University of Puerto Rico students and workers march
SAN JUAN – In what should be a celebration of the island’s workforce during International Workers’ Day, Puerto Rico rose Monday with what may become one of the most evident demonstration in rejecting of the government’s public policy, the imposition of a fiscal control board and the measures proposed by both.
Under the motto “Hit the street May 1: In defense of labor rights, education and the dignity of the people,” various groups gathered early Monday at the main gate of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), in Río Piedras, to begin the walk toward the World Plaza building in San Juan’s financial district, home to the offices of the fiscal oversight board in the heart of Hato Rey.
It was about 8:13 a.m. when the first murmurs of protest began to appear. Although quiet at the beginning of the unusual morning, little by little the call to fight against the multimillion-dollar cut to the island’s public university began to encourage demonstrators.
The university community and the Plastic Arts Association, as well as members of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU by its Spanish acronym), the Federation of Puerto Rican Workers (FTPR), the Brotherhood of Non-Teaching Employees (Heend), the Citizen Front for the Audit of the Debt and other groups joined to set out.
The distinctive chants that have resonated frequently in the recent protests echoed in the street packed with students, teachers and others. APPU Vice President Javier Córdova told Caribbean Business that the government’s objection to re-evaluate the proposed cut to the UPR will result in serious conflict.
“We hope to bring a clear message to the fiscal board and the governor [Ricardo Rosselló] that they have to reevaluate all these austerity policies that will do so much harm to the country’s essential services,” he said, assuring the university sector will continue its fight after Monday’s strike through various initiatives.
The demonstration began to take shape when students and workers moved to the middle of the street to encourage those present by chanting, (roughly translated) “From north to south, from east to west, this struggle continues whatever the cost,” and “Students and workers, united we’ll overcome.” Quickly, the law enforcement officers at the scene were forced to stop the traffic at the other end of the street as the demonstrators expressed themselves.
Heend President José Torres urged people to raise awareness about the government and the fiscal control board’s “abuse,” while emphasizing that the only way to stop it is through large protests in which the people unite as a single voice to express their dissatisfaction with the policies of the island’s leaders.
In a brief televised message Friday, the governor warned that his administration has a zero-tolerance policy for any protester who engages in vandalism, violence or any crime when exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression, adding that those who break the law “will pay the consequences.”
The day before his message, the governor enacted legislation that reduces public employee vacation leave to 15 days, suspends the payment of double overtime in exchange for compensatory time and limits the Christmas bonus to $600, among other measures.
“They [the government] are stubborn, they are people who do not respond to our interests. What they respond to is an interest in extreme capitalism and [large business interest groups], and they are not interested in the working people…. We hope the strength of the people will make them change,” Torres said.