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Puerto Ricans’ Response to the Economic Crisis Rooted in Misinformation and Frustration

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“La Puerta” in Old San Juan was changed from its original red, white and blue by an artist collective as a sign of protest. Photo by Leonardo Laboy.

Frustrated by the results of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Ramón Emeterio Betances – father of the Puerto Rican Independence movement and an Antillean leader – asked: “What’s wrong with Puerto Ricans that they haven’t rebelled yet?” The question has been frequently evoked with equal frustration and indignation whenever political struggles and protests fail to rally islanders to their cause. Upon returning to the Island this summer, I was impressed by citizens’ complacency despite the proclaimed dissatisfaction with the current administration, the economy and the deteriorating quality of life. Now more than ever – with the signing of the PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act) and the imposition of the Board for Fiscal Oversight (or Junta) – Puerto Ricans, on the island and abroad, have more than enough reason to demand social justice for their country. But, why aren’t more doing so? Puerto Ricans on the whole are deeply concerned for the wellbeing of their people. While small groups have shown their discontent through protests and rallies, apathy seems to still haunts the Island during these trying times. The differences between groups, the disinformation among the populace and the lack of political recourse or social mechanisms available to effect change seems to stymie broader mobilization.

For months, Puerto Ricans debated whether Congress would take up PROMESA, if it would actually pass, and what would that mean for the Island. After local primaries where held in June, I created a Twitter account (@ruisenorcalle) to compile comments made by everyday Puerto Ricans and gage the social temperature. I found that most Puerto Ricans saw the coming of the Junta and PROMESA as a form of accountability: there is hope that federal agents will bring corrupt politicians to justice and halt fraudulent government activities. Local politicians are perceived as “uncontrollable” crooks who answer to no one, and the U.S. presence seen as mandated to rein in these almost despotic politicians. Meanwhile, many of my compatriots believe the Junta will defend Puerto Rico from vulture hedge funds while working to improve the Island’s economy. Admittedly, many of those who spoke about the Junta have not read the bill and do not understand what the board aims to accomplish on the Island. Debates on the Junta take place in the media, but few manage to inform about all of its clauses and to engage in a profound debate about effects and its meaning for US-PR political relations. It didn’t help that the U.S. Congress and key local media outlets failed to provide a Spanish translation, though a translator recently voluntarily made one available. As a result, the aforementioned ground level discourse on the Junta often lacks concrete information. While general discontent with local government, the Commonwealth status, and the present state of the economy run as high as tropical summer heat, social temperatures remain low as the crisis deepens and many Puerto Ricans continue leave.

Puerto Rico’s woes go beyond PROMESA, as the standard of living on the island has been declining and the cost of living increased tremendously. Puerto Ricans are faced with a 11.5 percent sales tax, an 11.7 percent unemployment rate, a 45 percent poverty rate, and a fast shrinking economy and population. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which is responsible for $9 billion of the Island’s $73 billion debt, has announced a likely 20 percent rate increase in order to increase its liquidity. The U.S. Geological survey announced it would no longer monitor Puerto Rico’s water resources. The helicopter ambulance service has been discontinued. A doctor a week leaves the Island, contributing to catastrophic shortages of specialists and medical services. Puerto Ricans are witnessing dizzying changes of historical proportions in all sectors of society.

Along with the passing of PROMESA, the last week of June 2016 marked a turning point for the social and economic situation of the island. The University of Puerto Rico announced a tuition increase of 4 percent for incoming students and a restructuring of its budget, with the majority of funds assigned to pay the credit line and bonuses. Meanwhile, the UPR Board of Trustees faces an investigation because of irregularities in the process of awarding Presidential Scholarships and, on June 7th, dismissed its president, Dr. Uroyoan Noel. Also recently, the Puerto Rican Senate approved a law (Project #1621) which sanctioned beachfront housing at the Parguera Natural Reserve, and reviewed a related law (Project #2853), approved by the House of Representatives, that would privatize coastal areas in Puerto Rico. Lastly, the CDC issued a statement strongly recommending aerial fumigation with Naled to control Zika and urged Governor Alejandro García Padilla to approve this measure. On July 21st, the CDC sent a shipment of the insecticide to the Island without the approval or the knowledge of the Puerto Rican governor. Even after a tumultuous week, there is an astonishing display of apathy and neglect towards the state of the country and the citizenry. This apathy has been created by the unequal relationship between United States and Puerto Rico since 1898, the lasting impacts of 500 years colonialism, and the long history of failed administrations.

