Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico , by Rocío Zambrana

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Miguel A. Rivera-Quiñones University of Puerto Rico Department of Political Science Puerto Rico Río Piedras

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Rocío Zambrana, Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico . Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2021. ix + 264 pp. (Paper US$ 24.95)

Most discussions of Puerto Rico’s political situation focus on the colonial condition and the dynamics that produced it, understanding the “political” in a narrow sense as the power relations that could lead toward a different form of sovereign rule from the prevailing one. Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico offers a persuasive case for situating colonial dynamics beyond this narrow understanding of politics. Rocío Zambrana makes an argument for analyzing debt as a form of coloniality that actualizes race/gender/class inequalities emerging from the uneven distribution of precariousness, dispossession, and violence. She offers an assessment of the operation of coloniality in Puerto Rico by exploring how debt functions as an apparatus of capture, predation, and extraction across racialized/gendered populations. One of this book’s innovations is to advance a theoretical perspective that allows the study of the coloniality of power in a context where colonialism is still in place. Here, coloniality is not a matrix of power that exceeded colonialism but a technology of power that actualizes race/gender/class hierarchies in a colony through debt. Zambrana invites readers to track coloniality in the colony, not to reduce one to the other.

The concept of neoliberal coloniality provides an excellent illustration of how she proposes this. Drawing on works by Ariadna Godreau-Aubert and Maurizio Lazzarato, neoliberal coloniality captures the complexities of indebted life in the colony. Zambrana argues that debt and austerity disproportionally impact women, especially Black women, in Puerto Rico, renewing precariousness along racial and gender lines. She explains that violence and precarity stem not from the colonial condition but from the ongoing coloniality of power that adapts race/gender/class hierarchies according to capital’s needs. The construction of a failed “neoliberal subject” incapable of paying its debts works as an injunction to pay by marking racialized and gendered populations as disposable. Zambrana’s point is that not all colonial subjects are impacted in the same way by indebted life in the colony. Although the unequal distribution of austerity has been widely documented in academic literature, what is particular to Zambrana’s work is that she analyzes this uneven distribution through the coloniality of power. Another interesting feature of this book is that debt is not considered exclusively as an instrument of subordination but also as a space for subversions. The idea of “Historical Reckoning” is used as a process of accountability to recognize who owns whom in creditor-debtor relations. The subversive potential of debt is moving from acknowledging financial debt to realizing historical debts as colonial debts. Zambrana understands that the subversive interruption of financial debt is inscribed in reckoning the historical debts expressed by race/gender/class hierarchies that made it possible for debt to function as an apparatus of capture and extraction in the first place.

At a moment when the austerity sponsored by the Fiscal Oversight Board, their domestic partners, and U.S. Judge Tailor Swain have cut in half public funding for the University of Puerto Rico, reduced pensions, promoted privatizations, and committed to repay financial debt in absurd terms, Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico offers a fresh look into the social relations underlying the current crisis. It highlights how the biopolitics of administrating populations have turned into necropolitical practices in which death is not deemed a disastrous outcome but rather the cost of paying the debt. However, the book is not a call for pessimism but hope. Zambrana highlights how the material praxis in Puerto Rico of taking back the land and seeking to create power in common can be understood as reparations since it subverts the injunction to pay. Occupations and self-management undertakings are seen by Zambrana as practices that can turn coloniality inoperative; she emphasizes the modalities of these undertakings that specifically challenge private property—in other words, the modalities that confront capitalism.

If some weakness must be indicated, it is that Zambrana conceives Puerto Rico as an exceptional case not having much in common with other historical colonial experiences or with former colonies. Recent works such as Parenting Empires by Ana Ramos-Zayas brilliantly emphasize the commonalities among affluent urban elites in Puerto Rico and Brazil concerning their perceptions of parenting, race, corruption, and austerity. Ramos-Zayas sets Puerto Rico and Brazil at a continuum in their relationship with U.S. imperialism. Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico does not present this global perspective. Nevertheless, Zambrana has made an outstanding theoretical contribution for analyzing coloniality in Puerto Rico and broader topics associated with neoliberalism, debt, austerity and coloniality. This book will be very useful for academics in Caribbean Studies, Political Theory, Political Economy, and Decolonial Studies.

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