On August 7, 1899, a powerful hurricane struck the coasts of the French island of Dominica. A succinct cable arrived in Puerto Rico, which read: “Communication is cut off in eastern Cuba: the hurricane seems to be approaching Puerto Rico.”1 Dominica was only a bead in the necklace of islands destroyed by Hurricane San Ciriaco. In 2017, 118 years later, Hurricane María would tie us up again with the thread of an already-forgotten plot. This time, we did not receive a cable. During the last hours with electricity, we were able to read the statements of the prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, who, after being rescued from his roofless home, told the world that in a single night his small country of 750 square kilometers and seventy-five thousand inhabitants had lost everything money could replace.
On August 8, 1899, and without time to prepare, Puerto Rico witnessed Hurricane San Ciriaco sneak through the town of Arroyo and leave six hours later through the town of Aguadilla. María would follow in its footsteps a century later. It entered the island shortly after 6:00 a.m. of September 20, 2017, destroying everything in its path. That day we never saw the sun. The dim light from the electric bulbs would not come back for many months. One-hundred-fifty-five-mile-an-hour winds roared across the beaches in the town of Yabucoa, where two tornadoes were later sighted. Like San Ciriaco, María left the island through the north coast a few hours after noon, somewhere between the towns of Quebradillas and Camuy. It was not the same country after San Ciriaco or María roared away from our shores. During the few hours the storms spent over the island, Puerto Rico moved into new centuries.
When the winds of San Ciriaco eased off—for twenty-eight consecutive days it did not stop raining—2,184 residents had died, most of them from the torrential rains. This number would eventually rise to 3,369, which made San Ciriaco the deadliest event in the country's modern history until María. The 4,645 people who lost their lives prematurely as a result of the slow institutional collapse accelerated by Hurricane María (according to a Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine)2 constitute a smaller proportion of the total population of the islands than the number of victims who perished from the winds and water of San Ciriaco. The first victims of San Ciriaco—many more died afterwards—shared the Puerto Rican archipelago with just under a million people. Given Puerto Rico's population of 3.2 million inhabitants, the total disappearance of the town of Ceiba or the annihilation of the vast majority of people who live today in the municipal islands of Vieques and Culebra would be the current equivalent to the number of lives lost then. However, as Irene Fernández Aponte notes, “in 1899 Puerto Rico was a country of dying people.”3 She continued: “The hurricane aggravated latent diseases and caused the appearance of others; hunger precipitated them all. The 1899 census counted a population of 953,243 people. In that year the deaths reached 40,000: a terrifying figure. In subsequent years they reached 30,000. . . . Entire families disappeared as victims of tuberculosis.” People died on the roads, in the squares, in any corner from anguish, and all this makes people think madly about fleeing and migrating.
In 2018, Puerto Rico is a country full of ghosts.4 We do not know how many of us have left, nor are we sure where they have gone. It does not seem that we can discern whether the wind took them or they flew away, too tired from sliding down the slope that the country was on. We do not know if any diligent citizen with enough free time will make a chart counting the dead, the wounded, and the material losses of each municipality, like the one published in 1903 by Don Román Aráez in his book Historia del ciclón del día de San Ciriaco (History of the Cyclone on the Day of San Ciriaco).5 No one expects anything from the state. The government, as singer-songwriter Joaquin Sabina tells on a recent album, only knows how to “deny everything, even the truth.”6 We were not always as attentive to losses as Roman Aráez. Fernández Aponte reminds us that it took the government of Puerto Rico fifty years to send someone to find out what had happened to those people who left for Hawaii without a penny after San Ciriaco forced them to give up everything they had lost. In 1951, Luis Muñoz Marín sent Jesús T. Piñero to see if he could find the trails of those who went around the world in order to escape the desolation worsened by the hurricane.7
Given the Puerto Rican government's malfeasance when it comes to keeping track of the living and the dead, it is commendable that we already knew before María that the island was facing the second great migratory wave in its modern history. More than 400,000 people left Puerto Rico during the decade prior to the hurricane. Despite the fact that María reduced the operations of the international airport to just ten daily flights for weeks, the most conservative forecasts predicted the departure of another 100,000 Puerto Ricans to a single destination: the state of Florida.8 We do not have final numbers for how many have returned. We do know that no one is completely absent from Puerto Rico. We share the sentiment expressed by Pedro Albizu upon returning from his ten years in prison in Atlanta.9 Regardless of how far away they are, Puerto Ricans never really leave. They tune in to the same radio stations, fight over the same news they get from the same newspapers, and continue to worry about a fate that they have momentarily escaped from. They keep singing “Happy Birthday” on the phone, and, thanks to social media, they do not lose track of family stories; they organize their next vacations, offer opinions on which dress to wear on which occasion, and participate in innumerable forms of smuggling, just as they have since the times of Pirate Cofresí. We were already a wandering people before our fragile modernity, survivors due to our seminomadic status, used to lending suitcases that never returned to our closets. We are a nation on the move, as Jorge Duany baptized us, one that cannot find its destiny despite how far we go in search of it.10
Things were not going well before San Ciriaco. Nor before María. After the military invasion of 1898, Luis Muñoz Rivera's autonomous government was ineffective, to say the least.11 The same can be said of government management after the Fiscal Control Board. These days, the confusion of elected officials reaches the point of having to wait for a hearing in the court of Judge Laura Taylor Swain, where she gets to decide how much control the legislative assembly retains in the country's government affairs.12 Reading the constitution is no longer enough for anyone. What is enough for all of us to assess the effects of twelve years of economic depression is just living in our homes or strolling through our neighborhoods. Getting to the end of the month with supplies in the cupboard, paying all the bills (and not just some of them), mowing the lawn, or painting the house have become isolated events, not established routines. Those who have had better luck can find out through the local news about the collective effects of the sharp cuts in social spending, the fiscal scarcity of the municipalities, the firing of thousands of public employees, the foreclosures on fourteen mortgages a day daily, the closure of hundreds of schools, the increases in college tuition costs, and the slow dismantling of public institutions. We all witnessed the government's inability to respond to the civil emergency after the hurricane, exacerbated, undoubtedly, by the fact that wallets sit forever empty on small tables by the door.
