In July 2019, almost two weeks of protest led to the ousting of Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló. The diversity and creativity of the protests were nationally and internationally celebrated. Asambleas de pueblo, people's assemblies, continued political participation beyond the protests. This article attends to a feature of the protests that has yet to be explored. Throughout the protests, checklists appeared on signs, on walls in Old San Juan, and on Facebook and Twitter. These index a modality of power explicit in the protests and in reserve in the asambleas. The checklists, I suggest, record the power of removal that established the protests as successful irrespective of the institutional impact that Rosselló's resignation purportedly had on the indebted colony. The checklists inscribe the ongoing task of interruption, to the point of removal, that seeks to render coloniality inoperative in the everyday.
Vamos por todxs.1—Anonymous
Beatriz Llenín Figueroa's 2018 12 sugerencias para todos los días (12 Suggestions for Every Day) offers a list of questions ubiquitous in the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico in times of debt and austerity: What is to be done? How is it to be done?2 The book is described as an “incantation against inaction and complicity,” a “chart [tabla] for navigating the quotidian plunder” experienced in Puerto Rico, a “revolutionary set of watchwords [arenga]” for resistance.3 Llenín Figueroa adds that the best part about making a list is crossing it out—tacharla.4 The book's cover orients its reader, showing a reproduction of an image by the collective BEMBA PR (fig. 1). The back cover reads: Tacha al
Macho (cross the macho out).5 The twelve suggestions named in the book's title are imperatives. They summon us to cross out, to interrupt, the operation of coloniality in the indebted colony of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María.
In July 2019, almost two weeks of nonviolent protest led to the ousting of Governor Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló. The diversity and creativity of the protests have been nationally and internationally celebrated.6Asambleas de pueblo, people's assemblies, continued political participation beyond the protests. In what follows, however, I pay attention to a feature of the protests that has yet to be explored. Throughout the protests, checklists appeared on signs, on walls in Old San Juan, and on Facebook and Twitter. These index a modality of power explicit in the protests and in reserve in the asambleas.7 The checklists, I suggest, record the power of removal that established the protests as successful irrespective of the institutional impact Rosselló's resignation purportedly had on the indebted colony. Following Llenín Figueroa, I show that the checklists inscribe the ongoing task of interruption, to the point of removal, that seeks to render coloniality inoperative in the everyday.
I begin by recounting the political-economic conjuncture in which the protests occurred as well as their immediate aftermath in the asambleas. I then document the checklists that appeared. I explore the power that they index by clarifying, first, that in the case of Puerto Rico one must track the operation of coloniality in the colony.8 Second, I sketch how we might conceive of the checklists as indexing a power of interruption that seeks to render coloniality inoperative.9 Interruption, in this case, is not arbitrary. It can serve the ends of decoloniality when read in terms of Llenín Figueroa's call:
tacha al macho. The latter is a call to map the reproduction of a race/gender/class hierarchy and to seek its destruction, its dissolution. The checklists can be seen as indexing a form of decolonial power in reserve, since they catalogue the will to dismantle the colonial condition, interrupting the work of coloniality in the everyday. I end by reflecting on the January 2020 protests calling for the resignation of Governor Wanda Vázquez as expressions of this will to interrupt and undo colonial reality.
