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n August 2, 2019, crowds gathered throughout Old San Juan to mark now ex-Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s climactic departure. The mood was bittersweet—a celebration of the people’s movement that began with the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción’s call to protest and overthrew the governor in just two weeks meshed with a sense of uncertainty and suspicion about what was to come. All kinds and colors of Puerto Rican flags were waving in the air. People were striking kitchen pots, chanting, and dancing on and around the barricades outside La Fortaleza (the governor’s mansion). Others periodically checked their phones for news about Pedro Pierluisi’s—the next in line for the governor’s seat—fate in the legislature. Dozens of phone timers were raised into the crowd, counting down the minutes and seconds before five o’clock when Rosselló officially stepped down.
People had taken to the streets and plazas of Old San Juan that day to celebrate Rosselló’s resignation, cautiously wait, and protest what would be the short-lived “vulture governor's” arrival because the struggle for dignity that marked #RickyRenuncia did not end with Rosselló’s departure. As a struggle over life and death, the summer mobilization was a broad demand to “rendir cuentas” (a reckoning, or holding accountable). I argue that these protests both reinforced the long-standing demand for a citizen debt audit and opened new democratic possibilities and spaces of reckoning or radical accountability. I see this public reckoning as a decolonial process working towards anti-debt futures that reject the conventional morality of debt and its colonial-capitalist logics and extend the conversation to debt cancellation and reparations.
Walking on Calle Fortaleza away from the barricades, crowds dispersed and protest chants faded into conversations. I passed an improvised recycle wagon collecting plastics and cans, and a celebratory whole lechón (traditional roasted pig) being served on the sidewalk. A few blocks away, people lined up to write messages on three mobile wooden panels on the sidewalk that each had a written provocation: “¿Ahora qué? (What now?) ¿Y la Junta? (And the Fiscal Control Board?) and ¿Que hacemos con la deuda?” (What do we do with the debt?).
The “¿Qué hacemos con la deuda?” panel was marked up with colorful messages overwhelmingly calling for an “Auditoría YA” (immediate debt audit), debt cancellation, and demands that “buitres” (vultures funds), “the corrupt,” and “those who robbed us” pay the public debt. Just as the summer protests emerged from an existing infrastructure of activism, the written calls to audit the debt were also the organic result of long-standing efforts demanding a comprehensive, citizen debt audit. Activists had been calling for a citizen audit since Ricardo Rosselló dismantled the public Audit Commission in 2016 after two pre-audit survey reports raised serious questions about the debt’s legality. As a meme circulating during #TelegramGate—the political scandal unleashed when the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo leaked hundreds of pages of a Telegram app group chat between Ricardo Rosselló and his confidants—says, “if this [forcing Rosselló’s resignation] is with a chat, imagine if they audit the debt.” In other words, just as the Telegram chat revealed a repulsive story of the Rosselló administration, the audit would reveal a story of indebting that the public has the right to know and act upon. As Eva Prados, coordinator and spokesperson for Puerto Rico’s Citizen Front for the Debt Audit, writes, “we wish to reclaim our right to learn and tell our fiscal, economic, and political history” with regard to debt accumulation (Prados, 2019: 254).
Deconstructing Debt and Contesting the Audit
Supporters of a citizen debt audit in Puerto Rico have long mobilized around the audit as a process and tool to ensure the end of reckless public indebting. While “auditing” is conventionally understood as part of a liberal ethos of transparency and as a technical tool to confirm “best practices,” I argue that the politics of Puerto Rico’s debt render citizen auditing as a political tool of radical accountability. The independent, comprehensive citizen audit proposed by the Citizen Front for the Debt Audit offers an excavation—or an “x-ray” as one participant in a people’s assembly framed it—not only of the debt emissions, but of the power relations that facilitated debt accumulation and their effects. As diverse audit experiences have demonstrated across the global south, citizen or government/citizen debt auditing backed by social movements can become an “instrument of democratic control” that’s profoundly political (Asociación Americana de Juristas et al., 2006:63). A comprehensive or “integral” audit includes investigative processes about the compliance of individuals and institutions involved with the debt, how public funds contracted through debt were used, and what should and should not be paid. Rejecting unitary understandings of debt as a contractual obligation between debtor/creditor, a comprehensive debt audit exploits the enigmatic nature of debt and opens the possibility for determining parts of the debt as illegitimate and/or odious—debts contracted by a government that have worsened rather than improved people’s conditions and the public good.