The situation before San Ciriaco was even more desperate, although its description resonates with the present. This is how a witness at the time described it:
People could not progress. They worked hard, ate poorly, were frequently ill, had little access to medicine, and died young. They lived in debt and were afraid of being kicked out of one of the farms as a result of a quarrel. There were not many chances to protest against the abuses, as the workers were not organized to defend their rights, and the government was not attentive to their problems. This environment of enormous frustrations and unsolved problems was reflected in the rays of amusement; fights that ended in misfortune were not rare.13
State resources, futilely committed to defense spending during the Spanish-American War, neglected the helpless majority on the island. It was this majority that San Ciriaco hit the hardest. In a country where government revenue for the 1897–1898 fiscal year was about 5,157,200 pesos,14 the damage appraisal attributed more than seven times that amount, about 36 million pesos ($35,889,013), or 20 million dollars, to the storm.15 Before María, it was the public debt—caused by the collapse of collections and by the insistent refusal of all governments to tax the rich—that exerted a siphon effect on the precarious resources of the poorest. By all accounts, the damages caused by María total around one hundred billion dollars, while the central government budget is less than nine billion. This time, the damages are more than ten times the central government's budget. San Ciriaco worsened a situation in which municipal governments were already struggling to feed the hungry population asking for food. In Mayagüez, the municipal government chose to establish soup kitchens [ollas económicas] in various neighborhoods with a fixed menu to feed the homeless free of charge. In our time, municipalities still struggle to afford housekeepers and hot meals for the elderly, while community kitchens multiply thanks to diverse private initiatives. I don't know anyone who remembers the last problem actually addressed by the central government. Problem solved? Not even a single one.
Although we have not often crossed the threshold of a century, it seems to bring consequences to Puerto Rico when we do. Although hurricane San Ciriaco was tragic and unparalleled (until recently), it was not the main dislocating event of the early twentieth century. That dubious honor goes to the military invasion of Puerto Rico by the United States. According to Stuart Schwarz, the hurricane established the ongoing relationship between the deprived majority, the island's landowning class, and the incipient United States government in Puerto Rico. It is interesting to note that the resources that the United States government brought to Puerto Rico came from the army and from humanitarian efforts organized by the mayors of cities with more than 150,000 inhabitants in the United States. There was no allocation from Congress.16 New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, who was in charge of the campaign in the United States, appealed to the generosity of all patriotic citizens, who would show the suffering people living in the country's new territorial possessions the immediate material and moral benefits that came under the flag of the United States.17 It was up to General George Davis, in charge of the island's government, to carry out an inventory of damages and the distribution of supplies. The damage report appears to have been done diligently, and it shows that more than a fifth of the population (200,000) lacked shelter and food.18 General Davis and Major John Van Hoff, in charge of the local charity committee, devised a complex registration system to distribute the aid among the applicants. It was the responsibility of each farm owner to request from the military government one pound of food per day for each of the peons under their charge and one pound for each of the worker's family members. This assignment was not intended to replace the salary in compensation for work done, but it could not be given to anyone who did not spend a day working in the fields.19 To ensure the subsistence of these workers in the future, the government required landowners to assign each worker one acre of land. Without this commitment, they could not claim the food subsidy for their workers. Through this mechanism, Schwartz says, thirty-two million pounds of food were distributed to one hundred thousand people in rural areas.20 This subsidy in exchange for agricultural work also served other purposes. For example, it helped keep the wages of farmworkers between thirty-five and fifty cents per day.21 If farmworkers had had access to the food rations without having to be employed on a farm, they would have been in a better position to negotiate better salaries, which the landowners thought were too high, although the workers were starving.22 United by prejudice against the poorest, and interested in keeping them subject to structures of exploitation, the wealthy of the old Spanish colonial regime tried to maintain their privileges through an alliance with the new invaders. Schwartz explains:
San Ciriaco threw the new government and the landowners into each other's arms in unexpected ways. The military government saw the landed class as the only means to overcome the immediate crisis and to initiate eventual economic recovery. By making the planters the agents of relief distribution, however, the military government tightened the planters' control over the island's social and economic structures and over the dependent landless population. . . .
