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Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico

by Rocío Zambrana

Rocío Zambrana is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy.

With the largest municipal debt in US history and a major hurricane that destroyed much of the archipelago's infrastructure, Puerto Rico has emerged as a key site for the exploration of neoliberalism and disaster capitalism. In Colonial Debts Rocío Zambrana develops the concept of neoliberal coloniality in light of Puerto Rico's debt crisis. Drawing on decolonial thought and praxis, Zambrana shows how debt functions as an apparatus of predation that transforms how neoliberalism operates. Debt functions as a form of coloniality, intensifying race, gender, and class hierarchies in ways that strengthen the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Zambrana also examines the transformation of protest in Puerto Rico. From La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción's actions, long-standing land rescue/occupation in the territory, to the July 2019 protests that ousted former governor Ricardo “Ricky” Rosselló, protests pursue variations of decolonial praxis that subvert the positions of power that debt installs. As Zambrana demonstrates, debt reinstalls the colonial condition and adapts the racial/gender order essential to it, thereby emerging as a key site for political-economic subversion and social rearticulation.

“At a time when many are turning to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María, there is a dire need for sophisticated texts like this that can help unsettle much of the commonsense thinking about Puerto Rico's debt and its colonial relationship to the United States. It is rare to see a book of this theoretical heft so well grounded in contemporary politics. Colonial Debtsmakes a unique and urgent contribution.” Yarimar Bonilla, coeditor of Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm

Colonial Debts is a brilliant book, one that 'thinks' Puerto Rico with/from Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican global diaspora. . . . I highly recommend Zambrana’s Colonial Debts to economic, political, Caribbean, and Latin American geographers working closely with financial geographies and geographies of debt. Decolonial geographers will also find the book’s theoretical contributions provocative, particularly as it relates to the geographies of knowledge production.” Joaquín Villanueva, Journal of Latin American Geography

“It seems to me that Zambrana has gifted us one of the most thorough philosophical meditations on the material conditions of contemporary Puerto Rico. . . . There is no doubt in my mind that Zambrana’s text will become a classic of Puerto Rican studies, decolonial theory, and the broad corpus of Caribbean anticolonial thought.” Pedro Lebrón Ortiz, Candela Review



From the author

Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, is a key historical-material site for clarifying the operation of neoliberal coloniality as a debt economy. Colonial Debts reflects on the relation between coloniality—the racial order produced by colonialism/capitalism—and colonialism in fiscally distressed Puerto Rico, and reveals how colonial and capitalist power adapts and intensifies anti-black and cisheteropatriarchal violence through a financialized political economy. The centrality of debt is further demonstrated by the variations of decolonial praxis found within Puerto Rico, where forms of resistance, protest, and refusal seek to make inoperative the racial order born from the territory’s multiple colonial histories. Writing about Puerto Rico, engaging the theoretical-practical production in the archipelago and its diaspora, has also meant writing for Puerto Rico. As a reflection that seeks decolonial ends, Colonial Debts should be meaningful to the communities whose history it discusses. Moreover, it should be assessed by those communities. In addition to a Spanish translation in the works, publishing Colonial Debts as open access offered a unique opportunity to realize these vital ends.