Beyond the parallel demand for debt cancellation, the audit can be a revelatory process about the past in order to change the future and perhaps create anti-debt futures, or individual and collective futures that are not foreclosed by public or personal debt and its moral obligations of payment. Furthermore, audit work can help to deconstruct “debt” within public discourse beyond the common understanding of a debtor’s obligation to a creditor. While much has been written on the morality of debt obligation in various arrangements (Graeber, 2011; Han, 2012; Minn, 2016), auditing gestures towards counter-moralities of debt that challenge the assumed debtor/creditor relation and can articulate understandings of debt in terms of illegitimacy, illegality, coloniality, and patriarchy (Godreau Aubert, 2018; Zambrana, 2018). Feminist and queer organizing in Puerto Rico have been central to politicizing different axes of debt refusal. For instance, feminist coalition groups organized the 2019 “8M Contra la Deuda” around demands for public health, education, and the eradication of machista violence that reflect the real-life impacts of people paying an unaudited public debt.
Nonetheless, there is still no consensus around the audit. Rather, the “audit” is best understood as a contested term and process that is currently being struggled over—namely over who should do it and how. There is some agreement, however, that opposing the audit protects power and shields state secrets. For example, individuals with significant conflicts of interest have played a role in debt accumulation, restructuring, and federal oversight. Two members of the Junta—José Ramón González and Carlos García—participated in a “revolving door” between Santander Bank, one of the main debt underwriters, and Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank, which issued bond emissions (Hedge Clippers, 2016). In effect, architects of the debt crisis who engineered and profited from questionable debt issuance and bank underwriting are now determining the restructuring process.
While there has been little to no political will within the government to systematically investigate Junta appointees’ conflicts of interest, in the U.S. House of Representatives, there’s been recent interest in a government-commissioned debt audit and debt cancellation as the House Natural Resource Committee heard a proposal in October to “reform” PROMESA. Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other progressives have expressed concern over the “significant fiscal surplus” in Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan that is likely to go to hedge funds and bankers to pay the debt. They are demanding that the Junta reverse imposed austerity measures and calling for an independent investigation of all conflicts of interest among the Junta members.
Renewed public pressure for a government and/or citizen audit prompted the Junta to claim that the audit has in fact already been conducted. In an opinion piece, Junta member David Skeel defends the $16 million Kobre and Kim Report as the genuine audit, even though the report fails to identify institutions or individuals responsible for the debt accumulation. The Kobre and Kim Report is therefore a “safe” audit for the Junta. On the other hand, the Citizen Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of Public Credit immediately refuted Skeel, arguing that the audit must be in the hands of the people bearing the burdens of austerity and debt restructuring rather than the government or the Junta.
This refusal of government participation is central to the reasons that people took to the streets this summer. The Telegram chat revealed the administration’s blatant disregard for any genuine debt audit and the obsession among Rosselló and his confidants over shaping an anti-audit narrative. For example, in mid-January 2019, news broke that the Junta would challenge the legality of some $6 billion in general obligation debt. In a stunning reality spin, the Telegram bros constructed the administration’s response to this news by reviving older propaganda to affirm that “we were right!” (Telegram Chat: 799) and that the public debt audit was unnecessary because, as this legal challenge proved, the courts would adjudicate any questions about the debt. Responding to a politician’s tweet that claimed the public had “the right to know” and denounced Rosselló’s dismantling of the public Audit Commission established under Governor García Padilla, Rosselló scorned, "Well…f*** you I did” (Telegram Chat: 812). Considering that two initial pre-audit survey reports published by the public Audit Commission pointed to potential debt illegalities and called for further investigation, it can be argued that a full audit would disrupt too many political and financial players that held up the Rosselló administration’s house of cards.