The hurricane of San Ciriaco presented an excellent opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its efficiency and supposed benevolence in a time of crisis. It did this within the ideological constraints of its leaders and its representatives on the island, whose opinions about class and race were often shared by the Puerto Rican upper class.23
The political crisis we are experiencing today is the product, among many other factors, of the dissolution of alliances between local hegemonic groups and the hegemonic interests of the United States. Neither the profitability of the colony nor even the management of funds destined to alleviate the disaster seem to require local intermediaries. They do not need us to work in the fields, nor in the few factories that survived the end of Law 936.24 Also, there does not seem to be anyone locally—not a political party or any party leader—capable of offering the obedience of the poor to the new American economic interests. Governing without the support of the people is the role of the Fiscal Control Board. The United States does not consider it necessary to ask for obedience in exchange for a pound of food; the continuous threats related to debt and a few rolls of paper towels thrown with disdain by an openly racist president seem to be enough. Now we all share the economic burden of paying sales tax, pawned to pay the public debt, and to keep buying energy generated with outdated fossil fuels that foreign capital still wants us to buy. San Ciriaco survivors did not have many options. According to Schwartz's analysis, “rural workers had few alternatives: accept the relief provided by the planters, move to the coastal cities, or emigrate.”25 We, contemporary Puerto Ricans, are left with only one option.
To look back at that end of the nineteenth century, which made us into a country profoundly different from the one that had been forged before, helps us think about this other profound destructuring that comes with our transition to the twenty-first century. Before Hurricane María, we did not have a historical marker as dramatic as the invasion of an army or a historical hurricane. Just a disorienting confusion that before the hurricane's collective trauma was perhaps more difficult to explain or understand. Between that turn of the century and ours, the differences are as productive for analysis as the similarities that now seem obvious. In both transitions, the country's population faced catastrophic events. In both cases, the catastrophes were indisputable, in plain sight; they were preceded, however, by other, very slow, exhausting catastrophes. Catastrophe by attrition is the term used by the American theorist Rob Nixon to refer to the accumulation of harmful effects over a longer period of time: a kind of slow violence.26
We all recognize a catastrophe as a sudden and detrimental change marked by one or more events. Chernobyl in Ukraine—a country that after the appointment of Natalie Jaresko27 to the Fiscal Control Board seems closer to us—suffered a catastrophe marked by a single event: what happened in a nuclear power plant in the early hours of April 26, 1986. The effects of this event are still felt there, far away from us, to this day. The triple accident in Japan—as survivors call the sequence of events connecting the terrible earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident—was yet another catastrophe, marked by three distinct but coincidentally related events. A catastrophe by attrition, however, is one or more events of catastrophic proportions, but which occur over such a long period of time that they hide from observers, and even from participants themselves, the accumulated magnitude of their effects. Rather than a hurricane with a trail of destruction measured by the hour, a slow catastrophe is like a gale that started blowing more than a decade ago.
With this difference in mind, let us think again about our turns of the century. Around the time of San Ciriaco, a sudden devaluation of 30 percent of the country's financial assets resulting from the devaluation of the currency in use seemed to us like a small catastrophe nested within others. In our current turn of the century, marked by Hurricane María, a loss of 32 percent of total financial assets in less than a decade is also a small catastrophe within another, hitting us in slow motion. A catastrophe by attrition. According to data from the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Institutions of Puerto Rico, total assets in the country's financial institutions in 2007 totaled $213,758,000. By 2017, that figure had decreased to $137,427,000, a difference of $76,331,000.28 We must add other indicators of decapitalization to these losses of financial assets during the last decade; for example, the marked devaluation of real estate (exacerbated by post-María emigration), the closing of all kinds of businesses, and the total loss of 234,000 nonagricultural jobs between March 2006 and March 2016.29 To modern democratic sensibilities, the fact that the island was invaded and that its incipient autonomous government was supplanted by a military government was a political catastrophe. To those same sensibilities, replacing an elected and republican government with a board not elected by the people, one that concentrates all the powers of the state, also constitutes a small catastrophe, occurring along with many others.
