18 November, 2009 — North American Congress on Latin America
The unsuspecting governor, smack in the middle of an important press conference, missed being hit by a projectile by mere inches. The projectile? Not a bullet, but an egg. An outraged citizen calling himself ‘the Common Guy’ (el tipo común) interrupted the press conference by screaming in outrage at Puerto Rico’s governor, Luis Fortuño, and throwing a slider that landed on a sign highlighting a new development project the governor was announcing. As officers locked the man in a bear hug and carted him off, and as the press swarmed this Common Guy, it became clear that his public display of resistance was not only transcendental for its raw expression of pain and anger, but was also symbolic and representative of everyone’s frustration and open outrage at the turn of events on the island.
Puerto Rico is witnessing the kind of social, economic, and political upheaval not seen in decades. Declaring a fiscal emergency, the pro-statehood Fortuño administration recently passed a Fiscal Emergency Law, which, among other measures, implemented the layoff of over 20,000 government workers—nearly 10% of the total. In addition to huge cuts in budgets and services, the layoffs caused immediate shock and outrage due to its massive breadth and potential effects. Government officials contend that they inherited a bankrupt government from previous administrations along with a huge debt load. They are scrambling to prevent their credit ratings to be classified in the lowest of categories—the junk rating—and contend that the measures were necessary.
With an unemployment rate of around 16%, it is obvious that Puerto Rico confronts a serious economic crisis. According to U.S. Census Bureau 2008 figures, the island’s median household income stands at $18,610 (compared with $52,175 in the United States) and median family income stands at $21,639 ($63,211 in the U.S.). Per capita income is $10,064 ($27,466 in the U.S.), and 41.4% of families and 45.3% of individuals fall below the federal poverty level. In 2007, over 50% of families on the island received some form of public assistance. The figures alone provide a snapshot of the depth of the economic crisis. Although solutions are not lacking—several leading politicians and economists continue to offer alternative fiscal policies—citizens continue to express concern over their economic situation.
Coupled with a soaring crime rate—more than 750 murders this year alone—alarming suicide rates, increasing acts of domestic violence, and worrisome mental health needs on the island, emotions have reached a boiling point. Ordinary citizens have begun to express the belief that their government cannot control the social crisis.
Incidents of police abuse, including a recent incident in which university students were indiscriminately attacked with batons and tear gas, are being denounced at an increasing rate across the island. Squatter communities (also known as developers of rescued lands) have recently been targeted as lawbreakers by the conservative administration, and families without clear title to their properties are being forcibly evicted from their homes.
Part of the government’s fiscal emergency response has been an attempt to reverse the gains previously won by collective bargaining agreements, drawing a sharp outcry from the union sector. Opposition political parties have called for a larger burden to be borne by the rich and by large corporations, only to be rebuked by the administration, which has gone ahead with significant increases in basic services. The administration, whose governor identifies himself as a U.S. Republican, also censured several books by renowned authors for use in the island’s schools—including Antología personal by José Luís González, El entierro de Cortijo by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, and Aura by Carlos Fuentes – a deed met with fierce opposition. A further alarming development was the governor’s signing of an executive order authorizing the police superintendent to activate the National Guard to quell public disturbances and civil unrest—an act undertaken immediately before the announcement of the layoffs.
Activists from across the political spectrum joined forces to confront the fiscal emergency law and called for a national strike that was held this past October 15. The coalition, known as All Puerto Rico For Puerto Rico (TPRPR), is made up of political organizations, student groups, and civic and religious organizations, including churches. Among its more publicly recognizable activists are priests and labor leaders. Unions such as the Electrical Workers Union (UTIER) and the labor coalition FASYL (Front for Solidarity and Struggle) are also heavily involved.
Reverend Juan Vera, of the TPRPR Coalition, is seen by most as one of the main organizers of the coalition. He declared, during one of the massive demonstrations linked to the national strike, that ‘the streets will be our battleground. We declare that there will only be tranquility when our governors respect the will of the people. Today we begin a new page in the history of Puerto Rico.’
The demonstrations on October 15th, which garnered approximately 200,000 people, were centered in the San Juan area, and focused principally on the largest avenues in the area known as the Ponce de Leon. Schools in the area were closed, government offices were at a standstill, and public transportation was halted. Remarkably, the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean, Plaza Las Americas, closed for the day, only the second time in its history, leading some to claim that the national strike had the desired effect of crippling business for the day. Others hoped publicly that the government would change course once confronted with the growing demands for alternative solutions.
Special police intelligence units were deployed, and Police Superintendent José Figueroa Sancha confirmed that activists were recorded for ‘intelligence purposes,’ drawing an outcry from rights activists. Figueroa Sancha, previously second-in-command of Puerto Rico’s FBI office, has been implicated in the agency’s targeted assassination of revolutionary leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios in 2005. Ojeda Rios was the de facto leader of Los Macheteros, an anti-colonial guerrilla force advocating Puerto Rico’s political independence. He had been wanted by the FBI for 15 years, having gone underground in 1990 after the infamous $7 million Wells Fargo heist by his organization in 1983.
Los Macheteros have re-appeared during the current unrest, issuing a statement on September 23 calling for struggle and for solidarity with the affected working class, warning that the government’s fiscal measures were designed to satisfy the needs of corporations and to further the statehood goals of the governor. The pro-independence guerrillas called for ‘firm, effective, and coordinated actions’ designed ‘to evolve into revolutionary action’ in order to obtain necessary democratic, labor, and political rights. Calling for all pro-independence forces to unite, the organization reiterated its position and intent to utilize armed struggle as simply one of the methods of struggle alongside the Puerto Rican working class.