Ricky Rosselló became governor of Puerto Rico in 2017. He ran for office pledging to pay back the territory's debt, restructure the government, and achieve statehood.10 During his time in office, Rosselló's administration pursued a labor reform that worsened the erosion of worker's rights, an educational reform that closed 438 schools, and a response to Hurricane María plagued by mismanagement and corruption. In September 2017, two weeks after Hurricane Irma impacted the territory, Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico. Homes were destroyed. The electrical grid, water distribution and filtration systems, the telecommunications network, roads, and bridges collapsed. Federal and local government mismanagement and local government corruption hindered hurricane relief. An estimated 3,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, though the often-quoted number is an estimated 4,645.11 In February 2018, Rosselló sought to reboot the indebted, hurricane-riven territory's economy. He pursued investors by highlighting the benefits of territorial status (where regulations, laws, and rights operative in states are lacking), tax haven conditions (aggressively promoted in the realm of real estate with Act 20/22 of 2012), and “right sizing” through austerity.12
Puerto Rico's $123 billion debt is the largest municipal debt in United States history.13 In May 2017, Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy under title III of PROMESA, a 2016 federal law that instituted a Fiscal Control Board tasked with ensuring fiscal responsibility and regaining access to capital markets.14 Austerity and privatization are key to the Board's efforts to pay back creditors. The US-appointed board overrides local government decisions that conflict with its aims. Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress and cannot cast a presidential vote. The US Congress is the seat of juridico-political sovereignty despite the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado (Associated Free State) in 1952.15 Restructuring deals and the bankruptcy plan unveiled in September 2019 have been reached without an audit. Legal and political efforts for an independent audit, particularly a citizen audit, have been ongoing since at least 2015. The deals and plan raise utility costs, intensify regressive taxation, and considerably lower pensions. With PROMESA, then, Puerto Rico has returned to a form of colonialism that predates the neocolonial relation of the Estado Libre Asociado. Through the operation of neoliberal financial capitalism, specifically the apparatus of debt, the colony is reinstated in altered historical-material conditions.16
On July 10, 2019, the FBI arrested top government officials, including the Secretary of Education Julia Keleher charged with mismanaging $15.5 million. The arrests were followed by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo's release of 889 pages of a Telegram thread where Rosselló interacted with his advisors.17 Rosselló discussed public policy, corporate interests, and public opinion on the thread with eleven men he called “brothers.”18 Misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, classist assertions, “jokes,” expletives, and memes were ubiquitous in the thread. The brothers made light of the deaths caused by Hurricane María and discussed the suppression of information on hurricane relief and recovery.19 The brothers, in Raquel Salas-Rivera's translation, made fun of women “protesting because of all the women being killed by domestic violence”; made fun of poverty, saying, “That guayabera shirt costs more than what you make in a month, you might get dirty”; considered strategies for “hiding the numbers of those killed during María” and jokingly asked, “Don't we have some cadavers we can use to feed the crows?” They stated that “Ricky Martin is so misogynistic that he fucks guys because women are not good enough. Pure patriarchy.”20 If Hurricane María laid bare the humanitarian crisis already unfolding after decades of austerity, the thread laid bare the functioning necropolitical state.21 It dispelled the view that the debt crisis and hurricane relief and recovery disclosed an absent state.
The protests were self-convened and organic. The local and international press praised the “creative” nature of the protests—which included practices ranging from cacerolazos on the streets and in homes and motorized caravans to diving, kayaking, yoga, music and dancing, including perreo. They were not spontaneous, however.22 They drew from the feminist transformation of traditional protest that has been underway. Since at least 2016, for instance, La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción has sought to hold the necropolitical state accountable through Feminist Strikes, a Feminist Embargo, calling for the declaration of a state of emergency regarding gender violence, and a campaign calling for the citizen's arrest of Héctor O'Neill, the former corrupt governor of Guaynabo charged with sexual harassment and sexual assault.23 Groups resisting the Fiscal Control Board through encampment and direct action, such as Se Acabaron las Promesas (Promises Are Over), prepared the political terrain in which the protest occurred as well. During 2016, they camped at the Federal Court, protesting PROMESA and its installation of la Junta—that is, the Fiscal Control Board. The horizontality of the 2010 student strike at the University of Puerto Rico and the modes of autogestión (autonomous organizing or mutual aid) developed in the wake of María provided the organizational praxis crucial to the construction of diffuse and diverse collectives throughout the summer of 2019.24
The state responded to the protests by clearing the streets of Old San Juan at 11:00 p.m.25 It deployed a police force reinforced with the Special Tactics Unit and correctional officers. It used tear gas and rubber bullets. Despite this, protests continued after the success of #RickyRenuncia. In the context of the so-called “constitutional crisis” that followed Rosselló's resignation, protesters opposed the brief self-proclaimed governor Pedro Pierluisi. Pierluisi, who was deemed to represent the interests of the Fiscal Control Board, was removed by Puerto Rico's Supreme Court. Protestors now targeted Governor Wanda Vázquez, given her questionable record addressing gender violence as Secretary for Women's Advocacy (Procuradora de las Mujeres) and her failure to investigate lost provisions in hurricane relief. They continued around a host of issues including a declaration of a state of emergency regarding gender violence; a growing housing crisis; a proposed zoning map that changes land use and its relation to the “Opportunity Zones” created by Trump's tax reform; and pension cuts, among other issues.26 The mass mobilization seen in July, however, ended.
