International, Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans show us how to win. Strikes and protests force out Roselló

The Puerto Rican Center for Investigative Journalism (CPIPR) reported 500,000 demonstrators on the streets July 22 in a country of about 3 million. Photo by Alonso Sambolín

No nos vamos a cansar, te vamos a sacar” (We will not tire, we will remove you) shouted demonstrators in Puerto Rico. And they were right.  The detested Governor Ricardo Rosselló has announced he will resign as of August 2nd. Whether that will satisfy the demands of the protesters is yet to be seen. 

“The only good thing you did was to unite the people,” read one sign on the demonstration. The demonstrations on the 17th were the biggest in Puerto Rican history [see the guest analysis by José Hernandez] up to that point, but the demonstrations on the 22nd were even larger [see the eyewitness report bellow by Pabsi Livman]. Numbers were swollen by a general strike called by major unions. After unions called the strike, even small shops closed their doors for the day.

The meteoric rise of the #RickyRenuncia movement and the stunning resignation of the governor only 14 days into the movement is a loud and thunderous reminder of the power workers and ordinary people have to take charge of their destinies.

Colonialism

After the Spanish American War, the US annexed Puerto Rico and it became a colony after 1917. The Jones Act, introduced in 1920, requires all goods shipped to the island come on U.S.-flagged ships departing from a U.S. port. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but have not had full citizen rights. Residents of Puerto Rican can’t vote in federal elections, and the U.S. government can overrule any decision voted in locally by the governor and the assembly.

Since 2016 Puerto Rico has been ruled by a seven-member unelected Fiscal Control Board created by the U.S. Congress. Members of the Board (called the Junta in PR) represent the banking sector, hedge funds, and the international bourgeoisie in general.  They have imposed a program of austerity that has cut wages, raided pensions and dismantled services, spreading poverty and making the country more vulnerable to Hurricane Maria. Response to the hurricane was famously mismanaged by the governor, by FEMA and underfunded by the racist policies of Donald Trump. Afterwards, US vulture capitalist firms swept in to make another killing off the country’s debt.

The cruelty of this policy of diverting money away from social spending and towards Wall Street and international Capital was surely the background of the recent movement that climaxed with a general strike called by unions on Monday. Major players in this strike were two important unions with a long history of fightbacks: the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (the teachers union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers), and the Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego (UTIER, the electrical workers’ union).  As of the writing of this article, the UTIER has vowed to continue protests against all corrupt players, even vowing to take on the “junta” itself.  In the wake of this victory, workers have become confident in their own power and the next logical target is the Junta.

Under the Junta’s watch, a series of privatizations of schools and harsh cuts in wages and pensions occurred.  There were simultaneous attacks on labor unions, to try and dissolve them.   The Junta implemented a series of harsh cuts in wages and pensions. The former secretary of Education Julia Keheler, whose annual salary was $250,000 was arrested on charges of corruption just before the protests erupted. Her job was to oversee the closing of 442 public schools in Puerto Rico.  This meant that in post-Hurricane Maria, 75,000 school children were forced to walk miles–through dangerous conditions of crumbling roads and infrastructure– to get to school in overcrowded facilities while their old schools sat empty. 5,000 untenured teachers were also fired. This was all too typical of the Junta’s makeup and its working. 

Hurricane

In September 2017, after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico causing unimaginable suffering and enormous structural damage, it became clear that the lack of sufficient response by FEMA, the Trump administration and the governor were the main cause of deaths.  People in need of life-saving medication went without it.  There was no access to drinking water and food as both food and water that was sent sat in empty fields or in containers rotting away. The harsh austerity cuts since 2016 but also the disadvantage of the Puerto Rican economy due to the crippling effects of the Jones Act of 1920 and the Colonial Status left Puerto Ricans vulnerable. 