Now, despite the different time frames for the great or small catastrophes that mark our turns of the century, there is another important differential characteristic to which I want to dedicate the rest of this discussion. This has to do with the different nature of the risks we faced now and then. The shift from the nineteenth to the twentieth century—determined by this triad: foreign invasion, currency substitution, and hurricane—was suffered through collectively, but it was not the result of the initiative or omission of the island's inhabitants. We participated in history by fighting in the Cuban jungle during the Spanish-American War, but we were not part of the negotiations of the treaty that ended the war on December 10, 1898, in Paris. We did not decide either on the invasion or on the monetary policy of the new regime. And to this day, the only thing we can do about a hurricane's haphazard trajectory is to prepare ourselves communally given the inability of the government to protect us. If the catastrophes at the end of the nineteenth century were the result of a series of events as unfortunate as they were foreign to the majority, the crisis of our young century has been forged through decades of collective actions and omissions. The unwillingness to develop an autarchic economic policy, the prolonged economic depression, the fiscal insolvency, the unsustainable levels of indebtedness, and the congressionally appointed Fiscal Control Board have all been men's affairs. A legacy of just a few men, whose names we should memorize and abhor.
The work of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck—who has dedicated more than thirty years to the study of the concept of risk at the national and global scales—allows us to establish a marked contrast between the risks that the country faced at the two turns of the century.30 Beck would describe the risks of the first transit as premodern, “blows of fate” that might have been thought of in other times as the work of gods or demons. On the other hand, the risks of our century are very modern. Beck would say that their modernity lies in that we now face risks manufactured through economic and social developments that we consider not only characteristic of our era, but some of its greatest achievements. Beck highlights environmental and financial risks as modern. He explains that the full implementation of a modernizing logic—like the one that dictates, for example, that industrialization always means progress—has changed the composition of the atmosphere and altered weather patterns throughout the world, exposing us to new risks. These risks are shared among the populations that have least benefited from the most extravagant consequences of our modernity. Beck is right when he says that financial risks are the result of the radicalization of the logic of the free market. Free markets mean deregulated markets. In the financial field, this has enabled remote financing. Capital moves around the world looking for the most profitable niches. Profitability is not usually linked to production, as in the days of industrial capitalism, but to speculation. But capital still needs information to calculate its risks. This has led investors to depend on a few global rating agencies that assign ratings to everyone based on the risks they represent to lenders. We know that very opaque—not to say fraudulent—financial products, such as those derived from subprime mortgages, obtained excellent ratings at the time. The sale of these products in all world markets turned the mortgage scam into a global recession, while hundreds of thousands of people were left on the streets: some lost their homes, and others lost their jobs. This is why Beck states that modern risks are manufactured and self-inflicted. They constitute various forms of “organized irresponsibility.”31
When the consequences of these risks emerge, their magnitude is such that it threatens the cultural matrix from which they arise. Beck sagaciously emphasizes that modern risks do not add to the ideology of modernity. Quite the opposite. Facing the suffering and uncertainty that they cause, it is very difficult to sustain the old faith that bet on reason as a remedy against the ills of the world. When modern risks translate into unprecedented damage, the only kind of speech that we can think of is exculpatory. We try to convince ourselves that catastrophe is the hidden side of progress. The only ones who don't believe us are the victims.
This is where we are today. The risks of our fragile modernity have flourished everywhere, and turned into damage. We are already beginning to notice the new and sinister fruits of a particular financial risk: the negligent management of public debt. This is why I propose that we, as feminist women, reinterpret the debt crisis—the deadliest and most far-reaching in its violence of the catastrophes we face—as the result of a public risk not agreed upon by those who are going to suffer from it. Let's clarify a few important aspects of this risk.
There is no such thing as a risk that is inherently acceptable. The only acceptable risks are those that someone takes and has expressly accepted. You can accept a risk when it has been explained to you, or when you choose to participate in an activity and you are conscious of its risks. Those who drive know they could be in a car accident. This is an implicitly accepted risk. The driver, however, has not accepted the risk that the bridges he crosses in his car may fall. Public debt is more like the risk of collapsing bridges than the intrinsic risk of driving. We entrust successive governments with the construction and maintenance of the bridges. That trust does not imply acceptance of the possibility that the bridges would be built with cheap materials that would collapse all at once, because of a low budget. Whoever argues that voting in elections legitimizes all of the rulers' actions offers a fallacious and exculpatory argument. When we vote, we authorize a candidate to perform well in their duties. We do not authorize them to do wrong. An electoral victory is not a permit to change the quality of the materials used to build the bridges.
