“For Many Sectors of Puerto Rico, It Feels Like the Hurricane Happened Yesterday”
Despite being a colony of the United States since 1898 and having a rich history of resistance and struggle, Puerto Rico is often left out of important conversations about anti-colonial and independence struggles. Today, the people of Puerto Rico face a difficult situation generated by US colonial rule, imperialism and climate change. In September, Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm, ravaged the island leaving millions without access to water and electricity and destroying key infrastructure. This coupled with the existing debt problem and harsh US-imposed austerity measures have plunged the island into a precarious state. However, as they have done throughout history, the Boricua people of Puerto Rico continue their resistance and their struggle for dignity and freedom. The Dawn News spoke to Jocelyn Velazquez Rodriguez, spokesperson of Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas, about the current situation in Puerto Rico and the efforts of her organization to struggle against colonialism and imperialism.
What is Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas?
Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas emerged in 2016 when the PROMESA Law (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act), which means promise in Spanish, was passed in Puerto Rico. PROMESA is a law from the United States Congress, where Congress authorizes the creation of a Fiscal Control Board (FCB) imposed by the US government but paid for with funds of the Puerto Rican people. The board is not elected by the people so when PROMESA was passed, and the FCB was set up, various sectors of civil society, pro-independence and socialist comrades from many decades of resistance on the island all came together to begin to design a strategy against the FCB and in favor of independence of Puerto Rico. We called this initiative Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas (No more promises, the promises are over). Its function in the beginning was to stop a conference called for by the most wealthy sectors, the Chamber of Commerce, wherein they wanted to celebrate the naming of the members of the FCB. We decided to stop this activity from happening and we were successful, and as of this date, Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas has been a focal point of resistance and struggle against the FCB that brings together different people from different organizations across the island.
What are the principle problems that the island faces 9 months after Hurricane María?
After Hurricane María, the recuperation efforts have been extremely slow. The US government has been an obstacle to our recuperation completely. For weeks, they blocked the arrival of supplies, they took control of the entire health and security apparatus, they have basically served to slow down the process of recovery, denying to citizens the aid which they rightfully should receive.
Currently, there are thousands and thousands of families that for 9 months have not had access to water or electricity services. We have dozens of houses without roofs, because they do not have the money to rebuild their homes. The biggest worry we have right now is that we are very close to the beginning of hurricane season and the country has still not recovered enough to be able to handle any sort of atmospheric phenomenon even less severe than what we saw last year. There are still people dying because of the lack of electricity and lack of water, and the government continues to hide the real statistics of deaths and it continues to hide the reality that for many sectors of the country it feels like the hurricane happened yesterday. Every day, the recovery process becomes harder.
What is happening with the debt and austerity measures?
A few weeks ago, the FCB along with the Puerto Rican government, passed a new five-year fiscal plan. In this plan, they reduced the pensions of the retirees by 10%. They also tripled the cost of state university tuition and it imposed a labor reform that takes away absolutely all of the rights and guarantees of the workers that we had won after years of struggle. The plan also calls for the sale of one of our principal assets – the Electrical Energy Authority. One of the greatest worries we have now is that not only they will be selling one of the principle dams in the country but also our water, and our access to these water sources. A series of laws are created that go towards flexibilizing and relaxing environmental regulations to promote the industry of carbon-burning, mining, and other extractive activities that take the resources from our island indiscriminately.
We are facing a government that does not want to listen to its people and that does not have interest in resolving this crisis, neither with dialogue nor with legislation. Every day, the indignation and suffering of this country is increasingly suppressed because while on one hand they talk to us about the cuts, but on the other hand, we have public servants that are being paid ridiculous salaries like the Secretary of Education and the Representative to the FCB, even more than some in the United States. So the indignation is growing, because while us the poor are getting cut-backs, the government keeps siphoning money. The corruption cases are growing. This week, a large part of the cabinet of the Governor had to resign because of a scandal linked to the elections and the buying-selling of influence for government positions. So, as the crisis continues to get worse, the government keeps looking away while people continue to suffer.
