In the days after Hurricane María tore across Puerto Rico, looking for news, I visited the website of the major daily, El Nuevo Día, and was confronted with a banner advertisement from Burger King. The corporation wanted to assure Puerto Ricans that it was here for them. The imperial corporate capitalism that has long-exploited the island, leaving its infrastructure in shambles, was checking in after the storm with the attentive concern of an abusive spouse. A quote from Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America came to mind: “One wonders if those who made us paralytic might offer us a wheelchair?” Sure, but they’ll charge you for it.
The ad, once clicked, produced a pop-up list of franchises that were open, with electricity. The promise of warm food, an air-conditioned space, and outlets for recharging devices seemed less wheelchair than pillow, simultaneously a source of comfort and the means of suffocation. That’s how imperial corporate capitalism works. If only Galeano had lived to see the current Burger King logo, “Be Your Way,” brazenly linking identity to consumption, a myth of self-determination and equality.
That myth is not proprietary to the Burger King Corporation, of course; it is America’s myth, the foundational self-evidence which we, the people, hold. Such notions are sacred, as are the documents that we insist enshrine them, never mind the lurking presence of Indians in the Declaration or the gradual accumulations of amendments bringing the excluded into the Constitutional fold.
But we can bear that tension, or explain it away as part of history’s arc bending, ever-so-slowly, toward justice. We bear that tension the way we bear the obvious truth that, at Burger King, one can only ever have it Burger King’s way. Partial freedom is freedom enough. And with the ability to elect political representatives and equal standing under the law, we can continue to believe in the American myth.
Puerto Rico ruptures that myth, however. There, under the US flag, the basic tenets of American democracy do not apply. Puerto Rico’s mere existence as an American colony contradicts the idea of freedom and equality as essential characteristics of America. The label of colony is not a provocation but an objective reading of the law as clarified in a series of Supreme Court decisions beginning in 1901, the “Insular Cases.” Puerto Ricans cannot vote for president unless they move to the mainland. They serve in the military (citizenship was imposed in the midst of World War I, simultaneous with conscription). Puerto Ricans die for America, and yet they—like the second-class citizens in the other American colonies: Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas, and the recently devastated US Virgin Islands—remain possessions of the United States, not full Constitutional subjects thereof.
As Javier Morillo wrote in a furious and necessary piece in the Nation, the hurricane has revealed to Puerto Ricans “our reality, our surreality, a self-evident truth: We are not created equal.” Morillo’s allusions to America’s sacred founding document reveal the problem not only for Puerto Ricans but for any American who takes Thomas Jefferson’s florid words as doctrine. After waves of suffrage and civil rights movements on the mainland, Puerto Ricans remain “semi-citizens,” living in what Efrén Rivera Ramos has characterized as a “modern colonial welfare state.” Long the source of commodities and labor for first the Spanish and then the US metropole, Puerto Rico today has an economy based on “a policy of self-perpetuating hyper-dependency on foreign capital,” in José Padín’s language. The gross domestic product exists in a widening gap to the gross national product, meaning that Puerto Rico’s economy can expand without increasing the welfare of Puerto Ricans. Moreover, dependence on external resources (to which tariffs, taxes, and fees are added via the 1920 Jones Act) and a focus on “capital-intensive investments, which spent relatively less in wages per unit of capital and extracted considerable profits, would tend to widen this gap.”
The catastrophe of Puerto Rico’s colonial status has never been more evident than now, in the wake of the storm. More than a month since the hurricane, approximately 79 percent of Puerto Rico is still without power. An estimated 90 percent of homes have been damaged, with an unknown number of homeless or displaced, many without access to water for drinking or sewage, let alone food or medicine. Official death tallies are at odds with widespread reports, and now the Puerto Rican government has permitted the burning of bodies, with over a thousand such corpses listed officially as dying of “natural causes.” Without power, communication remains spotty and many rural municipalities have yet to be reached by aid at all. Desperate for water, Puerto Ricans are drinking from contaminated wells in superfund hazardous waste sites.
FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), meanwhile, is requiring Puerto Ricans to fill out paperwork and then await an email or text (both impossibilities for those without electricity or cell service), one of the bureaucratic absurdities cited by the National Nurses United, the nation’s largest nurses’ union, which has accused the federal government of “delaying necessary humanitarian aide to its own citizens and leaving them to die.” Mold-related respiratory problems and cases of the potentially fatal bacterial infection leptospirosis represent the beginning of a now-inevitable public health crisis.
Tens of thousands are attempting to flee to the mainland. After a brief suspension following the storm, the Department of Homeland Security has opted to keep the Jones Act in effect, requiring all shipments of goods to Puerto Rico to come from American ports on American ships, at extra time and expense. Puerto Rico was already $74 billion in debt. A recently-approved disaster relief package adds to that debt. The Puerto Rican power grid has long been untenable; its current collapse will take months, at best, to repair. The $300 million contract for restoring the grid was given to a tiny company with close personal ties to President Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. When questioned over Twitter about transparency by the Mayor of San Juan, they threatened to pull their workers out of the city (the company since tweeted an apology). Meanwhile, Puerto Rican real estate is suddenly hot with a set Bloomberg calls “distressed-mortgage investors.” The future looks terrifyingly dark.
Burger King, meanwhile, under its sunny, generator-lit corporate logo, has served more than one million meals since María hit. Under its regional auspices, Caribbean Restaurants Inc., select locales resumed business the day after the hurricane, “providing hot food and cold drinks in air-conditioned dining rooms.” Moreover, in the absence of telephone and email communication, Burger King started “encouraging people to leave handwritten notes,” the contents of which are broadcast through its social media, newspaper ads, and a morning radio program. The company “has donated more than 15,000 meals to recovery crews and relief organizations, and has sold ham and cheese sandwiches at a discount to the Red Cross,” as well as joining with other corporations in the United for Puerto Rico relief campaign. Through its own BK Family Fund, the burger franchise “provides grants to Burger King employees facing unexpected hardship, such as natural disasters,” and the company paid all employees the week after the storm, regardless if they were able to work. This story of corporation as “good citizen,” selling meals to those who need them for profit and the free advertisement that comes with positive press coverage, is a pleasant distraction—a pillow, even—from the harsh truth revealed by the hurricane, the transparent inequality and injustice of Puerto Rico’s colonial status, and the legal and moral questions that status raises.
That’s how imperial corporate capitalism works, of course: offering a pillow to those it renders paralytic. But it is also how America’s core myth works. Steeped in the Reformation’s emphasis on the individual as an autonomous agent, the Founders displaced God in favor of a legal scaffolding for a freedom that, in practice and theory, depended upon the example of un-freedom imposed on various minority groups. Indians, slaves, women, Chinese, those considered not fully human and therefore not qualified for the responsibilities of citizenship, represent a shifting cast. Their bondage and their exclusion helped fuel the sense that here in America we the people—an exclusive but similarly shifting club—are granted the exceptional and God-given “right” to be your way. The myth of America is a myth of free will, unfettered by structures and unaided by privilege built on the backs of others. The myth of America is that by collaborating with the choices you are given, you are, in fact, having your way.