Economic Democracy in Action in Puerto Rico

Shey Rivera, Director of Inclusive Regional Development, MIT CoLab

“Somos más y no tenemos miedo!”

“We are more and we are not afraid!”

That is the phrase chanted by Puerto Rico—its residents and diaspora—to demand the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló and a government administration that has failed to support its people. 

During the past few weeks, the Puerto Rican people have taken a strong stance against corruption and antiquated governance structures, and are demanding fair and just development centering on the public’s well-being. Its residents and diaspora have consistently taken to the streets in what has become a historic civic manifestation. And the world has taken notice.

I am Puerto Rican, born and raised.

Like many others, I left the island years ago to escape a bubbling economic crisis that grew over the years, the culmination of which became becoming Puerto Rico’s current humanitarian crisis. As the civic movement grew on the island, I couldn’t resist the call and flew back to support the fight for justice, with my family, friends, and people of Puerto Rico. What I experienced gave me much hope and pride. This is the moment many of us have been waiting for; a moment some of us didn’t think we would experience during our lifetime. 

The manifestations have been self-organized and non-hierarchical, with strong participation and leadership of women and the LGBTQ+ community, unity between people of different political ideologies, with a wide array of creative responses. We saw the largest national strike in the history of the island, with more than one million people who stopped and flooded the main expressway. And we saw a wide array of creative responses in front of La Fortaleza, the Governor’s House, the Department of Justice, and other sites of government and historic significance.  

From traditional strikes, to the collective sound of cauldrons throughout the island, the proliferation of memes, parents reading books to their children in front of government offices, and the now historic ‘perreo combativo’ (twerk- off) in front of La Fortaleza on the day on the Governor’s resignation, the outward expression of a collective political voice has been tremendous. There has also been salsa dancing, a motorcycle brigade, horse walks, group yoga, performances, public readings of the controversial #telegramchat, and more.! There was even a call to go to Old San Juan to support the local businesses that had to close due to the steady manifestations. This is a movement of the people! 

The mobilization and coordination of the movement on social media, most prominently with the hashtag #RickyRenuncia, has fostered its democratic underpinnings. These diverse expressions have reflected the wide variety of people and views in Puerto Rico. But one thing remains consistent: their political demands for a fair and just government.  

Young people have also played an important role. And the direct alignment of internationally known Puerto Rican celebrities added greater visibility and strength to this movement; s. So much so that Bad Bunny has named the new generation of young people “la generación del ‘Yo No Me Dejo’” (“the generation that will not be subdued”), acknowledging its spirit and self-determination. 

The outcome of this collective action and expression has been powerful. The island’s people demanded and achieved the resignation of its Governor Ricardo Roselló. And they continue to manifest beyond that, demanding an audit of the debt, the dismantling of the fiscal control board, and the design and implementation of a development plan that centers equity and the needs of the people most affected by the humanitarian crisis. And they continue to do so with the most powerful #radicaljoy I’ve ever experienced. 

At MIT CoLab, we work in communities to correlate liberation with self-determination. The recent and current civic manifestations in Puerto Rico are a powerful example of how voice, culture, and community can create real civic action. CoLab’s Inclusive Regional Development program (IRD) works with communities and practitioners throughout Latin America to co-create knowledge, strengthen capacities for collective leadership, and support innovative models for equitable development and well-being. It is that work that brought me to the Colombian Pacific and that spirit that returned me to Puerto Rico last week to witness and be a part of history in the making.

Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, one of the oldest in the world. The recent actions are a shining example of a nation of people responding against antiquated models of development. They fought against models that extract wealth from communities of much abundance, only to benefit a few while and deepening the poverty of the many. 

This island-wide and diaspora-wide manifestation is of holds great historic significance. It sets a precedent that the small number of those who claim to hold the power are held to account; that they are should just be facilitators to carry out the will of the public. The fall of bad actors in Puerto Rico sets the stage for its people to recognize their agency and harness their collective power to create change so they aren’t left behind when decisions are made in their name. It is the very embodiment of the work that we do at CoLab. I; it is a demand for economic democracy or a system of governance that prioritizes community agency and puts capital and resources under citizen control and ownership.

People throughout the Americas are demanding equity and accountability. Collective action in Puerto Rico, the Colombian Pacific, and the Bronx, they teach us that we can rewrite our own stories and truly harness the power of the people to create change. And as Puerto Rico is showing us, this power is within us, here and now. The only question is how we wield it to create the world in which we want to live.