Out of the Ashes of Puerto Rico’s Economy Emerges a Promising Currency for All

Yves here. I have to confess as a cold-hearted finance type, I can’t connect to the idea that what money looks like has any significance (although back in the day, American Express was successful in making many cardholders feel that putting down a platinum or even a gold card made a statement about their status. This Puerto Rico community currency seems to have value due at least in part for emotional reasons: as a statement of support for Puerto Rico and a way to operate outside the space created by international banks and their enforcers.

By Valerie Vande Panne, a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, Politico, and many other publications. Produced by Local Peace Economy

While the United States has some of the most successful community currencies in use, such as the BerkShare, surprisingly few Americans actually use them or know anything about them outside the communities who use them. In the EU there is a lot of interest in community currency—Spain and England have many, including the Bristol Pound.

And while the U.S. dollar is widely used not just in the U.S. but around the world, it is some of the most homogenized of any currency: Single color, with affluent white men associated with the U.S. government on each bill. That is what our currency is saying is valuable. Sure, each man portrayed on U.S. currency might have a different story, but what do those bills say about our culture, our society, and what we as a people value? Considering what other countries include on their currency—from the natural world to the colors they use—how does our currency represent our country to the people who use it?

If you haven’t spent much time thinking about those things, now is a good chance to start. Or even take it further, and create your own currency.

That’s what Frances Negrón-Muntaner did when she created Valor y Cambio (VyC). An artist and professor of English and comparative literatureat Columbia University, she is also Puerto Rican, inspired by the issue of debt artists often incur as well as the Puerto Rican debt crisis. Of course, Puerto Rico uses U.S. dollars. But Negrón-Muntaner started asking questions about debt, value, currency, art, and justice for the Puerto Rican diaspora.

She wanted to start a conversation about value and to promote the notion of community currency and practice of the solidarity economy.

So began a three-year process, the first two years spent on understanding the unpayable debtPuerto Rico had incurred. From there, she and her team studied community currencies around the world, especially colonized islands, including New Zealand, Australia, and the other islands of the Caribbean. Much of their currency was colorful, with many references to the natural environment. “They were inspiring to us, because the natural environment is so central to everyday life,” she says. Currency made byMāori artists, and other artists, was especially inspiring. “What kind of stories, and what kind of values does currency carry?” she asks.

“What we found is American currency is one of the least imaginative, not just in the design, but in the figures it uses to tell the story of the American people. In Mexico, it features artists. In Ireland, it features writers. You have a recognition of story as value.”

Negrón-Muntaner and her team, including visual artist Sarabel Santos Negrón, spent time on the currency’s design, determining what stories to tell, what the denominations would be, etc. Every component was thought out extensively, from the colors to the details, and Negrón-Muntaner and her team surveyed Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and in New York City to learn what figures embodied the values they were seeking to uplift: justice, equity, creativity and solidarity.

Every person on the bills, including poet Julia de Burgos and baseball player Roberto Clemente, embodies those values. “We have women, men, activists, poets, athletes, youth leaders, and doctors. I think we cast a broader net of what we consider valuable,” says Negrón-Muntaner.

And then there is how you first obtain the bills: You go to an ATM machine—an actual ATM repurposed for this project—and you are asked a series of four questions about your values and your community. You answer the four questions, and out pop the bills, just as any other ATM would distribute currency. The machine records you answering the questions, and becomes part of the research Negrón-Muntaner is conducting.

“The first exchange is the story of what you value in exchange for the bill,” says Negrón-Muntaner. “Then there is the QR code on each bill [leading to more information about the currency], so you understand why it’s valuable.”

What the currency shows is the values of the Puerto Rican community.

Like many community currencies, the bills started at farmer’s markets, in this case on the island of Puerto Rico. Today, the machine lives on the Lower East Side of New York City, and its bills are accepted by local small businesses both in Puerto Rico and throughout New York City. Later this fall, the ATM will move up to East Harlem, to the neighborhood affectionately called El Barrio by the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other Latin Americans who live there.

