September 2017. It was a month of sequential natural disasters that left multiple American cities underwater and in various states of crisis. Reflecting on the contrasting recovery outlook for two of them: Houston, and 1800 miles to the Southeast, San Juan Puerto Rico, we are brought to face with something extremely ugly: an American colonial legacy that is alive and well.
“Vulnerability is not simply a product of natural conditions; it is a political state and a colonial condition.”[i]
In today’s world this condition can be summarized by a single word: debt. Puerto Rico owes 74 billion dollars to a consortium of vulture investors, hedge funds and bond holders.[ii] Like most colonies, the island has a long history of financial disempowerment wielded through the mechanisms of extractive loan terms, snowballing interest payments and tax breaks for corporations and the ultra-wealthy. Colonial debt is a thread that winds through history, connecting Puerto Rico’s past slavery-based sugar economy to the extractive financial economy of the present neoliberalism. Colonial debt is structural, concrete racism. It’s high time all colonial debt is considered odious.
Recently the US Congress enacted the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) Bill. It ceded widespread powers of governance to an undemocratically appointed group. Since the Promesa bill was enacted in June 2016, draconian decisions have been made that hold the public accountable for the irresponsible actions of the financial class, including, “cutting spending on public health by 30 percent, closing schools, and lowering the minimum wage for young people to a little over $4 an hour.”[iii] Since Promesa has been enacted,more than 150 schools have closed on the island.
As we know from the 2008 housing crisis, debt is primarily a tool of power; a game in which the financial elites win every time. 2008 taught us that financial giants like Goldman Sachs who take on risk stand to lose little in the end; in fact the inevitable crisis helps them by killing off competitors and socializing loss. On the other side of the equation, historically disempowered people like Puerto Rican children see their schools and hospitals concretely shut down. It’s not surprising that a hedge fund that has been deeply involved in Puerto Rico, Stone Lion, was founded by the equity chiefs at Bear Stearns: players at the epicenter of the 2008 collapse in which no one was held accountable except millions of individual citizens – a pattern set to play out again with Promesa.[iv]
Meanwhile, the biggest players of the financial markets such as shadow bank Blackrock Inc is a heavy investor. This is the mega-firm that Occupy Museums focused on in our Debtfair project at the Whitney Biennial. Blackrock has ballooned to 4.7 trillion of managed assets since 2008 mirroring the exponential enrichment of elites during economic crisis worldwide. So we must be clear: Puerto Rico is next.
“I think tomorrow the island will develop into the Singapore of the Caribbean.”[iii]
‘“One reason I came here is I thought it hit bottom. In a democracy, you really need a crisis to bring about change,’ says Tennebaum, a former Bear Stearns executive. He is in the process of building a home on the island and starting a merchant bank.” – Michael Tennenbaum
But this all reads like old news now. Then came Irma and Maria, knocking out much of the island’s infrastructure setting it back “nearly 20 to 30 years.”[v] The climate change-fueled super-storm means massive capital is needed to rescue and rebuild the island – capital attached to austerity and privatization. In New Orleans following Katrina, this rush of capital with ideological strings attached ultimately left the city without public schools and incentivized displacement of its own citizens, remaking the city in a whiter image.
We are witnessing the pairing of debt and crisis to serve the neoliberal goal of extreme privatization around the world: from the selling off of public land in Greece to water in Detroit. It’s time to call this what it is: colonial extraction. To echo the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz “you don’t put debt above people, you put people above debt.”
Occupy Museums joins the many voices calling for a complete cancellation of colonial debts and the anti-democratic agenda of Promesa. Our group is inspired by activists who have long connected politics and culture such as the Young Lords in New York. We join this call in solidarity with the long struggles of the Puerto Rican people and especially the artists we have collaborated with in Debtfair for the last year.
For too long, the arts and culture industry has become a civic front for the violence and extraction of the finance industry. The same sharks destroying entire economies are shamelessly heralded for their ‘stewardship’ as a blind eye is turned toward the havoc they wreak on millions around the world. If cultural institutions want to face in the direction of greater equality and decolonial and anti-racist justice they must divest themselves from the financial colonists of Puerto Rico: MassMutual, Oppenheimer Funds, Goldman Sachs, Franklin Resources, and UBS, the financial sponsors of the Basel Art Fairs and the third largest mutual fund holder of Puerto Rican debt. MoMA’s feted board member Larry Fink is CEO of Blackrock, the world’s greatest single engine of debt extraction. Until he is kicked off the board, the museum stands on the wrong side of Puerto Rico’s crisis and the programmed crises to come.
Cancel Puerto Rico’s colonial debts now!
Fire the Promesa oversight board – Real democracy now!
Viva Puerto Rico!
October 14, 2017
[i] Professor Yarimar Bonilla:
[v] according to Resident Commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez https://newrepublic.com/minutes/144985/us-government-fails-puerto-rico-again