector. In 2017, for example, Hurricane Maria (reportedly the strongest in decades) “destroyed“ PR, leaving millions of people without power. Emily Atkin wrote at the New Republic that this hurricane came amid an already tragic environmental situation on the island, a consequence of its “extensive financial crisis”.

Slate explained in 2017:

Although Puerto Ricans fully pay into the U.S. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security systems, they cannot collect the same benefits as citizens in the 50 states, which shifts more of their health care costs onto the territory’s government.

Debt and recession

As the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) wrote in 2020:

Puerto Rico has been ravaged by a sustained recession over the past fourteen years.

The start of the recession saw a spike in the unemployment rate. And PR’s skyrocketing debt reached $123bn in 2017.

The CFR explained how:

Annual economic growth fell by roughly 7.5 percent overall between 2004 and 2019, while Puerto Rico’s population shrunk by more than 16 percent. It has also entered bankruptcy proceedings after defaulting on its massive debt, a downward spiral that has been compounded by natural disasters, government mismanagement and corruption, the coronavirus pandemic, and population decline.

Puerto Ricans’ access to US passports had a big impact. Because it allowed around 400,000 people to flee to the US. They were escaping what some called a “US imposed” crisis (in part due to the territory’s “colonial status”).

Two wings of the same bird

Puerto Rican poet Dolores Rodríguez de Tió once reportedly said Puerto Rico and Cuba were like “two wings of the same bird”, with much shared culture and history. And when US forces occupied PR after a war with Spain at the end of the 19th century, they occupied Cuba too (though for a shorter period of time). The 1959 victory of the Cuban Revolution saw two very different situations develop. As US authorities stated themselves, they had significant concerns about a similar movement for independence in PR. So Washington went for a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. It quickly punished Cuba for its independence, for example. And by 2014, decades of a US trade embargo had allegedly cost Cuba around $116.8bn.

Researcher Harry Franqui-Rivera told the Guardian in 2016 that, during the Cold War, the US saw its actions in PR in an important light because of the potential comparison with Cuba. But that changed after the fall of the Soviet Union. In this new world, Franqui-Rivera suggested, there was less of an incentive for Washington to support the Puerto Rican economy so much. And the ongoing debt crisis in the US territory is a good example of this. Because Washington seems to be in no rush to help find a solution.

The debt crisis rolls on

As Reuters reported at the start of January 2021:

The federally-appointed board overseeing Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt restructuring will appear in court next week to once again defend the validity of the process, which is now three and a half years old.

Julio López Varona, from the Center For Popular Democracy, told the Intercept in December 2020 that the restructuring deal “will impact the people of Puerto Rico for decades”. And he expressed concerns that:

The current deal provides payments to hedge funds and millionaire bondholders by cutting pensions and forcing Puerto Rico into a long haul of austerity-driven policies that will force even more people to leave the island and will threaten the stability of essential services.


See this 2019 Vice video about the women at the centre of anti-government protests:

Check out this 2017 Intercept video about Puerto Rico’s debt, colonialism, and privatisation:

See this 2016 Laura Flanders Show summary of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis:

Puerto Rican music

Check out our Puerto Rico playlist below:

Lead contributor Ed Sykes.

Main article image via Ktrinko