Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan.

Non-sovereign revolutions: Thinking across Puerto Rico and Hong Kong—Part four

What futures, ideals, and models can we look to in a place without nation-state sovereignty?

Editor’s note: This is part four in a series that will present the roundtable “Non-Sovereign Revolutions: Thinking across Puerto Rico and Hong Kong” in its entirety. The parts have been divided thematically to highlight the divergences and overlaps of the participants’ conversations as they moved across different sites and times.

Series table of contents:
PART ONE: Preface; introductory remarks; J on Hong Kong’s long history of mobilization and the problem with “restore Hong Kong, revolution of our times”
PART TWO: R on postcolonial capital and the postcolonial state; Wen Liu on the politics of comparing Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Puerto Rico and non-sovereign visions of interdependence
PART THREE: Yarimar Bonilla on a “sovereignty rooted in abandonment” post-Hurricane Maria and “Ricky Renuncia” as a movement on pause
PART FOUR: Rocío Zambrana on the political economy of coloniality and debt as an apparatus of capture
PART FIVE: Q&A—land, global capital, language, the university, and solidarity


Roundtable participants: Professor Yarimar Bonilla (CUNY), Dr. Rocío Zambrana (Emory), Dr. Wen Liu (SUNY, Albany), J, R. Moderated by Wilfred Chan.

Rocío Zambrana is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. Her work examines critiques of capitalism and coloniality in various philosophical traditions, especially Marxism, Decolonial Thought, and Feminisms of the Américas (Latinx, Latin American, Caribbean). She is a co-editor of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, and columnist for 80grados (San Juan, Puerto Rico).

This transcript has been edited for structure and clarity.


The political economy of coloniality

Rocío Zambrana: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here, and there’s so many points of contact between the two sites, that I’m just very curious to open it up for discussion together. So just picking up on what Yarimar said—I’ll tell you a little bit about my work, which has to do with political economy, the political-economic aspect of the case of Puerto Rico. So one of the things that is interesting, just starting off from the protest in July, is that a lot of people talk about the creativity and the diversity and the organic nature of the protests; the fact that they were self-convened; the leader-full aspect of the protests. And they also talk about the way in which the protests yielded people’s assemblies (asambleas de pueblo) over the territory—and actually they began outside of the metropolitan area, which I think is an important thing to know.

And so, I am thinking about the ways in which that type of power that was generated in the streets in July was carried over to a kind of thinking through, very concretely, not only naming and specifying what the political juncture of Puerto Rico is and was in July, but continues to be in. But at the same time, what can be done and what futures can be imagined. But I also am interested in the ways in which there is another form of power that was built on the streets in July, which is precisely what Yarimar was noting: this power of interrupting, this power of saying no, without necessarily knowing just yet what political future is available. One of the things that was interesting to me about the protests was a set of lists that kept coming up—either on the walls of San Juan or on Facebook, Twitter—where you had a whole bunch of political demands and also tasks that were named, in order to give specificity to the current political-economic juncture, but also to imagine ways of addressing it.

So I do want to talk a little bit about some of the things on that checklist but, more precisely, with this political-economic bent. Some of the things that came up on the checklist had to do with the elimination of the fiscal control board. It also had to do with fiscalizing the government in the sense of really pursuing cases of corruption, really naming names in terms of politicians, senators, but also banks and firms and all of the parties involved in the current political-economic juncture. There was the bringing to justice, in a way, the agents of capital, I would say. Also eliminating, for example, Act 20 and 22, that has to do with tax exemption laws, in the realm of moving a whole history of imagining economic development in Puerto Rico as a matter of bringing foreign investment in through tax exemption. It just really kind of reboots the tax haven condition of Puerto Rico to the area of real estate. And so it feeds these logics of expulsion and dispossession and expropriation.

Protesters march with a banner reading “Us [women] against debt” in San Juan. 22 July, 2019. Photo courtesy of Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Facebook)

Declaring a state of emergency regarding gender violence was one of the really important political demands that was put on the table by Colectiva Feminista en Construcción—a feminist collective that I hope I’ll have a little bit of time to talk about—who I think changed the political terrain, along with other collectives and other political actors. That really changed the way that protests have been pursued since 2016 with the installation of the fiscal control board and the intensification of the debt crisis.

