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Confronting Colonial Capitalism

The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists
By Naomi Klein
Haymarket Books, 2018
ISBN: 9781608463572

Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico
By Marisol LeBrón
University of California Press, 2019-08-17
ISBN: 9780520300170

Reviewed by: Alex Standen

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and in the midst of a power outage that left tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans without electricity for months, former Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló laid out a plan to rescue the island. It could be described in one word: privatization. The first target would be the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which—weakened by years of austerity and mismanagement—had been especially vulnerable to the wrath of Maria. Hundreds of public schools would be closed; hundreds more would be replaced by privately run charter schools. And privatization would not stop there: almost everything was on the table, from highways to national parks. As Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce told The Intercept, “We do expect that similar things will happen in other infrastructure sectors.”

Thanks in no small part to the work of Naomi Klein, the story of post-Maria Puerto Rico is a familiar one. In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein first explored “the deliberate exploitation of states of emergency to push through a radical pro-corporate agenda.” In her more recent project, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, Klein pivots to Puerto Rico, and again demonstrates why her framework remains invaluable for making sense of why disasters are so good for business.

In The Battle for Paradise, Klein extends her study historically, revealing what she calls the “shock-after-shock-after-shock doctrine”—the cyclical invasion and retreat of colonial capital and the crises precipitated by both processes.

In The Battle for Paradise, Klein extends her study historically, revealing what she calls the “shock-after-shock-after-shock doctrine”—the cyclical invasion and retreat of colonial capital and the crises precipitated by both processes. In the 1950s and 1960s, Klein argues, Puerto Rico became a testing ground for what we now call neoliberalism: the capitalist class’ assault on both organized labor and the public sector, and the consequent deregulation and globalization of the economy. U.S. manufacturers, mostly in textiles and food processing, flocked to the island during this period to take advantage of tax exemptions and cheap labor in the American colony. As Klein and other scholars have pointed out, Puerto Rico “invented the whole model of the special economic zone” and experimented with “maquiladora-style factories” years before corporate offshoring had taken hold globally. But that economic model began to crumble in the 1990s. NAFTA went into effect in 1994, and the tax breaks that had initially lured manufacturers to the island were eventually wiped off the books between 1996 and 2006, prompting manufacturers to seek cheaper labor elsewhere and dismantling the tenuous foundation of Puerto Rico’s newly-industrialized economy. The global economy collapsed a few years later, and the Puerto Rican government was forced to issue municipal bonds at astronomical interest rates to make up for lost government revenue.

At the same time, the government laid off thousands of public sector workers, closed more than 300 public schools, and cut the University of Puerto Rico’s budget in half. These austerity measures only exacerbated the island’s economic crisis, helping land Puerto Rico in more than $70 billion of debt by 2016. That year Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which established a Financial Oversight and Management Board, composed mostly of Wall Street executives appointed by the president, to manage the island’s finances and ensure debt repayment. Colonialism has never been democratic—Puerto Ricans cannot vote for president and do not have voting representation in Congress—but few things unmask its tyranny quite as effectively as PROMESA. La Junta—as Puerto Ricans have come to call the Board—imposed further spending cuts, devastating an already-devastated island. As the anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla explained to Klein, San Juan looked like it had been hit by a hurricane months before Maria. Degraded by austerity, much of the infrastructure, most notably Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), was no match for the storm to come. Neoliberalism, colonialism, and nature coalesced in September 2017, when Maria killed more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans and caused almost $100 billion in damage. The austerity-induced vulnerability was ultimately used to justify privatization in Maria’s aftermath. In deploying her disaster capitalist framework to illustrate this history, Klein is at her best.

Marisol LeBrón… is interested in how dependence on mainland-based investors and financial institutions, together with subordinate political status, has created the conditions for what she calls punitive governance…

Marisol LeBrón’s Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico is grounded in a similar history. She is interested in how dependence on mainland-based investors and financial institutions, together with subordinate political status, has created the conditions for what she calls punitive governance: “the ways in which the Puerto Rican state has reasserted itself in the lives of Puerto Ricans through technologies of punishment such as policing and incarceration.” As LeBrón describes, after the relative prosperity of the mid-century period—in which Puerto Rico’s industrial economy rapidly developed—the 1980s and 1990s were marked by diminishing opportunities, severe budget cuts, and rising unemployment. As the state’s provision of much-needed social services and economic opportunities deteriorated, informal economies flourished and crime rates surged. Aggressive policing has stepped in to clean up neoliberalism’s mess. Punitive governance, LeBrón argues, has filled the void left by austerity and economic crisis, and it has targeted low-income, economically “exploitable and expendable” black and brown people.

