‘Cancel Puerto Rico debt,’ say protesters in NY, Philadelphia

By John Staggs
October 7, 2019
Militant/John StaggsMarches in Philadelphia, above, and New York Sept. 21 — two years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico — called for canceling Puerto Rico’s $74 billion debt, rescinding U.S. laws that increase shipping costs. New York action called for independence for Puerto Rico.

PHILADELPHIA — Marches here and in New York Sept. 21 marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, highlighting that the social catastrophe since the storm is not the result of a “natural” disaster, but a manmade one caused by capitalism and U.S. colonial rule.

In Philadelphia 200 people marched, calling for more U.S. government aid to repair storm damage and for repeal of the Jones Act, which requires that anything sent by sea to Puerto Rico from the U.S. be carried on U.S.-flagged ships — greatly increasing the cost.

Some 3,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath, most not directly from the hurricane itself, but from a lack of power, access to medical care, clean water and other basic necessities.

A poem by Eleazar David Melendez, read at the Philadelphia rally, highlighted what this meant for working people.

“They did not die in the hurricane. They died in pain, at home, of kidney failure unable to access the dialysis clinic for weeks,” the poem begins. “They died in the dark and the heat of unsanitary ICU units. … They died of diseases of antiquity, in a crisis of neglect.”

“I came because we need to rebuild Puerto Rico,” temp worker Ray Quan, 21, who came from New York to join the action, told the Militant. “We need land to farm, I’m not sure how, but we have to fight to get it.”

Democratic Party elected officials who addressed the rally put the blame for the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico on the Donald Trump administration. But Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony since 1898, has been a source of plunder by U.S. imperialism under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

One contingent marched with a large balloon depicting Trump in baby diapers.

“I can’t identify with that, it covers up Obama’s role in setting up the Financial Oversight and Management Board that is bleeding the people of Puerto Rico to pay off the bondholders,” Fermin Morales, a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, said at the march. “Schools were closed, pensions cut and the electrical system bankrupted all under Obama’s watch.”

In New York City some 300 people marched to the United Nations demanding independence for Puerto Rico and cancellation of the debt. The march was sponsored by the Frente Independentista Boricua, a coalition of pro-independence groups in New York.

To maximize payment on the country’s $74 billion debt — enforced by a financial oversight board imposed by Washington — the colonial government continues to make cuts in basic services.

Cancel the debt! End colonial rule!

The featured speaker was Oscar López, who spent 35 years in prison in the U.S. for his actions in support of ending U.S. colonial rule. Along with calling for independence, López called for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba and to U.S. meddling in Venezuela. He said that the Cuban Revolution shows that it is possible to stand up to U.S. imperialism and win. Several other former Puerto Rican political prisoners also spoke.

“Working people in the U.S. and Puerto Rico are not victims — we’re looking for ways to fight,” Seth Galinsky, Socialist Workers Party candidate for New York City public advocate, told the rally. He pointed to the strike of the United Auto Workers members at General Motors who are fighting against two-tier wages and to make temporary workers permanent.

“When I was in Puerto Rico last month I found the same thing. Thousands of temporary workers at pharmaceutical companies and at hotels making $7.25 an hour,” he said. “Who can raise a family on that?”

“The fight for Puerto Rico’s independence from U.S. colonial rule is in the interests of working people in the U.S.,” Galinsky said.