I’ve seen a focus in the United States on mass political action in the past year like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime. From the huge crowds at Barack Obama’s campaign rallies and the unprecedented amount of donors and volunteers that helped elect the man President to the recent cynical discovery of organized dissent by the Republican party, we’ve watched groups large and small take to the streets.
Whether this is a sign of a newly energized, engaged American body politic will take some time to say. After all, some demonstrations still receive more attention than others, with the right-wing media machine led by FOX News trumpeting the success and inflating the numbers of tea party protests while decrying protests from the left, and the purported liberal media spending a good chunk of time arguing those numbers and attempting to root out the funders behind the right-wing actions—often while genuine grassroots action goes on under their noses, ignored or even punished by those in charge.
Almost completely ignored this week was the one-day general strike in Puerto Rico following the attempted imposition of shock-therapy-style economic reforms by the new governor. Chief among those reforms was a decision to lay off more than 20,000 public employees. The layoffs would drive Puerto Rico’s already-astounding 15 percent unemployment rate to over 17 percent.
More than 100,000 workers took to the streets to protest on October 15–Eliseo Medina, Service Employees International Union Executive Vice President, told me he thought the crowd was over 150,000. “It was tremendous. I’ve been in the labor movement for 44 years and this was the most impressive event I’ve ever seen. It was up there with the immigrant mobilizations of 2006,” Medina said. “It was one of the most diverse events that I’ve ever seen in a society. Lawyers, workers, students, psychologists, priests and minsters and nuns and everyday people. It was truly an amazing sight. It was pretty clear, our rejection of Governor Fortuño’s policies.”
Governor Luis Fortuño spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2008, and though he leads the pro-statehood New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico, he is a member of the Republican Party as well. He was elected governor of the unincorporated U.S. territory, which does not get to vote for president, in 2008 and though on the campaign trail he vowed not to cut jobs (his opponent, former governor Acevedo Vilá, an ally of Barack Obama, repeatedly raised the issue) he announced severe budget cuts shortly after his inauguration.
According to Medina, Fortuño “convened a group of top businessmen on the island to give him recommendations of what he ought to do” about the recession and budget crisis. The recommendations included tax increases as well as the drastic slashing of jobs and privatization, but Fortuño discounted the tax increases and went ahead with job cuts. Medina noted that Fortuño also passed a law eliminating pay raises for workers, and the government threatened to take away the bar association for lawyers, driving them into the streets as well. The University of Puerto Rico was shut down, students sent home, to clamp down on student activism, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. Even a threat to charge protesters with terrorism didn’t stop the mass action.
The scare tactics don’t sound that strange to anyone who’s lived through the Bush administration in the U.S., though admittedly Bush never would have dared massive federal layoffs that would drive unemployment up further. As Naomi Klein wrote in The Shock Doctrine, these reforms were often instituted at the behest of American economists in locations far from the eyes of most Americans. Puerto Rico exists in a strange limbo, part of the U.S. but not a state, not national news and yet not really international news either. Many Americans, remember, thought now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was an “immigrant” because of her Puerto Rican heritage.
”[O]nce a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor [Milton Friedman] was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the ‘tyranny of the status quo.’ He estimated that ‘a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity.’” (pg 7-8)
Shock therapy is often enacted in order to “save” the economy—Fortuño is responding to the same economic crisis that saw unprecedented bank bailouts and the stimulus package, which earmarked $176 million for Puerto Rico to prevent massive layoffs. Yet on what planet would driving unemployment to shouting distance of 20 percent “fix” the problem? As Medina noted, the economic impact of the layoffs would reverberate throughout the country, as former workers and their families would be forced to rely on social services to get by. He said that the impact of the layouts is projected to be in the billions of dollars.
So rather than a way to save the economy, these programs seem more likely to create greater poverty and crisis in the country. Like Klein wrote about Chile:
“If that track record [45 percent of the population in poverty] qualifies Chile as a miracle for Chicago school economists, perhaps shock treatment was never really about jolting the economy into health. Perhaps it was meant to do exactly what it did—hoover wealth up to the top and shock much of the middle class out of existence.” (pg
Angelo Falcon of the National Institute for Puerto Rican policy told CBS2 in New York:
“Basically, he’s telling Puerto Ricans on the island, if you don’t like it, leave, and there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. That’s the problem; that’s why this is going to continue. That’s the way they solve the unemployment problem in Puerto Rico all the time: you leave, you come over here, and, you know, you become part of West Side Story!”
Whether or not the larger news media took notice of the massive actions in Puerto Rico, though, the people there are not willing to have their own shock doctrine experience. Medina said that his union, SEIU, is going to make a call for a visit from Congress, and an investigation into whether the stimulus funds are being allocated properly. The Chamber of Commerce has issued a call for dialogue, and more demonstrations are already being discussed.
“This is really what an engaged society looks like. It’s great for democracy. It also has implications for the U.S., since we have the same problems going on everywhere with budgets,” said Medina. But we’ve had trouble getting hundreds of thousands of people involved in actions that involve the entire country, and the ambivalence surrounding even recent successful protests leaves many here wondering if we could ever see worker action on the scale of the Puerto Rican protests.
Medina admitted, “There’s a greater culture and tradition here of people working together. But,” he noted, “if people keep pushing to the wall, it’s like with the immigration rallies, you can only push so far.”