Nearly half of this accursed country doesn't realize Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens / Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Defense

Plunged Into Darkness

A coversation with Javier Morillo

Nearly half of this accursed country doesn't realize Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens / Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Defense
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Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.

Javier Morillo: My name is Javier Morillo and I live in Minnesota. I am the president of [Service Employees International Union (SEIU)] Local 26, and I am originally from Puerto Rico; that is where I grew up.

Sarah Jaffe: Things were not great in Puerto Rico before the hurricane flattened it. Give us a little background on the so-called “debt crisis,” the PROMESA bill, and U.S.-imposed austerity in Puerto Rico.

JM: What is terrifying about what is [happening] on the island now is that the situation was so precarious before the hurricane hit, and it was precarious for completely human-made reasons. Puerto Rico is in a debt crisis. When [Donald Trump] finally started tweeting about Puerto Rico, he mentioned the debt twice.

Your readers would be familiar with the foreclosure crisis and how that was caused by Wall Street’s predatory loans. It was a very similar situation in Puerto Rico—municipal bonds in Puerto Rico are triple tax free, meaning there are no local, state, or federal taxes on them. So they are very attractive to a lot of investors. Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, and the investment firms had been pushing investors to buy these up because they know that, because of Puerto Rico’s colonial status, Puerto Rico [and its] municipalities cannot declare bankruptcy[1]. They were betting on the island’s inability to pay, and that is, indeed, sort of what happened.

What made things worse was that in in 2016, Congress passed the PROMESA bill. It is the Puerto Rico Oversight Management, [and] Economic Stability Act. In the grand tradition of Congress giving acronyms that mean the opposite of what they do, promesa means promise in [English]. . . . One of my congressmen here in Minnesota is Keith Ellison [is] a progressive stalwart [and a wonderful ally] . . . on the Financial Services Committee. I spoke with him quite a bit about this. The way the Obama administration pitched the need for PROMESA was that this was the only thing that could be done to rescue the island. It sets up the Financial Oversight Board, which has been imposing austerity.

One of the things I heard as a pitch for PROMESA was one of the Puerto Rican members of Congress saying [something like], “Oh, well, the island is being bought up by rich people, and it will be essentially an island without Puerto Ricans.” What I said to Congressman Ellison at the time [was], “Well, that is going to happen either way the way things are going right now.” The thing to do at that moment, rather than pass PROMESA, was to call the question and then [for Puerto Rico to] default, really call the colonial questions of this issue that Puerto Rico [and its] municipalities cannot declare bankruptcy.

Instead, they have been imposing austerity. There is an unelected junta. It is called an oversight board in English, but people on the island refer to it as the junta—which I think is more appropriate. We should all call it that because it sounds like the military dictatorships of Latin America, and that is essentially what it is. The governor has to submit to the junta and they are imposing austerity.

The center of the debt crisis is the electric power company. The hurricane has knocked out power over the whole island—and, on top of that, this is a utility company that last year was literally cutting off the electricity [to] hospitals and endangering the lives of people because the hospitals were in debt to them and they are in debt to Wall Street creditors.

People can look up a lot of the amazing research that Refund America and the Action Center on Race and the Economy have done on Puerto Rico, the financial research behind what I am talking about now, because a lot of that debt is actually most likely illegally incurred. The constitution of the island forbids debt that requires payment beyond 30 years and they very clearly surpassed that[2]. So, there is precedent for a judge to decide that the debt was incurred illegally. It is not the responsibility of taxpayers. So, if we actually got the island to be repaying the principal of the debt rather than all of this interest . . . [many] of the billions of dollars the island owes [are just interest and fees] that they owe to Wall Street for the very products they should not have been selling the island.

SJ: Before we dig into what can be done, what are you hearing from people on the ground in Puerto Rico right now? The reports we are seeing is that it could be months and months without power. Trump seems like he is in no hurry to do anything. And a lot of people in the United States don’t even seem to realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

JM: My parents are on the island. For the first few days after the hurricane, it was near impossible to get in touch with anyone. I had sporadic texts and contact. I was just able to speak to my parents in the last couple of days on the phone. They were prepared for the worst, and I would say from what everything I am hearing, it feels worse than anything anyone could have imagined. There is no power anywhere. My sister, we communicate through either WhatsApp or text when she has a signal. She is asking us to send her news stories because they have such little access to the media. They have no power. I am just frankly terrified.