Today's medical practice is very clear about acknowledging patient autonomy. If a procedure involves any risk, no doctor dares to perform it without documenting the authorization of the person who is exposed to it. Express authorization cannot be ignored either because the procedure complies with standard practices, or because its benefits are indisputable according to scientific literature. If the procedure can cause death, the patient's consent becomes more important. Debt is a reality that costs lives, to the extent that it deprives citizens of access to basic common goods such as health care and child care, public support for an aging population, quality education, and job opportunities. Public debt leaves female citizens without the necessary means for survival. The debt also threatens the continuity of the country as a whole. It has left us without a government that is able to respond to democratic demands, and that lacks the independence of the three branches—judicial, legislative, and executive—characteristic of modern republican forms of government. Given these risks that could have been foreseen, where was our express authorization? Nobody gave the authorization that would have justified the risks taken; and certainly no authorization was given by those who now suffer most from the consequences of the public debt. If part of the debt was incurred in contravention of the constitution, the officials in charge were willing to take atrocious risks that were explicitly prohibited ab initio. In this case, we would not be talking about unauthorized risks, but risks that could not even be socially proposed and to which no one could have consented without first changing the framework of the law.
The risks of debt not only threaten to be fatal but involve other aggravating factors. They are, for example, unevenly distributed. The poorer someone is, the more in need they will be of state support and subsidies. The less you have on your own, the more affected you will be by the state's bankruptcy. Less money will go to sustaining you. It is as if the government had built not all, but just some, of the bridges badly—say the ones that connect the poorest communities. The same applies to youth. The consequences of debt disproportionately harm new generations because they are the ones who require the highest degree of collective investment on a sustained basis. The fewer resources we have for the future, because we compromised them in the past without asking, the fewer we will have left for the younger generations. It is as if the only badly built bridges were the ones most girls pass over on their way to school.
In addition to all of these aggravating factors, which impose an unequal distribution of debt-related risks on the poorest and the youngest, it should be noted that the debt's magnitude is such that it calls into question the inherent responsibilities of the state. The state, although ours wants to forget it, is there to diminish the risks intrinsic to coexistence for everyone. That is why it puts up traffic signs and requires drivers' licenses. However, the management of public debt by successive governments had the opposite effect. In a hidden and potentially fatal way, it increased the risks of living in this society. Yet it kept its eyes on the few instances where individual actions can affect the well-being of others. The same state that mortgaged the future of girls and young people and that subtracted resources from those who were most in need continued to criminally prosecute neglect and abuse. It is as if the same state that builds collapsing bridges were to severely fine anyone who did not stop at a stop sign. Not only did they hold individuals responsible for imposing on others lesser risks than those created for all by government officials; they also did this knowing that the affected population lacked any mechanisms for redress. No one but an exclusive group of creditors had the forums or the means to claim compensations for damages or losses. To continue our analogy, it is as if the government were negligent in building bridges knowing that it would only be accountable to very few people. Finally, in a scenario in which the least we could demand is that those who created the risks be held accountable, the last two governments have done the opposite. One never assigned a budget to the Citizen Commission for the Audit of Public Debt, and the other eliminated the commission completely. The last analogy with bridges is quite obvious. Despite all the bridges that threaten to fall, the government is not allowing any citizen group to hire experts to do a forensic examination of their construction.
To these aggravating factors we must add that those who issued the debt, especially since 2006, did so in an economic and political context that amplified the risks of fiscal insolvency. The country's economy has suffered from its early modernizing stages of structural weaknesses, which have been very well explained by friends and fellow economists to several generations of university students. In fact, the Puerto Rican economist José Caraballo Cueto, who is also a colleague at the University of Puerto Rico, has argued that “the major negligence of the government . . . does not lie so much in the public fiscal administration, but in having treated this depression as conjunctural and not as structural.”32 Without that careful previous work, we would not understand thoroughly everything that is happening to us. When the government resorted to negligently increasing its indebtedness, not only was the economy already showing clear signs of wear and tear—which would have required profound changes in order to be fixed—but it was also known that a large part of the debt was issued with the awareness that in 1984 the country had been excluded by the United States Congress from the federal bankruptcy code. This implied that in the event of insolvency, the legal framework to meet the demands of creditors vis à vis the requirements of citizens would be very uncertain. The absence of a legal framework led to a reduced likelihood of reparations for female citizens.
To these two elements of our political and economic context, which amplified the risks inherent in the issuance of public debt, we must add at least a third factor. This is the role that financial institutions played in each issuance. In Puerto Rico, financial entities that advise the government on market conditions before debt is issued can serve as both judge and party. That is, they can, on the one hand, serve as advisers to the government that is thinking of issuing debt, and, on the other, structure the sale of the issuance on which they offered advice. They can do much more as well, including some things that are illegal in the United States: they can get clients, including their own clients, to sell them the debt on which they advised, and extend lines of credit to these clients to participate in the purchases. Under these conditions, don't you think that they were always ready to recommend more debt? The conflict of interests between these roles is obvious, as well as the multiplicity of opportunities they present to generate a juicy and immediate profit regardless of what happens at the end of the day to issuers, creditors, and deprived citizens. This is only part of the context (which we should study in much more detail) that led our governments to take the risks that are killing us now.