What was the call for the march on May 1? What did the people’s movements want to highlight on this day?
Last week, on May 1, Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas called on the country to mobilize towards the milla de oro – the golden mile. In Puerto Rico, the golden mile represents the zone where the headquarters of the principal banks of the country are located, as well as those of the insurance agencies. Basically, capital itself is represented in this area of the golden mile.
We wanted to go there for various reasons. The first demand was the repeal of PROMESA and the dissolution of the FCB. The call was also to recognize the imminent necessity of beginning a process towards independence and decolonization of Puerto Rico so that we can have the necessary tools to be able to solve the grave economic problems that the country has. We were also protesting the closure of 188, the cuts to the pensions, and the repeal of all the labor legislation that has been repealed.
We wanted to take over the space of the golden mile because it is there where the sectors of capital, the investors, and the banks that brought the country to its bankruptcy and collapse are located. So we thought it was emblematic to take these streets, also because the headquarters of the FCB is there.
What was the response of the state to the multitude this day?
The mobilizations on May 1 were extremely successful, 6 marches were organised from 6 different points and the idea was that they would culminate together in the golden mile around a stage.
As soon as we began the mobilization, the government began an absurd deployment of the repressive forces of the state. Almost all the protests in their trajectories had different levels of police aggression towards them, because the police would not let all of us to take the routes that we had established for the marches. Once we were near the golden mile and the stage, the Jornada Se Acabaron las Promesas march was stopped by the police, and we entered a negotiation process that took around 2.5 hours. At times, it seemed like they would allow us to advance and continue and actually they did let us advance, but after the 2.5 hour negotiation process, they blocked our path again and decided to end the dialogue and attack the protesters.
They did not only use tactics to disperse the mobilization but after achieving this, a witch hunt began on the streets of San Juan. The police entered the University City and began to enter the houses of the students and take them out of their houses. They began to use tear gas in a community where there are children and old people. They literally bombed the streets with tear gas, and of the around 20 people who were arrested, many were released without charges because there was no justification for their arrest. Many of those arrested were brutally beaten up. They were hospitalized, and there are still people in the hospital as a consequence of the tear gas.
The response of our incompetent government to a brutal crisis is repression and intimidation to impede the exercise of our right to demand an audit of the debt, to demand that the austerity measures are stopped and to demand that we have rights to a decolonization process so that Puerto Ricans can take the decisions about what happens in our land.
What are the next steps for Jornada Se Acabaron las Promesas? How will you continue fighting this model and the program of the Government?
Jornada decided that May 1 would be the beginning of a longer period of protest. After the events that occurred on the golden mile, we returned to the streets on May 2. We were in the Condado zone which is the tourist area and where the many of the most wealthy people on the island live. The purpose of this march was to denounce Laws 20 and 22, which the Government framed to convert Puerto Rico into a fiscal paradise for foreign companies. Our demand was that while the government is forcing our brothers are sisters into exile, they bring dozens of rich investors without levying any type of taxes, and facilitating their stay in the country.
The response of the state to this protest was also heavy police presence and multiple attempts to stop the march. We are continuing with this period of mobilization of struggle. We will be holding forums in the public plazas. We will be going to schools to speak to students, organizing ourselves in the communities, and we will be constantly holding activities of resistance in the street. The objective is to paralyze, so that these sectors are economically affected and they will have to agree to negotiate. We have been very emphatic in that these sectors have their ears in their wallets not in their heads. So the economic impact and damage that we will do are vital to force them to listen and put the necessary pressure on them so that they stop these plans of austerity that seek to bring us misery.
Jornada Se Acabaron las Promesas has been emphatic in that the people have the right to defend themselves in the ways that they think are necessary. We have emphasized that we will not allow ourselves to be intimated by the state even if it costs us our lives. We will go to the end and face any consequences because our children and our country deserve the right to live in a space where there is peace, harmony and where all of us have the same rights and possibilities of success.
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