The stakes around the unaudited debt are more urgent than ever. After Ricky resigned, the protagonists of the summer uprisings were not the only ones concerned with what to do about the debt—capital also began to modify according to the new political conditions. Some financial news media flaunted the well-known racist and classist trope of Puerto Rico’s borrowing “addiction” and market panic about how “bondholders will be scalped” in upcoming debt restructuring. In contrast, the Financial Times celebrated that Puerto Rico’s general obligations bonds rallied after Rosselló’s resignation announcement, thus boding well for bondholders. This proved to be true in the newly-filed Adjustment Plan that will determine how public funds are spent over the next four decades. The proposed plan covers about $35 billion of debt and other claims and $50 billion in pension liabilities and places the major repayment burden on pensioners and working people rather than the vulture funds and banks that facilitated indebting. Ironically, the plan provides a “settlement mechanism” to pay bondholders of the $6 billion debt that the Junta itself challenged as unconstitutional. For government pensioners who spent their working lives contributing to a dignified retirement, the plan proposes an 8.5% monthly pension reduction for those receiving above $1,200 per month. Governor Wanda Vázquez expressed tepid disapproval of these pension cuts, but ultimately supported the plan as a pathway out of bankruptcy and a “foundation for recovery.”
As the Junta pushes through these plans, denying the audit and systematically obstructing access to information fits neatly into the narrative that the debt “crisis” is a temporary moment with a technical fix through bankruptcy-like court settlement plans. Indeed, as a people’s “reckoning,” a comprehensive debt audit threatens to unsettle these superficial technical fixes and take back the futures that the financialized temporality of debt lays claims to.
#AsambleaAuditoría and Building Anti-Debt Futures
During the hot morning of August 31, 2019, over 200 people brought along folding chairs as they gathered in the Luis Muñoz Rivera Park for the Citizen Front for the Debt Audit’s (Frente) first asamblea de pueblo (people’s assembly). Attendance exceeded expectations for a Saturday morning, and organizers even ran out of name tags. A musical performance opened the assembly and people mingled near the refreshments table while children kept themselves busy in the play area. The hum of the electric generator powering the projector, mics, and coffee pots muffled in the background as people approached the mic. Organizers gave an introductory presentation about debt politics and the citizen audit campaign, followed by an open-mic, break-out sessions, and a full group plenary to summarize proposals.
Some attendees were experienced debt activists, while others were approaching these topics for the first time, inspired to continue activating and organizing the summer’s indignation. The Frente convened the #AsambleaAuditoría in response to the debt audit repeatedly coming up as a point of deliberation and organization throughout Puerto Rico and the diaspora’s Asambleas de Pueblo—the autonomously-convened (auto-convocado) emerging spaces of popular democracy that are shaping the afterlives of #RickyRenuncia and modeling alternatives of self-governance. Some asambleas such as Placita Roosevelt established an “audit committee” while the asambleas of Mayagüez and Santurce invited representatives from the Frente to present on the topic.
Attendees divided into small groups to discuss what motivated them to attend the assembly, why they think the debt should be audited and who should do this, and any specific proposals. In the group I facilitated, people spoke openly about indebted life, pension insecurity, working multiple jobs in supposedly retirement age, and the desire for public debt cancellation. During the final plenary, the asamblea as a collective assumed its own voice and proposed motions for action such as collectively demanding full access to information from the government in order to conduct the citizen debt audit, forming a sub-committee to fundraise for the audit, and scheduling a second #AsambleaAuditoría.