One of the challenges the currency is facing is that, while it is usable for necessities like food, on an island where nearly 50 percent of the population is living below the poverty line and Negrón-Muntaner says people waited in line for hours to obtain the currency, they don’t want to spend it: “It’s so beautiful, they want to keep it as art.”

Or, she says, because they deeply and profoundly identify with the story portrayed on the bills.

People, she says, want to see Roberto Clemente, Ramón Emeterio Betances, Julia de Burgos, or the Cordero siblingson their currency, and many deeply identify with their stories—these people have stories Puerto Ricans are proud of, and emulate some of the best of Puerto Rican heritage.

They are also the stories of migration and trauma. The people of the island and their loved ones on the mainland are still reeling from Hurricane Maria, the austerity crisis, and the mass migration that occurred as a result of the other crises. Half a million Puerto Ricans have left Puerto Rico as a result, Negrón-Muntaner explains.

“There is trauma in the diaspora,” says Negrón-Muntaner. “A number of our bills are for people who migrated. They were exiled. Every single bill tells the story of the displacement of our diaspora.”

The idea of a different community currency is one way to address the trauma and bring life and pride to the people. And the people find value in that.

Others, she says, wanted to keep the currency as hope for the future, and as part of a Puerto Rico that is non-colonial and equitable. “They found what the bill represented more valuable than food.”

The people who happily spend the currency, she says, are very young people, children between the ages of 7 and 12, who love the currency and bring their family to the machine to get more. Negrón-Muntaner says that one child told her he loved the currency “because nobody gives kids money.”

Children are denied political and economic agency, she explains. And this currency, as one young person told her, was earned when they shared their values, “so we can use it any way we like.”

Negrón-Muntaner says she asked one child about the difference between this currency and U.S. currency, to which the child replied, “there’s a bunch of white men on U.S. currency.”

“He’s nine, and already he could see the values of U.S. currency are a certain kind.”

Negrón-Muntaner also says the project has highlighted the difference in understanding of community currency and solidarity economy between those in New York City and those in Puerto Rico, and the difference between men and women.

“What took me a minute to explain in Puerto Rico took me 20 to explain in NYC,” she says. “There was a gender issue too. It took much less time to explain solidarity economy to women than men.”

Women, she explains, understand solidarity economy because that’s the way women get many things accomplished, particularly in questions of care—for the elderly, care for children, care for their families and communities, especially when resources are scarce.

All of these issues aside, the root of this project, says Negrón-Muntaner, is fundamentally joy—a realization she arrived at later. “I didn’t expect it. But I felt joyful working on this. It allowed the imagining and practice of new possibilities, new forms of relating to each other. It created a memory of the future, that this can be the future. We’re going to practice it now and in de-colonial joy: The moment where you glimpse at a different possibility or set of possibilities.”

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20 comments

  1. The Rev Kev

    I suppose that you can say that with money, it is a bit like the elephant and the blind men. It can be a medium of exchange, a store of value, etc. but I do believe that the design of currency is important to a lot of people and yet is another part of the elephant. People like beauty in their lives, even if it’s only the money that they use every day. As another example, building design has become functional and brutalism and is all the vogue. But people have to live in cities with these building and we know in our heart that they are ugly and you cannot take pride in living in an ugly place. So, getting back to money, here is US currency-

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_dollar#Banknotes

    Sorry, but it is bland, boring and has no imagination. I understand that they are all the same size as well. OK, so here is a page talking about Australian currency. The designs featured here are being slowly superseded by newer designs right now-

    https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2016/05/the-faces-on-australias-bank-notes/

    These notes are made of polymer and are of different sizes. And this is just an example of one country. Using these same examples, how about we re-imagine US currency. Think of the background with scenery like American mesas, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon. Have it feature American animals such as wolves, eagles, beavers, bears, moose, etc. Instead of Presidents, have people like Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, etc. You get the idea. Now would you feel different using money like that every day?

