Several arrested after Puerto Rico May Day demonstration against austerity
SAN JUAN – On Tuesday, members of various organizations convened on International Workers Day in rejection of austerity measures, in the form of pension and labor reforms, proposed by Puerto Rico’s fiscal oversight board as well as those implemented by the government.
Permeating the atmosphere was also the fact that island residents have had to struggle since two hurricanes changed their lives nearly eight months ago, and many have had to make do during what is widely regarded as a slow recovery response.
They gathered in different parts of the San Juan metropolitan area to march to the Golden Mile banking district in Hato Rey, where the board has its offices, and to the Capitol.
When tension between the demonstrators and the hundreds of officers posted for the event escalated at about 2 p.m., police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, resulting in protesters scattering quickly, with some reportedly fainting. The clash was part of an hourslong ordeal that led to several people injured, including officers, and at least six arrests.
“They started throwing a chemical and a stone and the police has to act immediately,” Col. Reynaldo Bermúdez told Cyber News.
Police Bureau Commander Henry Escalera said a group of young people threw objects and acid at the police, so he decided to close a section of Ponce de León Avenue.
“The demonstration reached the stage area, but they started throwing rocks, marbles, some bombs with an acid and bottles of water. To avoid further damage, we decided to move,” Escalera told Cyber News, adding that one of the acid balloon bombs hurt an officer.
Telecommunications company Liberty quantified its losses at $12,000, due to several windows of its facilities having been broken during the demonstrations.
“The right to freedom of expression was being guaranteed until they started committing crimes, and we will not allow it,” the police commissioner said. The commander of the San Juan Police Department, Juan Cáceres, said four officers were injured.
Moments of tension kept arising when groups that marched from different points met with state and riot police officers, but the spokesman for Se Acabaron las Promesas, Scott Barbés said they later allowed the demonstrations to go on.
“The police withdrew, we are evaluating whether he came to his senses and understood that the people have the right to demonstrate,” Barbés told the press.
However some were arrested in an operation around the University of Puerto Rico area in Río Piedras at about 3:15 p.m. Officers traversed Hato Rey on Luis Muñoz Rivera Avenue following demonstrators who were marching back– some of them hooded and throwing objects–and even extinguishing several fires that were started in parts of the avenue.
When arriving at the university area, police made at least two arrests inside the alleged home of protesters. It was learned that those arrested claimed to belong to the group Se Acabaron las Promesas (The Promises Are Over, alluding to the Promesa law that created the fiscal board). Two others were arrested during the confrontations.
In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló held a rock that was flung during the demonstration and denounced the “acts of violence” carried out by some protesters during the march.
“This kind of violence damages the good name of Puerto Rico,” he said while urging the people and other organizations that demonstrated to “repudiate the violent acts of this small group of demonstrators.”
He thanked the commitment of the police in providing security and said any impropriety by officers would be investigated.
One of the points where the demonstrators met was the headquarters of the Department of Education (DE) in Hato Rey, where members of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico (FMPR) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) arrived to march on the Golden Mile.
Eva Ayala, spokesperson for Educamos said protesters from several island towns would participate in the metro area event. “Threats don’t work, what works is resistance,” she said, adding that parents did not take their children to school.
Education Secretary Julia Keleher later Tuesday said only 6.2 percent of students in the public education system showed up to class. She also said teacher attendance reached 74.2 percent; non-teaching staff, 87.1 percent; directors, 93.2 percent; and employees at the central level, 63 percent.
In addition the 1,110 schools, 44 were locked early Tuesday but opened later. There were demonstrations in eight of them, and four could not be opened because the protesters did not allow it.
University of Puerto Rico students, meanwhile, were protesting a nearly tripling of the cost of credits, and a proposed reform that would affect all workers on the island.
Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. Juan Dalmau said, “There is very relevant context in Puerto Rico because the most penalizing measures of the fiscal control board are aimed precisely at undermining labor rights; the labor reform of last year and the one proposed now, all aimed at penalizing those who have on their shoulders the heavy burden of stimulating the economy of more than a decade of economic depression. However, we have to take advantage of a day like this to be able to say, “Here are a working people, an impoverished people who are saying that is not the path to take, and we are going to confront it.'”
The private sector labor reform bill drafted by the fiscal board proposes the repeal of Act 80, which penalizes unjustified dismissals; making salary component known as the Christmas Bonus optional starting in 2019; limiting vacation and sick leave to seven days a year, respectively, for employees who work at least 130 hours a month, and for local employers with 12 or fewer employees, the minimum monthly accrual for vacation leave would be half a day per month, or a total of six days a year.
The bill would increase the minimum wage starting next year to $7.50 for employees age 25 and older and those not otherwise exempted from federal minimum wage provisions. It would also condition increases to $7.75, $8 and $8.25 to the labor-force participation rate reaching 45%, 50%, and 55%, respectively. The increase would not apply to small and midsize businesses or to employees younger than 25.
It would also amend the anti-retaliation Act 115 to reduce from three years to one year the period during which an employee may file a civil action against their employer.
Meanwhile, the president of the Association of Teachers of Puerto Rico (AMPR), Aida Díaz, said the organizations and the people were giving a lesson of unity when expressing their rejection to the measures of the government and the fiscal board.
“The government of Puerto Rico and all governments have bet that the workers’ movement and the people are not united. Today we are giving a lesson of unity to the governments of Puerto Rico and foreign governments. Unions, people, parents, mothers, children, we are all one voice. Do you know why? Because…those who suffer the consequences of the decisions that are being made by those who do not govern us from abroad, are us,” Díaz said.
“What they are going to leave behind…is a people in misery and we have the duty, the right and the responsibility to defend this country as it has never been done before,” she added.
In a WKAQ radio interview early Tuesday, Chief of Staff William Villafañe acknowledged that the relationship between the government and the fiscal board was “cordial and antagonistic,” adding, “Politeness, does not mean not brave. We disagree with certain policies that have been established since its constitution as a board, but the Promesa law is clear and they have exhibited those powers. The governor has said clearly that there are policies such as cutting [an average 10% of the] pensions, which will not happen, the labor reform they intend to establish will not happen either. This has been made known, not only by our governor, but also through our representative to the board, the lawyer, Christian Sobrino,” he said.
-This report was compiled with Cyber News coverage.