The 1998 privatization of the national telephone company sparked a long all-out strike by Puerto Rico’s two telephone unions, and they were joined for a general strike and shutdown called the “Peoples’ Strike,” which showed the potential power of Puerto Rican’s workers. Unfortunately, that strike did not reverse the privatization, as workers were called back to work amidst cries of a “sell out.”

This was all crucial background to the recent scandals that brought half a million into the streets, brought out the unions, and brought down the Governor. Now the new general strike, the even larger and broader demonstrations, and the victory against Rosselló has given new confidence to unionized workers, and other working class Puerto Ricans. It will be difficult to corral this confidence and anger back to politics as usual.

When the demonstrations began, Rosselló (who was elected with just over 40% of the vote) stonewalled, claiming it was a question of “democracy” not to give in, and set the police on the demonstrators.  Then on Sunday said he would not seek re-election next year and would step down as head of the New Progressive Party but the concessions still failed to appease demonstrators. Then late on Wednesday Rosselló announced he would resign effective August 2nd. The protests erupted in celebration, chanting “Ricky, te botamos!” (Ricky, we kicked you out).  But this is not the end.

#WandaRenuncia

Rosselló also announced his loyal third in line, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez would succeed him. (His second in line has already resigned and been indicted for corruption). Puerto Rican women’s groups have been very critical of Vázquez for not speaking out about gender violence, even while she was in the Office of Women’s Affairs and during the sit-in outside Rosselló’s office on the issue. Saadi Rosado of the Feminist Collective said “She failed to address gender violence issues and was another piece of government bureaucracy.” During her years as Secretary of Justice Vázquez faced ethical complaints by the Independent Special Prosecutor, and was seen as dragging her feet on investigating corruption allegations in her own party. The hashtag #WandaRenuncia started trending immediately after Rossellós address ended.  

Another puppet to the same masters will not answer the people’s anger. Throughout the modern period, Puerto Rico’s neoliberal governments — whether Ricky Rosselló’s  PPD (Popular Democratic Party, linked to the Democratic Party in the U.S.), or the PNP (New Progressive Party, connected to the Republicans)—all reacted to the crisis with more  austerity.

In the demonstrations a large banner from the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico read “Ricky renuncia y llévate la Junta” (Ricky resign and take the Junta with you) and this chant was taken up repeatedly by the crowds. 

If the people in the streets can unite with the militancy of the Puerto Rican university occupations, the power of the school strikes in 2018 and the People’s Strike of 1998, the long-time movement for Puerto Rican independence and recent movement against gender violence, we will see a force that could sweep away not just one governor, but the Junta — and take on the decades of colonial rule and neoliberal capitalism it represents.

Iannis Delatolas and Eric Fred

Organized drivers brought the country’s major highway to a halt with caravans of trucks, small and huge, and tractors. Photo by Alonso Sambolín

Eyewitness report from the general strike in Puerto Rico

By Pabsi Livmar. Participants in the demonstrations and the general strike of July 22nd discuss why they took to the streets.

By now, the whole world has seen the pictures from the demonstrations that have been going on for more than a week in Puerto Rico. It’s clear at last and after long decades of relative quiet, that the country has risen up against corruption and austerity. We’ve walked for miles under the scorching heat of the sun and in the humid tropical air. Some of us have fainted, many have been arrested. And then, in a vain attempt to silence us and invalidate our demands, the police hit us with their batons, spray us with pepper spray and lob tear gas at us.

#RickyRenuncia, a social media movement, has become our daily bread. At eight in the evening, every single day, the banging of pots and pans resounds as strongly as the chant of the coquí. This is our way of demonstrating peacefully from our homes. In a nutshell, the whole country is paralyzed. We wait to hear confirmation of the rumors swirling about. We rely on social media and online newspapers, on news reports from independent journalists who are doing a great job covering this historical and unprecedented event. Public figures like Rey Charlie, Bad Bunny, Residente (René Pérez), and the #CacerolaGirl have become national heroes of the moment. The memes, of course, spare us a mental health crisis as we hear the news that breaks practically every fifteen minutes: more cases of corruption probe, resignations in the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party), politicians, artists and powerful people demanding Governor Rossello’s resignation or his impeachment.

