Puerto Rico: ‘They were able to overthrow. People need to know their actions can bring victory.’

Berta Joubert-Ceci

SLL interviews Puerto Rico Tribunal leader

On Aug. 18, Berta Joubert-Ceci spoke via webinar about the recent developments and challenges in Puerto Rico. Joubert-Ceci is a longtime Puerto Rican activist who initiated the 2018 Puerto Rico Tribunal. PuertoRicoTribunal.org archives the verdict finding the U.S. guilty for its colonial crimes against that nation. 

Struggle-La Lucha: Berta, after the hurricane devastated Puerto Rico and after the racist response by the Trump administration, a private chat by the governor and other officials that was anti-woman, homophobic and disparaged poor Puerto Ricans and mocked the suffering was publicly revealed, resulting in huge protests and the governor being thrown out of office. Can you provide some context and analysis for what happened?

Berta Joubert-Ceci: The overthrow of Governor Ricky Roselló was not based only on the chat. The chat was the door to open everything that the people have suffered for many, many years. 

Particularly, the downturn of the economy, the $73 billion debt, the fiscal control board imposed by the U.S. Congress to make Puerto Ricans pay off the debt, the hurricane, and the treatment that both the Puerto Rican government and the U.S. government gave the people in Puerto Rico. 

The chat content was so vicious, it showed how the capitalists really are. The government officials—the local government which now directly represents the business sector both in Puerto Rico and the U.S.—are leeches that benefit from government funding and even federal funding. They are the vultures that are ripping away the money from the Puerto Rican people, destroying the basic services and getting so rich, yet the people are suffering so much. 

There have been layoffs. They want to cut or eliminate pensions. They have been closing many schools, particularly in the poorest sections. Those children will be denied access to quality education, both basic elementary and college education since they aim to destroy the only public university, the UPR — the University of Puerto Rico.

All that was behind the anger that people felt.

SLL: As a longtime activist and organizer in the struggle around Puerto Rico, were you surprised that this huge response happened so suddenly?

BJC: The significance of this is — it’s something that is very important that this was not expected. There is a little parallelism with events in the United States. What happened in Seattle, I mean those of you old enough to know what happened in Seattle, and more recently, the Occupy movement that sprang up, and also the Black Lives Matter movement. 

But the importance in Puerto Rico is that demonstrations in the streets have always been demonized. Since the beginning of the invasion by the United States in Puerto Rico, the movement—in particular the movement for independence—has been demonized and there was a lot of fear of being seen as terrorists.

Activism in the streets was seen as something that independentistas would do. Because of the history of repression, even relatives of activists would try to dissociate from them. Until now, that kind of action was considered extreme.

SLL: Do you have a view of what kind of people came out to protest? Were they people that had been active in previous periods?

BJC: The word that really captures what people felt was indignation. The indignation was felt very strongly by the vast majority of the population. People who have never been in any demonstration were there. In one instance, for example there was this woman, a much older woman who was a patient of cancer. When she was interviewed by the media, she said: “Well, I’m here. I have cancer, I have metastasis, but I couldn’t stay home, because the indignation is so brutal that I had to be out in the streets.”

And, this is exactly what people felt.

The fact that these “frat boys” were conducting themselves in that Telegram chat talking against women, against LGBTQ2S people, against the darker people of Puerto Rico, against people with different abilities. They would criticize everybody except their own circle of rich white males.

The indignation was such that the people massively turned to the streets.

We have a population of 3.2 million and there were a million at least demonstrating. Compared to the U.S., where, I think, it’s like a little over 300 million population, it’s like a demonstration of 100 million in this country. 

They were able to overthrow – to get Ricky Roselló out. This is so significant because we always say in the movement that even if it’s a small victory, people need to know that their actions can bring victory. 

This was a big thing because even in Puerto Rico’s Constitution there’s nothing like a recall referendum or anything like it. But people would say, “We don’t care if it’s not lawful or it is not in the constitution, we want him out and we want him out now!”

SLL: How do you think this recent history will shape the future of the movement in Puerto Rico?

BJC: What people are doing now—and this is very important—are people’s assemblies. In general, these are not called by organizations. These assemblies are mainly just people putting on social media, “We are meeting in the plaza at 6 or 7 or 8,” whatever time, and people go. 

There have been dozens of cities that already have had people’s assemblies. People go. There are sometimes hundreds, sometimes dozens, but they have been consistent. So this is very important. They’re talking about different things. They’re not all the same. But they’re dealing with the issues that are pertinent. 

It’s not only about the chat — that’s gone. They want the audit of the debt — not to pay the debt, but to audit the debt. They are saying “No” to privatization of schools. They want a new constitution. They don’t want to close the University of Puerto Rico and of course they’re against the corruption and the impunity that permeate the elite government.

This is so new that people who never had been in the streets are involved. It’s like a dam that has been ruptured.  I think that that’s basically the most important thing now. These assemblies cover what kind of future for Puerto Rico people want.

During the demonstrations, it was so beautiful to see all these Puerto Rican flags with the rainbow flag flying together. And Ricky Martin, for example, the very famous singer from Puerto Rico who was one of the many people insulted by the anti-LGBTQ2S insults in this chat, said to Roselló, “I am gay and I’m more of a man than you.”

And, there is also a lot of misogyny in our society, in Latin American society, because of the Catholic culture, so all this turned around with this demonstration. There was more integration and understanding of the women’s question. There is really a crisis in Puerto Rico — there have been many women murdered, victims of domestic violence, but the governor never wanted to acknowledge it. So these two things were very important.

 There are many serious problems in Puerto Rico. I think the important question that they’re dealing with is having a new constitution. Well, Puerto Rico’s Constitution was approved by the U.S. Congress and the Congress even took out parts that they didn’t want. Basically the constitution is a U.S. constitution.

Puerto Rican people cannot do whatever we want because it’s a colonial constitution. Having the constitution as one of the points in the agenda of the peoples assemblies will lead to the contradiction that you cannot change it because it’s not a people’s government, it is a colonial government. 

I think that’s a big step forward that eventually will bring people to discuss the necessity of decolonization and independence for Puerto Rico.