Public debt has proved to be a lethal risk for citizens, with very few safeguards. Even the creditors, whose risk we are all more aware of, had protections that citizens did not enjoy. For example, creditors, unlike citizens, were making decisions with access to information and advice, even if it was bad advice. Some of them had the option of buying insurance for their investment. And they knew beforehand that they would have access to various forums where they could present their claims. The damages they suffer are also easier to quantify and represent. Citizens have had nothing equivalent. And the damage to them goes unnoticed.
This is one of the essential tasks ahead of us. We lack collective representations of all kinds—academic, artistic, mediatic—to help us assess this slow catastrophe by attrition that has accelerated after María and the fiscal plans certified by the Control Board. Except in a few cases, we do not know the individual stories. The newspapers, for example, inform us that in 2017, 5,424 houses were repossessed by the banks, which constitutes a new record that adds to the 27,302 properties seized between 2008 and 2015.33 However, we do not know anything about the families who lived in these houses, their whereabouts, or if they were able to take their pets with them. Of course, we know that the “poor” banks are overwhelmed with so many houses that have been returned to them, and that some have chosen to clean them up and sell them to the public under a program they call De Show. Yes, it is a show, because banks have always basked in the spotlight of government and media. On the other hand, there is not a single picture of the evicted families. After much searching, I have only found one image: an older couple packs their things to vacate a house claimed by the bank after they have paid their mortgage for decades. They do not seem to have even understood the legal process that left them on the street. Our catastrophe by attrition lacks a representation beyond numbers. We need to tell the story from another perspective, different from the mainstream media's, because they tend to favor those who, having more, complain the most.
In addition to images and stories to help us understand the magnitude of everything that happens to us, we also need to develop discourses that will allow us to assign responsibility. We do not need to settle for lapidary statements that try to distribute blame equally without rhyme or reason; nor should we accept the condescending demands of the executive branch, which asks us to sit still until the good day comes when the courts throw some light on this deaf anguish that consumes us. Of course, the governor tells a defiant university student in Ponce to trust the courts. And he asks the courts to refer the debt lawsuits to a mediation process; which is something like saying that justice will come out of an unequal process of negotiation in which ordinary citizens lack representation, but where those at the table should “get along like good little siblings, because nothing has happened here.” There is no doubt that the intention is to keep us all dazed to the highest degree. And that is just what we have to fight against.
I follow Beck's recommendations in his book World at Risk, which invites us to understand what he calls the current relations of definitions. Beck makes an analogy with Marx's well-known relations of production. He says that if capitalist societies can be understood by looking at the relations between workers, capitalists, and the poor, and if the political sphere can be analyzed by taking into account the power imbalances and the antagonisms they create and promote, risk societies—threatened both within and without by their own deeds—require an understanding of their relations of definitions. What are these? How to identify them? Relations of definitions, according to Beck, “are the rules, institutions and capabilities which specify how risks are to be identified in particular contexts.”34 To identify these relations, Beck invites us to answer a series of questions. I highlight the following and adapt them to the public debt scenario. To be clear about our relations of definitions we must know:
(1) Who were the social actors who imposed the debt risks on the rest of us?
(2) What are the risks they subjected us to?
(3) What knowledge is needed to understand them, and who controls this knowledge?
(4) Who takes responsibility for the risks imposed on us?
(5) Who benefited or will benefit from these collectivized risks?
(6) Who is affected and how?
(7) Who defines compensation for damages and how?
(8) How can the people affected participate in the establishment or reformulation of these rules of the game?
We can quickly start answering some of these questions, although they all require thoughtful and detailed answers. These responses must be informed by both empirical and legal research. Today we can recall, just to begin the homework, that COFINA was created under Governor Anibal Acevedo Vilá in order to refinance old debt that was due.35 Luis Fortuño Burset changed that rule and issued new debt through this brand-new corporation. We can also say, without fear of being wrong, that no one seems to take responsibility for the risks that now harm us. Carlos García, current member of the board and ex-president of CAREF, told the press a few days ago that he is tired of being asked for his responsibility in the debt issuance when he issued little more than $2,700,000 under the Fortuño administration, in his role as president of the Government Development Bank.36 If you search for his biography on Wikipedia, the same man boasts that under his mandate, Puerto Rico's credit rating was restored to the highest it has been in the last thirty-five years. “Thank goodness, my bad”: it seems that Don Carlos expects us to respond with relief. But not so fast. The damages that we are going to experience in the short, medium, and long term are practically innumerable. And what Beck's work urges us to do is go through the work of collecting these damages, listing them, and making them known in all their details.