[On September 24], the governor of Puerto Rico had a press conference where [he gave] a pretty positive face to everything that was happening, but [he] also mentioned that there were [nine] municipalities that they had not had any contact with, at least as of [September 24]. The island is one hundred by thirty-five miles. It is a very small island. To me, when I hear that [nine] municipalities have no contact with the central government, that sounds very suspicious to me—and terrifying.

I know some of them are underwater. I don’t know what the casualties are or anything. There are very few flights coming in and out of the island. Honestly, I am just frankly very afraid that we are going to have to find a way to get my family off the island and not have a way to do that. I know that many, many other people are feeling the same way.

SJ: I was reading this morning about how the Trump administration has to lift a regulation on ships coming in to Puerto Rico, and they are not doing that[3]. There does not seem to be any sense of emergency—perhaps not surprisingly—from this administration on this front.

JM: The historical root of this is in Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States [and] the Jones Act of 1917[4]. The Jones Act made Puerto Ricans American citizens. We are born American citizens; although, when we live on the island, we cannot vote for the President of the United States who sends us to war or for the Congress that can do things like create a junta to run the island.

[Then there’s] the Jones Act [or the Merchant Marine Act of 1920], which is a maritime act. It prohibits any foreign vessels [traveling from a U.S. port] from entering the ports in Puerto Rico. This also applies in Hawaii[5]. Puerto Rico cannot [independently] make any trade deals with any other countries, any other bilateral trade deals with anyone else. . . . What foreign products do come onto the island, they must first arrive in cargo containers to Florida [or elsewhere], and then they are moved from the foreign cargo ship onto an American cargo ship and then brought over.

Then, they are taxed in that move.

So, products arrive on the island already more expensive than they would be [otherwise]. One of the things that they have apparently done in the past with similar disasters is to waive the ban on foreign vessels arriving in the ports. That is [a] temporary solution.

The more fundamental problem is the Jones Act [of 1920] itself. It contributes to the debt crisis. When you do the math on how much more Puerto Ricans [have paid] in taxes for goods that [have] come onto the island over the years, it dwarfs the debt. That is the historical root of the problem. Then, the situation today of: What are the many things that need to be done in the short-term to fix what is going on there?

SJ: There was already organizing going on around PROMESA and the debt crisis that you were a part of. Looking at this now, people are organizing to call Congress just to say, “Get Puerto Rico some aid,” but what are the short, medium, and long-term goals for applying pressure on this administration?

JM: I have been thinking about this a lot. . . . We don’t have a progressive or a left “shock doctrine,” as Naomi Klein calls it. The right has a program in place for how to take advantage of moments like this.

We are born American citizens; although, when we live on the island, we cannot vote for the President of the United States who sends us to war.

What I am terrified about on the island right now is that . . . when you look at what junta has done and everything else, this is an opportunity for the wealthy one percent of the United States and the global one percent to make Puerto Rico into a playground the way Cuba was in the 1940s and 1950s for the U.S. rich, and we will have an island of Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans.

To me, the question is: What do we do in the short and medium-term that is some semblance of a shock doctrine for our side? If we are going to rebuild Puerto Rico, how do we do it in a way that is right for the people of Puerto Rico? Unfortunately, I don’t have a very good answer for how we do the short-term in a way that sets up the long-term.

There are organizers on the ground. One affiliated with the Center for Popular Democracy in the United States has set up a fund. It is MariaFund.org. They have been doing base-building work on the island for some time, especially in the poorer areas and the coastal areas that have been devastated twice with Irma and now with Maria. That is who I have been encouraging people to donate money to because I trust the work that they do; it is directed at the most vulnerable and [at] actual social transformation on the island, with a focus on . . . the communities of African descent on the island.

