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In Puerto Rico, Protesters and Police Clash As Thousands March In May Day Rally

In Puerto Rico, thousands marked May Day by joining a general strike in the capital of San Juan to protest austerity measures, from the closing of public schools to increases in university tuition. When protesters tried to converge on the building where the federal oversight board has its offices, police fired tear gas and pepper spray. The board has called for the implementation of 10 percent pension cuts, eliminating mandatory Christmas bonuses, reducing required vacation and sick time, and allowing businesses to fire employees without having to first prove a just cause.

Image: A masked protester pushes a boulder during protests

A protester pushes a boulder after a May Day march turned violent.Carlos Giusti / AP

This comes as at least 30,000 people still lack power almost eight months since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Last month, an excavator downed a transmission line, blacking out the entire electrical grid. We air a report from the streets of San Juan filed by Democracy Now! correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila.

Reeling from the sluggish hurricane recovery efforts and steep budget cuts to tackle the island’s fiscal crisis, Yariela Montes, 41, was one of several thousand Puerto Ricans who took to the streets in a May Day march on Tuesday to protest school closures and austerity measures that could result in significant pension cuts, higher college tuition costs, and reduced paid sick and vacation days.

“I don’t know what we will leave our young daughter,” she said, referring to the current situation on the island. “This is just such an ugly panorama right now.”

Montes, a teacher, doesn’t know if she will have a job in August. Her school is one of the 280 public schools in Puerto Rico that are scheduled to close, and she is worried there won’t be a slot for her in another school. At the same time, Montes said she and her husband don’t know how they will afford a tuition increase at the University of Puerto Rico, where her older daughter is studying.

Image:

Police detain a protester after the march.Carlos Giusti / AP

A recently approved fiscal plan lays out a series of budget cuts and agency consolidations to set a path for the island to restructure its crippling $72 billion public debt — all while still recovering from Hurricane Maria.

In Puerto Rico, protesters and police clash as thousands march in May Day rally

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Puerto Rico, where thousands marked May Day by joining a general strike in the capital of San Juan to protest austerity measures, from the closing of public schools to increases in university tuition. One march covered almost the length of the 1,000-foot Dos Hermanos Bridge. Last month, a federally appointed oversight board approved a plan to restructure the island’s $72 billion public debt, that calls for the privatization of PREPA, one of the largest publicly owned power providers in the United States. This comes as at least 30,000 people still lack power almost eight months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Last month, an excavator downed a transmission line, blacking out the entire electrical grid.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, thousands marched to the financial district in San Juan, known as La Milla de Oro, which was closed due to protests. When they tried to converge on the building where the federal oversight board has its offices, police fired tear gas and pepper spray. The board has called for the implementation of 10 percent pension cuts, eliminating mandatory Christmas bonuses, reducing required vacation and sick time, and allowing businesses to fire employees without having to first prove a just cause. The island’s governor and Legislature have so far refused the changes. At least 13 protesters were arrested on Tuesday.

Democracy Now! correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila was in the streets of San Juan and filed this report.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: On International Workers’ Day, about a dozen organizations, including activist groups and workers’ unions, rallied at Puerto Rico’s financial district to protest the new austerity measures proposed by the federally appointed fiscal control board. The organizations marched from different points in San Juan. One of the marches, organized by the movement Promises Are Over, began at the Department of Labor.

JOCELYN VELÁZQUEZ: [translated] My name is Jocelyn Velázquez from the collective Promises Are Over. We are demanding the repeal of the PROMESAact. We demand eliminating the fiscal control board. We demand the creation of a democratic and participatory process to audit the debt, where we know in what the money was wasted on and how it was wasted, and, from there, begin to find a system that identifies what part of the debt is legal and what part is illegal. Then, the debt that is illegal needs to be removed, so that we can identify a plan to reconstruct the country and regain our economy.

Now we are trying to advance our march, but we have the police blocking the people’s entrance to Milla de Oro (financial district). And our claim is that we have the right to protest wherever we decide to protest.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: One of the frustrations from activists was that the police blocked their access and held them back from protesting in front of the Seaborne building. This is where the offices of the fiscal control board are located. This is Scott Barbés, one of the event organizers.

SCOTT BARBÉS: [translated] Here, the people have behaved very calmly, and the situation is very controlled. But the plan to fulfill our objective is overdue, and they have no right. Any situation of violence that emerges will be because the police of Puerto Rico is putting obstacles to the march.

Please respond to our calling to negotiate, and allow the march to continue its path.

MARIANA NOGALES MOLINELLI: [translated] My name is Mariana Nogales Molinelli. The organizers want to communicate, but the police are not effectively communicating. What happened is that after giving an order that looked like they were going to step down, they still remain there. And behind, we can see officers from a special arrest unit.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: Eventually, there was a conversation with a police officer identified as Lieutenant Santos. He assured that the police will withdraw if the activists remain calm. Again, Scott Barbés.

SCOTT BARBÉS: [translated] Here, some people gave their word in representation of those gentlemen that have the batons back there. But then, who is going to keep their word? What are the people supposed to do when the word is not kept? To leave with their heads down? This is an intimidation. If they don’t want us in the financial district, well, just let us through, so we can exit it. Nobody wants to be in the financial district today. We don’t want to have to be here fighting for our future, but we don’t have another option. We have children, parents, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers. What option do we have? They don’t give us an option, and we end up having a confrontation between Puerto Ricans.

JUAN CARLOS DÁVILA: As the police kept their formation and continued blocking the access to protesters, a brigade of marchers carrying wooden shields stepped closer to the police line. Then a confrontation took place, where the police used tear gas to disperse the protesters. Protesters dispersed throughout the city. Some of them, particularly the students, went back to Río Piedras, home to the University of Puerto Rico. Back in Río Piedras, some were still hurting from the tear gas and possibly rubber bullet shots.

RAINA RAMÍREZ: [translated] My name is Raina Ramírez. I’m a chemistry student at the campus at Mayagüez. Today was good at the beginning, because it was impressive and motivating to see how people unite to fight against injustices that an oppressive government is holding against them. But then, after some time, the situation changed. The police surrounded us. They blocked us from each side, and they didn’t let us through. They began throwing tear gas at us, and I couldn’t get out. I have asthma. And with that and running away, my asthma situation became more difficult. A friend of mine stayed behind, and we were waiting for her, but we needed to keep running, because the police were continuing to pursue the students. They didn’t just surround us. They continued after us, hurting us. It is sad, but it’s also powerful.

AMY GOODMAN: And thanks so much to Democracy Now! correspondent Juan Carlos Dávila for that report from the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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