The political energy shifted at this point to asambleas de pueblo.27 Benjamín Torres Gotay reports that the first asamblea was held in Ponce in mid-July, when a group gathered, unable to travel to the mass demonstrations.28 During the week following Rossello's resignation, at least four assemblies were held across the territory, and, by August 16, twenty-eight assemblies had been convened.29Las asambleas nurture participation in the construction of proposals, with open meetings or working groups and committees combined with plenary forms, seeking to shift power away from the government and the party. They affirm the generation of proposals rather than ongoing opposition, with slogans such as “de la protesta a la propuesta” (from protest to proposal) and “el pueblo es el que manda” (the people govern). Yarimar Bonilla notes that “assemblies are not imagined as [an] event but as communities. . . . They are emerging as new political constituencies.”30 They build on the “toma silenciosa de poder” (silent coup), as Bonilla puts it, of mutual aid or community self-management, autogestión, in the context of institutions crumbling under the weight of austerity, corruption, and hurricane response and recovery.31
The asambleas might be seen as a continuation of the form of prefigurative politics that autogestión arguably represents.32 Elsewhere Bonilla clarifies that, particularly in the context of the debt crisis, people speak of the need to autogestionarse or manage for themselves.33 In post-María Puerto Rico, autogestión is a matter of self-management as well as of forms of “gestation” made possible thereby. Puerto Ricans not only take care of themselves in the context of institutional collapse. They prefigure the reorganization of authority through the very reproduction of life. They do so through modes of mutual aid, establishing a key difference from the government's distinctively neoliberal call for resilience and self-reliance.34 As Adriana Garriga-López writes, autogestión, or “autonomous organizing,” as she translates it, has generated different “structures and modalities of care . . . out of an awareness of the needs of the community.”35 In this context, as Bonilla and Garriga-López suggest, recovery took the form of reimagining the political future at a distance from the state. In the asambleas, one might argue, political futures were articulated, tested, enacted, and thereby imagined.
Although the asambleas can be seen as forms of autogestión, they inherit tasks stated on checklists that appeared on walls, physical and virtual, throughout the protests. The checklists inscribed more than political demands, although some did make those demands as well. By and large, they stated tasks to be completed. They instituted priorities. They called for additions, inviting participation and the construction of collectivities by positing a goal. They were not an event; rather, they initiated a process. They noted items to be crossed out, things to be done: eliminate the Fiscal Control Board, audit the debt and government administration, declare a state of emergency regarding gender violence, eliminate Act 20/22, articulate a process of decolonization, generate structures of sustainability. For example:
On a wall at Calle la Fortaleza, briefly renamed Calle de la Resistencia [fig. 2]:
Convocatoria El Día Después de su Renuncia [Call: the Day After Resignation]
5:00 pm Capitolio a la Fortaleza [5:00 p.m. Capitolio to La Fortaleza]
Fin de la Junta [End of the Fiscal Control Board]
Transparencia Total [Total Transparency]
Investigaciones Criminales [Criminal Investigations]
On a different wall in San Juan, the same list appeared, with the following addition:
¿Y qué más? #ElDíaDespués [What else? #TheDayAfter]
Eliminar Ley 20&22 [Eliminate Act 20/22]
Que abran las escuelas cerradas [Make them open schools that have been closed]
Keleher presa [Incarcerate Keleher]
Asamblea General Constituyente [Constituent General Assembly]
Estado de Emergencia Violencia de Género [State of Emergency Against Gender Violence]
Circulated on Twitter:
Nuestra agenda [Our agenda]:
Paso 1: sacar a Rosselló [Step 1: remove Rosselló]
Paso 2: auditar la deuda [Step 2: audit the debt]
Paso 3: impulsar desarrollo sustentable [Step 3: boost sustainable development]
Paso 4: ampliar producción de energía solar [Step 4: expand solar energy production]
Paso 5: fortalecer el sector industrial y la pequeña y mediana empresa [Step 5: strengthen the industrial sector and small and medium enterprise]
Paso 6: modernizar la infraestructura [Step 6: modernize infrastructure]
Paso 7: reforestar [Step 7: reforest]36
Checklists named officials, politicians, and senators as well. These figures were listed as the next to be removed, charting a path of removal, questioning the hegemony of the party. The lists thus not only reject but seek to dislocate the two-party system. The Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party) and the Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party) are seen as one government block that serves the interests of capital and a local elite.37 The checklists accordingly crossed out tasks that had been completed, such as the removal of a politician in the unfolding political situation. They signaled actual or desired victories, in the midst of a changing situation that at times led to the reversal of what were seen as hard-won victories. For example:
4. Anonymous, on a wall in San Juan [fig. 3]:
TRS [Thomas Rivera Schatz]
5. Circulated on Facebook:
Rosselló Wanda Pierluisi
Y a todxs les vamos a sacar pa'las ventas del carajooooooou! [We are going to send all of them to hell!]38
La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción and Se Acabaron las Promesas, as well as well-known activists, also circulated lists. These include political demands rather than tasks to be achieved, however. They address the protestors, but they also address the government. They reference the slogan central to Argentina's 2001 uprising, which removed five presidents and also led to asambleas: ¡Que Se Vayan Todos! (They must all go!). Consider the following:
6. La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción:
Before Rosselló resigned:
Renuncia Inmediata del Gobernador Ricardo Rosselló y su Gabinete de Gobierno [Immediate Resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his Cabinet]
Gobierno interino declare Estado de Emergencia Contra Violencia de Género [Interim Government Should Declare State of Emergency Against Gender Violence]
Auditoría de la Deuda y Gestión Pública [Audit of the Debt and Public Administration]
#QueSeVayanTodos #EstadoDeEmergencia [#TheyMustAllGo #StateOfEmergency]
After Rosselló resigned:
En la lucha del pueblo, nadie se cansa [In the people's fight, no one gets tired]
¡Exigimos! [We Demand!]