During the plenary open mic, Hilda, a member of the Jubileo Sur Network that works for debt cancellation and reparations, suggested that when we talk about debt, “I’d like us to see ourselves as creditors” and understand the importance of demanding reparations for a debt that is “historical, social, ecological, and environmental.” This counter-morality of debt centers historical colonial-capitalist relations of power to rethink what is owed, and to whom. The asamblea thus became a vehicle for people to gather, articulate and re-articulate demands, and deliberate about what anti-debt futures might look like—from retirees with dignified pensions and an overturn of the debt adjustment plan, to a broader conversation about debt reparations in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and beyond.
The mobilizations of 2019 marked a certain temporality—what existed before was not the same after August 2. As one attendee at the first Asamblea de Pueblo, Caguas said to me, #RickyRenuncia was the culmination of what had become like a “metastasis” that made daily life nearly unbearable—the debt crisis, the Junta, Hurricane Maria, and #TelegramGate. But #RickyRenuncia was perhaps not the culmination, but rather the catalyst of a longer process of change and rendición de cuentas where we see spaces like the asambleas de pueblo as channels to assert new political possibilities in dialogue with long-standing movement infrastructures. Occupying public spaces such as parks, plazas, and municipal government pavilions, the asambleas make collective claims to a participative democratic style in stark contrast to the closed-door secrecy of the government and the Junta. The public geographies of the asambleas represent an open contestation and deliberation of “public secrets”—in this case, the widely suspected but seldom acknowledged workings of the state and the public debt. The asambleas as political practice, the mobilizations catalyzed by the Telegram chat revelations, and the project of a citizen debt audit all subvert the contradictions of the liberal democratic ethos of transparency (Jones, 2014) and point towards a rejection of secrecy as a social constitutive force of power.
A few weeks after the first #AsambleaAuditoría, the Frente and the Red Jubileo Sur Américas co-sponsored a gathering called “Haiti and Puerto Rico: Debt and Reparations” to build inter-Caribbean and international solidarity. Linking reparatory demands between Haiti and Puerto Rico highlights common imperial historical and contemporary debts. After France imposed a 150 million-franc indemnity on Haiti two decades after Haitian independence for France’s “losses” in slave labor and sugar production, Haiti became central to Wall Street’s international expansion in the early 20th century through US intervention (Hudson, 2017). By the 21st century, Puerto Rico had become a test case for Wall Street’s distressed debt market and vulture funds that enjoyed the tax perks of its territorial status.
Resonating with what Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo (2019) describe as an articulation of “multiple solidarities,” encounters such as the asambleas and dialogues about debt cancellation and reparations may point to a developing “social praxis of decolonization” (Garriga-López, 2019). The summer mobilizations and the renewed demand for a debt audit help us to imagine anti-debt futures that disrupt the terms and temporalities of public debt and indebted lives. The comprehensive citizen debt audit is central to deepen the process of public reckoning marked by #RickyRenuncia and to build upon the landscapes of protest and solidarity emerging in its wake.
 The panels were part of photographer José Jiménez-Tirado’s project, “La Revolución Más Corta: El Arte de Protestar.”
 Puerto Rico’s Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit was formed through Law 97 of 2015 and was comprised of 17 members including elected officials, representatives of financial institutions and credit unions, academics, and organized labor.
 For more on how anthropologists have examined “auditing” as a practice and performance of accountability, see Strathern 2003 and Hetherington 2011.
 For a discussion on the legal doctrine of odious debt and the possibilities of an odious debt analysis, see Bannan 2019; For a discussion on illegitimate debts in historical and contemporary contexts, see Toussaint 2019.
 In contrast, The Citizen Front for the Debt Audit estimates that a comprehensive, citizen audit would cost $5.6 million.
 See pages 792-812 of the Telegram chat for the full discussion of this issue.
 On the temporality of debt, see Adkins 2017 and Lazzarato 2011.
 Caribbean regional dialogues around reparations have precedence. For example, in 2013, CARICOM (the Caribbean Community—Haiti is a member state but not Puerto Rico) established a Reparations Commission to prepare a case for reparatory justice for victims of “crimes against humanity in the forms of genocide, slavery, slave trading, and racial apartheid.” The Reparations Commission’s 10-point action plan includes debt cancellation, arguing that the "debt cycle properly belongs to the imperial governments who have made no sustained attempt to deal with debilitating colonial legacies.”
