Protests break out in Puerto Rico as frustration grows


Protests break out in Puerto Rico as frustration grows

By Ariana Portalatin

While many celebrate the arrival of summer and take advantage of the warmer weather, Puerto Ricans worry about their survival as they prepare for another hurricane season nearly a year after Hurricane Maria ripped apart the island in September 2017.

Thousands gathered in the capital of San Juan May 1 to protest the island’s struggles following the hurricane and devastating $72 billion debt crisis.

Puerto Rico still has not recovered from Hurricane Maria and there is no end in sight, especially with the looming possibility of another storm striking the island and crippling the slight progress that’s been made. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates Hurricane Maria caused $90 billion in damage and is the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, behind 2005’s Katrina and 2017’s Harvey, which hit the Southern U.S. coast just before Maria.

In the seven months following the hurricane, more than 96 percent of residents had their power restored. However, more than 40,000 residents are still without electricity and several major power outages have continued in addition to an absence of clean water and medicine.

Puerto Rico’s Department of Education announced plans to close 280 of about 1,100 public schools on the island this summer after 179 schools closed last year. The University of Puerto Rico also more than doubled its tuition from $56 per credit to $115.

According to a May 1 New York Times article, protesters feared policy decisions such as these would decimate what remained of the island’s middle class and force even more residents to leave. 

With all this affecting the island, the protests and anger from Puerto Ricans need little explanation. 

Protesters marched through the island’s financial district with black flags and bandanas over their faces chanting “They won’t stop us!” and were eventually met by police in riot gear. A scuffle reportedly led the police to fall back and use tear gas and rubber bullets against residents, leading to 13 arrests and 15 police officer injuries.

“Freedom of expression cannot come at the expense of people’s safety and well being,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said during a May 1 news conference. “This kind of violence damages the good name of Puerto Rico.” 

While violence should be avoided as much as possible, with few options left and escalating anger, what else can be expected? The hurricane wiped out electricity throughout the island, but it is the U.S. government who has left Puerto Ricans in the dark.

Puerto Rico’s decade-old recession led Congress to pass a law in 2016 allowing the U.S. territory to seek protection from its creditors but established the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico with immense power over the island’s finances. The board has demanded cuts to the island’s government pensions, public health programs and schools.

Although Rosselló said he shared residents’ frustrations with the board, the government has agreed to implement most of the measures. The decisions are meant to lessen the effects of the ongoing debt crisis. However, decreased resources still put citizens at a major disadvantage and the long-term effects are extremely questionable. 

Residents are speaking out against the lack of government support, but who is listening?