Estado de Emergencia Contra la Violencia Machista [State of Emergency Against Gender Violence]
Auditoría de la Deuda [Audit of the Debt]
0 impunidad a los corruptos [Zero impunity for corrupt officials]
Compromiso de Cero Recortes: [Commitment to Zero Cuts:]
En pensiones [To pensions]
En Educación Pública [To Public Education]
A derechos laborales [To workers' rights]39
7. Se Acabaron Las Promesas [Promises Are Over]:
¡Que se Vayan Todxs! [They Must All Go!]
Ni Rojos [Neither Red (Popular Democratic Party)]
Ni Azules [Nor Blue (New Progressive Party)]
Ni Junta [Nor Fiscal Control Board]40
The checklists do more than make political demands, then. They state tasks that allow for the formation of concrete proposals. They summon new forms of political organizing, inviting participation, drawing from the diverse collectives formed during the protests. They do not yet model the forms of political participation arguably exercised in the ongoing asambleas, which in turn build on forms of autogestión that responded to the devastation caused by María. The checklists posit collectives by positing a concrete goal, an actionable task that requires long-term elaboration. They thereby move beyond protest, and they do so beyond the party and beyond the question concerning territorial status that dominated politics in Puerto Rico throughout the twentieth century. They are without a center, in keeping with the horizontality of political interventions such as the student strike of 2010 and with other forms of autogestión.41 Yet they compel, functioning as imperatives, at the ready to confront the state in its efforts to realize the interests of capital.
One might argue that asambleas can be seen as heirs to the checklists. They can be understood as drawing from the silent coup of autogestión. They aimed to build political power but to do so at a distance from the state. They imagined and organized ways to interrupt the necropolitical operation of the state, its work on behalf of the interests of capital through the apparatus of debt and austerity. The asambleas sought to build new political possibilities in this way. For example, on August 9, Yarimar Bonilla reports on the asamblea in Carolina:
Against the closure/privatization of schools
Against the displacement of communities and creation of “opportunity zones”
Against pension reductions
In favor of a citizen's debt audit
In favor of declaring a state of emergency regarding gender violence
In favor of inclusion of gender studies into the school curriculum (“perspectiva de genero”)
Against pension cuts
In favor of the definition of “essential services” (something the Fiscal Control Board has refused to do) and the guarantee of funding in these areas: health, education, housing, public transportation, affordable utilities
Except for a small gathering in support of Rosselló after his resignation, organized citizen opposition to the protests was not reported. In this context, it is interesting to note that a critic of the asambleas, commenting on El Nuevo Día's Facebook page, draws up a list as well:
“Problemáticas” que los convoca/reúne: [“Problems” that bring them together]
(1) “LIMPIEZA del Gobierno de PR” [“CLEANSING of the Government of PR”]
(2) Una “NUEVA CONSTITUCIÓN PERTINENTE AL PUEBLO DE PR”!!!! [A “NEW CONSTITUTION FOR THE PEOPLE OF PR”!!!]
(3) Un “NUEVO y mas DEMOCRÁTICO MODELO DE GOBERNANZA” [sic] [A “NEW and more DEMOCRATIC MODEL OF GOVERNMENT”]
(4) “AUDITORÍA DE LA DEUDA (pa’ saber quién, qué, cómo y cuándo—o sea, pa’ politiquear—y pa’ que dizque EU se haga cargo”) [sic] [“AUDIT THE DEBT (to find out who, what, how, and when—that is, to play at politics—and to say that the US is responsible for repayment”) (sic)]
(5) “Desplazamiento de la población nativa por EXTRANJEROS” (muerte al inversionista!!!) [“Displacement of the native population by FOREIGNERS” (death to the investors!!!)]
