National Lawyers Guild
Presentation to the United Nations Decolonization Committee
Hearings on Puerto Rico
June 20, 2016
I have the privilege of addressing you today on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild. Founded in 1937 as an alternative to the American Bar Association, which did not admit people of color, the Guild is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar organization in the United States, with headquarters in New York, and chapters in everystate.
From its founding, the National Lawyers Guild has maintained an internationalist perspective, with Puerto Rico playing an important part of the critical focus of our international work. Our many resolutions affirm the right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination and independence and call for the release of Puerto Rican political prisoners. Our members, including myself, have dedicated our legal skills to this just and noble cause.
I. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States
Just this month, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. House of Representatives clarified what this Committee has recognized and denounced for decades: Puerto Rico is a colonyof the United States. First, the U.S. Supreme Court announced in Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle, that ultimate sovereignty for Puerto Rico originates with the U.S. Congress, resulting in a ruling that for purposes of double jeopardy, unlike the 50 U.S. states, unlike the Indian tribes, Puerto Rico is not a sovereign entity entitled to criminally process its citizens who have already been criminally processed in the U.S. court in Puerto Rico. The moment, noted one political commentator, is “the end of a lie.”
The same day, the House of Representatives – over the objections of Puerto Rico’s governor, many elected officials, labor unions and the voting public– passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA, Spanish for “promise”), in response to the need to restructure Puerto Rico’s unpayable debt of over $72 billion. The law will establish an oversight board to be responsible for enforcing budgets and government reform, including forcing the sale of government assets, consolidating agencies and firing workers. The board will be comprised of seven people selected by Republican congressional leaders and appointed by the U.S. president – there is no provision for inclusion of any Puerto Rican, but there is a provision to exclude any Puerto Rican elected official or candidate. The board will further usurp the function of the elected government, in that it can “prevent the execution of legislative acts, executive orders, regulations, rules and contracts” as it sees fit. Among its odious powers, it can shrink the minimum wage for youngworkers.
As if this one-two punch were not enough, days later the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the third punch, in Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust, siding with investors and striking Puerto Rico’s legislation to restructure public utility debt, ruling that federal bankruptcy law, “bars Puerto Rico from enacting its own municipal bankruptcy scheme to restructure the debt of its insolvent public utilities.” As an editorial in Puerto Rico’s main daily newspaper articulated: The state of colonialism unveiled in the pages of the Supreme Court’s ruling has placed Puerto Rico between a rock and a hard place, experiencing precisely the opposite of “the best of both worlds.” On the one hand, the colony has no powers to assume control of the nation. On the other, Congress has explicitly excluded the island’s agencies from the protection of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code since the mid-eighties.
The dissent, written by the sole Puerto Rican justice Sonia Sotomayor, recognized that the decision leaves Puerto Rico at the mercy of the U.S. Congress, “powerless and with no legal process to help its 3.5 million citizens,” who face what “members of the Executive and Legislature have described as a looming ‘humanitarian crisis’,” as their vital public services are imperiled. The vulture- and hedge-fund operators who own a huge share of the debt are pushing to protect their own interests over and above the interests of the Puerto Rican people. These operators, along with the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court, wholly ignore the fact that the very United States has a deficit of $534 billion, with a $14.0 trillion debt held by the public.
These latest events further unmask the true colonial nature of the United States and give the lie to U.S. representations to the United Nations in the early 1950’s when the U.S. falsely asserted that U.S. Law 600 converted Puerto Rico into a self-governing territory. In what some refer to as “a monumental hoax,” the U.S. maneuvered the U.N. into removing Puerto Rico from the list requiring accountability from countries with non-self-governing territories. In imperial fashion, the U.S. continues to thumb its nose at international law which requires it to engage in a process to enable the Puerto Rican people to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.
II. Resistance is alive and well
A doom and gloom portrait of Puerto Rico predominates the U.S. and international media, which fail to report the inspiring and creative resistance to the latest phase of U.S. colonial control. Rather than dwell on the negative, we will instead focus on the positive.