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Protesters rally at the Camp Against the Fiscal Board in front of the District Court. Photo by: Alvin R. Cuoto de Jesús

Finally, people have started to organize themselves to form small groups to protest the most recent political events. Spearheading this movement, the Camp Against the Fiscal Board has occupied the entrance of the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico – the seat of the Oversight Board – since June 29th as an act of protest against the passing of PROMESA. The Camp has been gathering the Puerto Rican community to inform about the powers and plans of la Junta and to plan actions against this imposition. On June 25th, the group “Concertación Puertorriqueña Contra la Junta (Puerto Rican Pact Against the Board) celebrated the Assembly of the People where the general public was informed about PROMESA and the Junta, and different sectors of society conveyed how the economic crisis has affected their livelihoods. The United Front Against Aerial Fumigation has been organizing rallies and pickets around San Juan, including at the Governor’s mansion and the Department of Health. Thanks to its efforts, the United Front convinced Governor García Padilla to deny the use Naled as an agent for aerial fumigation. Across the Island, in places like Camuy, Caguas, Mayagüez and Ponce, groups have been protesting the endangerment of their natural reserves, political corruption and negligence, and the decreasing quality of life. In the Mainland, Puerto Rican groups, like the National Puerto Rican Agenda and Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico, have been mobilizing in cities with a large Puerto Rican populations, for example, Camden, Philadelphia, New York and Florida. These and other groups on and off the island are laying important groundwork for future activism. Puerto Ricans here and stateside should not take the crisis lying down.

Even though there is no massive mobilization of people, at an individual level, there is growing worry and anxiety among Puerto Ricans as, week after week, the situation worsens. I talked to a pastor who is worried about the low quality of health services and hospitals, especially for seniors. My classmates and contemporaries are finding less job opportunities after graduating and – with the passing of PROMESA, Puerto Ricans under de age of 25 will be paid $4.25 per hour. My parents and other babyboomers, especially government and public workers, have watched how pension and retirement funds have been slowly drained due to the government’s inability to pay off bondholders and support the ERS. Parents are concerned for the closing of public schools and the rising cost of food. Despite the worsening conditions, there is no massive mobilizations of Puerto Ricans. Worse yet, I have seen and heard everyday Puerto Ricans openly criticize and chastise protesters. Members of the Campground are called “free-loaders” and “troublemakers” throughout the web and by passersby. At a rally in Camuy on the 4th of July, protesters were booed by the crowd present and criticized for being “un-patriotic”. It would seem that everyday Puerto Ricans do not seem affected or motivated enough to collaborate.

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Puerto Ricans in Camuy “bury” the Commonwelth (ELA) political system at a beach on the 4th of July. Photo by author

Even if mass mobilization might still be years away, local, small-scale protests and activism is the first step. Although Puerto Ricans might not be able to determine and combat the larger processes that control their state, they can single out the micro-processes that affect their communities and networks. For example, the ousting of the U.S. Naval Base at Vieques, PR started with a campground formed by residents of the small island and developed into a nation-wide struggle. The Camp Against the Fiscal Board seeks to emulate the Vieques encampment and to inspire others to occupy, peacefully, the places of power. Although this will not count with major backing, small-scale collaborations are the first step in educating communities, aiding them to organize, and to participate politically. Individuals and groups must find their ways to show their discontent and organize against their own predicaments. Protest cannot be limited to just one form of action or a sole manifestation of unrest. Instead, protest is an individual, personal action that unsettles our immediate surrounding and, hopefully, larger social structures.

Most importantly, this struggle cannot be confined to political boundaries since Puerto Rican economic circuits and networks of affection stretch from Levittown, Toa Baja to Levittown, NY. The unequal relationship between the US and PR limits the tools for political action and the space for social mobilization in the Island. Therefore, Islanders must enact ways of protest that fit their political and social context, while Diaspora members can utilize the greater resources of the U.S. Mainland to advocate for the Puerto Rican case. Islanders and Diaspora members must organize at a local level and follow suit by occupying places of power to demand their rights as American citizens.

Mario Mercado Diaz is a graduate student at Rutgers University.

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