Puerto Rico: Feminists and union teachers key to uprising

Women were in the forefront calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. The sign at right refers to deaths caused by Hurricane Maria. PHOTO: Gabriella N. Baez / Reuters
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On August 2, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, resigned after two weeks of massive protests. They were sparked by a trove of group text messages by the governor, top aides and political cronies, published by the Puerto Rican Center for Investigative Journalism. The chats were laced with violent, sexist and homophobic/transphobic comments aimed at feminist activists, women elected officials and victims of the catastrophic 2017 Hurricane Maria, among others. The scandal was dubbed “Chatgate.”

Even before that, trouble was brewing. On July 10 the former education secretary, former head of the health insurance administration, and others were arrested by the FBI for fraud in awarding $15.5 million in no-bid contracts to unqualified friends.

All this poured gasoline on an already smoldering fire of fury by Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) struggling to survive after years of economic plunder. Puerto Rico’s colonial status has allowed Wall Street, with full cooperation from the local elite, to run the island economy as its cash cow.

Ongoing organizing campaigns of feminists and union teachers set the stage for the island-wide rebellion.

The protests, involving an estimated one third of the total population of 3 million, created a collective consciousness that can build working class political power. It has the potential to confront not only U.S. domination, but capitalism itself.

Abuse of a U.S. colony. The USA took over in 1898, making Boricuas U.S. citizens in 1917. A strong independence movement in the 1930s was ruthlessly suppressed. In 1952, the country was declared a commonwealth and given limited local rule, while men became subject to U.S. military service. For many years, U.S. companies were exempted from taxes. That status ended in 2006 and many businesses fled. The economy crashed and has never recovered.

The island government is controlled by two parties, one pro-statehood and the other for remaining a commonwealth. Both are completely aligned with the U.S. ruling class. This guarantees misery for Puerto Ricans, but stokes resistance.

The island’s government funded its expenses for over two decades by selling bonds. The public debt ballooned to $74 billion. Some bonds were bought by Wall Street hedge funds at dirt cheap prices and the debt rapidly became unpayable. The administration started defaulting on payments in 2016.

President Obama and Congress refused to allow a declaration of bankruptcy and instead implemented the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) that established an unelected Fiscal Oversight and Management Board with total control over government spending. Known on the archipelago as “La Junta,” it implemented austerity measures that gutted wages, pensions, public education and social services to pay the debt.

The board is made up of members of the local establishment, who helped run up the debt in the first place, and U.S. bankers and lawyers. It is accountable to no one but itself.

Meanwhile, the poverty rate stands at 44 percent. Young workers can’t find jobs. A quarter of K-12 public schools have closed.

The destruction of Hurricane Maria and the slow and inadequate response of the federal government exacerbated the suffering.

Two years later, Boricuas are still dealing with the aftermath that destroyed the power grid and killed almost 5,000 people. Some 30,000 homes have blue tarps for roofs, over 1,000 roads are still blocked from mudslides, and the electrical system still isn’t totally fixed. Locals were forced to install their own solar panels, water filtration systems, soup kitchens and small farms to feed people. Abandoned schools were converted into apartments for homeless families.

The stage was set for revolt.

An uprising built on struggle. For months, the women’s rights group Colectiva Feminista en Construcción had been camped outside the governor’s mansion demanding Rosselló declare a state of emergency because every eight days a woman is murdered. They demanded that he restore gender equality topics in school curriculums to help reduce the violence.

The teacher’s union, Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, had been waging battles to stop school closures and pension cuts.

As outrage grew over “Chatgate,” so did the crowds. #RickyRenuncia (RickyResign) spread wildly on social media. Protesters included unionists, students, socialist groups like the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores (MST), unemployed youth, rainbow flag-waving queer and transgender folks, people with disabilities, and elders.

Unfortunately, as New York Boricua radical David Vila observed, “You wouldn’t have known that socialists were even there because they didn’t … seize the opportunity to raise the need for workers to control the political system and economy.”

Protests shut down the freeway. On July 24 a general strike was declared that brought out over a million people. Those who couldn’t come to San Juan stood outside their homes banging on pots and pans.

The Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S. and global supporters organized solidarity actions.

Protesters demanded prosecution of those accused of corruption, a public audit of the debt, an end to La Junta’s austerity policies, and calling a state of emergency over the rise of violence against women.

Gov. Rosselló’s resignation caused a political crisis since most of his administration had already been forced to resign. He tried to install Pedro Pierluisi, a lawyer for the hated fiscal control board. This ploy was rejected by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez finally stepped in on August 7. But people don’t trust her because she never investigated trailers full of undistributed Hurricane Maria aid. Previously, when she was head of the Office of Women’s Rights, feminists had called for her removal for failure to look into unequal pay, workplace discrimination and sexual harassment.

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The battle continues. People’s assemblies have been organized in many areas to discuss what issues and demands to mobilize around.

Colectiva Feminista en Construcción continues to demand that Gov. Vázquez declare a state of emergency over femicides. Protesters fight toxic ash dumping in the towns of Peñuelas and Guayama, and re-zoning laws that threaten public land use. Educators and community members still oppose the gutting of public schools and retirement benefits.

In late August, members of the Confederation of General Workers went on strike at Cadillac Uniform and Linen Supply. They haven’t had a raise in 15 years. Feminists and other uprising activists joined the picket line.

This historic moment has the potential to go beyond kicking out corrupt politicians. The people of Puerto Rico have the right to independence if they so choose.

Going forward, it’s vital to build independent, working class power. Leftists could come together to build radical union caucuses and call for an anti-capitalist labor party. In Puerto Rico, as around the globe, there is a crying need for revolutionary leadership. Ultimately, what’s needed is an organized, united movement in Puerto Rico and the U.S. to confront the profit system that has kept Boricuas in colonial chains for too long.

Contact the author, a Puerto Rican unionist in LA, at yuisa5379@yahoo.com.

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