A. Challenging the debt
The Puerto Rico Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit [Comisión para la Auditoría Integral del Crédito Público de Puerto Rico], created to evaluate the process of renegotiating the public debt, has made a preliminary analysis that half the debt maybe unconstitutional, which could lead to Puerto Rico’s nullifying that debt. Representatives of more than 50 groups comprising Puerto Rico’s civil society advocated at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for a moratorium on debt payment and a participatory, democratic and transparent mechanism to restructure the debt, as well as for an audit that would clarify the origin of the debt, exclude the illegitimately acquired debt, and establish a legal framework for determiningcivil and criminal liabilityfor the debt.
The notion of “odious debt,” i.e., debt incurred not in the interests of those on whose behalf it was incurred, could annul some of the debt. Indeed, the United States used this very notion in 1898 when it took possession of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, to avoid responsibility for debts incurred by Spain.
B. Challenging PROMESA
In the face of the imminent U.S. imposition of a fiscal control board and its exacerbation of austerity, hundreds of labor, environmental, religious, community and not-for-profit organizations on the Island and in the diaspora announced the formation of the Puerto Rican Coordinating Committee Against the U.S. Fiscal Control Board, to attempt to avoid passage of the law; but if it should pass, the Committee will convene acts of civil disobedience in Puerto Rico and the U.S. to impede the Board’s ability to function. A senator said that if the Board is established, he would resign, and he encouraged his fellow senators to do likewise: “we have to start to see this really seriously as an attack on Puerto Rico’s institutions and what it represents.”
A cabinet minister expressed, “It makes you want to run away.” As for civil disobedience, the mayor of San Juan, who joined the Committee Against the U.S. Fiscal Control Board, said: “This board is the United States’ second invasion of Puerto Rico. The other one (that took place in 1898), they did obviously. This one, they’re doing it as if they were helping us out. No one helps anyone by enslavingthem; thus we have to combat it by every legal means, be it by demonstrations, assemblies, meetings to orient the Country, lobbying against it in Washington, supporting those in the United States who are against the Board, asking the Puerto Rican diaspora to use political pressure so the Democrats are against this Board, and if we have to resort to civil disobedience, resort to civil disobedience. No one can make Puerto Rico decide between indignityand slavery. We must value our right to defend a future of hope and dignityfor our homeland.” Opposition to the Board has been building for months, as Congress considered various drafts, with earlier coalitions, calls for resistance, marches, and acts of civil disobedience.
C. Creating a sustainable economy
An island that imports more than 80% to 85% of what it consumes, and that is hamstrung bythe onerous requirements of U.S. shipping law must create a sustainable economy, and particularly must develop its own agriculture. Not only is there an increase in the number of university students choosing to major in agriculture, but there is a growing attraction to working the land and a local governmental commitment to improve Puerto Rico’s food security. The notion that “We have a beautiful island and a perfect climate, we can produce whatever we want,” expressed by an experienced chef who uses only locally grown produce, is catching on, with new farmers, new technology, and new farms. One optimistic young organic farmer sees it this way: “We’re creating demand. We have this pool of buyers, a pool of farmers and we’re bringing them together. Food is my bet on how to change this island, if not the world. Food has the power to change everything from economy to education to health to environment, you name it. I feel we’re on the verge of something with this island.”
D. Protecting the environment
Taking matters into their own hands, Puerto Ricans have organized to combat, and often stop, harm to public health, the environment, and natural resources. Two powerful examples are a waste incinerator in Arecibo and a coal burningplant in Guayama. For years, residents of Arecibo and their supporters have been organizing– on the streets and in the courts – against a “waste-to-energy” incinerator which EnergyAnswers proposes to operate. Appreciatingthe toll on the nearby wetland reserve which would serve as its water source, the threat to several endangered species, and the tons of hazardous pollutants it would pump into the air, virtually every municipality has announced its refusal to send its waste to the proposed facility.
The community has also successfully challenged efforts to block its participation in the permit process, virtually stopping the operation in its tracks. Residents of Guayama and their supporters have for years organized against Applied Energy Systems (AES) Corporation, a Fortune 500 company that bills the Puerto Rico electrical authority nearly a million dollars daily to manufacture electricity from coal, every day generates tons of toxic coal ash dust and fails to properlydispose of it, resultingin contamination of the surroundingair and water. The company has not been willing to expend the money necessary for export or proper disposal, preferring instead to transport and dump the ash dust into inadequate landfills where it leaks toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the land and local water supply, and government agencies, seen as willing accomplices, are not protecting public health or the environment.
