May Day 2018 was one for Puerto Rican history books, again. As last year, thousands gathered in San Juan’s “Golden Mile” financial district to protest austerity measures ordered by the congressionally imposed, unelected fiscal control board and implemented by a puppet government. And, as in 2017, all hell broke loose when a militarized police force attacked and pursued protesters for two miles with tear gas, pepper spray, batons, and rubber bullets.
Such a crackdown in the financial district is no longer a rare sight. This two-block area in San Juan is home to UBS, Banco Popular, Banco Santander, and other financial institutions, as well as large law firms that profited from Puerto Rico’s crisis, whether by speculating with retirement funds, abusing debtors, intervening in a highly questionable bond issuance, or promoting anti-worker legislation that benefited “job-creators.” So, when people, undaunted by last year’s tear gas, came back to the same spot, local and federal authorities were not amused. The fact that thousands are putting some of the blame on banks and the board is a great breakthrough.
Things were changing even before two intense back-to-back hurricanes struck the island and both the federal and local governments failed miserably to address the people’s needs. The natural phenomena only further accelerated the human disaster of centuries of colonialism, neoliberal policies, and widespread corruption. After a decade of recession, austerity measures, including a sales tax, budget cuts, the biggest bond issuance in history, massive public employee layoffs, tax exemptions for foreign millionaires and multinational companies, and privatization masked as public-private partnerships have brought Puerto Rico to its knees.
In 2016, the Puerto Rican government lost access to the markets and could no longer supplement insufficient income with loans. In response to the (creditors’) emergency, the U.S. Congress approved the PROMESA bill. There was no “bailout.” Instead, the bipartisan legislation granted power over any decision related to public spending and economic policies to the so-called Fiscal Oversight Board. In exchange, supporters explained, the bill provided for a legal mechanism to manage creditor claims that would temporarily protect the government, similar to a stay in a bankruptcy procedure. During the debate around the bill, many Puerto Ricans learned that our island’s destiny is actually in the hands of the Congressional Natural Resources Committee, right there next to national parks and mining ventures.
The “reforms” ordered by the board eliminate protection against unfair dismissals and further reduce private-sector workers’ sick days. How this will help the economy is unclear. A paltry raise of $1 per hour would not even apply to workers under 25.
On the other hand, mismanagement of the public Electric Power Authority has led to repeated calls for its privatization, which have increased after the almost complete destruction inflicted by Hurricane Maria. Still, two examples of privatization give reason for caution: First, there’s the telephone company, owned today by the hated Claro, and then we have the tolls managed by Autoexpreso and its rage-inducing and malfunctioning system of automatic fines for passing through with insufficient funds on the account.
Every day more Puerto Ricans are opting for resistance. Those in power are striking back.
Starting last year, local and federal authorities began a campaign against activists, even describing some as criminal organizations or terrorists. Some of those arrested by local police in protests are accused of felonies, even though the alleged crime barely amounts to a misdemeanor. Others are released without charges but told they are under investigation. Facebook posts and videos are used as evidence, and activists are threatened with prosecution for speech critical of the board, the government, or the police. Even the FBI intervened recently when agents confiscated the mobile phone of activist Scott Barbés.
Retaliation seems to be fueling more support for resistance. Maybe too many feel that they have nothing to lose. Discontent is growing in Puerto Rico, and that is our best bet for redemption and reconstruction. ϖ