Puerto Rican protests say, ‘Stop abuse of the poor’

By Seth Galinsky
January 22, 2018

“The upper and middle class neighborhoods are getting electricity restored, but most poorer neighborhoods don’t have light,” Rufino Carrión told the Militant by phone Jan. 6 from Gurabo in the center of Puerto Rico. A few days before, Carrión, a pastor at a local church, organized a demonstration of dozens of residents of this small town to protest the slow pace of recovery efforts.

“I don’t blame the electrical workers,” Carrión said. “They have to do what their supervisors tell them. Sometimes they are working in a poor sector and they’re ordered to stop and go to a wealthier neighborhood.

“I stood up and organized the protest because nobody was doing anything for the people, no political party, no government official,” he said. “Enough already of the abuse of the poor!”

The protest in Gurabo is just one of many that have taken place across the island recently.

Protests were “really strong” at one of the public housing complexes, Ivan Vargas, a member of the union at the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, said by phone from Mayagüez Jan. 5. “Not only didn’t they have electricity, housing authorities wouldn’t let them use gas stoves, saying it was too dangerous. Residents there don’t have money to eat out every day.” After several demonstrations they finally got power restored.

More than three months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. colony more than a million people are still without power.

Electrical workers at the state-owned power company are working overtime, Sundays and holidays, Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, president of the electrical workers union UTIER, said Jan. 5. Less than half the 50,000 poles needed to restring electrical cables and less than half the 6,500miles of cable needed have arrived from the U.S.

And the U.S. government has refused to respond to the offer of revolutionary Cuba to send four brigades of electrical workers to pitch in.

“They even rejected the offer of Mexico to send workers,” Jaramillo said.

The crisis in Puerto Rico — and in the U.S. colony of the Virgin Islands — flows from more than 100 years of U.S. colonial exploitation of the island’s people and resources. Intertwined with this, today’s worldwide capitalist economic crisis has meant that production in Puerto Rico has dropped almost every year since 2006.

Pushed by Washington, the Puerto Rican government made paying its $74 billion debt to capitalist bondholders its top priority, while laying off tens of thousands of public workers, cutting pensions, raising sales taxes, closing schools and skimping on maintenance of the electrical grid. Under legislation passed by the U.S. Congress last year, the Puerto Rican government has declared bankruptcy and its economy was placed under the control of an all-powerful board, appointed by President Barack Obama.

U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who oversees Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case, ruled Dec. 20 that the island’s government must keep paying some $13.9 million a month in interest on pension bonds alone.

The delays in restoring power have had repercussions in the U.S. Hospital officials say a nationwide shortage of intravenous bags has worsened, the Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 7. The Puerto Rican plants of Baxter International, which makes the bags are still getting only intermittent power.

“After more than 106 days, there are still people dying, because they don’t have electricity to keep medicines cool, or for oxygen,” veteran independence fighter Rafael Cancel Miranda told the Militant Jan. 6 from San Juan. “That’s not the fault of Hurricane Maria. It’s colonialism that’s responsible.

“I’m in solidarity with the protests. It’s been the people in each neighborhood taking to the streets,” he said. “We saw a picture here of homeless people living in a tunnel in New York. And among them were Puerto Ricans. That’s what association with Washington offers us — the equal right to be homeless.”

Cancel Miranda said that unlike in Puerto Rico, revolutionary Cuba has recovered rapidly from damage caused by Hurricane Irma. “It’s different in Cuba, because they had a revolution and the government looks out for the people,” he said. “Under capitalism the government just looks out for capital.”