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Fortuño’s plans fought: lessons from protest in Puerto Rico

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.

Protest in San Juan. Photo © 2009 Manolo Coss, courtesy of the Service Employees International Union
Protest in San Juan. Photo © 2009 Manolo Coss, courtesy of the Service Employees International Union

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.

Protest in San Juan. Picture courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.
San Juan protest. Photo © 2009 Ricardo Figueroa, courtesy of the Service Employees International Union.

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.

Klein wrote:

”[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
105)

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.”

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

4 thoughts on “Fortuño’s plans fought: lessons from protest in Puerto Rico

  1. Interesting summation. However, it ignores the role the SEIU, Change to Win, and the AFL-CIO have played in generating the crisis and in disarming effective street-level opposition. It also inflates the number of those in attendance.

    1) American Unions pushed for a labor law that eliminated the right to strike in exchange for exclusive representation (or whatever the technical term is in English) disarmed Puerto Rican workers of the most powerful tool to counter policies (as opposed to economic bargaining). Before Law 45 of 1998, while there could be multiple unions in the workplace, there was a right to strike for public employees. This right was mostly used to exercise pressure around policy, rather than economic, issues. American Unions disarmed the workers.

    2) In doing so in the middle of a huge process against privatization of public services, it disarmed the opposition to privatization. This allowed the government to privatize the largest cash cow the government possessed, The Puerto Rico Telephone Company. This sale, done at a very low price, setup the present government credit crisis by eliminating the most valuable collateral asset the Government had.

    3)American Unions supported the previous governor in instituting policies that led to the credit crisis in the government, and have opposed measures – such as taxing multinational corporations, increase taxes to higher income individuals, and the elimination of priviatized contracting – that would have resolved the short-term issues. Instead, they seek to ally themselves with the political forces that precipitated the crisis in the first case.

    4) The attendance to this strike didn’t reach the five figures. It was around 80-90 thousand. Except for the educational system – both primary/secondary and college level – the strike failed to stop work Island wide. It did however shut down the main financial and shopping centers in the island. It was ineffective and will not make the government budge. American Unions oppose the call of local private and public sector unions for an indefinite general strike – an alternative that while not guaranteed success, is definitely one with a better chance than the current strategy they are pursuing.

    5) In the end, the current crisis is as much a fault of American Unions as it is of the current and previous governments. The main issue is colonialism, both political and from the American Unions. The SEIU has been a very negative influence in the situation in Puerto Rico, and seemingly continues to be one.

  2. I suppose the “discovery of organized dissent by the Republican party” is only “cynical” because protest is somehow reserved for liberal, left-wing or otherwise non-conservative movements.

    If that isn’t cynicism at its worst, I don’t know what is.

  3. No, the discovery of organized dissent by the Republican party is cynical because during eight years of a Republican administration, dissent was painted over and over again as unpatriotic and dissenters were equated with terrorists. If there had been right-wing anti-government protests while the Bush administration was growing government powers to unprecedented levels, particularly in the executive branch, then it wouldn’t be cynical, even if I would disagree with them.

    Also, the corporate funders stoking people’s authentic anger are pretty cynical as well.

  4. There was organized right-wing dissent against Bush. In fact, most of the grouplets nowadays getting media such as the various Libertarian outifts, were highly critical of Bush. This includes Glenn Beck himself. And this is recognized in the right-wing:

    http://www.amconmag.com/postright/2009/09/16/glenn-beck-we-need-to-mind-our-own-business/

    Anyone who participated is local anti-war groups all over the USA knows about the collection of truthies, libertarians, and other assorted right-wingers in the wide tent under bush. Cringing at them as they sppewed forth conspiranoia and anti-immigrant and racist arguments against the war.

    It is worse than cynical of liberal Democrats to deny the existence of these organized grassroots right wing, with an existence independent of the RNC.

    It is worse, because it misidentifies the enemy: traditionally, the right-wing on the streets is called fascism… of the real, not theatrical, kind…

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