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Who Owes Whom? Puerto Rican Feminists Speak Out on Debt

June 2022


When we protest in the streets saying “our lives before debt,” we are proposing a different economic analysis based on feminist social, economic, and ecological perspectives, in which people’s living conditions are prioritized, for the sustainability of life.

Grassroots International’s partner La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, La Cole, speaks truth to power on the topic of debt in the recent publication ¿Quién le Debe a Quién? Ensayos Transnacionales de Desobediencia Financiera (Who Owes Whom? Transnational Essays on Financial Disobedience). This is a timely matter, given that Puerto Rico recently underwent a massive restructuring of its more than $70 billion public debt, with major implications for the Puerto Rican people.

In their essay, La Cole members Shariana Ferrer-Núñez y Zoán T. Dávila Roldán speak to the violent, racialized origins of Puerto Rico’s public debt; how this debt is illegal, illegitimate, and unsustainable; and how feminist movements are organizing to eradicate debt and the paradigms perpetuating it. The following are a few excerpts (translated by us into English) of their powerful piece:

“It’s impossible to speak about public debt as a tool of governance/control of people without contextualizing the conditions of colonialism that are reformulated in the history of the conquest of the “new world.” Colonialism as a political project uses race as a tool for generating inequality, marking the bodies/peoples fit for capture, exploitation, rape, forced labor, extraction, impoverishment and death; namely, the bodies/peoples enabled for their dehumanization.”

“Debt reinforces the concept of race because it is situated in the experience of territories looted under colonization, the expansion of the capitalist model under globalization and under the domination of financial capital. In other words, debt is the mechanism through which the colonial system perpetuates. Debt marks bodies/peoples by banishing them, impoverishing them, extracting from them and robbing them of the possibility of a future. Debt has always operated as a mechanism of capture that has been implemented since colonialism as an economic model.”


“An important part of the political work of La Cole on the issue of debt begins precisely with the commitment to decolonize our understanding of our political condition, exposing the profound effects of colonization as an economic project and the ways in which the racial state has operated in Puerto Rico.”

“Puerto Rico became a colony from which millions of dollars are exported a year, but whose government must borrow and go into debt to pay payroll and to do public works. From a colony where extractivism is practiced, Puerto Rico became a colony of indebtedness, where the payment of debt enables its permanence. A colony that is stripped of what it has and what it produces through policies of economic control – a trapped colony. Puerto Rico’s colonial status governs our lives from the activities of daily life of individuals to national and international policies.”

“Using the rationale of debt, governments of the last decades have sold public corporations, privatized highways, “rented” the national airport, increased the cost of tuition at the state university, closed hundreds of schools, destroyed agricultural land – in a country where 80% of our food is imported – and have granted million-dollar concessions to transnational corporations.”

“Public debt is unsustainable and represents 94% of the size of the economy. Debt service payments approximate total taxes on income of individuals and corporations.”


“For us, debt is not only the extension of the colony, as has been in the case of all Latin American and Caribbean countries after their independence (which, paradoxically, as independent countries, are still paying for their freedom), but also is a kind of terrible mutation of our colonial state, which forces us to pay a debt when we don’t even have political independence. This is a great paradox, because it is a debt that continues to accumulate, without our even being granted the political guarantees that allow us to be free from it.”

“The conversation around debt was not accessible; it was full of technicalities and academic verbiage. The government has used the issue of debt as a disarticulating space, using complex, economistic language…So we have chosen to seek a common language, focused on the purposes of debt and its relationship with the precariousness of our living conditions. We wanted to hold the conversation with ordinary people, who are the most affected by spending cuts.”

“In the end, this discussion is about power… They have the numbers in dollars and bonds; we have the numbers in people and strength. They have the legal and financial structures; we have community structures and support networks. They name themselves conquerors in history; we keep the ancestral memory and we refuse to forget. They deny our humanity; we know ourselves as collective beings. They created a colonial, heteropatriarchal, racist and capitalist system; we continue to move towards other worlds.”

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