[News] Explosions of Unrest Mark Puerto Rico's Economic Crisis

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 18 12:44:03 EST 2009

Explosions of Unrest Mark Puerto Rico's Economic Crisis

Written by Juan A. Ocasio Rivera
Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Source: <https://nacla.org/node/6254>NACLA Report on the Americas

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 Governor Luis 
Fortuño and by 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 this 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 - over 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, Governor Luis 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.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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