Puerto Rico Capitol limits access to press, public during demonstration
SAN JUAN – Entryways to the Puerto Rico Capitol were barricaded Tuesday morning by the police to prevent confrontations with demonstrators who awaited at both areas, but it wasn’t until 11 a.m. that tensions flared.
While the Capitol’s southern wing was surrounded by a group of police officers who demanded the approval of senate Bill 404, which would prevent officers who are about to retire from having their pensions cut, the north wing had people calling for an audit of Puerto Rico’s $71 billion debt.
Police security was reinforced in the north wing after demonstrators, many of whom had managed to get past the barricades and refused to abandon the Capitol’s staircase, demanded to enter the building.
Although the session was scheduled for 1 p.m., House personnel said the lower chamber’s gallery was full and no one else would be allowed in, not even lobbyists of the Citizen Front for the Audit of the Debt, for “security reasons.”
Minutes after reinforcing security in the northern wing, access to the Capitol was limited to journalists, even though in my case, I have press ID and cover legislative sessions on a regular basis. They impeded access to the House’s basement because “those are orders” from the Capitol’s Superintendence.
Even though entrance to the Senate’s basement was blocked for similar reasons, I was allowed to enter thanks to a legislator who happened to be passing by that made some calls and asked that I be allowed in. A press spokesperson said I should have called him, which I have never had to do to access the building.
Inside the Capitol, employees placed fences with screws to block from inside the doors of the staircase to the south, where a group of demonstrators were for more than four hours Monday requesting access to the Capitol while Senate Bill 428 was being debated. It proposes to eliminate the Commission for the Comprehensive Audit of the Public Credit. This measure could be considered in Tuesday’s session, which is why people are requesting access to the legislative chamber.
Three doors were damaged by yesterday’s protesters, resulting in $1,500 in estimated damages, a House press spokesperson said. One of the protesting students was arrested when he set one foot inside the Capitol, but was released hours later in the Court of San Juan since no cause was found.
Inside the entrance of the north wing, there was a group of police officers awaiting orders and separated only by the building doors from a human chain of demonstrators protesting the denied access to the sessions, which must be open to the public, as provided by the Constitution of Puerto Rico.
Debt’s audit demanded
Part of the human chain outside the Capitol’s north wing doors was the spokeswoman of the Citizen Front for the Audit of the Debt, Eva Prados, who requested access to the building to talk with lawmakers and convince them of the importance to negotiations of the commission that was auditing the debt.
Present as well was union leader Roberto Pagán, also a member of the citizen front, who insisted that “we won’t leave the staircase,” despite the police’s requests, and questioned why Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and New Progressive Party (NPP) leaders oppose the audit.
Pagán estimates that about $30 billion of the public debt could have been issued illegally, which is why he urged the people “to stand firm in their demand to audit the debt.” He explained that the commission would conduct a forensic audit, which could reveal illegalities, while the fiscal control board would only be limited to an accounting audit, which does not go into the details of possible crimes.
“We want an audit done in order to remove the scum,” “this debt is illegal and we won’t pay it,” and “fiscal control board, colonial dictatorship” were chanted among protesters, many of whom were students and university professors.
At approximately 1:20 p.m. the House session began with only 20 people in the gallery.
Overseas Press Club President Ángel Rodríguez repudiated the incident earlier Tuesday at the Capitol and reiterated the importance of freedom of the press and access to information.
“What happened today with our colleague Cindy Burgos should not, nor can be repeated. The Overseas Press Club has always defended freedom of the press and access to information, and closing the Capitol to prevent a journalist from entering to cover a legislative session threatens them both, which are pillars of our democracy,” Rodríguez said.
“I was informed that the order came from the Superintendency of the Capitol. If so, both legislative presidents should investigate, because since the beginning of this administration, it has publicly advocated for transparency,” the president of the guild added.