For me, although I do not have access to that list that we owe ourselves today, the most perplexing of all risks does not concern the future, but rather refers to the past. And I don't want to convince you that it is the worst. It is not, or in any case, it is in very bad taste to choose between such diverse misfortunes. I am sharing with you the risk that torments me the most, like someone who shares a weakness without trying to outdo anyone else. The hardest risk to accept for me—in all its magnificent probability—is the risk that the debt will erase a good part of our identity by submerging us in a kind of collective Alzheimer's. If debt succeeds in annihilating our material culture—the places and things with which we have woven life—does it not also erase the material archive of our memories? Who will we be without the places from which we have become who we are, without the things that our grandparents left us, or without the signs by which to recognize a collective “us”? Resources as diverse as public access beaches, a few national parks, the aquifers in the north, the agricultural valleys in the south, the central mountains filled with mineral treasures, art collections, historical buildings, research centers, hospitals, and even the university: all of it can be sold cheap to the highest bidder, as a whole or in pieces, with the sole purpose of paying interests to the newly established repayment fund. Imagine for a moment, as an example, the live auction of El velorio by Francisco Oller. Imagine that commanding, black, lean, and barefoot figure that has spent 125 years fruitlessly calling us to reflection in the middle of a baquiné, a festive wake, now carefully packed up, so that we can keep looking at the same dead child, but from a typical autumn setting or near the flames of some agitated fireplace far away. I am sure that Oller's Gran Ciempiés—in charge of the funerary rituals and who never did manage to make us stop partying—would close his eyes forever, helplessly silencing the dance.37 If the beloved painting exhibited at the museum of the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras does not move you, then imagine Boquerón without its public beach, or Piñones without its kiosks, because they do not match the image of a new beach club for supermillionaires, now for sale. How to imagine this dismantling of things made, of heritage, of open spaces, of the beautiful, rejoicing, luminous places where we are able to be ourselves? How to think of them all of a sudden depreciated like so many monetary assets, or abandoned altogether because budget adjustments have turned them into unaffordable luxuries? I cannot relate to the need to match everything valuable up with the obscene category of money.
I would like to finish here: highlighting why the task of making an inventory of all the damages, of explaining the current relations of definitions, of challenging and reformulating them, is a task for us, feminist women. Studies on the world of high finance from a gender perspective show that nine out of ten portfolio managers are men, and that female presence is even smaller when there is more risk involved in capital management; for example, only 3 percent of fearsome hedge funds are in the hands of women.38 On the victims' side, the proportions are reversed. Seventy percent of teachers threatened by insolvency at old age are women. Most of the students in the already threatened University of Puerto Rico are also women. And so on. However, it concerns us not only because we are victims of the risks assumed by others.
What calls us together as women is the absence of our perspective in the meetings where so many bad decisions were made. Our perspective was never present, and it seems that no one said anything similar to what we would have said. The conversation about risk is highly mathematized; it has been effectively co-opted by statistics. But we should not forget that it hides a philosophical component, specifically related to value. Swedish anthropologist Åsa Boholm, also a specialist in these issues, notes in one of her articles that “to categorize something as a ‘risk’ implies values. The concept of risk, therefore, by definition, integrates descriptive/factual and normative components and is therefore (intrinsically) open to negotiation and contestation.”39 Risk is nothing more than an attempt to calculate the chances of a detrimental outcome for something that someone values. Those who value—not necessarily the same as those who risk—prefer to take lesser risks. The higher the value, the lower the likelihood that you will agree to take any risk, irrespective of its probabilities. It is our cultural intuition that when something is risked a lot, it is less valued. And yet, everything that public debt threatens today was considered by the men issuing the bonds to be of lesser value than what was intended to be guaranteed with the cash flow obtained from creditors. And that evaluative judgment contradicts ours to this day.
How many of us would have put the university at stake, with all that it signifies, to save the battered prestige of a passing administration, or to improve the political chances of a party in the next elections? How many of us would have risked the work and retirement rights of the forty-five thousand public employees whom the board estimates would have to be laid off to ensure the payment of public payrolls? How many golf courses or luxury hotels would we have financed with funds from the defunct Government Development Bank? What arguments could have convinced us to issue more debt if it jeopardized the pensions of the thousands of public employees who retire with less than $500 a month? And yet our voices were not there to argue that other exits must be found. We weren't there to warn that the risks they took were unacceptable because these risks threatened things that we value so highly.
When someone takes a risk on your behalf that is unacceptable and you cannot take any precautions when faced with that risk, the least you can ask for are explanations. Many and verifiable. The scoundrels deserve, minimally, to assume responsibility for the damage caused. The least we can do is demand that they refrain from participating in public decisions. To demand the explanations that are needed, to demand the corresponding evidence, to elaborate the discourse of responsibility, and to propose the necessary sanctions—all of this requires a change in the rules of the game: a change in the relations of definitions, and a change in gender relations as we know them. This change will transfigure us who demand it and those who are tired of our demanding change.