(6) “AMBIENTALISMO” (“nuestras” playas, las cenizas, el gasoducto, Monsanto . . .) [“ENVIRONMENTALISM” (“our” beaches, the ashes [toxic coal ash dumped in the town of Peñuelas], the Gasoducto [a project to build a gas pipeline successfully resisted by the environmentalist movement], Monsanto [which operates in the southwestern part of the big island as a site of seed experimentation and production)]42
(7) “UPR” (el fortín de los rebeldes) [“the University of Puerto Rico” (fortress of rebels)]
(8) Etc., etc., etc.
¡¡¡Qué riiiiico es disfrutar del los DERECHOS A LA LIBRE ASOCIACIÓN y EXPRESIÓN consignados bajo la CONSTITUCION DE LOS EU!!! [How wonderful to enjoy RIGHTS TO FREE ASSOCIATION AND EXPRESSION under the US CONSTITUTION!!!]
¡¡¡DESPIERTEN, CIUDADANOS AMERICANOS DE PR!!! [WAKE UP, AMERICAN CITIZENS OF PUERTO RICO!]43
A rejection of the politics of the asambleas, this critique is consistent with the views of the statehood party, the New Progressive Party. It draws from Rosselló's own arguments in favor of statehood.44 Proponents of statehood understand the Estado Libre Asociado as establishing a neocolonial relation. Admitting Puerto Rico into the union, which only the US Congress can do, granting Puerto Ricans living in the territory full rights, is seen in this context as a project of decolonization through the US Constitution. The critique can be seen as aiming to interrupt as well, to be sure. Rather than the work of capital and the necropolitical state, it seeks to interrupt the collective construction of power at a distance from the state. It returns to the politics of the party and the territorial status, calling into question the creation of collectivities that imagine meeting the needs and desires of communities otherwise.
The checklists call for the interruption of key political and economic sites in which the colony is reinstated through an ongoing coloniality. Aníbal Quijano coined the phrase “colonialidad del poder” (coloniality of power) to describe the continuing operation, in postcolonial contexts, of the colonial project of capitalist modernity installed in the late fifteenth century.45 Coloniality names a system of racial classification installed by this project centuries ago, but that continues to operate in contexts where processes of decolonization have been achieved through the creation of independent nation-states. Coloniality names race as the central technology in the articulation of existence, organizing labor, subjectivity, and authority beyond colonialism as a political-juridical project. Rather than a static system of classification, coloniality describes the operation of a racial hierarchy in producing modes of creating and capturing value, forms of subjectivation and subjection, and ways of organizing political authority.46 Coloniality actualizes a history of colonial violence, then, producing subjects who are subjected to radical forms of violence and expulsion along these lines.
In Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, a colony of the United States, one must track the operation of coloniality in the colony. The colony is reinstated in the current economic juncture through debt and austerity. Debt restructuring led, again, to the imposition of a Fiscal Control Board, returning Puerto Rico to the kind of colonial relation purportedly undone by the neocolonial Estado Libre Asociado. The Fiscal Control Board, the territory's debt, government corruption, corporate interests, violencia machista, and the individuals who sustain or reproduce these structures through votes, campaigns, and lobbying are points at which colonialism and coloniality intersect in Puerto Rico. However, the continuation of the colonial condition depends on the intensification of a system of hierarchization along race/gender/class lines, evident in the effects of austerity. Ariadna Godreau-Aubert puts the point best when she writes that “the colony is what happens [transcurre] in ‘repeated acts of capture,’” and that “indebted life is the continuation of colonial life.”47 In the context of financialized neoliberal capitalism, debt functions as a central apparatus for the creation and capture of value as well as subjection-through-subjectivation. Expulsion, dispossession, and precarization mark racialized and gendered bodies and populations that are not only deemed dispensable, but made culpable for the territory's economic collapse. These culpable subjects must pay with their bodies, “even when wearing” them, as Godreau-Aubert writes.48
The checklists register the imperative to turn coloniality inoperative by interrupting the work of a necropolitical state. They index the will to remove corrupt officials, yet they do not seek this removal for its own sake. They catalogue tasks that aim to short-circuit the reinstatement of the colony through debt, la Junta, austerity, and their multiple modalities of expulsion and precarization. They set tasks that interrupt the reproduction of the colony through the reorganization and intensification of a system of race/gender/class hierarchization. In listing tasks that short circuit debt's logic of expulsion and precarization, the checklists affirm the will to target the productivity of coloniality here and now.49 The checklists not only record but also store, one might say, the power of removal, dislocation, and interruption, in order to build life anew. This latter project has been pursued through autonomous organizing or mutual aid, autogestión. The power stored in the lists can be understood as the power to short-circuit the necropolitical operation of the state through confrontation. Latent and ambivalent, amenable to cooption and complicity, this power can nevertheless serve the ends of decoloniality when it targets the hierarchies of race/gender/class that reinstate colonial life.
