Puerto Ricans take to the streets to protest austerity cuts
In many parts of the world, the first day of May is known as May Day, or International Workers’ Day. It has become tradition for laborers to gather on this day to demonstrate and protest the status of workers’ rights. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, hundreds and thousands of protesters and demonstrators gathered peacefully to make their crisis known: high tuition, too many school closings, unemployment, lower pension payments, increased economic devastation after hurricane Maria, and the continuation of “undemocratic” austerity measures.
Many of the demonstrators were students from Puerto Rican schools, such as Carlos Cofino, a political science student from the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus. A major concern has led Carlos all the way to the capital on May 1; his tuition is set to rise from $56 per credit hour to $115 per credit hour. However, the tuition hike will not stop there as college is slated to cost students $156 per credit hour within the next five years. Carlos described himself as feeling “overwhelmed” by the austerity measures and wanted to make sure to “let the government know that there are people are who are suffering.”
Carlos and his fellow students are not the only people from schools who are upset; teachers and administrators have a bone-to-pick as well, and many of them attended the May Day demonstrations to voice their troubles. One of the faces in the crowd on May 1 was Mercedes Martinez, the President of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico. Ms. Martinez has been part of an ongoing effort to develop an organized opposition to the policies set forth by the Financial Oversight and Management Board , and implemented by the Puerto Rico Department of Education. Ms. Martinez cites the forced closure of approximately 307 schools before the 2020 fiscal year starts, and an alleged conversion of vacation pay for teachers into millions in cash for the government as her biggest complaints.
Lourdes Torres Santos is a teacher at Republica del Peru, a middle school located in the Puerto Rican capital. On May 1, she decided to join Ms. Martinez in the streets of San Juan to protest the recent decisions and actions of the Oversight Board and Department of Education. Ms. Torres adds that the Department of Education already closed 179 schools in 2017, adding to the mark of 307 closings to come in the next two years. Puerto Rico only has 1,100 schools now, which means that there were 1,279 before the first round of closings. With the second round of closings expected to be at 307, the aggregate number of closings will stand at 486 out of a possible 1,279 schools over a three-year period. In other words, 38% of Puerto Rican public schools will have closed by the start of the fiscal year in 2020. Ms. Torres says that she and her coworkers were made aware of this tragic news by the press, and that many of them were deeply saddened by the troubling revelations. Torres has now come to expect being laid off, and instead of looking forward to a summer of relaxation, she is anxiously counting down the final weeks of school as they are expected to be her last.
Juan de Dios del Valle is already amongst the ranks of the unemployed and has been for a decade. He was let go from his government job in 2008 and has struggled to find steady work since then, making a living off odd-jobs here and there instead. The austerity measures imposed by the FOMB have been tough on Puerto Rico’s more mature demographic; pension cuts and unemployment are at the forefront of what Mr. Dios del Valle and his older compatriots are organizing against. It is already tough enough to make it in a post-hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico, much less as an elderly individual who cannot find work and is witnessing one of his/her only means of income dwindling before their eyes.
These are glimpses of stories behind some of the individuals who attended the May Day protests. Many of these people have dealt with the effects of economic demise for quite some time now, and are nervous that the future holds much of the same, or worse. As the solstice comes beckoning upon our part of the world, two things hold true for Puerto Ricans: schools will start to close for the summer and hurricanes will begin to manifest for the season opener. The inevitability of these events will scarcely waiver, even in the midst of austerity measures. But, when the summer slips away into equinox, and the fear of hurricanes begin to fade, the children and teachers must return to school once again. However, it may not be a hurricane that has schools closed this time…austerity measures abide.