Without a doubt, life for Puerto Ricans has been very hard, which helps to explain these collective feelings of anxiety and disappointment. But now, we are witnessing an awakening that is leaving a profound mark on us, giving us strength and uniting us more than ever before.

These demonstrations started on July 13 and have been taking place day and night. People who have never marched before are now marching: not only the young fighting for a better future, but people from the countryside and from tiny villages, residents of the towns and the projects, teachers and children, parents and grandparents, including those who had voted for the very same Rosselló. They come walking, by car or by bus, truck, boat and on horseback.

Here’s why they participated in these protests, taking to the streets to raise their voices. This is what they told us:

Ana Castillo Muñoz

Journalist and writer, 29 years old

I came to the demonstration not only to demand that the governor resigns, but also to represent all the girls and women who could not be here. Besides the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, we want to raise our concern for the schools that were closed down, the health services that stopped being offered, the displacements. The resignation of the governor is not everything.

Diana Bernard

Director of a Puerto Rican Publishing House, 53 years old

I have joined the legitimate demands of the nation in asking for the resignation of the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, who leads an administration tainted by corruption, lacking empathy towards the citizens, and incapable of addressing Puerto Rico’s most pressing needs. Today (July 22), in this demonstration, we also demand from the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate that they meet their responsibilities and impeach the Governor; that they put the people before any other political consideration. And we remind them that we will not lose sight of them. We will be here until our demands are met.

Tere Marichal-Lugo

Storyteller, 63 years old

In the face of the situation that the country is living, nobody can turn a blind eye and wash their hands of it. We have to take it to the street and express our rejection of the colonial government and its long streak of abusive acts. As I am a storyteller, I have to be a part of this tale and tell what they have done to us, and how we have outgrown and resisted these colonial administrations.

Ferdinand Rivera

Logistics Specialist, Federal Government, 34 years old

I’m also marching for those friends and relatives that were forced to leave the island due to the lack of opportunities and with no expectation of progress. I’m marching for the souls that departed after Hurricane María  and who were forgotten by this corrupt regime that we live under. I’m marching for a better Puerto Rico and a better future that we deserve. 

Lcda. Gisela E. Sánchez Alemán

Attorney-at-Law, 27 years old

I demonstrate because I am part of a people that has had it with corruption, apathy and disrespect of those who are meant to lead us. We fight for a better future so that our current official leaders – and those to come – understand that they were elected to work for the best interests of Puerto Rico, not for their own personal interests. I demonstrate and will continue to do so because it is time to let these politicians know that, from now on, they will be held accountable for their actions. 

Ana María Fuster Lavín

Writer and legal and legal proofreader, 51 years old

I have been participating in rallies and marches since the 1980s. I believe in the struggle of the people and free speech. This time, I do it out of indignation and as a militant against the outrageous corruption of the governor’s group of friends; for the way they treated us and made a mockery of us after Hurricane María; for the nearly five thousand dead people that they mocked in their private chats; for the destruction of our public education system and the University of Puerto Rico; for the crass conspiracy against the people, against the members of the Pro-Independence Party, especially for the late [Carlos] Gallissá; for conspiring to manipulate the Judiciary Power and the press; for their homophobia, misogyny and fatphobia, because we women are full of life and a fighting spirit.

Isabel Ortiz López

Student at the University of Puerto Rico, 22 years old

I am protesting because for much too long the Puerto Rican people had given up, believing “that such was life”. Our progress as a nation has stagnated because of our colonial status. But anyone can see now that it has not kept us from creating a strong and unified definition of what it is to be Puerto Rican: that unmistakable pride is what has united us in the Las Américas Highway on July 22, and what will continue to keep together until Puerto Rico becomes the nation that we all hold dear in our hearts. 

Words and interviews: Pabsi Livmar
Images: Alonso Sambolín

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