Editor’s note: This is part three 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.
Yarimar Bonilla is Professor in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Hunter College and in the PhD Program in Anthropology at CUNY: Graduate Center. Her work involves sovereignty & non-sovereignty, race, colonialism, social movements, citizenship, empire, and American/ethnic/Caribbean Studies.
This transcript has been edited for structure and clarity.
Puerto Rico’s mobilization after Hurricane Maria: a ‘sovereignty rooted in abandonment’
Yarimar Bonilla: I will give a brief overview of the summer events in Puerto Rico and open that up to think more broadly about the Puerto Rican context in relationship to Hong Kong. Essentially, there was a chat between the governor and his advisors, which was leaked. The leak showed evidence of corruption, misgovernance, and also a great deal of disrespect on the part of the governor towards his people. Incidentally, the governor was on holiday in Europe when this all happened. When he came back to Puerto Rico, folks were already waiting for him at the airport, led by a feminist coalition, demanding his resignation.
I arrived in Puerto Rico right before Bastille Day. This was the day when people began to feel that this movement was something different to what we had seen before. The reason was that the protesters were not the usual suspects—not the nationalist leader, nor the nationalist political parties, nor the unions (which are also often traditional political groups). It was incredibly decentralized, led in part by a feminist coalition. In fact, a lot of people talk about it as a leaderless movement, though I actually think it was a leader-full movement, because it was made possible in part by the fact that so many people were empowered to take action.
I personally root this empowerment in the experiences of Hurricane Maria. The local government was completely absent after the hurricane. So for the past two years, a lot of folks in Puerto Rico had to empower themselves. The idea of resilience can be a very neoliberal ideology that assumes that individuals have to fend for themselves in the face of a retrenched state. But this imposed resilience really backfired on the government, because it led to the development of empowered communities that felt that they did not need the government and could demand the governor’s resignation.
What a brave act it is to say, ‘We don’t want him, even if we don’t know what’s going to come next.’
I want to immediately point out what a brave act it is to say, “We don’t want him, even if we don’t know what’s going to come next,” in a place where people are tied to the status quo out of a fear of not knowing what the alternative would be, and a fear of independence. Again, this was made possible by the experiences of Hurricane Maria, and the way in which people experienced a kind of sovereignty—some of which was not necessarily the best kind, because it was sovereignty rooted in abandonment. This abandonment led to widespread empowerment and social movements described as “autogestion“or autonomous organizing [in other contexts, worker self-management]; they marked the possibility of thinking beyond a state solution or an annexation type of solution for Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico, we don’t really know where we take our politics. Do we protest the governor? Do we protest the fiscal board that the US federal government has imposed, because of the debt crisis? In some ways that seems like the center of power where decisions are made—about austerity, etc. And Puerto Rico has faced significant austerity politics: the closing of schools, the dismantling of what little autonomy and local power that we had. But protesting federal institutions did not really capture the imagination.
The emphasis on the governor allowed the governor’s mansion to become this site of power; people imagined the takeover of the Bastille, thinking: “We will enter the governor’s mansion and take over this site of power.” This gave a kind of symbolism and concreteness to the movement that we had never had before. Once that goal emerged, then all these other goals followed. Rocío has written about the idea of these “checklists,” and how people said: “We’re coming for Ricky, and then we want to get rid of the fiscal board, and then we want to get rid of the colonial situation.” The getting-rid of the governor opened up a larger project.
The movement was also singular in terms of the different political actors who were involved: Afro-Boricuas figured in the front lines in ways that they had never been before; reggaeton, Afro-Puerto Rican music, and forms of dance, were central; queer bodies were also present on the frontlines in ways that they had never been before. This created a liminal space in which a new kind of polity could be imagined. This connects to what you were saying, Wen, about the Sunflower Movement—about being able to experience an alternative polity, however brief.
A movement on pause
The movement ended, in a way, when the governor agreed to step down. For many, it was a kind of abrupt ending. People were not really ready to go back home, partially because these lists had opened up. It was interesting, also, how people retained protesting in their muscle memory; they had pots and pans, ready to clamor. They kept going to the street in front of the Governor’s Mansion to either protest or dance or just be together in this collectivity.
After the governor stepped down, his former secretary of justice ended up taking up the position of the governor. This was an extremely disappointing outcome for many, given that she was essentially appointed by him. But I feel like the movement is not over yet—it is only paused. If we think of this summer movement as part of a longer genealogy of movements in Puerto Rico, including previous university strikes, previous forms of protest against austerity, against privatization, we can only assume that there will be another episode.
What is this impasse? We don’t like the current status quo, but we’re afraid of independence.
Now in Puerto Rico, everyone’s thinking about the elections—we last had elections in 2016. This is something we can all think about, because I know part of the movement emerging out of Hong Kong is the desire for greater access to the electoral realm. In Puerto Rico, there’s an extreme disappointment with the electoral realm. Most of the candidates who are emerging for the upcoming election are people who have either been governor before, or have run for governor before, or are entrenched political figures. I think part of the problem is that the electoral realm is actually not going to be the site of major transformations for us, because they have been dominated by elites who benefit from the colonial relationship to the US, and from our current impasse.
What is this impasse? We don’t like the current status quo, but we’re afraid of independence. We don’t want flag independence, because it does not come with any real economic power—it doesn’t come with the ability to actually decide on or broker our future in the face of global capital. We also don’t want to be a state, because we don’t consider ourselves United Statesian. But we also don’t want to be a colony.
There’s no real script for moving out of this. I have written previously that we must decolonize “sovereignty.” We must decolonize the decolonization movement that was implemented in institutions like the UN, that removed places like Puerto Rico from the list of non-self governing societies, when it was clearly non-self-governing. These institutions were created simply to consolidate imperial relations of power. The question becomes how we can rethink the global system, which is certainly no small question.
The search for a non-sovereign future is not a future without sovereignty, but a search for something other than the Western, Westphalian model of sovereignty. We should ask folks in places like Hong Kong and Puerto Rico questions: What are they asking for, what does sovereignty means for them, what is it that’s bringing them to the streets and driving them, and how we can try to give some kind of shape and sense to that political project?
In the case of Puerto Rico, I’ve been saying I think we need to look to the arts, because in many ways it’s really hard to articulate this alternative political project. Political ephemera—street art, murals, memes—are really essential, because they may allow us to see an emerging structure of feeling that has not yet taken the shape of a clearly articulated political ideology.