But what I do want to say, to go back to another point Yarimar made, is that in her work she talks about “decolonizing sovereignty.” A lot of my work has not only been thinking about colonization and histories of colonization and failed processes of decolonization, but I actually think about the processes of coloniality and the notion of decoloniality. So I’m working here and thinking a lot about decolonial thought. I work with the notion of what Anibal Quijano calls the coloniality of power, and a lot of decolonial feminists and how they’ve articulated this concept.

And so minimally, colonialism can be understood as this form of juridical-political control. Coloniality refers to a race-gender-class hierarchy posited by colonial history, but articulated and rearticulated in altered material conditions and altered historical conditions—not just in a postcolonial context but, in the case of Puerto Rico, in a colonial context because of the territorial status.

Coloniality refers to a race-gender-class hierarchy posited by colonial history, but articulated and rearticulated in altered material conditions and altered historical conditions.

So I’m interested in thinking about questions of sovereignty, autonomy, self-determination—all of this Western, liberal language or even this language of contestation from leftist groups or feminist groups and the like. Thinking about it from a decolonial perspective, because I’m interested in shifting and tracking the way in which the colonial condition in Puerto Rico is reinstalled through an ongoing coloniality. The afterlife, or the operating logics of a colonial history, that is taken to be in the past. But it’s not, it’s rearticulated and reinstalled in altered historical and material conditions.

And so what I’ve been looking at in the past couple of years has to do with how to understand debt as a form of coloniality, as a rearticulation and reinstallation of the colonial condition. So I love how Ariadna Godreau-Aubert puts it; she talks about how “the colony is what happens in repeated acts of capture.” She says also that “indebted life is the continuation of colonial life.” And so we can think about this as not particular to Puerto Rico. We can think about this already in Haiti, in the independence debt. But how does debt operate to continue the colonial condition? And how does it operate in a colonial context within Puerto Rico itself?

Debt as an apparatus of capture

RZ: So you might know that Puerto Rico right now has $123 billion USD in debt, and it’s the biggest municipal debt in United States history. The fiscal control board was a debt-restructuring mechanism put in place by 2016 federal law, that is charged with restructuring the debt such that Puerto Rico can have access to capital financial markets. But of course, because it functions also through austerity and is tied to the intensification of an articulation of Puerto Rico as a kind of tax haven, it can be understood as a way of reinstalling the colonial relation.

One way to think about how the fiscal control board is as a really clear intensification and an explicit return to old-school colonialism. That kind of dismantles the idea that, in 1952, with the establishment of the Estado Asociado, there was a process of decolonization in Puerto Rico. We can think about the fiscal control board as really kind of compromising Puerto Rico’s autonomy and self-determination, even within the limits of the Estado Asociado, which never actually rewrote or rearticulated the territorial status of Puerto Rico.

Debt as a continuation, an apparatus of capture functions as a form of reestablishing the colonial condition in ways that are deeper than the juridical model.

But I want to say that there is more to say about debt than just how the fiscal control board has compromised self-governance in Puerto Rico itself. Debt as a continuation, an apparatus of capture, and in the context of financialized, neoliberal capitalism—it functions as a form of reestablishing the colonial condition in ways that are deeper than the juridical model, which is always the reference for whether we are a state or an independent nation-state. The notion of coloniality shifts the focus to how colonialism and its histories, and its continuing operations, function. And it has to do with race-gender-class hierarchies, forms of dispossession, expulsion, forms of environmental racism. In sum, things that exceed just juridical-political control, that could be ameliorated by the establishment of a nation-state or annexation.