The checklists can be seen as pivots that turn “¡Que se vayan todos!” (They must all go!) into “¡Vamos por todxs!” (We are going after them all!) (fig. 4). A demand stating that all corrupt officials in power are unsuitable to govern is thus turned into an affirmation of the ongoing activity of holding accountable, to the point of removal, those who reinstate and sustain the colony, serving the interests of capital. More than the removal of corrupt individuals, however, ¡Vamos por todxs! indexes the ongoing need to short-circuit the operation of coloniality through debt and austerity. Concretely, it indexes the will to interrupt pension cuts; rising utility costs; privatization; new rounds of enclosure of land, coasts, and the city; the coupling of tax exemptions for the rich, creditors, and corporations with regressive taxation through a 11.5% sales and use tax; and expulsion evident in, for example, a 149,000-person migration to the US in 2018.50 The checklists record the will to turn coloniality inoperative, then, addressing much more than the colonial condition: the territorial status. They record the will to interrupt the hierarchies intensified in the differential effects of austerity, debt restructuring deals, and bankruptcy plans across race/gender lines.51
The checklists capture a modality of power I call power in reserve, since it is a will to confront the state, law, and capital that coexists with the turn away from the state, law, and capital distinctive to autogestión. Singer-songwriter Yarimir Cabán, also known as MIMA, asked on her Facebook page what the events of July should be called. Poet Urayoán Noel replied “SoVerano”—a play on words, combining sovereignty and summer. The checklists inscribe the inversion of power captured in this term. Now, some lists, some tasks, should be outright discarded, to be sure. Those that call for the actualization of a world that reproduces colonial violence might summon as well, but they are precisely what the checklists made in July target. The checklists seen throughout Puerto Rico's SoVerano pursue an “agenda of disorder,” to speak with Frantz Fanon.52 But they “set out to change the order of the world” constructed by colonial violence in piecemeal fashion. They interrupt the immediate impacts of debt and austerity yet they thereby short-circuit coloniality here and now. They thus express a “vision, a horizon of action, and an orientation” distinctive to the decolonial turn, in Nelson Maldonado-Torres' words.53 Decolonization, understood as decoloniality, Maldonado-Torres writes, “refers to a process of undoing colonial reality and its multiple hierarchies of power as a whole, which suggests the immediate necessity of work at both the subjective and structural levels.” Checklists inscribe the power of interruption, then, but they harness this power for decolonial ends by targeting “colonial reality and its multiple hierarchies of power as a whole.”
Llenín Figueroa's twelve suggestions provide a key to understanding the power inscribed in the checklists: a decolonial power in reserve. Llenín Figueroa's suggestions summon the reader to interrupt coloniality in the everyday: cross the
macho out, tacha al macho. These are interventions at the subjective and structural levels. They seek to undo colonial reality, interrupting its operation in the articulation of existence from the institutional to the sensible. Llenín Figueroa's lists can be gathered into three groups. The first addresses the power of negation. Exemplary here are suggestions 1–3. In abbreviated form, they read:
Stop believing the powerful. Turn your back to them. Tell them, at all times and everywhere, NO, because we [nosotras] want other YESes [otros SÍ].
Feel comfortable making [others] uncomfortable.
Every day remember aloud so that everyone hears that the guilty do not have impunity for so much and such atrocious abuse.
The second group of suggestions addresses the significance of memory, affirming the need to hold accountable. Holding accountable is here self-consciously a form of allocating blame; one might even say that it functions as a form of historical reckoning. Exemplary here are 4–6:
4. Do not ask us to “do something” and, at the same time, to “calm down.” . . . Enough with enduring calmly. Women are regularly required [to stay calm] so that the world never finds out how much they kill us. Calm is only for those who have life assured.