    Reply
    1. Ian Perkins

      In the current climate, were the US currency to be re-imagined, it would probably feature cruise missiles and a border wall if not a certain president.

      Reply
  2. rrennel

    As a former (now reformed) banker, I don’t get it. Sorry, but are community currencies like ‘helicopter money’? Can anyone and everyone able to answer the questions withdraw the currency? Is each withdrawal limited to a fixed amount? I do admit that I like the idea and am tempted to search for the ATM in lower Manhattan and withdraw some bills to keep them for their beauty and as an expression of hope for the future. However, I don’t see how such a transaction would be a proper exchange of value? Wouldn’t it be like the banker robbing the community?

    Reply
    1. John Zelnicker

      @rrennel
      August 17, 2019 at 8:25 am
      ——-

      I’ll try to answer your questions.

      There was an economist, whose name I can’t recall (and I’m too lazy to look up), who said that anyone can create a currency, the problem is getting it accepted.

      Yes, in a way it is helicpter money. That’s not necessarily a bad thing depending on the situation. Helicopter money is a form of fiscal stimulus. In the appropriate situation, it can facilitate increased spending without contributing to inflation, which has a multiplier effect. Since the Valor y Cambio (Valor) is a closed system (it has no direct interface with the USD system) it can’t affect inflation in the wider economy.

      I’m not sure what mechanism will maintain price stability in Valor itself, but I suspect it will be a combination of “the Invisible Hand” and the solidarity of the community. Collectors like you will also be helpful by removing currency from circulation, thus requiring more notes to be issued.

      How an initial exchange rate was determined, I have no idea. I would expect those details to be in the original studies.

      I did not read the original studies, etc., so I’m not sure of the details of withdrawal limits, etc.

      As to whether or not it is a proper exchange of value, I would say that the participants believe that it is, so the acceptance problem is solved.

      There is an important factors in the success of Valor that the post’s author didn’t emphasize enough. The high level of pre-existing solidarity between the islanders and the diaspora of the Puerto Rican community is, IMNSHO, a critical support, even if some folks took longer to see the light.

      It also works because the participation level in the Puerto Rican busines community is high enough that business owners are confident that they can use Valor for their business needs. Or, perhaps, recycle their profits into the island/diaspora community needs.

      I don’t understand your last question. Who is the banker and what are they robbing?

      Reply
      1. UserFriendly

        There was an economist, whose name I can’t recall (and I’m too lazy to look up), who said that anyone can create a currency, the problem is getting it accepted.

        Minsky

        Reply
    2. Stephen V.

      I agree that the atm w/drawal is not an exchange of value. But your treating the local currency as a collectible is your recognition of its intrinsic value. Which is an uneasy fit with how we image economic activity–things which are not commodities I think share this trait: human organs, and more controversially land and labor.
      Perhaps after Keynes we could say money can be used for goods and services or invested in entrepreneurial activity but (beyond Keynes ) eventually be allowed to die in gifts to eg. Arts Science Medicine Education- instead of a blown up property market. Perhaps gold was a “barbarous relic” per Keynes because it expressed our lack of trust in each other? Is this not the only real.backing for money?

      Reply
  3. lyman alpha blob

    Nice article. I like the notion that currency conveys a society’s values. Currency should be beautiful and not just utilitarian like the extremely bland dead presidents the US insists on using. Note to Treasury – bloating their domes several years back really didn’t jazz things up all that much.

    My recent favorite are Bermudan bills and like some of the people mentioned in the article, I had a hard time spending them and found myself hitting an ATM just so I could get some to take home with me when vacation was over.

