In late June of this year, an infamous Puerto Rican activist known as “Tito Kayak” climbed to the top of a flagpole on the north side of the the island’s capitol building. In trademark style, Kayak removed the American flag that stood tall over Old San Juan’s Plaza de la Democracia, and unfurled a white sheet scrawled with the text “beaches belong to the people” in its place.
Inside the capitol, at that very instant, the Puerto Rican congress was discussing the passage of Project #2853: a bill that if signed into law would open the door to the privatization of Puerto Rico’s waterfronts. Authored by Ángel Matos of the pro-commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), Project #2853 was viewed by environmental activists as the culmination of an ongoing process of privatization that had been chipping away at Puerto Rico’s constitutionally-protected public waterfront. And with Project #2853, the battle for the future of the island’s beaches finally came to a head.
Over the last ten years, public resistance to the impulse of privatization has coalesced around an encampment at the balneario Isla Verde – a waterfront area near San Juan’s international airport that had been rented to the Marriott Hotel for a term of 99 years. After Marriott began development at the site in 2005, activists feared the hotel would use of the environmentally sensitive area as a parking lot and endanger a nesting area for leatherback sea turtles. Over the following decade a group named Coalición Playas P’al Pueblo managed to maintain an active encampment at the site and stave off further development.
Then, in November of last year, Ángel Matos made a public call for their eviction amidst increasingly tense confrontations between Playas P’al Pueblo and Marriott employees. Eventually, an appellate court on the island green-lit their removal only to encounter pushback from the local mayor José Carlos Aponte Dalmau, who called the decision a violation of the activist’s right of due process and refused to carry out the order.
For years, the so-called PPD has been tied to real estate developers hungry for prime waterfront property. Though in the case of Project #2853, Matos claimed he only wanted to recognize and regulate the de facto privatization of public waterfronts and create a unified legal code that included all of the island’s 43 municipalities. And indeed, much of the island’s oceanfront has been effectively cordoned off from the public by beachside property developments. But whatever Matos’ intentions, the bill ultimately died in the Senate without much fanfare, saving Puerto Rico’s beaches, at least momentarily, from the unflagging march of private capital.
And as it turns out, the victory was short lived. Just over a month later Kayak announced he would be commencing a hunger strike to protest Project #1621, which would establish a privatized waterfront tourist zone in the picturesque fishing village of La Parguera, on the island’s southwest coast. The bill was being pushed forward by primarily wealthy families who had established illegal floating properties on the public land, and now wanted to formalize their dominion over the waterfront.
After initially passing the senate, however, the project was ultimately vetoed by governor Alejandro García Padilla, ceding to highly visible pressure from Kayak and his fellow environmental activists from the Amigos del MAR organization. With this latest victory, it seems political will is on the side of those who would defend the constitutionally enshrined public dominion over waterfront property, but the war is far from won. In fact, with the impending imposition of a fiscal control board with the power to sell off public property to private interests, some fear that the worst is really yet to come.
With many battles left to be fought, it’s clear that Boricuas aren’t taking this sitting down.