Biopolitics, Colonialism and the Women’s Rights Question in Puerto Rico Marlene Duprey
I. Biopolitics and the colonial question in Puerto Rico In Puerto Rico, addressing the country’s colonial situation means denouncing its lack of sovereignty: the fact that the island is not a nation state. Since 1898, Puerto Rico has been a US territory. In 1952 we became a Commonwealth, a political status that has being constantly questioned as being colonial par excellence. My assertion in this essay is that this constant reference to colonial political status, paradoxically, avoids the discussion of colonial situations that do not specifically depend on political status in itself, such as the colonization of the body by a certain conception of health, the hegemony of moralizing discourses in the political domain, male violence on women’s bodies, the hegemony of the images of fear vis-à-vis the issue of freedom and the mass media’s monopoly in political representation, amongst many others. Given the contradictory forms of sovereign and colonial powers in Puerto Rico’s territory, I shall expose some of the multifarious ways in which forms of internal colonization over women’s bodies become crystallized on the Island. Internal colonization refers to the historical and contemporary processes of maintaining domination and subordination. These explorations examine the incorporation and cross-fertilization of class, racial, and sexual domination in a country's internal colonies; the role of the state, market, and dominant civic organizations in disciplining the colonial order; the presence of political subjugation; the function of legal and extra-legal forms of domination and violence; and the significance of ideology and culture (Parrillo: 2008, p. 503). Thus, the ways we speak about or obliterate fundamental issues of women’s rights both in their reproductive and material life conditions are some of the main biopolitical issues that I will address. Contrary to common opinion, and from a bio-political theoretical framework, we can observe the saturation of sovereign powers over the body of the population in Puerto Rican everyday life. Far from there being an absence of sovereignty, as is often thought, Puerto Rico suffers from a complex presence of sovereign powers over people’s lives, although what is important to highlight is that these powers are a contradictory interplay
2 of forces between national and federal government agencies. In some respects the U. S. federal powers intervene together with the national government to impose some sort of order. That has been the case, in recent years, of crimes of corruption, particularly those that imply federal funds. On the other hand, there is an autonomous power of the national government to apply laws that go against the federal government, such as the Fiscal Emergency Law, known as Ley 7, providing for the mass dismissal of public employees. It seems to me that in Puerto Rican academic scenarios there is a kind of resistance to speak out from a bio-political theoretical framework, in part because of the problem of sovereignty. Along the lines of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben questioning of sovereignty itself, we as Puerto Rican academics have had to make an effort to handle the complexities of having been a US colony since 1898, (and as most of you know, before that, we were a Spanish colony). At the same time, we have had to be aware of the problems with those contentions with sovereignty as such. As Foucault stated: …it was thanks to the perception of the specific problems of the population, and thanks to the isolation of that area of reality that we call economy, that the problem of government finally came to be thought, reflected and calculated outside of the juridical framework of sovereignty (Foucault: 1991, p. 99) While in Puerto Rico the major concerns are fundamentally biopolitical issues such as the administration of bodies, intervening in the life of the people, the social problems of public health systems, unemployment, demographic issues, education, sexual politics, criminality, drug consumption and drug trafficking, amongst other fundamental concerns, the biopolitical framework is still an uncomfortable paradigm because of the political status of the island. A good example of what I am maintaining is crystallized in the academic debates on policies regarding birth control and population increase. According to Lourdes Lugo in her recently book, Tropiezos de la memoria: la esterilización femenina en la prensa puertorriqueña (1940-1977), the key interpretations that try to explain the high levels of women sterilizations between 1940 and 1977 were drawn between two main discursive poles: “The first awards the high levels of women sterilization to an individual decision, granting full sovereignty to the subject's will. The second one, awards women sterilization to an imposition of the State on individual lives of women, giving total freedom to the will of the State” (Lugo: 2011, p. 3). In Lugo’s research, there is a deep complexity that goes beyond a dichotomous way of thinking, in order to understand the multiplicity of factors that were present in women decision making. I want to highlight particularly the ways in which the debate on
female sterilization, population control and abortion was represented in the leftist press. In Claridad, the most important leftist newspaper in Puerto Rico, most politicians and intellectuals who wrote about contraception methods, female sterilization and abortion denounced these practices as a problem arising from American imperialism and capitalism. From the perspectives of these voices, for whom the colonial problem was exclusively a problem of political status, Puerto Ricans had to oppose these measures, because birth control was the expression of “colonial abuse”, “a crime against the Puertorican population”, an “attempted genocide”, and other similar arguments (Lugo: 2011, pp. 161-191). For the year 1940, on the island 6.6 % of the married women of reproductive age were sterilized, and in the year 1968 the figure increased to 35%. What stands out in Lourdes Lugo’s research, is that the explanations that were held in this debate about the significant increase in women sterilizations, emphasize sovereignty arguments (Lugo: 2011, p. 3). For the left wing, the problem is the lack of national sovereignty and the total control on decisions concerning women’s bodies. Other sectors justified birth control as personal decisions of women as sovereign subjects. These two polarized frameworks had the effect of silencing women’s voices regarding their choices on contraceptive methods, and abortion. Neither this nor other newspapers on the island presented the opinions of women, their questions, fears or desires. This is, as Lugo points out, the hegemonic form of talking