The people of Puerto Rico rose up with a revolutionary vision — and won. After 12 days of protests, strikes and mass engagement, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló will step down on Friday. But the protests were about more than just Rosselló. They were the latest in a long tradition of Caribbean resistance to imperialism, repression and outsize U.S. influence.
For centuries, Caribbean freedom fighters have built international coalitions to challenge the deep pockets and formidable military of imperial powers. These efforts have created solidarity across borders and produced important measures of self-determination and independence. But this decolonization work has also been met with repression from abroad and poor leadership at home. That Puerto Ricans were able to remove Rosselló under the watchful eye of the U.S. empire is a major victory. But dismantling the oppressive mechanisms that are still in place requires strengthening old solidarities and building new ones.
People across the Caribbean have long understood that their freedom struggles were connected. Resistance to slavery was a common cause for people of color on both sides of Hispaniola. Haiti’s revolution led to the abolition of slavery in 1793 and independence from France by 1804. This planted the seeds for Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture to declare the abolition of slavery in the Dominican Republic in 1801, which was made final in 1822.
These movements for Haitian and the Dominican freedom and independence inspired activists still under Spanish colonial rule. Abolitionist Ramón Emeterio Betances led the first significant revolt against the Spanish in Puerto Rico in 1868. He dreamed of creating an Antillean Confederation to unite the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Other Cuban and Puerto Rican leaders, such as José Martí and Lola Rodríguez de Tío, put transnational organizing into action, running revolutionary committees in Florida, New York, Mexico and Venezuela.
After decades of mobilization, the Cuban War of Independence changed imperialism in the region. The war began in April 1895 and raged for three years before the United States intervened in 1898, sparking the Spanish-American War. Having won the war, the United States acquired Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. Cuba became a republic in 1902 but only after agreeing to include the restrictive conditions of the U.S. Platt Amendment in its constitution. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico became and remains an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, akin to a colony.
Acquiring Puerto Rico was part of a new expansion of power by the United States across Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 strengthened U.S. hegemony in the region by allowing the United States to justify using its military force in any nation in the hemisphere that was “unstable,” usually because of debts to foreign creditors. This resulted in lengthy and violent U.S. military occupations in Cuba (1906-1909 and 1917-1922), Nicaragua (1912-1933), Haiti (1915-1934) and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924).
Eventually the United States supplemented the corollary with a policy of “dollar diplomacy,” a strategy of providing loans and investments to countries with leaders amenable to U.S. interests, and which then provided grounds for the overthrow of those leaders it deemed noncooperative. During the Cold War, U.S. interventions in the region remained fundamentally driven by economic interests. But the ideological fight against communism provided a loftier rationale for U.S. challenges to governments such as the ones in Guatemala and Cuba. The United States used anti-communism as a justification for overt and covert U.S. meddling that continued to squeeze the life out of the poor to uplift the very rich.
Yet in the face of hegemonic U.S. power, the tradition of solidarity across — and beyond — the Caribbean region persisted. When the democratically elected president of the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch, was overthrown in 1963, he found refuge in Puerto Rico, a place where he had previously lived in exile. In 1965, the Dominican masses, with the support of many Haitians and Cubans, launched a revolution to bring Bosch back to power. Although the United States quashed it, fearing a second communist country in the Caribbean, the movement showed that strong networks of solidarity remained.
In the 1960s, activists such as Ana Livia Cordero strengthened connections between Puerto Rican, black American and Third World liberation struggles. Cordero was a Puerto Rican physician and organizer who collaborated with leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X and Salvador Allende in Cuba, Ghana, Alabama and Nicaragua. Like many other Caribbean activists, she understood the Puerto Rican freedom struggle to be part of a global anti-imperialist movement. As U.S. military and economic power increased globally after the Second World War, people from the Caribbean such as Cordero had a head start in understanding the strategies of U.S. empire, and how to best resist its vast, and increasingly indirect, exercise of power.
And this is the root of the confrontation we see today: revolutionaries leading a transnational struggle for justice through their resistance to internal leadership that is propped up and supported by foreign interests and U.S. power.
Today, the United States still has influence over the political future of its hemispheric neighbors, as seen with the U.S. role in the 2009 coup against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya and the Trump administration’s threats to invade Venezuela and overthrow President Nicolás Maduro.
But people are demonstrating their resilience. In the Dominican Republic, the Marcha Verde (Green March) movement has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets since 2016 to denounce President Danilo Medina’s administration following revelations of official corruption. On the other side of Hispaniola, hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti have risen up against President Jovenel Moïse since February 2019 to protest the mismanagement of loans from the Venezuelan company Petrocaribe.
In recent weeks, the people of Puerto Rico have taken to the streets to protest both Rosselló’s corruption and a larger power structure that has increased U.S. control over people’s lives. With Rosselló’s resignation secured, organizers are protesting the Fiscal Control Board, set up to manage the billions of dollars in debt that is in large part a result of U.S. economic policies toward the Puerto Rican islands.
Like revolutionaries of the past — L’Ouverture, Martí and Cordero — Puerto Rico’s protesters understand theirs to be a transnational struggle. Alongside the Puerto Rican flag and the version of it rendered in black, a symbol of protest, the marches have featured flags of Cuba, Haiti, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. A number of these flags were brought to the streets by the members of Taller Malaquita, an artist collective founded by women and based in Santurce, San Juan. Zuania Minier and Rosaly Mota, two of the Taller’s founders, explained that they wanted to express a “solidarity without borders” that acknowledged similar political situations across the Antillean community, and the support they have received from neighboring countries.
On July 24, Rosselló heeded the cries of “Ricky Renuncia” and announced his resignation, a critical victory. After 121 years of U.S.-led repression that has claimed the island’s resources and lives, Puerto Ricans have shown the world that they are not done fighting for their freedom. But this remarkable moment is only the most recent in a long history of anti-imperialist activism between people from across the Caribbean islands, the United States and the world.