5. However, remember that, when necessary, the composition of anger will be required.
6. Let's not forget. Let's document. Let's make lists of crimes. Let's take them everywhere and offer them to every possible person. These lists can be like this one, in verbal language, or in any other language: visual, auditory, tactile . . .
. . . we have always been, but are dramatically more since PROMESA, the JCF [Fiscal Control Board], and María, cruelly exploited and abandoned by both the rickety state and the raptor capital and its imperial arm in the north . . . I remind everyone that I am not a “fellow American” and that the United States of the North are not America.
Private companies do not save anyone . . . We have to continue making the country [el país] ourselves, for ourselves [nosotras, para nosotras].
Finally, the third set of suggestions addresses the construction of life beyond coloniality. For example:
7. Make politics, that is to say, carry and build a way of living together, with the rest of humanity, but above all, with other life forms.
8. Trust that another language, another way of living, another way of thinking, another country [país], is not only possible, but that they are continually emerging [gestándose], even if this does not appear in the news or on social media.
9. Only if you complete #8 can you be open to finding those other countries in your experience, in improbable corners, in unexpected people, in the constant and courageous arrangement [gestión] of so many efforts today, even more widespread after María.
Suggestions 1–9, then, elaborate power in reserve as a power of negation that requires memory, allocating blame, inverting the asymmetries and hierarchies distinctive of coloniality. This list directs that energy, affirms the composition of anger, against the colony as it is reinstated through debt as a form of coloniality. The impacts of austerity in the colony differ along the lines of race/gender/class. Llenín Figueroa's list compels us to track those differences, to interrupt them in their varying intensities.
Ultimately, Llenín Figueroa's list points to the power of the list itself, rejecting the view that one must pass from protest to proposal as if we could separate the two. Proposals of this kind require ongoing protest, a catalog of harms, a will to dismantle. The list lists a decolonial power in reserve, then, latent at all times, necessary even in the most promising of constructive projects. Suggestion 12 captures this point best:
12. DO NOT get tired of undoing macharranería [machismo] everywhere, including in the left that, even in 2018, bleeds machos. Invent the masculinities—and the femininities—that do not exist. Always become. Change. And tomorrow, change some more.
macho, then, ongoingly, relentlessly. Make lists of the sites where coloniality is operative. Map where a race/gender/class hierarchy is reproduced in all its violence. Seek its destruction. Vamos por todxs. To cross the macho out, I read Llenín Figueroa as saying, is thus to interrupt the operation of coloniality, abandoning the view that interruption is antithetical to building life anew, constructing reality and sensibility anew.
In January 2020, a swarm of earthquakes revealed once more the workings of a necropolitical state: a crumbling infrastructure, failed distribution of aid and adequate shelter for children and the elderly, failure to inspect schools that could serve as shelters or would house children on their return from the holidays. Citizens across the main island traveled south to bring aid to those who had lost their homes in what is an ongoing situation. Autonomous organizing, ubiquitous in this context, drew from the experience of María as well as #RickyRenuncia. #WandaRenuncia, one of the items on July's checklists, reemerged. On January 18, 2020, citizens stormed a warehouse in the southern town of Ponce, at the epicenter of the earthquakes, found to be full of unused emergency supplies, some dating to the period just after Hurricane María. Thirteen such warehouses were identified and placed under government surveillance. Protests demanding the resignation and incarceration of Governor Wanda Vázquez, and all government officials involved in mishandling disaster aid, began on January 18. A general strike occurred on January 20. Protests continued every evening. On January 23, hundreds gathered again under heavy rain.
On January 13, as the earth trembled in southern Puerto Rico, performance and recording artist Macha Colón published on social media a stanza, which she called “music for dealing with quakes,” “música pa’ bregar con la temblequera.” The stanza reads: “Cada vez que tiembla, cada vez que tiembla, me pongo a pensar, en to’ los políticos, que vamo'a tumbar.” (Every time [the earth] trembles, every time it trembles, I start thinking, of all the politicians that we are going to knock down.) On January 20, two signs designed to be read together, containing a checklist of politicians to be removed, were photographed:
“Que paguen los culpables” [Make the guilty pay] →
Schatz [Thomas Rivera Schatz]
Keleher [Julia Keleher]
In July 2019, an issue of the Puerto Rico Review dedicated to the protests contained drawings of Rosselló and a guillotine.54 In January 2020, a guillotine with the blade wrapped in the now ubiquitous black Puerto Rican flag was carried to the Fortaleza (fig. 5).55 The main slogan of the #RickyRenuncia, “Somos más y no temenos miedo,” “We are more and have no fear,” has now become “Somos más y ahora metemos miedo,” “We are more and now inspire fear.” Vamos por todxs.