But LeBrón, like Klein, is also interested in how the crises of neoliberalism are used to justify privatization and advance corporate encroachment on the public sector. In 1992, in an attempt to overcome budget shortfalls and, officially, to “reduce the amount of drug use and trafficking” in housing projects, Puerto Rico became the first major public housing authority to completely privatize the management of its properties. As public housing became privatized and increasingly segregated, many of Puerto Rico’s wealthy communities followed suit. Dozens of San Juan neighborhoods “restricted street access through the construction of gates and controlled access checkpoints.” Many others hired private security firms to protect themselves from neoliberalism’s losers. The effect, LeBrón argues, was to concentrate “violence within racially and economically marginalized communities” and to subject residents to “greater harm at the hands of both police and their fellow citizens.”

Ultimately, what Klein and LeBrón so effectively expose is the cyclical destruction of colonial capitalism in the neoliberal period. In the Puerto Rican case, capital flight and the erosion of social programs and economic opportunities precipitated a series of crises—unemployment, crime, debt, dilapidated infrastructure—and those crises were used to justify further austerity and privatization, which exacerbated existing crises, spawned new ones, and continued the cycle. LeBrón’s notion of punitive governance fits neatly within this narrative. Hurricane Maria, meanwhile, exists both as a part of this story and outside of it. It was a different kind of crisis, one that united the wrath of colonial capitalism and the sheer power of nature to inflict tremendous suffering. Colonial capitalism can be blamed for the neglected infrastructure that was easy prey for Maria’s winds and rains, and it can be blamed for a wholly inadequate government response that privileged capital over people. Given the scientific link between the burning of fossil fuels and the intensification of hurricanes, capital even bears some of the blame for the strength of the hurricanes themselves. The point here is not to reduce natural events to political economy—as anyone who lived through Hurricane Maria can attest, there was something distinctly non-human about its ferocity. The point, rather, is that the violence of nature and the violence of capital have become almost impossible to disaggregate. The distinction between natural and human-caused crises seems less and less relevant. Capital facilitates the destruction of hurricanes by literally creating the climatic conditions to strengthen them, while at the same time increasing the vulnerability of their potential victims through austerity. Hurricanes, in turn, facilitate the power of capital by reducing the island to rubble and clearing the way for what Klein calls the “shock doctrine.” As LeBrón reveals, colonial capital does not need the help of a natural event to impose its will; it is perfectly capable of creating and benefiting from its own crises. But the devastation of a hurricane helps, and Klein shows us how.

… [A]s well as Klein and LeBrón set up the problem and its origins, their analysis of the solutions is less compelling.

For as well as Klein and LeBrón set up the problem and its origins, their analysis of the solutions is less compelling. In the last chapter of Policing Life and Death, LeBrón describes Acuerdo de Paz, a community-led and state-funded policing initiative in Loíza, a predominantly black and low-income community in the outskirts of San Juan. According to LeBrón, Acuerdo de Paz is “one example of how Puerto Ricans have challenged the punitive policies and logics that have dominated understandings of security in recent decades.” It has “worked to dismantle the politics of disposability shaping life and death in Puerto Rico” by “identifying the structural forces that contribute most to conditions of insecurity in Loíza.” After five years of relative success, Acuerdo de Paz was discontinued in 2016 due to a lack of funding.

Klein also champions community development initiatives as models of resistance—many of which have been popularized in media accounts of post-Maria resiliency. Probably the most noteworthy of these models is Casa Pueblo—what Klein describes as a “strange hybrid of ecotourism lodge and revolutionary cell.” Powered by solar panels and funded in part by its own community-managed coffee brand, Casa Pueblo acts as both a community center and a political hub in Puerto Rico’s central mountains. It has successfully blocked plans for mining operations and gas pipelines in the Adjuntas area, has helped protect thousands of acres of land in conservation areas, and is currently leading the post-Maria effort to transform the island’s power grid to renewable energy sources.

Klein highlights other organizations that should be familiar to anyone following the post-Maria resistance. One of those, Organización Boricuá, is a network of farmers who promote agroecological farming practices—including crop diversification, reforestation, and reliance on local seed varieties—with the intention of building a more local and resilient food system on an island that imports 85 percent of its food. Organización Boricuá’s project became all the more urgent when Hurricane Maria and a hostile federal government disrupted food imports, leaving hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans food insecure for months. Projects like Casa Pueblo and Organización Boricuá are, as Klein writes, “islands of self-sufficiency,” and together they form a “network of grassroots Puerto Rican movements” that is “laying out a plan for a new Puerto Rico, one in which residents play a greater role in shaping their own destinies.”

Klein and LeBrón are right to celebrate these models. But it is hard to see how they on their own, without a more broadly organized working-class, could seriously confront the grave economic and environmental challenges the island faces. In thinking through what a more robust movement might look like, the case of the Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT) is instructive. In the 1940s—during World War II and at the peak of Puerto Rico’s geopolitical importance to the U.S.—the CGT united nearly 100 unions and more than 200,000 workers to wield unprecedented power over Puerto Rican politics. The Confederación helped win minimum wage increases, land redistribution, and the cultivation of more food crops; actively fought racism in the workplace; and included a faction that pushed for Puerto Rican independence. The CGT also allied with the center-left government on the island—led by then-governor Rexford Tugwell and Luis Muñoz Marín’s Partido Popular Democrático (PPD)—to pursue state investment in key sectors of the Puerto Rican economy. The PPD, with the CGT’s support, created state-run agricultural cooperatives and glass, paper, ceramics, and shoe factories. Their collective successes are a testament to the power of a broad coalition of workers with a far-reaching set of demands.