Right now, what I am frantically trying to figure out with other Puerto Ricans on the mainland, other Left and progressive Puerto Ricans, is: How [can] we direct resources and how [can] we direct help with that medium and long-term vision in place? Thankfully, because of the work that has been happening before, which you have mentioned, and the Refund America work on the debt crisis, there is a lot more awareness in the United States of what is happening on the island. Nowhere near enough, but it is time to call the question.

My hope had been that the financial crisis would be a moment on the island where we would transcend the politics of status. Everything on the island . . . [is] defined by the political status of the island. You are either a statehood [person], or you are a commonwealth person, or you are pro-independence. That is the dialogue that has been happening for decades.

My father is much more conservative politically than I am. But he has a very keen anti-Wall Street analysis of what has been [happening] on the island. I think we have an opportunity to unite people across the political spectrum . . . on a message of how Wall Street has screwed the island up til now, and now we have to fight back. That is what I am hoping that we can use this opportunity for, but I have to say this is a really, really difficult time.

SJ: Short-term, people can demand that this administration speed up aid, but is there anything else that people should be thinking about right now?

JM: The way FEMA normally works just will not work on the island. FEMA, when there is a disaster in Texas or Florida, frees up local municipalities, local governments, counties, or cities to put out contracts for private contractors to come in and do debris removal, for example. Then, FEMA reimburses the municipalities[6]. In Puerto Rico, that is not going to work for multiple reasons. One, in Texas and in Florida, you had people driving from all over the country with trucks. Anybody had this kind of a business could go down and do that. People can’t get to Puerto Rico to do that.

Then, two, the municipalities are bankrupt. They are literally bankrupt. There is going to have to be an actual complete rethinking of how FEMA works in Puerto Rico for this crisis.

I think the immediate calls of action for members of Congress is . . . for very rigorous oversight for how FEMA is working in Puerto Rico so that it is working for Puerto Ricans. I saw a FEMA website where they encourage Puerto Ricans to “follow this link to sign up for disaster relief aid.” People don’t have internet in Puerto Rico. It was like, “if you don’t have internet, call this number.” They also don’t have phones. I read things like that, and I just get increasingly panicked that they have no idea what they are doing on the island.

SJ: Because Puerto Rico doesn’t have the same kind of representation in the United States that other U.S. citizens have, are there any members of Congress who have taken interest in this and could be looked at to be pushing for some sort of solution here?

JM: The members of congress who are Puerto Rican by descent have obviously led on all kinds of issues. Nydia Velazquez in New York. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez has been particularly good from a progressive perspective. He opposed PROMESA. We are looking to his leadership. Really, what I would say is, regardless of who you are represented by, hearing from U.S. citizens on the mainland that they are concerned that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are not getting proper assistance is just good in terms of raising the level of alarm in D.C. about this.

I would just say, “[Talk] to your elected representatives about it.”

SJ: I want to switch gears a little bit because there is also some good news this week. You are organizing workers in Target’s backyard. Target announced that it is going to raise its minimum wage across the company to $15 an hour by 2020. Give us a little background about how that happened and what the workers you represented are feeling right now.

JM: SEIU 26 and our community partners here in Minnesota have been a part of the Target story for some years now. For years we were battling Target. A workers’ center called CTUL here, the Center for Workers United in Struggle, for years had a campaign with the retail janitors who clean inside Target stores. The people who clean Target’s corporate offices have been members of SEIU Local 26, my union, for many years and, today, they make over $15 an hour. The janitors who work retail, at the stores, were, when the campaign began, making minimum wage.

We had a very hostile relationship with Target for many years that eventually just changed. It switched, and they decided to take a different approach to us and to organizing. They eventually adopted a responsible contractor policy that resulted in SEIU Local 26 organizing the first retail janitorial market in the country.

There is a debate between politicians now about who gets to take the most credit over fifteen dollars. The answer is, “None of you.”

Across the country, SEIU represents commercial office janitors, [and for] the janitors who clean inside stores, the standards are very, very low. Beginning with Target and then moving to Macy’s and other retailers, we have the first master contract that represents hundreds of workers that clean inside retail stores.

