Jul 22, 2019
In some of the largest protests in Puerto Rico’s history, demonstrators in the thousands faced off with the police on the nights of July 15 and 17. Hit with tear gas and rubber bullets, protestors threw water and beer bottles at the police when ordered to disperse. Gathering outside the governor’s palace in Old San Juan, they demanded that their governor resign. By July 20, hundreds of thousands from across the island of 3.2 million people had joined in.
Many protest signs carry the number 4,645 – the estimated death toll of Hurricane Maria. Fed up with chaos since the hurricane, and weary of a series of scandals and years of austerity, popular anger has risen.
The publication of secret chat messages between Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, and his advisors, unified islanders in outrage. In one horrifying chat message, a request for more money for the morgue – at that point filled with victims of Hurricane Maria – saw the governor suggest feeding the cadavers to the crows! Other chats viciously mocked gay people, women and the poor.
The governor’s arrogance brought many young people into the streets, some for the first time. Said one, “We’re the ones who can’t find work....The truth is that we’ve been kind of trampled, because there is a lack of employment.” Another said, “We’ve had too many humiliations. It’s everything, everything. We saw how they did that in the chat and it was just the last straw.”
According to Oxfam America, 30,000 homes in Puerto Rico still have a blue tarp instead of a roof. Damage estimates from Hurricane Maria totaled 90 billion dollars. The U.S. Congress has sent only 14 billion dollars which is 15 percent of what it would take to rebuild. The people of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens yet are treated as second class citizens!
Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico was in an economic crisis. Early in 2017, students and union workers fought cuts to schools, hospitals and pensions. Puerto Rico is being squeezed because it owes a debt of 73 billion dollars to Wall Street.
How this debt was racked up in Puerto Rico is a lesson in how colonization benefits wealthy corporations. Ever since the 1930s and up until 2006, the U.S. Congress passed laws allowing U.S. corporations to operate virtually tax-free in Puerto Rico. With 45 percent of the population living below the poverty level and next to no corporate taxes paid, of course there was debt!
The governor and local politicians serve Wall Street by enforcing horrific austerity on the population to make the debt payments. The system of oppression that is in place is more deeply rooted than just one governor. Once the governor steps down, behind him stands Wall Street and its enforcer, the U.S. government. It will take a longer, harder fight to change the system. It’s clear that some protestors see this connection. For some, the red, white and blue Puerto Rican flag has been replaced by the symbol of the movement – a black and white protest flag.
The strength of this population that has gone through so much – hurricanes, poverty, oppression – and is fighting, is impressive. Because many Puerto Rican people have moved to the mainland U.S. to find work, what is happening in Puerto Rico has touched off spirited protests in the U.S. cities of Orlando, Miami, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and New York.
The working class is one class. If this fighting spirit gets picked up by working people in the cities where Puerto Rican people now live, it could open up new possibilities.