    Reply
  4. Susan the other`

    This is encouraging. Very. I think Negron-Muntaner is really onto something profound. For starters, “Valor y Cambio” is absolutely fundamental. (If I’m getting the point it basically means “Values and Exchange”). It’s delightful that the art is inspiring and inclusive and values beauty itself which is, like porn, is hard to define but you know it when you see it. I’d point out that her epiphany about “de-colonial joy” at the possibilities this community currency promises has gotta be the same joy certain ancient white guys felt by the liberation of the enlightenment and their new land of opportunity. I’m thinking it’s human nature at its best. Nothing lasts forever, in terms of political significance – it fades; erodes; becomes corrupt. That seems to be a natural process too. But Valor y Cambio is like a revelation of what currency really is. And just to define it by its opposite – it is the exact opposite of crypto currency. How lovely.

    Reply
  5. JPerry

    Its always nice to hear about any country or community having some success with a new currency and its social value, but at this point should we be surprised. All currencies whether fiat, crypto, or digital are simply driven by social network dynamics.
    The US dollar is backed by 300+ million citizenry, the populations of various dollarized countries, and is the world’s reserve currency. There is a large vested interest for keeping its bloat afloat. Bitcoin has its following among gold enthusiasts looking for something more fungible, those seeking protections from central banking, those wanting to protect their transaction anonymity etc.
    As any currency idea becomes more differentiated and attains its social place / reason for being… it will have success within its sphere as long as its perceived value is stable (not extremely volatile) and not fraudulent.

    Reply
  6. Milton

    Not wanting to sound harsh but, isn’t community currency simply script, in that it can be exchanged but you would be unable to pay taxes with it? I am probably not correct in my assumption, however, as the subject of parallel monies leaves me a bit baffled.

    Reply
    1. Alex morfesis

      It is scrip and as the “wir” in Switzerland is simply a method of exchange to uncork that percentage of untapped and unmonetized potential economic output why does it need to be able to be used to pay taxes ? Can one use Japanese yen to pay the IRS directly ?

      The yen is legal tender in Japan but is only exchangeable into federal reserve bills as most enterprises in the USA would not accept yen (if any).

      Reply
    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I didn’t want to sound negative, but this sort of thing is more art project than economic project. Not that art and evocation of community values don’t have merit, but this is indeed scrip, and it won’t go far as money.

      Reply
      1. John

        Local currencies though can be a great way to encourage spending locally and support local businesses, as they ensure that the money stays in the community.

        Reply
  7. Expat2uruguay

    Such a lovely story! Thanks for posting. It’s like the posting version of an antidote. In Uruguay the currency has poets, writers philosophers and doctors. The same thing with the street names, of which there are many more.
    My biggest beef about US currency is the denominations. I think it’s really stupid to continue to mint pennies, and the fact that the $100 bill is the largest bill makes purchasing a car off Craigslist really difficult. So it’s really not a good example of utilitarian currency, even though it’s terribly boring. Until reading this article I didn’t realize it was also racist, patriarchal, and classist.

    Reply
    1. JPerry

      Countries have been removing their high value currency / banknotes from circulation to help combat money laundering and as an additional currency exchange control.

      Reply
      1. John

        Unless you’re the EU and you’re desperate to make your currency rival the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency–the €500 note is absurdly impractical, but getting drug dealers and money launderers to use euros is a step in that direction.

        [Disclaimer: the bit about the €500 note is just my own theory and could be completely BS.]

        Reply
  8. John Beech

    Nothing will change in PR. Not unless there’s a grand jury empaneled and given sufficient resources to follow the money. Encourage it – with all the powers of the state – to root around the deals and bank accounts for everybody involved. Yes, go back decades to follow the trail of siphoned money. Then mete out a just punishment that’s simple enough for all to understand. Put another way, this as a condition of hitting the reset button on their debt.

    Reply
  9. Christopher Herbert

    Nice article, but it’s not about currency. It’s more about a local project where the scrip is accepted for payment, but at some point the seller needs to exchange the scrip for the domestic currency of record. There is a big wide economic world out there, and it is quite efficient already. It just gets abused by political power, as do all big profitable things get abused.

    Reply

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