So one of the things I just wanted to talk about is the feminist collective—but there are so many points of contact that are interesting in the two cases! The territorial status in Puerto Rico also has a structure—and some folks like Charles Venator and José Atiles-Osoria have written really nicely about this—which functions as a liminal logic of exceptionality. This creation of a juridical-political space in Puerto Rico, which has the status of an unincorporated territory that belongs to, but is not part of the United States. And so one of the ways in which one can think about this type of juridical void that makes possible political control is also the type of material relations that it makes possible, the forms of capture that it makes possible.

Banners reading “Let us break the chains. No to debt.” (L) and “We [gender neutral] are fed up with colonialism. We do not owe you, you owe us. Reparations now.” (R) hung on a statue of Cristóbal Colón in San Juan. 12 October, 2019. Photo courtesy of Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Facebook)

And so I’m interested again not only in thinking about questions of sovereignty, autonomy, and self-determination from a juridical-political perspective, but the ways in which it installs a political economy that establishes why it is favorable for the US to re-articulate continuously this form of political control or subordination. But also within Puerto Rico, and the relationship between Puerto Rico and the US, how that is always articulated along race-gender-class lines.

So not to lose perspective of the ways in which, for example, debt and austerity affect women of color, especially Black women, in Puerto Rico in a very particular way. We can talk more about that, for example, with questions of housing—the housing crisis which is tied to the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, that has intensified a logic of expulsion that is not just reducible to the migrations to the US that we have seen. For example, in 2018, 149,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the US. But the housing crisis in Puerto Rico itself, which impacts particular communities more than others, definitely is to be understood along those lines.

Ideas of economic development in Puerto Rico were always seen also as a site of capture. One very concrete way to see this is with taxation.

And so when I talk about the territory of Puerto Rico and the territorial status of Puerto Rico as an “unincorporated territory,” I also want to think about the way in which that juridical-political status generates a set of material conditions that are made possible by precisely what is articulated along the juridical lines. One thing I just mentioned, which is just one piece of a complex history, is that ideas of economic development in Puerto Rico were always seen also as a site of capture. One very concrete way to see this is with taxation.

Already in 1906, there were debates in the US Congress about how to economically develop the territories through tax exemption, so that foreign investment was brought to the territories. In 1917, we had a triple tax exemption on bonds in Puerto Rico. So there’s a whole way in which we have to read the political economy of Puerto Rico throughout the twentieth-century in its differences. Also feeding that flight of capital, that has been central to the necessary development of poverty, of migration, of the “emptying island” as Frances Negrón-Muntaner has written about. That is something that we might talk about between Puerto Rico and Hong Kong as sites of capture, as sites of value.

So the last thing I’ll say is that, in terms of the protest, 2016 was a really important year, insofar as it was not only the passing of PROMESA and the institution of the fiscal control board. But it was also a year where there was a couple of Supreme Court cases that really kind of lifted any doubt as to whether Puerto Rico had gone through a decolonization process in the mid-century, since it was really established that Puerto Rico’s sovereignty really lies in the US Congress.

Actually, we are the creditors and you are the debtors—you owe us.

So we have seen in Puerto Rico novel ways of protesting. I’ve been interested in and writing about the feminist movement in Puerto Rico, and how they have tracked and indexed, and made visible and really pierced the discursive universe in Puerto Rico in general—about the relationship between debt and gender violence, debt and poverty, and forms of precaritization and expulsion, and how they impact women, especially women of colour and Black women, in Puerto Rico. One thing that is interesting to me is the interventions of the Colectiva, which have been really important for articulating a new political terrain that we saw some of in July—where we see the subversion of debt itself, the kind of asymmetry that debt entails—the creditor and the debtor.

So that a lot of the activists in Puerto Rico, and I think a lot of what happened in Ricky Renuncia was to flip on the heads, or flip around, the idea that we are the debtors and you are the creditors. But rather to establish that, actually, we are the creditors and you are the debtors—you owe us.

That power of the no, that power of the interruption, that power that comes even when there isn’t a clear imagined future through the nation-state, when there is that shifting of discourse of annexation versus independence. But really a list of things that seek to invert power, by saying, actually, what the debt makes clear is that this continuation of the colonial condition is a site for the subversion of debt—pointing to the government, the colonial relation, global capital, as precisely culpable.