An Island Weary of Outside Experiments

By Naomi Klein

The dream of the blank canvas, a safe place to test one’s boldest ideas, has a long and bitter history in Puerto Rico. Throughout its long colonial history, the archipelago has continuously served as a living laboratory for prototypes that would later be exported around the globe. There were the notorious experiments in population control that, by the mid-1960s, resulted in the coercive sterilization of more than one-third of Puerto Rican women. Many dangerous drugs have been tested in Puerto Rico over the years, including a high-risk version of the birth control pill containing a dosage of hormones four times greater than the version that ultimately entered the U.S. market.

Vieques — more than two-thirds of which used to be a U.S. Navy facility where Marines practiced ground warfare and completed their gun training — was a testing ground for everything from Agent Orange to depleted uranium to napalm. To this day, agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Syngenta use the southern coast of Puerto Rico as a sprawling testing ground for thousands of trials of genetically modified seeds, mostly corn and soy.

Many Puerto Rican economists also make a compelling case that the island invented the whole model of the special economic zone. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, well before the free-trade era swept the globe, U.S. manufacturers took advantage of Puerto Rico’s low-wage workforce and special tax exemptions to relocate light manufacturing to the island, effectively road testing the model of offshored labor and maquiladora-style factories while still technically staying within the U.S. borders.

By Rosa Colon Guerra. From “A Broken P.R.O.M.E.S.A.” Click to see and read more.

The list could go on and on. The appeal of Puerto Rico for these experiments was a combination of the geographical control offered by an island and straight-up racism. Juan E. Rosario, a longtime community organizer and environmentalist who told me that his own mother was a Thalidomide test subject, put it like this: “It’s an island, isolated, with a lot of non-valuable people. Expendable people. For many years, we have been used as guinea pigs for U.S. experiments.”

These experiments have left indelible scars on Puerto Rico’s land and people. They are visible in the shells of factories that were abandoned when U.S. manufacturers got access to even cheaper wages and laxer regulations in Mexico and then China after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed and the World Trade Organization was created. The scars are etched too in the explosive materials, uncleaned munitions, and diverse cocktail of military pollutants that will take decades to flush from Vieques’s ecosystem, as well as in the small island’s ongoing health crisis. And they are there in the swatch of land all over the archipelago. That are so contaminated that the Environmental Protection Agency has classified 18 of them as Superfund sites, with all the local health impacts that shadow such toxicity.

The deepest scars may be even harder to see. Colonialism itself is a social experiment, a multilayered system of explicit and implicit controls designed to strip colonized peoples of their culture, confidence, and power. With tools ranging from the brute military and police aggression used to put down strikes and rebellions, to a law that once banned the Puerto Rican flag, to the dictates handed down today by the unelected fiscal control board, residents of these islands have been living under that web of controls for centuries.

On my first day on the island, at a meeting of trade union leaders at the University of Puerto Rico, Rosario spoke passionately about the psychological impact of this unending experiment. He said that at such a high-stakes moment — when so many outsiders are descending wielding their own plans and their own big dreams—“we need to know where are we heading. We need to know where is our ultimate goal. We need to know what paradise looks like.” And not the kind of paradise that “performs” for currency traders with a surfing hobby, but that actually works for the majority of Puerto Ricans.

Storm, by Agitarte. Click to learn more.

The problem, he went on, is that “people in Puerto Rico are very fearful of thinking about the Big Thing. We are not supposed to be dreaming; we are not supposed to be thinking about even governing ourselves. We don’t have that tradition of looking at the big picture.” This, he said, is colonialism’s most bitter legacy.

The belittling message at the core of the colonial experiment has been reinforced in countless ways by the official responses (and nonresponses) to Hurricane Maria. Time after humiliating time, Puerto Ricans have been sent that familiar message about their relative worth and ultimate disposability. And nothing has done more to confirm this status than the fact that no level of government has seen fit to count the dead in any kind of credible way, as if lost Puerto Rican lives are of so little consequence that there is no need to document their mass extinguishment. As of this writing, the official count of how many people died as a result of Hurricane Maria remains at 64, though a thorough investigation by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and the New York Times put the real number at well over 1,000. Puerto Rico’s governor has announced that an independent probe will re-examine the official numbers.

But there is a flipside to these painful revelations. Puerto Ricans now know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that there is no government that has their interests at heart, not in the governor’s mansion, not on the unelected fiscal control board (which many Puerto Ricans welcomed at first, convinced it would root out corruption), and certainly not in Washington, where the current president’s idea of aid and comfort was to hurl paper towels into a crowd. That means that if there is to be a grand new experiment in Puerto Rico, one genuinely in the interest of its people, then Puerto Ricans themselves will have to be the ones to dream it up and fight for it—“from the bottom to the top,” as Casa Pueblo founder Alexis Massol-González told me.

He is convinced that his people are up to the task. And ironically, this is in part thanks to Maria. Precisely because the official response to the hurricane has been so lacking, Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora have been forced to organize themselves on a stunning scale. Casa Pueblo is just one example among many. With next to no resources, communities have set up massive communal kitchens, raised large sums of money, coordinated and distributed supplies, cleared streets, and rebuilt schools. In some communities, they have even gotten the electricity reconnected with the help of retired electrical workers.

They shouldn’t have had to do all this. Puerto Ricans pay taxes — the IRS collects some $3.5 billion from the island annually — to help fund FEMA and the military, which are supposed to protect U.S. citizens during states of emergency. But one result of being forced to save themselves is that many communities have discovered a depth of strength and capacity they did not know they possessed.

Now this confidence is rapidly spilling over into the political arena and with it, an appetite among a growing number of Puerto Rican groups and individuals to do precisely what Juan E. Rosario said has been so difficult in the past: come up with their own big ideas, their own dreams of an island paradise that performs for them.

Reprinted from The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists with permission of Haymarket Books © 2018 Naomi Klein. First published by The Intercept, Published in 2018 by Haymarket Books


Caribbean Connections: Puerto Rico

This piece is from the upcoming third edition of Caribbean Connections: Puerto Rico, edited by Marilisa Jiménez García, which introduces students to the history, economy, environment, and culture of Puerto Rico through essays, poetry, and fiction.

Learn more.