May Day in the Colonial World

This May Day witnessed massive protests throughout the US colony of Puerto Rico in what has been termed a Paro Nacional, or national work stoppage.  Labor unions, university students and the broad masses organized in five separate marches all converged on the infamous “Milla de Oro” in the Hato Rey neighborhood of San Juan, home to many international banks and financial institutions, to protest the austerity program being rammed through by the current territorial administration in accordance with the dictates of a federally imposed Fiscal Control Board.  Other mass demonstrations took place throughout the island in places like Ponce and Mayagüez.  The protests are taking place in the context of a month-long strike by University of Puerto Rico students that continues to shut down nine of the 11 public campuses on the island as well as a new law that essentially turns the clock back 60 years in terms of labor rights and eliminates collective bargaining agreements.

The pretext for the austerity measures being imposed by the colonial authorities is the $70 billion debt of the central government as well as its various public corporations and other instrumentalities.  Approximately one-third to half of the territory’s outstanding bonds are held by vulture funds that began buying distressed municipal debt in 2013 at steep discount as the island’s credit rating was sinking to junk status.  Many of the same notorious figures from the pillaging of Argentina, Greece and Detroit embarked on the now familiar strategy of acquiring Puerto Rican bonds, often at 30% nominal value, with the intent of subsequently litigating for the payment of full face value.  With the recent expiration of a moratorium on bondholder lawsuits, the options remain between an avalanche of bondholder lawsuits or a Detroit-style, court supervised bankruptcy proceeding as stipulated by Title III of the Obama-era PROMESA Act, the same federal law that imposed the Fiscal Control Board.

Since coming to office in January of this year, the new territorial administration has enacted a series of measures that freeze or reduce wages for public sector employees, set the stage for future layoffs through agency consolidations, reduce pensions by at least 10% and convert defined benefit retirement plans to 401K-style accounts, reduced medical and holiday leave for public workers, drastically reduce employee health coverage and cut the public university budget by approximately one-third.  There is also a plan in motion to close down about 300 public schools.  The territorial administration has rammed through these measures while beefing up its instruments of repression.  In addition to new laws that criminalize protests, the new Governor has selected a former army coronal to head the island’s police force and created a new government agency, akin to the US Department of Homeland Security, charged with coordinating between several federal and local police agencies operating on the island.

Reports estimate that the protests in the capital of San Juan reached more than 50,000 participants.  One group of protesters began arriving at the Governor’s mansion in the Old San Juan area at around 5am where they were dispersed by police with pepper spray.  Another group formed a human chain which they used to shut down the Muñoz Marín International Airport for a good part of the morning.  University students marched along with maintenance workers and professors from the main Río Piedras campus to the Hato Rey financial district.  Unions representing the island’s Electric and Water authorities, municipal bus drivers, central government employees, primary and secondary teachers as well as truckers all organized marches that converged at the Seaborne building in Hato Rey where the Fiscal Control Board maintains an office.

Heavily armed tactical units of the police were deployed along with helicopters to intimidate the protesters at various points along the marches and at the mass rallies.   There were various reports of injuries to protesters resulting from the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on the crowds.  The colonial administration also engaged in the typical attempts to discredit and criminalize the protesters seizing upon minimal property damage done to bank buildings during the day.

According to many labor leaders on the island, the May Day protests represent the beginning of a broader campaign to resist the austerity measures being imposed.  Undoubtedly, the class struggle in Puerto Rico, where about half of the population lives in poverty according to official metrics, labor participation rates are dismally low and there is a currently a mass exodus to the US mainland, has intensified.  Indeed, the very fact that these protests were organized to coincide with International Workers’ Day is indicative of a rising level of class consciousness.  What remains to be seen is what new organizational forms will arise out of the massive popular discontent that is now being expressed.

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Carlos Borrero is a New York-based writer.

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