But the CGT’s power, and its association with the PPD, were short-lived. On the island and the mainland, the sugar industry—which dominated the Puerto Rican economy during the first half of the twentieth century, and, like the manufacturers that came after it, depended on favorable tax policy to survive—worked to undermine the social and economic gains made by the PPD-CGT alliance. Sugar companies initiated a ferocious oppositional media campaign, refused to purchase goods produced in state-run factories, and challenged in court the PPD’s land reform plans. The CGT was further weakened in 1945, when it split on the question of Puerto Rican independence. Two factions emerged: a moderate group of mostly sugarcane workers’ unions that continued its alignment with the PPD, and a more radical group of pro-independence unions, called the CGT-Auténtica.

The emergence of the CGT-Auténtica ultimately came into conflict with Muñoz Marín’s evolving vision for the island. In the 1930s, Muñoz Marín had been pro-independence and mostly pro-union, and he had intended for his social-democratic reforms to lay the economic basis for independence. But by 1945, after years of working to decolonize the economy for independence, he became convinced that a better future for Puerto Rico meant continued association with the U.S. and continued access to mainland markets and investment. Puerto Rico’s economy was too dependent, he concluded; independence would be a death wish. The CGT-Auténtica, meanwhile, by advocating for independence and potentially deterring U.S. investment through its militancy, directly challenged Muñoz Marín’s newfound vision for Puerto Rico. In the years that followed, the PPD used the Taft-Hartley Act to demobilize the CGT-Auténtica and reassure investors. As a result, Puerto Rico stumbled into the post-war period, dangling low wages, tax incentives, and a neutered labor movement in front of potential manufacturers. Investors jumped at the opportunity: by 1952, more than 150 new industrial enterprises had set up shop on the island, mostly in light manufacturing. Conveniently located within U.S. borders, but subject to labor standards more akin to those in the developing world, Puerto Rico became a laboratory for neoliberalism.

This history offers lessons for the present. First, Muñoz Marín’s evolving views on independence suggest that colonialism is maintained by the material relations that it constructs. As Muñoz Marín himself had recognized in the 1930s, altering those relations—by investing in locallycontrolled agriculture and industry and combatting wealth extraction—is the key to liberating Puerto Rico from its colonial subjugation. He gave up those aspirations in the 1940s, resigned to the view that Puerto Rico was too dependent on U.S. investment for political and economic autonomy—but we should not. Second, the CGT’s successes affirm the power of the labor movement to remake those material conditions, to help build a democratic and locally-controlled economy that can subvert the foundations of Puerto Rican colonialism. In the 1930s, Muñoz Marín thought the state could create those conditions, but his eventual betrayal of the labor movement confirms that a sustained struggle along those lines must come from below.

The history of the CGT also demonstrates the importance of a broad coalition of workers with a wide-ranging set of demands—not just higher wages, but land redistribution, state investment in industry, and an end to colonialism. This type of organizing is our best chance to confront disaster capitalism, to ensure adequate hurricane relief, and to start to tackle the climate crisis that is intimately entangled with both. It is our best chance to stifle the punitive governance that neoliberalism breeds and necessitates and the racism and classism that are embedded within it. Perhaps most important, it is our best chance to create the material basis and the popular will for real sovereignty on an island plagued by colonialism and capitalism. We need alternative models, as Klein and LeBrón point out. But more than that, we need a way to get there, a way to create the conditions for agroecology, publiclyoperated renewable energy systems, community policing, and decolonization to be viable and successful.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, we have seen flickers of that type of organizing. At the center of that fight is the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), a teacher’s union that has long worked to protect public education on the island by thwarting school voucher and charter school proposals. Klein devotes a few paragraphs to the FMPR at the end of her book. She describes how, in an attempt to prevent school closures after the hurricane, the union led a group of parents and teachers who “occupied the schools, reopened them without permission; parents blocked the streets.” In coordination with other unions, they repaired hurricane-damaged schools themselves and turned them into community centers that fostered political education and bolstered support for their cause. More than 25 schools that had been slated for closure were reopened thanks to the FMPR and allied labor unions.

At the time of writing, Puerto Ricans—with the FMPR and other unions at the forefront—are in the midst of a weeks-long uprising touched off by a corruption scandal, the bigotry of the since-resigned governor Ricardo Rosselló, la junta de control fiscal, and a host of other grievances. It has been an impressive show of force from a broad swath of Puerto Rican society. For the movement to be successful, it will need to follow the lead of workers to combat wealth extraction and demand a better future for Puerto Rico. Most of all, it will need to recognize that structural problems demand structural solutions.


Author Biography
Alex Standen is a PhD candidate in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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