At one point during the October 15 protests in San Juan, several hundred students spontaneously conducted an act of disobedience, stealing the media limelight. Ordered by the police to disperse, the students suddenly decided to resist the order and promptly sat down in the middle of ‘Las Americas’ Expressway, one of the largest highways in the country. Blocking traffic for five hours, the students chose to display their militancy and strength by sending a message in action to the current administration. The students haggled with the authorities for hours, insisting that the police leave the area first, while the police ordered the students’ dispersal as a condition. The tension was finally broken when nationalist icon Rafael Cancel Miranda arrived to speak with the students, and officers themselves began to disperse.
Cancel Miranda was one of four Puerto Ricans who opened fire in the U.S. Congress in 1954 in a dramatic demand for the island’s independence, serving 25 years in federal prison until President Carter’s clemency in 1979. The FUPI (Pro-Independence University Federation) released a statement after the demonstrations praising the militancy of the students and the presence of Cancel Miranda. The statement highlighted the fact that the students present ‘recognized him and listened to him, because Rafael Cancel Miranda has the moral stature necessary to be heard. It is indicative of the students’ recognition of our people’s true leaders, who with their lives have demonstrated commitment’ and acted honorably.
Days after the National Strike, members of the Hostosian National Independence Movement (MINH) surprised the governor as he arrived at a political party meeting in the town of Toa Baja. Pro-independence activists, labor leaders, and ordinary citizens who had been laid off via the Fiscal Emergency Law all participated in the MINH demonstration. In the days and weeks following those actions, the governor and his entourage have been met with consistent and repeated demonstrations, protests, and acts of civil disobedience. These acts are conducted by different organizations, with different interests, and different constituencies, but have all been coordinated by the coalition and brought together by labor leaders. They all continue to demand the cancellation of the layoffs and of the Fiscal Emergency Law. Pro-independence student activists have indicated that they will now begin a campaign to demand ‘more,’ an ominous though unclear warning. In recent days, union leaders have led visits and sit-ins at several offices of elected officials in order to pressure for changes to the Fiscal Emergency Law and continue to confront the governor at every turn.
In the days after the demonstrations, the governor declared that he would not reverse the layoffs and would not repeal any of the provisions of the Fiscal Emergency Law. In response, student organizations and labor leaders expressed their intention to move forward with a general strike, one that would be held indefinitely, designed to bring the country to a standstill, with the political purpose of forcing the administration to roll back some of the harsher measures contained in the Fiscal Emergency Law.
Meanwhile, Fortuño continues to misstep and provoke the growing activist movement. During the last days of October, he cancelled the Natural Reserve designation of hundreds of acres of land that were to be protected from contamination and development. The removal of protection was opposed by environmentalists, who saw it as a capitulation to development interests. The explosion of unrest on the island will likely deepen as ordinary citizens identify and oppose the privatization efforts of the administration.
The Common Guy and his egg did not constitute the only explosion on the island. On October 21, an explosion occurred in the Gulf gasoline refinery owned by Caribbean Petroleum Corporation (CAPECO) in the town of Bayamon, drawing a frenzy of media coverage and frantic conjecture by officials in the Fortuño administration about whether it was an act of sabotage. The fire burned for three days, spewing thick black toxic smoke that, luckily, was mostly blown out to sea by wind gusts. The explosion was so severe that it marked 2.8 on the Richter scale, blowing out windows in local homes and business, and seriously damaging several homes in the area. Residents pointed out that at midnight the explosion lit up the sky as if it were noon, and were amazed, frightened, and traumatized by the severity of the blast.
Those who opposed a hated development project in the town of Peñuelas likely feel vindicated. The ‘Gasoducto,’ recently abandoned, was a development project designed to transport natural gas throughout the southernmost towns of the island, but met with unusually fierce community opposition, most especially in the towns of Ponce and Peñuelas. Anti-gasoducto arguments were based on the fact that the gas line was to come dangerously close to residential areas, and activists called attention to serious accidental blasts in other countries where gas lines are maintained.
The CAPECO blast was a haunting reminder that overdevelopment coupled with a lack of oversight and regulation is a serious threat to civilian safety in residential areas. But it gave the administration an opportunity to attempt to link the blast to the growing protest movement. In spite of having immediate confirmation from CAPECO employees who reported seeing dangerous flammable vapors being emitted from the oil and gasoline transfer stations, and who ran from the site in anticipation of the blast—and luckily were not hurt because they fled in vehicles and not on foot—the administration, along with FBI officials, continued for days to report that they could not rule out ‘terrorism’ and ‘sabotage’ as a possible cause of the blast. Some saw this as a feeble attempt to weaken the protest movement by attempting to scare more moderate elements of the organizations involved and so prevent further unrest. Within days, firefighters were able to contain the blaze and extinguish it, and the FBI confirmed no evidence of sabotage was found, instead finding a history of neglect and corruption.
What they cannot contain, however, is the true explosion being witnessed on the island. The true explosion is not the pyrotechnical type. It is the explosion of dissent, of organization, and of resistance on the part of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens who, like the Common Guy, are tired of coming in second place to big business and global capital. Working class families have been shocked into action by the neoliberal policies of the Fortuño administration, and have taken to public demonstrations and civil disobedience to attempt to roll back some of its more painful policies. While corporations continue to repatriate billions of dollars to their U.S. offices, and while elected officials continue to pay six figures to consultants and authorize salary increases for themselves, the working class in Puerto Rico has exploded in outrage and action. While it may not result in immediate fundamental political change, it certainly marks an exciting and historical moment in the history of the United States’ oldest colony.
Juan A. Ocasio Rivera is a social worker, professor, and freelance writer based in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. He has been a contributor to online publications such as CounterPunch and Upside Down World, and has collaborated with various progressive organizations, including the September23.Org project and La Nueva Escuela.
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