E. Preserving the culture
Puerto Rican artists, their production of art and preservation of the culture, are flourishing in spite of the challenging economic times. Some of the many examples follow. One cultural entrepreneur started Inversión Cultural (Cultural Investment), with a goal of cultivating the formation, research and mentorship for cultural small businesses. Beta-Local, in Old San Juan, is a non-profit that supports and promotes aesthetic thought and practices through a 9-month research and production program for artists and other cultural agents, a residencyprogram, and an experimental pedagogical platform, sponsoringmonthlycommunitydinners, teach-ins, art exhibits, and publications. Maritza PérezOtero, theater professional, teacher and activist, is nourishingyet another generation of youth in “Jóvenes del 98,” to make socially critical theater. “Santurce es Ley ,” now in its sixth year, seeks to carryout its goal of creatingan alliance among diverse sectors of Santurce to revive it as an art district. It has become an important platform for emerging contemporaryart, gaining international attention with its enormous murals, sculptures, installations, community workshops, and musical performances. José Morales of La Marqueta Retoña in New York City and La Respuesta in Santurce works to create a cultural bridge between the Island and the diaspora in New York City, includingorganizingan international mural festival in East Harlem and the South Bronx which involved Puerto Rican artists.
F. Organizing for politicalpower in the diaspora. The debt crisis on the Island has fueled much solidarity from Puerto Ricans in the U.S. diaspora, from working to find employment, housing and schools for the many who are migrating from the Island, to forming coalitions to create agendas for the benefit of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in the U.S., to lobbying political parties and elected officials for legislation. Conferences in Orlando, Florida and New York City have brought together Puerto Rican elected officials, community and religious leaders and academics to unite around debt restructuring, equalityin health care, the environment, and the release of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera.
III. Political prisoner Oscar López Rivera “Puerto Rico is imprisoned, and[…]Oscar LópezRivera’s imprisonment is a metaphor fo rthe country.” Oscar López Rivera, the longest imprisoned Puerto Rican political prisoner in history, has served 35 years in United States federal prison for seditious conspiracy, that is, for his commitment to the independence and self-determination of his nation, with more than 12 of those years in solitary confinement. With a sentence of 70 years, he was not convicted of hurting any one or taking a life. At age 73, he maintains his health as best he can, “vivito y coleando,” with a disciplined regime of exercise.The people see his ongoing imprisonment as “a historical debt and one of human rights,” as an affront to the dignity of the Puerto Rican people and others who love justice. The injustice of his continued imprisonment has stirred a creative, widespread response from every sector of society, in Puerto Rico, in the United States, and internationally.
In the year since this Committee’s last hearings on Puerto Rico, support for his release has continued to grow exponentially. His case became an issue in the Democratic presidential race: the candidates understood that his freedom was so important to potential voters that they felt the need to state a position. During Pope Francis’ travels, bishops and churches, politicians and attorneys sought his intervention on Oscar’s behalf. In conferences, prominent people dedicated their keynote addresses to him, from the Archbishop of San Juan Roberto González Nieves at a recent New York City summit of the diaspora, to award-winning author Luis Rafael Sánchez at the Congreso Internacional de la Lengua Española in San Juan. People of renown have trekked to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, to visit with him, from mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto;54 speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark Viverito; member of U.S. Congress Luis Gutiérrez; Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF and Natasha Bannan, president of the National Lawyers Guild,55 as well as manyattorneys from Puerto Rico; and Sister Kathleen Desautels of the 8th Day Center for Justice and Sister Denise Wilkinson, SP, General Superior of the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, IN – all deeply impacted by his humanity, rectitude, generosity, sense of humor and wisdom. Elected officials at every level of government, from heads of nations (President Daniel Ortega) to members of U.S. Congress (José Serrano, Nydia Velázquez, Luis Gutiérrez, Pedro Pierluisi) to the speaker of the New York City Council (Melissa Mark Viverito) to the more than 50 electeds from various cities and states seeking a meeting with the U.S. president, have spoken, marched, and otherwise advocated for his release. His image appears throughout San Juan, on the walls, on balconies, in people’s cars. The artist class – musicians (René Pérez,59 Andy Montañez, Rubén Blades), those in theater (Lin Manuel Miranda, Pedro Adorno, Bread