about the other that characterizes the coloniality of power in Puerto Rico. In Lugo’s book there are diverse women’s testimonies who express the reasons they have to consider different birth control measures. (Lugo: 2011, pp. 233-260). II. The Status of Women’s Rights in Puerto Rico We cannot ignore that these discursive practices about reproductive policies have a historical background. These are the effect of complex both state and non-state agendas in the formation of female subjectivities. The constant anxiety about poverty and the project of modernization of Puerto Rico were some of the areas that shaped the subjectivity of Puerto Ricans. I sustain, among others historians, that these efforts to be modern, and all the worries about the poor in the population began before the US invasion of the Puerto Rican Island in 1898 (Duprey: 2010, pp. 25-63). Today we can see how these reproductive complexities still play a key role in shaping a variety of subjectivities. In Puerto Rico, women have the choice of different birth control methods. The birth rate has dropped significantly, and there are many women who do not want to have children. At the same time, we can see how poor women
have been the target of so many forms of surveillance and have been construed as negligent mothers. The eagerness for motherhood of low-income women in Puerto Rico is a constant issue. In 2002 the writer Mayra Montero wrote an emblematic article that reflects what from my point of view is a widespread anxiety about this sector of the population. In her article, Motherhood, she refers to the lack of responsibility of poor girls who become pregnant. She makes a link between poverty and crime and suggests a general identification between poor mothers and child abuse (Montero: 2002, p.5). This mode of expression performs a dangerous operation, by leveling and generalizing the situation of poor women. We cannot forget that poverty is also a media representation. These representations are sometimes used to avoid the important issue of sexual education. In Puerto Rico there is no good gender and sexual education curriculum in schools, to foster a reproductive health policy that benefits all students. We all know that motherhood has been a powerful control dispositive of women bodies. But it seems to me that this feminist discussion has been forgotten in Puerto Rican debates. More recently, in the local press, we have had the case of Francesca Soto Meléndez, a very young low income mother, living in public housing, who was the subject of public discussion. At the beginning of last June, Soto Meléndez left her one-and-a-half year old daughter with a neighbor to babysit her. When the neighbor went to change the baby girl’s diaper she noticed that there was something wrong in her vaginal area. The baby was then taken to the hospital, where it was erroneously concluded that she had been sexually molested, possibly by her own mother. Soto Meléndez was imprisoned after she failed to post her $100,000 bail. After her attorney intervened and was able to get her bail reduced to $200, Soto Meléndez was able to go home, however her two children were not at home waiting for her. Only later did they realize that it was a vaginal infection due to improper cleaning of the area. But by then, the Family Department had intervened and taken custody of the baby girl and her three-year-old brother. Similar kinds of mistakes in the way the justice system and the family government department handle supposed child abuse cases are very frequent. It is clear that class prejudice plays an important role when a woman is the object of suspicion of child abuse. While in Puerto Rico birth rates have dropped, the construction of the negligent mother figure favours a constant surveillance on women's bodies. From my point of view what women in Puerto Rico need is a different kind of approach. A new and non-moralizing relationship with our bodies. We need a new kind of education that states the responsibilities and rights consequent to being a citizen, and a very committed interest in thinking about what practice of freedom means.
However, we are far from a project of this magnitude. What we are experiencing as women in Puerto Rico is a progressive instability of our living conditions. This was dramatically demonstrated during the government shutdown in May 2006. This crisis put the country's economy under threat. It led to the closure of government agencies for failing to pay employee payroll (Hernández: 2006, p. 5). The Department of Education, one of the largest public agencies in the country, was perhaps the biggest loser during this crisis. It significantly represents the symptom of the imbalance of public administration. This important public agency represents the best example of the precarious living conditions of women. In the educational system of Puerto Rico the workforce is predominantly female. However, when the government closed this agency, it gave greater priority to the security police system over educational tasks and the work of teachers. During the crisis, in the local press, there were articles on the workforce of the Department of Education, largely female. They handle the weight of the fiscal crisis, considering that most of them are heads of households. (Sosa: 2006, p. 4) It is estimated that about 76.000 women may have been made redundant or reduced by the governmental closing of agencies (Sosa: 2006, p. 4). Precarious living conditions in this sector of the population is exacerbated because it is a workforce whose tasks are embedded in the country’s lower income bracket population. Many of these families face crippling conditions such as alcoholism, drug addiction, arms smuggling, sexual abuse and others. These conditions increase the emotional pressure on teachers. At the same time their wages are very low in comparison with the cost of living in Puerto Rico (Duprey: 2010, pp.184-186). When we talk about the rights of women in Puerto Rico, we have to sustain, as Wendy Brown points out, that it “makes little sense to be in favor or against the rights, out of an analysis of the historical, social power and political discourses with which they converge.” After all, defending them is conditioned by how they are understood in specific historical contexts by nations and populations (Brown: 1995, p. 98). I want to emphasize that the historical conditions on which the issue of women’s human rights in Puerto Rico stand, operate in a socio-economic context that tends toward very precarious living conditions. More recently, the fiscal emergency law put a heavier burden on the economic insecurity of female household heads . These conditions exacerbate the levels of gender violence on the island. Currently, in Puerto Rico, the rights of women to freedom, to self-government and dignity, are seriously threatened.
