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“The People before the Debt!”: Thousands Demonstrate against Austerity in Puerto Rico

Teachers, health care workers, and other public sector workers came out in large numbers to protest against the government’s austerity plans and for better working conditions.

Diego Sacchi

February 19, 2022
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AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

Responding to a call from unions and associations, among them the Teachers’ Federation, workers in Puerto Rico came out in large numbers to march on Friday, February 18, as part of a national strike of the public sector. They demanded that Puerto Rico’s government improve their working conditions, and criticized government measures aimed at restructuring the public debt of the U.S. “commonwealth.”

After massive protests in recent weeks, Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, had announced wage increases that would begin in July. But that measure was not enough to bring the protests to a halt.

“We are tired of promises. We want actions that show that the teaching profession in Puerto Rico is valued and dignified,” Edwin Morales, vice president of the Teachers’ Federation of Puerto Rico, told the efe news service.

Morales denounced the current situation. “We are going forward to defend our pensions everywhere. We’re not asking for anything unreasonable. They’re paying off investors who turned a profit from the country’s bankruptcy, and that’s just immoral.” 

Protesters reject many conditions of the already approved Debt Adjustment Plan (PAD), designed to reduce the public debt from $70 billion to about $34 billion. As the banner at the head of Friday’s march made clear, “The People before the Debt!”

The PAD includes cuts that would severely affect public employee pensions and the public university budget. Specifically, it would cut some $21 billion in general obligations, Public Buildings Authority bonds, and Retirement Systems Administration bonds.

Along with the Teachers’ Federation, the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU), the Puerto Rican Workers Union (SPT), the Union of Electrical and Irrigation Industry Workers (Utier), and the Central Workers Federation, among others, also mobilized.

The march began at the entrance of the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, on Roosevelt Avenue, and headed toward the Las Americas Expressway. Protesters then proceeded to the headquarters of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Oversight Board (JSF; Puerto Ricans refer to it as “The Board”), a true colonial entity with seven members appointed by the U.S. president and a single member appointed by Puerto Rico’s governor. Its function is to control the public finance policy of the island’s executive branch, and it is involved in the implementation of the PAD.

“Let the Board, Pierluisi, and the legislators who voted for this [PAD] know that we will not be moved. We are where we have to be, and we deserve a dignified retirement. We are talking about the life of our country,” said Teachers’ Federation president Mercedes Martínez. She called the JSF members “vultures” and “corrupt,” accusing them of driving teachers to destitution.

Wanda Cruz, a 52-year-old teacher, told El Nuevo Día, “I have been with the Department of Education for 22 years, and they froze my retirement. It’s a blow because they also increased my retirement age.” The adjustment measures, designed to pay off the debt, will mean that she will have to work 11 additional years and not another four, as at present. She would collect only 75 percent of her pension and whatever she saves in a retirement plan.

Health sector workers — mostly nurses, pharmacy technicians, and emergency personnel — also protested. The president of the Authentic Union of Emergency Managers (SAME), Liz M. Colón, demanded that its members be included in the salary increases. She also demanded better working conditions and a dignified retirement for SAME workers, considering “they have been active in the front lines of the response since Hurricane María, the earthquakes, and the pandemic.”

The growing demonstrations and demands began a few weeks ago, when the Teachers’ Federation initiated the so-called “teacher’s flu” that kept teachers out of school in protest.

Previous actions were supported by well-known Puerto Rican artists such as Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny, both of whom have also demonstrated in support of the demands for wages and pensions.

The protests confront the island government’s plan to comply with the plan that the local government seeks to implement, to comply with the mandates of The Board, which was created by President Barack Obama to guarantee Puerto Rico’s payment of its millions of dollars of debt with the United, impose austerity plans, and with the power to decide on the colony’s laws and budget.

First published in Spanish on February 18 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Scott Cooper

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Diego Sacchi

Diego is a journalist from Buenos Aires and the editor of the international section of our Argentinian sister site La Izquierda Diario.

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