Virginia Despentes writes the following in her magnificent book King Kong Theory:
There has been a feminist revolution. Words have been spoken, despite decorum, despite hostility. And continue to be. But for the time being, on masculinity, nothing. The appalled silence of the sensitive little boy. We've had about enough. The supposedly stronger sex must constantly be protected, reassured, looked after, spared. Protected from the truth. . . . It seems that male identity depends on keeping up this lie.40
On women, she adds:
I come from the sex which doesn't even have the right to be disgruntled. Colette, Duras, Beauvoir, Yourcenar, Sagan—a whole story of female writers who all took care to prove their harmlessness, to reassure men, to beg pardon for the act of writing by repeating how much they love, respect, and cherish men, and most of all don't want—despite whatever they might write—to create too much trouble.41
She continues: “And do not tell me that things have changed and that it is no longer the case. Not to me.”42
After several years of genuine, sincere, and rigorous research, I have come to the conclusion that femininity is the same thing as bootlicking. The art of servility. You can call it seduction to make it sound glamorous. But it is very rarely a skilled sport. For the majority of women, it's the simple habit of behaving as an inferior.43
I would like to invite you to fuck it all, but I am afraid that in this case, it has already been done. What we can do is to declare ourselves disaffected from a femininity that implies subservience, and from any intention to exonerate those responsible for such theft. Don't take a deep breath, and don't resign yourselves or bite the bullet, as sweet Lin Manuel Miranda encouraged us to do when Congress offered us their PROMESA. We must not let them keep cutting back our lives. The risks that we now face—quoting Beck one last time—may have entered our lives peacefully, hand in hand with rationality, law, and economic science, but they will not go away like that. Above all, they will not go away if we remain the same.
Originally published in Spanish in Actas del XI coloquio nacional sobre las mujeres, edited by Beatriz Llenín Figueroa and Vanessa Vilches Norat (Cabo Rojo, PR: Editora Educación Emergente, 2018), editoraemergente.com/product.php?id_product=199.
A first version of this text was read on April 3, 2017, five months and eighteen days before the impact of Hurricane María. The publication date in 2018 allowed its revision to incorporate an event that is already a watershed in the perception of the contemporary history of Puerto Rico for all the generations that experienced it.
Sabina, Lo niego todo.
Fernández Aponte, “La dislocación poblacional,” 117. Luis Muñoz Marín was the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, and Teodoro Moscoso was the first Puerto Rican to be appointed governor by the president of the United States.
Pedro Albizu Campos was the most important political leader in Puerto Rico in the twentieth century. A lawyer who graduated from Harvard, he founded the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party. Albizu spent most of his life in jail, both in the United States and Puerto Rico. In December 15, 1947, at the public event in San Juan organized by the Nationalist Party to welcome him and his comrades after having endured ten years in prison in Atlanta, Georgia, Albizu said, “La ley del amor y la ley del sacrificio no admiten la separación. Yo nunca he estado ausente y nunca me he sentido ausente” (Love's and sacrifice's laws do not allow for separation. I have never been absent and have never felt absent).
On May 12, 1898, a squadron formed by a dozen US ships bombarded San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital. Rear Admiral William T. Sampson commanded the operation. On July 25, General Nelson Miles, who had established a reputation by defeating Native American leaders such as Geronimo and Sitting Bull, disembarked in Guánica, in southern Puerto Rico. In the end of September 1898, Spanish governor Manuel Macías made the official announcement that Puerto Rico had been ceded to the United States as part of the negotiations that ended the Spanish-American War.
Judge Laura Taylor Swain is a district judge for the Southern District of New York, appointed on May 5, 2017, by Chief Justice John Roberts of the US Supreme Court as the presiding judge in Puerto Rico's bankruptcy proceedings.
Law 936 is the popular name for a provision of the United States Internal Revenue Code that granted certain US companies established in Puerto Rico a tax credit proportional to their tax liability with the federal government. This provision expired in 2006; this is considered the beginning of the current severe economic contraction that afflicts Puerto Rico (Possession Tax Credit, Section 936 § ).
Natalie A. Jaresko has held the position of executive director of the Fiscal Control Board since March 2017.
“La negligencia mayor del gobierno . . . no radica tanto en la administración fiscal pública como en haber manejado esta depresión como coyuntural y no como estructural” (Caraballo Cueto, “¿Qué causó la crisis de deuda?”).
The official website of the troubled Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico characterizes the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (by its Spanish acronym, COFINA) as an independent instrument of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, created by Act No. 91 of May 13, 2006, as amended, for the specific purpose of financing the payment, retirement, or defeasance of certain debt obligations of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. “Investor Resources: Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA),” Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico (website), December 10, 2015, www.gdb-pur.com/investors_resources/cofina.html.
The Economic and Fiscal Reconstruction Advisory Council (by its Spanish acronym, CAREF) was an ad hoc committee appointed by governor Luis Fortuño to address the unrelenting recession that started in 2006.
El Gran Ciempiés is the name given to the person who assumed the direction of the ceremony and songs in a baquiné, a funerary ritual held upon the death of a child. The painting El velorio by Francisco Oller, which depicts a traditional baquiné, is one of Puerto Rican art's masterpieces.
Despentes, King Kong Theory, 128–29.