The increasing numbers of murders of women by their partners or former partners is symptomatic of a significant transformation, which requires responsible attention. While I agree that each case of violence must be considered in its singularity, I do not think it appropriate to refer to this violence as a mere private matter. In Puerto Rico gender violence is alarming. I think that in a country where this kind of violence is present in everyday life, we have to ask what is happening to its citizens. It seems to me that we are experiencing a paradoxical situation concerning the subjective formation of women: as more women seem to claim their right to selfgovernment, freedom and dignity, the desire to control their bodies and the denial of their social being becomes ever stronger. Very often, when a woman is murdered by her partner, she is trying to break up with him. So I insist that it is not the discourse of victimization that can enforce the human rights of women. It is important to emphasized that the stronger the desire of women for self government and empowerment is, the more violent the desire to control their bodies. While these are part of our everyday drama, in recent years we have seen a new kind of violence that is gaining ground in the local arena. This is the link between drug related violence and the murders of women and children, who are often victims of the ways in which drug cartel revenges are carried out. Recently there is an increase of the number of women who are linked to the world of drug trafficking. This link refers to a mimesis of the violence of patriarchal capitalism in which drug trafficking became an alternative to make a decent living for many families in Puerto Rico. When the social arena reinforces the link between the precarious living conditions of women and gender violence, the conditions for the elimination of any real guarantees of women's rights as citizens are created. The frailty of these rights is that they rely solely on the respect the nations give to citizenship. Hence, there is a reasonable suspicion that there is never a real guarantee of rights. These have to be constantly defended, and rethought from the ongoing review of the concept of what it means to be a citizen. We should not naturalize the rights, because human nature can not be trusted, Spanish philosopher Reyes Mate reminds us. So, thatâ€™s why it seems necessary to refer to the critique of Hannah Arendt remarks on human rights discussion. When human rights were linked to the fact of belonging to a nation, they were identified with the nation, and not the individual. For this reason, these can be suspended, leading the individual to a state of abandonment and helplessness at any time. This led Arendt to argue that claiming the right to have rights was a call for responsibility (in Reyes: 2010, pp. 241-243). With this in mind, I think that in Puerto Rico, today more than ever, we must report all instances in which women abuse is considered justified.
Moreover, we have to consider changing the processes of the education of children. These learning processes have to clarify the changes that we are experiencing today in our day to day love relationships. The ideas of love, the ways self love and respect, and that of others are encouraged or not, are part of the urgent agenda dealing with the rights of women as citizens. The brutal violence against women together with their precarious material conditions of life are key issues in our country. If we do not do anything to counteract this violence, we are opening the door to the articulation of a dangerous power that threatens to naturalize gender violence. Against this, we must aspire to the possibility of a new form of education and rights. One that must be nondisciplinarian towards women's bodies, and favor their claiming their social being. To finish, what I want to foreground can be summarized in the following points: 1.
The constant reference to a colonial political status, paradoxically, prevents the discussion of colonial situations that do not specifically depend on the political status, such as policies on women’s bodies .
Good examples can be found in Puerto Rico of how this way of approaching our colonial situation affects important reproductive policies for women.
While we need more complex approaches to sexual education policies, what we are living in Puerto Rico is a precariousness of the material living condition of women.
The empowerment of many women and their desire for self-government is being threatened by the increase of gender violence and murders.
Bibliography Brown, Wendy, “Rights and Losses”, in States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 96-143. Duprey, Marlene, Bioislas: ensayos sobre biopolítica y gubernamentalidad en Puerto Rico, Ediciones Callejón, 2010. Foucault, Michel, “Governmentality”, in Burchell Gramham, Gordon Colin and Miller Peter, The Foucault Effect, Studies in Governmentality, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 87-104. Hernández Cabiya, Yanira, “Solicita sacrificios el gobernador’, El nuevo día, 25 de abril 2006, p.6. Lugo, Lourdes, Tropiezos de la memoria: la esterilización femenina en la prensa puertorriqueña (1940-1977), Ediciones Callejón, 2011.
8 Montero, Mayra, “Maternidad”, in Antes de que llegue el lunes; El Nuevo Día, Revista Domingo, 29 de septiembre de 2002, p. 5. Parrillo, Vincent N., Encyclopedia of Social Problems, Vol. 1, Sage Publications, 2008. Reyes, Mate, “Hannah Arendt y los Derechos Humanos”, in Revista Arbor. Ciencia, Pensamiento y Cultura, CLXXXVI 742 (2010), 241-243. Sosa Pascual, Omaya, “Encaran las mujeres la crisis con tenacidad”, & “Acostumbradas a luchar y a batallar”, in El nuevo día, 7 de mayo de 2006, pp. 4-5. Sosa Pascual, Omaya, “Duro golpe a la mujer trabajadora”, in El nuevo día, 7 de mayo de 2006.