Other essays from this forum include:
Making Space for Decolonial Futures: An Editors’ Introduction, Joaquín Villanueva and Marisol LeBrón
La Calle Fortaleza in Puerto Rico’s Primavera de Verano, Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo
Summer 2019: The Great Racialized Puerto Rican Family Protesting in the Street Fearlessly, Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach (a version of this article is also provided in Spanish)
Three Poems from the Summer 2019, Ana Portnoy Brimmer
Aguadilla, Decoloniality, and the Summer of ‘19, Pedro Lebrón Ortiz
Adkins L (2017) Speculative Futures in the Time of Debt. The Sociological Review 65(3): 448–62.
Asociación Americana de Juristas, Attac Uruguay and Auditoria Cidadã da Dívida (2006) Investiguemos La Deuda: Manual Para Realizer Auditorías de La Deuda Del Tercer Mundo. Geneva: Centre Europe.
Bannan N (2019) Puerto Rico’s Debt Is Odious. In: Bonilla Y and LeBrón M (eds) Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico before and after the Storm. Haymarket Books, pp. 224–33.
Garriga-López A (2019) Puerto Rico: The Future In Question. Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures 13(2): 174–92.
Godreau Aubert A (2018) Las Propias: Apuntes Para Una Pedagogía de Las Endeudadas. Cabo Rojo, PR: Editora Educación Emergente, Inc.
Graeber D (2011) Debt–The First 5000 Years. New York: Melville House.
Han C (2012) Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile. University of California Press.
Hedge Clippers (2016) Pirates of the Caribbean: How Santander’s Revolving Door with Puerto Rico’s Development Bank Exacerbated a Fiscal Catastrophe for the Puerto Rican People. Available at: http://hedgeclippers.org/pirates-of-the-caribbean-how-santanders-revolving-door-with-puerto-ricos-development-bank-exacerbated-a-fiscal-catastrophe-for-the-puerto-rican-people/ (accessed 15 January 2020).
Hetherington K (2011) Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hudson PJ (2017) Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jones GM (2014) Secrecy. Annual Review of Anthropology 43(1): 53–69.
Lazzarato M (2011) The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. Amsterdam: Semiotext(e).
Minn P (2016) Components of a Moral Economy: Interest, Credit, and Debt in Haiti’s Transnational Health Care System: Components of a Moral Economy. American Anthropologist 118(1): 78–90.
Prados-Rodríguez E (2019) Puerto Rico’s Fight for a Citizen Debt Audit. In: Bonilla Y and LeBrón M (eds) Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico before and after the Storm. Haymarket Books, pp.250–56.
Santiago-Ortiz A and Meléndez-Badillo J (2019) Puerto Rico’s Multiple Solidarities: Emergent Landscapes and the Geographies of Protest. In The Abusable Past. Available at: https://www.radicalhistoryreview.org/abusablepast/?p=3152 (accessed 15 January 2020).
Strathern M (ed) (2003) Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. Routledge.
Toussaint E (2019) The Debt System: A History of Sovereign Debts and Their Repudiation. Haymarket Books.
Zambrana R (2018) Colonial Debts. In: Nadal Melsió S (ed) Una Proposición Modesta: Puerto Rico a Prueba. Barcelona: Fundación Antoni Tápies.
Sarah Molinari is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology and a Dissertation Writing Fellow at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her work addresses post-hurricane recovery justice in Puerto Rico and how grassroots efforts attempt to reconfigure what debt and disaster recovery mean and for whom. Funded by the National Science Foundation, her ethnographic dissertation project examines the movement for a citizen debt audit and post-Maria politics of mutual support organizing. Sarah is the co-founder of the Puerto Rico Syllabus (#PRSyllabus), a digital/public humanities project that organizes resources for teaching and learning about Puerto Rico’s intersecting crises.