and Puppet Theater ), filmmakers (Tito Román, Pedro Muñiz ),artists (Miguel Luciano, Juan Sánchez), poets – paint, compose music andpoetryabout his life, talk about him at concerts and rallies and with the president of the United States, make films of gubernatorial candidates urginghis release, create theater to spread the word.Resolutions callingfor his freedom abound, from city councils (New York City;Newark, New Jersey; Holyoke, Massachusetts, Springfield, Massachusetts ) to legal / human rights organizations (the American Civil Liberties Union, the Hispanic National Bar Association, the Puerto Rico Bar Association, the president of the Bar Association of Guatemala, Marco Antonio Sagastume Gemmell, the American Association of Jurists, the Tenth International Conference of Labor Lawyers, the Council of Delegates of the Latin American Union of Bar Associations and Groupings of Attorneys [Unión Iberoamericana de Colegios y Agrupaciones de Abogados]). Organized labor has added its voice as well – the Service Employees International Union, the Communications Workers of America, Latin American Federation of Journalists [ Federación Latinoamericana de Periodistas (FELAP)] , the 25th Congress of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Industria de la Bebida y Similares (Union of Beverage Industry Workers), the 38th Meeting of the Latin American Executive Board of UITA (International Food Workers Union), the Union of Cuban Journalists – as have popular organizations and conferences: the 21st Foro de Sao Paulo Conference, the Summit of the Peoples of MERCOSUR, or Mercado Común del Sur (Common Market of the South), the People’s Summit in Brussels (simultaneous parties, as well as “poets, pleneros, teachers, community leaders, politicians, veterans, mothers against the war, artists, children, and people from everysector of society.” Chants included, “Obama, listen to me! We want Oscar López free!” People carried signs with messages about Oscar, including”We are marchingfor Oscar, example of dignity.” In Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, on this anniversary the National Boricua Human Rights Network sponsored 35 Poets for Oscar, which was live-streamed as the poets performed in their respective cities. In Havana, in an event was sponsored byThe Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples [Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (ICAP)], Fernando González Llort, one of the Cuban 5 who shared a cell with Oscar for years, gave an emotional message of support. In San Juan, New York City and Chicago, 35 women demonstrate the last Sundayof every month for 35 minutes, committed to doing so until he comes home. In their bright pink tee shirts and turquoise bandanas, their consistent presence is an inspiration.
Consonant with the demand of the Puerto Rican people and the many peoples of the world who love justice, and in light of the wholesale lack of legitimate justification for his continuing imprisonment, we trust that this august body will once again urge the president of the U.S. Barack Obama to release Oscar López Rivera, who is beginning an unprecedented 35th year in U.S. prisons for his unwavering commitment to the independence and self-determination of his people.
The National Lawyers Guild, incorporating the requests sought by the majority of the other presenters before this Honorable Committee, urges the adoption of a resolution calling for the General Assembly to consider the case of Puerto Rico; and calling on the government of the United States to:
* immediately cease the brutality, criminalization and harassment of, and attacks on, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement and all those who exercise their fundamental rights to expression and association;
* immediately release Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, who has just marked the 35th anniversary of his arrest and imprisonment in U.S. prisons;
* identify and hold criminally liable all those responsible for the assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos (2005), Santiago Mari Pesquera (1976), Carlos Muñiz Varela (1979), and other militants of the Puerto Rican independence movement;
* withdraw the FBI, the U.S. court, and all other U.S. police, repressive and military forces and agencies from Puerto Rico;
* fully withdraw from Vieques, formally return legal property of the land to the people of Vieques, cease detonating unexploded ordnance, completely clean up the pollution left by the U.S. Navy’s 60-year occupation through the use of proven, environmentally friendly clean-up methods, foster and support a sustainable economy, and compensate the people of Vieques for the damage to their health done to them by the same;
* cease and desist from the application of the death penalty in Puerto Rico;
* formally commit to negotiate in good faith with the people of Puerto Rico a solution to the colonial condition; and recognize the proposals that emanate from a Constitutional Assembly, initiated bythe people of Puerto Rico, such as that called for by the Puerto Rico Bar Association, as the true expression of the aspirations of the people of Puerto Rico, and respond to them accordingly.
June 20, 2016
People’s Law Office
1180 N. Milwaukee Chicago, IL60642
On behalf of the National Lawyers Guild