On Wednesday, August 31, protesters in San Juan, Puerto Rico successfully shut down the first scheduled conference for the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), hosted at Condado Plaza Hilton. The conference was supposed to be the kickoff for several initiatives in conjunction with the United States debt restructuring bill, which President Obama signed into law on June 30th as a way to address Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt. The bill implemented a control board of seven appointed US officials, who have power over the Puerto Rican economy. While there have been groups on the island protesting the bill since June, Wednesday’s action was a testament to the variety of organizations and individuals involved, highlighting just how deep the resistance goes.
Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, from Defend Puerto Rico, was just one of the hundreds of protesters present today, from groups including Campamento Contra La Junta, Juventúd Contra La Junta, Jornada: Se Acabaron las Promesas, and Free Oscar López, to individual parking garage workers, organizers from Vieques, and students from numerous schools. Over the phone from San Juan, Jacobs-Fantauzzi told me that protesters showed up as early as 5:00 am to block the traffic arriving to the hotel – including police on motorcycles, in vans, and in helicopters, as well as those on foot, who were clad in riot gear on both sides of the protestors. More than once, police officers confronted protesters physically, using batons and pepper-spraying the crowd. At least one person has been arrested — adding to a list of six that were arrested Tuesday at a protest against the newspaper El Nuevo Día.
Jacobs-Fantauzzi also mentioned the vast array of tactics that protestors used to resist law-enforcement, noting the intergenerational crowd — “elders and students” — who lay down in the street and spread rocks to disturb the flow of traffic. Because the protest took place on a bridge, there were even people arriving on kayaks. And in true Puerto Rican spirit, a plena broke out — a celebration of culture that is a testament to the overarching theme of freedom and self-determination.
To understand the viewpoint of the protesters, who see PROMESA as an extension of United States imperialism, it’s important to highlight Puerto Rico’s complicated history with the US. At the end of the 19th century, Puerto Rico became a United States colony, and remained one until the Foraker Act of 1900, which established a civil government, and the Jones Act of 1917, which made Puerto Ricans US Citizens. Yet, even after Puerto Rico drafted its own constitution in 1952, its status as a Commonwealth has left people on the island in bureaucratic limbo: unable to vote for the president or have proper representation in congress. Now, with the introduction of PROMESA, the lack of political, economic and social autonomy is more stark than ever.
Stephanie Martín Llenas, a movement lawyer and fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, says that for many of the protestors, the issue goes beyond the bill, and the root of the problem is the island’s political status. Over the phone, she tells me, “Even though we’re called citizens, we aren’t. We never have been.” In San Juan, where she’s from, the introduction of the bill has brought many changes: people have lost their pensions, the minimum wage for people under 25 has been cut to $4.25 (“starvation wages”), unemployment has skyrocketed, schools have closed, and much like we saw in Flint, Michigan, water management systems have shut down. On top of all of this, she says it will now be a federal crime for workers to strike.
While Puerto Ricans are leaving in record numbers (over 80,000 in 2014 alone) those who stay suffer economically, making it gradually more apparent that the Commonwealth status is no longer stable. Just hours after the organizers’ debrief, Jacobs-Fantauzzi told me why today was such an important protest. “The power of the people and their determination to have control of their own destiny was so apparent. To put their lives on the line like that – especially the older generations pushing back the police with their bodies. I haven’t seen in that in the US in a long time.”