Debates concerning the violence of protestors' use of graffiti and damage to private property as opposed to the violence of the Special Tactics Unit's use of tear gas on the evening of January 23 or the violence of mishandled disaster relief, corruption, and austerity have dominated conversations in the media and on social media. The list and the guillotine, however, do not call for violence. They express the will to remove corrupt or negligent government officials, to interrupt the necropolitical operation of a state generating value from disaster. They index the will to turn coloniality inoperative. They signal that the success of #RickyRenuncia calls for an ongoing task in and beyond #WandaRenuncia: removal, interruption. Waiting for elections in November is seen as going through the 2020 hurricane season with a government that hides disaster aid provisions still in place. Whether or not #WandaRenuncia is successful, it draws from the power, always on reserve, to short-circuit and undo colonial reality here and now.
Throughout this text, I use the gender inclusive “x” in Spanish, in keeping with a practice that is ubiquitous in the queer community in Puerto Rico.
My thanks to Yarimar Bonilla, Sofía Gallisá-Muriente, and Sarah Molinari for the many conversations we shared about the July events, and for sharing photos and screenshots of checklists.
For a book-length treatment of this claim, see Zambrana, Colonial Debts.
See, e.g., Minet, “María's Death Toll.”
See Bonilla, “For Investors.” For an account of the political economy of Puerto Rico under US colonial rule, which has been based on foreign investment though tax exemption since 1917, see e.g., Bernabe, “Puerto Rico: Economic Reconstruction”; Fusté, “The Repeating Island of Debt”; and Muñiz Varela, Adiós a la economía. For an account of the differential impact of Puerto Rico's political economy, intensified by Hurricane María, along racial lines, see Lloréns, “The Race of Disaster.” See also Zambrana, Colonial Debts.
More precisely, Puerto Rico holds seventy-four billion dollars in bond debt and forty-nine billion dollars in unfunded pension obligations.
See Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act or PROMESA, H.R. 5278, 114th Congress (2015–16). Puerto Rico was excluded from chapter 9 in 1984 for reasons that were not recorded.
In 2016, the US Supreme Court's Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle ruling clarified that the US Congress remains the seat of sovereignty despite the creation of the ELA in 1952. The Insular Cases, specifically Downes v. Bidwell, installed the distinction between an incorporated and an unincorporated territory. These Insular Cases are still in effect. For key discussions, see, e.g., Venator-Santiago, Puerto Rico and the Origins of US Global Empire; Atiles-Osoria, Apuntes para abandonar el derecho; Torruella, “Why Puerto Rico Does Not Need Further Experimentation”; and Negrón-Muntaner, Sovereign Acts.
Sandra Rodríguez Cotto released eleven pages of the thread on her blog on July 8. The July 12 dissemination of 889 pages was the catalyst for the protests.
See Bernabe and Rodríguez Banchs, “La política de la anti-política.” On protest in Puerto Rico, see, e.g., Atiles-Osoria, Jugando con el derecho; Massol Deyá, Amores que luchan; and Cotto-Morales, Desalambrar. See also Santiago-Ortiz and Meléndez-Badillo, “Puerto Rico's Multiple Solidarities.”
See Kilómetro Cero, “Blog ‘Desde Cero.’” See also Brusi, “Why Puerto Rico's Cops Ignore the Constitution at Night.” For a recent history of repression, see Atiles-Osoria, Jugando con el derecho. Key here as well is the stress placed by Rima Brusi, Marisol LeBrón, and Miriam Muñiz Varela on the role of state violence in installing neoliberal rationality as well as inscribing racial hierarchies in the territory. See LeBrón, Policing Life and Death; Brusi, “University of Puerto Rico”; and Muñiz Varela, Adiós a la economía.
See Asambleas de Pueblo's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AsambleasDePueblo.
On prefigurative politics in this context, see Bonilla, Non-sovereign Futures.
See Bonilla, “The Wait of Disaster.”
For a critique of neoliberal ethics of self-reliance in this context, see Zambrana, Colonial Debts, chapter 4.
See Atiles-Osoria, Apuntes para abandonar el derecho. José Atiles-Osoria stresses the role of local elites in the heightened use of declarations of states of emergency for the installation of neoliberal rationality in the territory.
Transcribed from a screenshot of a tweet posted on Facebook.
On expulsion, see Negrón-Muntoner, “The Emptying Island.”
I provide an in-depth account of these differences in Zambrana, Colonial Debts.