Since then, our relationship with Target has been one that on local policy issues, they have taken a different approach than the rest of the business community. When it came to us passing our sick and safe time legislation, their vice president for labor relations was a co-chair of the city committee in Minneapolis that made the recommendation for earned sick and safe time. They told us, “We are not just going to say ‘no.’ We are going to try to work with the community and figure out what the best thing is for us and the community.”

I know from my conversations [with folks I know at Target] that happened since their announcement that this decision actually came pretty quickly. Just this past summer in Minneapolis, we passed a fifteen dollar minimum wage. After that, there was a conversation within Target about what they needed to do to be competitive in the job market, and they took a serious look at a lot of their lowest paid employees who have to have second or third jobs [but that might be unnecessary] if they paid a higher wage. So they made this announcement.

The ironic thing is that Target workers in Minneapolis will be reaching the fifteen dollar mark before the city ordinance requires Target to do so. But the fact that they are doing it nationwide [when] the vast majority of places are nowhere near that minimum wage is actually astounding. I hope it is a harbinger for other big companies to say that they have to make investments in their workforce so that we can expand this conversation.

I always like to remind people [that] there is a debate between politicians now about who gets to take the most credit over fifteen dollars. The answer is, “None of you.” Fifteen dollars began as a demand of fast food workers on their private sector employer. It later became, in Seattle and elsewhere, a minimum wage demand. Now, we have [one of] the first major Fortune 500 corporation instituting a fifteen dollar minimum wage. The fact that they use that number—we don’t get a lot of opportunities to celebrate victories, and this is a victory people should celebrate.

Workers who struck, fast food workers, when they went on strike at first and demanded a fifteen dollar wage, people scoffed at them—publicly and in the press. Other labor unions would say, “That is a crazy demand.” Now, that has become the standard by which we judge wages in this country. It is just a phenomenal thing, and people should think of that when we talk about how the trials and tribulations of the labor movement—and there are many. Workers organizing and fighting on the streets, they dared to dream big and are now changing the world. That is an amazing thing.

SJ: On that note, how can people keep up with you and your union and also with the work that is being done around Puerto Rico?

JM: The easiest way to follow me is on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @JaviMorillo and our SEIU 26 handle is @SEIU26. For the work on Puerto Rico, www.MariaFund.org is a good place to put resources into base-building work in Puerto Rico in some of our poorest communities there. . . . To really understand the financial crisis to go to www.acrecampaigns.org. ACRE is the Action Center on Race and the Economy. They have a series of white papers, really well researched work on Wall Street and Puerto Rico. You will learn scary, scary things by going there but really understand how multifaceted the crisis there is.

 

 

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

 

[1] While Puerto Rico remains legally barred from formally declaring bankruptcy under Chapter 9, in May the government of Puerto Rico did petition for relief under Title III of the PROMESA law, which contains certain Chapter 9 bankruptcy provisions but also recognizes that, unlike the other entities that can use Chapter 9, Puerto Rico is not part of any state and must be treated as a sovereign in some ways. Title III is an in-court restructuring based on U.S. bankruptcy code, but it has never been used before.

[2] The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico forbids the issuance of municipal bonds that mature after more than thirty years—unless the bond is issued for housing facilities, in which case bonds can mature up to forty years after the date of issuance.

[3] On September 28, President Trump authorized the temporary exemption of Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, allowing for the expedition of shipping much-needed aid supplies into Puerto Rico.

[4] There are two different laws regarding Puerto Rico that are commonly referred to as the Jones Act. There is the Jones-Shaforth Act of 1917 that granted U.S. citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico on or after April 25, 1898, and then there is the Jones Act of 1920 (or the Merchant Marine Act of 1920), which dictates that only American ships can carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. In addition, every ship must be built, crewed, and owned by American citizens. It is the latter act that’s been temporarily waived by the United States.

[5] The requirements of the Jones Act of 1920 apply to all trade between ports in the U.S. mainland and noncontiguous territories, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.

[6] FEMA provides disaster relief through multiple channels, including through direct grants to individuals affected by natural disasters; however, they are often inconsistent in the dispersion of funds.

 

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Nation Institute. Her book, Necessary Trouble, is out from Nation Books.

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