Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Protest Against Puerto Rico Earthquake Response Dispersed by Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets

By on January 24, 2020

Protesters carry a banner that states “Stop the criminal negligence; Wanda, resign.” (María Soledad Dávila Calero/CB)

SAN JUAN — For the third time this week people gathered in front of the La Fortaleza governor’s mansion to protest the Puerto Rico government’s response to the recent earthquakes that devastated several towns in the southwestern part of the island. 

Although there’s general discontent over the lack of proper care of the earthquake victims, one of the sore points is the discovery of a warehouse in Ponce, one of the affected towns, filled with disaster supplies, which had not been delivered 11 days after the strongest recent seismic event.  

On Thursday, the protest started with a demonstration in front of the Capitol at 6 p.m. While a tent city for earthquake evacuees who fear returning to their homes flooded due to heavy rain in the southwestern town of Yauco, demonstrators in the capital in the north weathered the rains and chanted throughout their march to La Fortaleza to demand the resignation of Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garcet.

Also protesting was musician René Pérez, known as Residente, as well as Major League Baseball players Yadier Molina and Javier Báez.

(María Soledad Dávila Calero/CB)

Thousands packed the streets leading to La Fortaleza including the Plaza Colón area. After hours protesting, the police declared the demonstration illegal and fired tear gas at the protesters. The anti-riot unit proceeded to march through the streets of Old San Juan, firing more tear gas and rubber bullets. Even while the number of demonstrators waned after the confrontation, tempers flared. Some flinged rocks at the police force and others graffitied walls.

The afternoon protest came after a legislative session that included calls for transparency by Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Sens. Eduardo Bhatia and Cirilo Tirado, Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP by its Spanish acronym) Sen. Juan Dalmau, and independent Sen. José “Chaco” Vargas Vidot. 

Bhatia, who is also the chamber’s minority leader and is running for governor, criticized the Special Investigations Bureau (NIE by its Spanish initials) for not interviewing former Emergency and Disaster Management Bureau Commissioner Carlos Acevedo. The senator was referring to the NIE’s investigation into the Ponce warehouse, which the governor referred to the Justice Department. While the lawmaker called for “honesty,” Tirado criticized the governor for using the recent natural disaster to advance her political campaign.

“That is politicking with the pain of the people. The governor did the lowest thing one can do in politics. She used the pain of the people to stay in the primary,” Tirado said. 

In the case of Dalmau and Vargas Vidot, the focus was on bills they introduced, which have been ignored by the legislature, even though they address issues regarding political crises and natural disasters.

Dalmau mentioned Senate Bill 1334, which calls for a constitutional assembly to amend the commonwealth’s Constitution, and Concurrent Resolution 85 to make smaller but immediate changes to it. The PIP senator wants the amendments to include, a two-round system in the elections, recall elections, and special elections in case of a gubernatorial vacancy.

Another politician who criticized the governor’s response was San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, who is running for governor under the PDP.

“Two things are clear: First, that the Wanda Vázquez government has not understood that its primary duty is to save our people; and second, that they have not understood that the people cannot endure more lies or more abuse. The discovery of a warehouse in Ponce with sufficient supplies sowed outrage in our people,” said the mayor, who also expressed support for the protesters. 

Among those who later criticized the protest was Molina, who expressed disapproval over the acts of vandalism and violence by demonstrators. On Friday, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz questioned the usefulness of the protest as he defended the government’s response to the earthquake. 

“On the participation and support that this ‘national strike’ had, reach your own conclusions,” Rivera wrote on Facebook. “So far, we have to recognize the freedom of expression that we ALL have even when we can think totally different from each other. Did that solve anything of the emergency? Did the tremors stop? Did it supply aid to the victims? Was something profitable or positive achieved?” he questioned.

“Government of Puerto Rico, including the municipalities, as well as the Federal Government have made an effort to handle a situation that Puerto Rico had not experienced for more than 100 years. The tremors and their aftermath. It has been an intense job,” the lawmaker stressed.

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