Skip to main content

By Angelo Falcón, National Institute for Latino Policy (NilP) —

“The reparations debate is threatening because it completely upends the usual narrative of development. It suggests that poverty in the global south is not a natural phenomenon, but has been actively created. And it casts western countries in the role not of benefactors, but of plunderers.”
— Jason Hickel, “Enough of aid – let’s talk reparations,”

The current post-hurricane discourse on the need for the United States to come to the aid of a devastated Puerto Rico is based on two basic claims that ignore the colonial relationship between them. One is that the responsibility to come rescue of the people of Puerto Rico because they are US citizens. The other is the more basic appeal to urgently address the humanitarian crisis facing the Island.

As has become evident as a result of the massive debt crisis facing Puerto Rico, the statutory citizenship bestowed upon the Puerto Rican people by the United States Congress in 1917 has been consistently treated as a second-class variety. Just last year, two federal court decisions and the adoption by Congress of the PROMESA Act creating an unelected fiscal oversight board for the Island, have further starkly codified Puerto Rico’s colonial status, in the event anyone had any doubts about it.

The humanitarian crisis appeal is also undermined by US policies and politics. This crisis was exacerbated by natural forces that simply highlighted a politics of political and economic dependency on the United States that underdeveloped Puerto Rico and deformed its politics. As the current crisis unfolds, it is becoming more apparent how US treatment of the Island economically, politically and socially have resulted in a fragile infrastructure, in different senses, that easily and finally completely broke under the force of Hurricane Maria.

These realities raise the question of within which framework the future development needs to rest. It has been interesting that, despite a colonial history under both the United States and Spain that the claim to colonial reparations has not been raised in the current debate.

In his 2002 law review article, “Reparations Theory and Postcolonial Puerto Rico: Some Preliminary Thoughts,” Pedro A. Malavet argues that the colonial status of Puerto Rico requires a reparations theory that provides a framework for its transition to an urgently needed post-colonial status. He explains that the economic implications of post-colonial alternatives:

“. . . Involve expenditures by the colonial power, the United States, to compensate the colonized people, the Puerto Ricans. These payments are essential both for the construction of local political power for Puerto Ricans, and to create a viable Puerto Rican economy that supports real equal opportunity for puertorriqueñas y puerlorriqueños, thus repairing the legacy of political, economic, and psychological colonization by the United States. These legal changes and payments can be characterized as reparations, as defined in contemporary critical jurisprudence.”

Malavet outlines three components of colonial reparations theory:

1. Citizenship Reparations, which he quotes Eric Yamamoto as describing as reparations for the:

. . . restructuring of the institutions and relationships that gave rise to the underlying justice grievance. Otherwise, as a philosophical and practical matter, reparations cannot be effective in addressing root problems of misuse of power, particularly in the maintenance of oppressive systemic structures, or integrated symbolically into a group’s (or government’s) moral foundation for responding to intergroup conflicts or for urging others to restructure oppressive relationships. This means that monetary reparations are important, but not simply as individual compensation. Money is important to facilitate the process of personal and community “repair ….”.

2. Land and Monetary Reparations. He argues that:

. . . reparations will have to include the return of the military lands to Puerto Ricans, as well as their environmental cleanup. 16 1 Moreover, the Puerto Rican economy will have to be made to work for Puerto Ricans, not just for U.S. taxpayers and investors. Currently, Puerto Ricans on the island have a mean per capita income of less than one-third of the national U.S. average. Additionally, they have received only a fraction of the federal benefits to which any other U.S. citizens are entitled. Reparations theory can well inform a resolution to these land and economic problems.

3. Psychological Reparations. Malavet points out that…

“. . . perhaps even more important than money is a full disclosure by the government of the United States of the benefits that it has derived from the century-old U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship, both in the private and public economies. This is essential in undoing the myth of Puerto Rico as a dependent U.S. welfare-state that only drains the U.S. economy. Moreover, full disclosure of the political repression the anti-independence violence and police-state tactics that target any political dissent that the United States chooses to label as ‘anti-American.’ The distinction between public enemy and political opponent is especially important in the post-September 11 United States. Once a full disclosure is made, the Puerto Ricans can be in a position to evaluate the adequateness of any other type of reparations, including apology.”

While Malavet focuses on the United States, such claims for reparations should also be extended to Spain, which controlled Puerto Rico since the 16th century to 1898. This initially involved the introduction of slavery through first the repartimiento system and the exploitation of the Island’s gold mines. This was a period that resulted in the almost total extermination of the Island’s indigenous population. Through actions such as the Royal Decree of Grace, Spain appropriated and distributed land in Puerto Rico to its citizens and other foreigners. This transfer of lands by Spain culminated in its ceding the entire Island to the United States in 1898. These exploitations and genocidal practices by Spain in Puerto Rico were never accounted for as the Island’s ownership switched hands to the Americans.

Malevet  focuses on Puerto Rico, but it is also essential to view the Puerto Rican diaspora stateside as victims of this colonialism. As Eduardo Melendez points out in his new book, Sponsored Migration, the government of Puerto Rico designed policies, with the support of the US government, to push for a massive migration of Puerto Ricans stateside as part of its economic development strategy. This turned much of Puerto Rico’s population into a racial minority within the United States that experiences economic exploitation as largely low-wage workers, along with racial and ethnic discrimination and other major social and economic dislocations. One result today is a community that suffers the highest poverty rate of any Latino group, 23 percent, double that of non-Latino Whites. This is also a migration that has cost Puerto Rico a loss of some of its most valued labor and expertise, creating harmful demographic age distortions.

NiLP was the first, in 2015, to publically point to the need for a massive Marshall Plan-type of federal assistance to debt-ridden Puerto Rico, a position since taken up by many Democratic Party Congressional leaders. Today, the level of support being provided by Congress and some policies it has adopted, such as the GOP tax plan, will create further severe economic and social problems for Puerto Rico. It appears that appeals to address the Island’s humanitarian crisis or the need to come to the rescues of its US citizens are not the proper frameworks for dealing with Puerto Rico’s long-term needs. This points to the need for a different framework from which to approach this problem, a framework that takes as its basis the notion of reparations as a transition to a post-colonial status for Puerto Rico.

A reparations approach to the long-term needs of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican people will require historical and economic research to determine the amount and types of necessary reparations. The usual way of doing this is with the establishment of a nonpartisan commission with the legitimacy and resources to accomplish this task. This would also require the ability to take these claims to an international body, like the United Nations, to adjudicate its legitimacy and resolution.

It is becoming more evident that the future of Puerto Rico cannot be resolved solely through a biased United States legal and political framework. There is a need to go beyond it and current bases of appeals for assistance being made to the United States. Puerto Ricans should instead be demanding reparations from the United States (and Spain) for its shameful history of colonialism. The United States, in effect, leaves the Puerto Rican people no choice. As Hickel points out, we should not be viewing the United States as a benefactor, but rather as a plunderer. Plunderers, it stands to reason, must eventually be brought to justice.

Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He is the author most recently of the NiLP Commentary, “The End of the Puerto Rican?” He can be reached at


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.