Puerto Rican musician René Juan Pérez Joglar, better known as "Residente," frequently uses his massive platform to advance Puerto Rican independence, immigrant rights and a constellation of other activist causes. With Hurricane Maria and the United States government’s response drawing more attention to the infrastructural devastation on the ground there, the artist spoke with The Nation today (January 29) about how he believes the current situation bolsters the case for Puerto Rican autonomy.
"I think Puerto Rico is recovering [from Hurricane Maria], but it’s more of a psychological than economic recovery as people begin to realize that our colonial status isn’t in our best interest," said Joglar, who began his career as a member of duo Calle 13. “Yesterday, I was talking with some young guys outside of a hotel and they all felt the same, they never thought Puerto Rico would end up where it is now. They always thought that the United States was there to help, because whenever there was a war, Puerto Ricans would come out without hesitation and join the army, et cetera. That was an interesting conversation, because a year ago, it wouldn’t have happened. So there’s this awareness growing on the island right now at 10 times the speed as before, and that’s promising for us, because we have to improve internally before we can recover economically."
The artist, who publicly supported Vermont senator Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential election, said that the much-criticized government response to Hurricane Maria would have been the same if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama were sitting president. "All of them would have failed equally, because no U.S. president in history has really cared about our situation," he said. "The United States is just not interested in Puerto Rico."
Joglar framed this as part of a colonial legacy that also includes the nearly $72 billion in bond debt hanging over Puerto Rico’s head, as well as top-down austerity measures that threaten public services and civil liberties. He advocated for a bargaining process with the federal government that accounts for its political repression and human rights abuses against Puerto Ricans, where PR officials would respond to requests for debt repayment with the following:
"Well, this is what we owe you? I think it is you who owes us—for the ecological harm you’ve done, for the bombing of [David] Sanes in Vieques, for all of the assassinations, for the Ponce massacre.” You can name and tally up every assassination committed by the U.S. government, the CIA, et cetera, to this day. And when they say, “Pay up” or “Let’s talk about the debt,” you hand them that invoice. Then you’re showing them that you have pride, you have honor, and you’re restoring it to Puerto Rico. You’re saying, “I’m not going to pay this.” That’s a good start.
Most Puerto Ricans do not share Joglar’s faith in independence. Only 1.5 percent of residents voted for total separation from the U.S. during a referendum on statehood last year. He acknowledged this reality, attributing it to bipartisan rhetoric that makes independence seem like a far-left issue. "The day the right [in Puerto Rico] begins to back the independence movement, that will show that people truly understand," he explained. "I’m not saying I want to fill the movement up with whoever. I just want independence for Puerto Rico, and I don’t care who joins or doesn’t right now, because we’ll deal with which political system we want later."