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Puerto Rico’s War on Its Poor

IN FEBRUARY 1993, war was declared in Puerto Rico. In a special legislative address, Governor Pedro Rosselló pronounced that the time for half measures was over. The criminals and drug syndicates behind Puerto Rico’s surge in violent crime had “asked for war … and war they will have.” In a dramatic step, the governor would be deploying the National Guard to assist police in drug busts and patrols. This would be a critical component of his government’s new crime-fighting platform, Mano Dura Contra el Crimen (Iron Fist Against Crime). Although guardsmen initially patrolled beaches, movie theaters, malls, and other public spaces, their presence quickly became concentrated in public housing complexes and other low-income communities.

Mano Dura, although promoted as a matter of public safety, was intimately linked with the reengineering of Puerto Rico’s public housing authority. The second-largest under U.S. jurisdiction after New York City’s, the authority had been marked for privatization by the prior administration, ostensibly as a neoliberal experiment in whether homeownership would combat the “culture of dependency” that had supposedly takenroot there and led to crime and decaying conditions. Naturally, these privatization efforts also held out the promise of lucrative management contracts for well-connected elites. The privatization process was fundamentally undemocratic, and many low-income and black Puerto Ricans rightly felt that Mano Dura’s aim of increased safety was simply a front for their dispossession. Further, it soon became abundantly clear that Mano Dura was not a panacea for the very serious problems facing public housing residents since, in many cases, it actually worsened the violence and discrimination they faced. Undeterred by resistance from those whom Mano Dura was said to help most, the Rosselló administration meanwhile began marketing the campaign as a success in the War on Drugs to be emulated in the United States.

Puerto Rico has had a long history as a laboratory for U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, the foundation of the contemporary Puerto Rican state—the commonwealth agreement between Puerto Rico and the United States—was conceptualized, in part, as a vehicle to showcase U.S. development strategies to the Third World during the Cold War. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, Puerto Rico was mobilized as an example of the progress that could be achieved through economic and political alignment with the United States.

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Paperback, 128 pages “All history,” writes Maximillian Alvarez in his contribution to this issue, “is the history of empire—a bid for control of that greatest expanse of territory, the past.” Evil Empire confronts these histories head-on, exploring the motivations, consequences, and surprising resiliency of empire and its narratives. Contributors grapple with the economic, technological, racial, and rhetorical elements of U.S. power and show how the effects are far-reaching and, in many ways, self-defeating. Drawing on a range of disciplines—from political science to science fiction—our authors approach the theme with imagination and urgency, animated by the desire to strengthen the fight for a better future. Featuring Nikhil Pal Singh, Arundhati Roy interviewed by Avni Sejpal, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Yuri Herrera translated by Lisa Dillman, Pankaj Mishra interviewed by Wajahat Ali, Frank Pasquale, Adom Getachew, Maximillian Alvarez, Jeanne Morefield, Michael Kimmage, Stuart Schrader, Marisol LeBrón, and Mark Bould.