NEW YORK — Protestors gathered outside the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House on the morning of December 17 to confront Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) at its 31st open-to-the-public meeting.
A coalition of Puerto Rican independence groups has denounced the FOMB’s Plan of Adjustment, criticized the board’s continued imposition of austerity policies, and demanded that Puerto Rico be given control of its own destiny. It also ridiculed Gov. Pierluisi for his ties to the luxury real estate industry and his support for Puerto Rican statehood.
Groups and activists that participated in the demonstration include A Call to Action on Puerto Rico, Colectiva Solidaridad, Jornada de Se Acabaron las Promesas, ProLibertad, New York Boricua Resistance, labor and community activist David Galarza, and Dr. Drum from BombaYo.
Before the meeting, demonstrators held a banner in front of the custom house that read (in Spanish and English): “We bring machetes to the vultures and say get out of my island.” Protesters raised their fists while one man played the super güiro. Another could be seen waving the Puerto Rican flag.
“The United States continues to profit off of the colonial status of Puerto Rico and the fiscal control board is part of that,” Jocelyn Velazquez, a spokesperson for Jornada de Se Acabaron las Promesas, said in a press release.
In order to attend the meeting, members of the public had to register in advance “with their full information … and the floor was not open to the public until the very end for a short period of time, “the press release stated.
Protesters disrupted the meeting on three separate occasions. Two of the three disruptions resulted in the expulsion of two individuals from the premises. One person sustained injuries after police allegedly strangled them, leaving marks on their neck.
— Jornada: SALP (@JSALPPR) December 17, 2021
“It’s all an illusion of democracy … and that was highlighted during the meeting that we were at,” Christopher Rivera, an organizer with New York Boricua Resistance who attended the meeting, told Latino Rebels. “You had to provide your ID number in order to even register and you had to register by a certain time or you wouldn’t be allowed to get into the meeting in the first place.”
One protestor scrutinized the FOMB for implementing austerity policies and invoked Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, saying that “you cannot squeeze a stone and expect water to come out.” Stiglitz has stated that the Plan of Adjustment will leave Puerto Rico with an unsustainable level of debt. Despite this, Gov. Pierluisi and members of the FOMB claimed that they are “at the cusp” of completing the debt restructuring process.
Three things Nobel Laureate in Economics Stiglitz told Puerto Rico:
– Current restructuring proposal will leave PR with unsustainable level of debt
– Act 22 is not a good development strategy
– PR is at a disadvantage because it can’t determine its own destiny under U.S. rule?
— Bianca Graulau (@bgraulau) December 6, 2021
“As the restructuring process comes to a close, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to use this fresh start to move the island forward to the successful modern economy that we all know it is capable of becoming,” Pierluisi said at the meeting.
“It is unclear whether this “fresh start” will positively impact the people of Puerto Rico.
“Puerto Ricans have been forced to leave in search for better opportunities with the hope that, someday, they will be able to return,” Cyn Rodriguez, an organizer with Colectiva Solidaridad, told Latino Rebels.
In April 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the archipelago’s population “fell 11.8 percent to 3.3 million over the past decade.”
Shortly after the meeting commenced, FOMB Executive Director Natalie Jaresko outlined the current Plan of Adjustment. Oddly enough, Jaresko and the FOMB applauded Detroit for its response to debt restructuring despite the fact that the process resulted in widespread evictions across the city.
Detroit has shown that economies do respond to debt restructurings and fiscal sustainability: growth returned, household incomes rose, unemployment declined, and poverty levels fell. PR can get there too. #FOMBPublicMeeting
— Financial Oversight & Mgmt Board for Puerto Rico (@FOMBPR) December 17, 2021
Look at how well Detroit turned out ?
The argument the US colonial junta ?? is making to defend the multigenerational austerity they wanna impose on Puerto Rico ??
— Andrew J. Padilla ?? (@apadillafilm6) December 17, 2021
FOMB Chairman David A. Skeel Jr. claimed that he and other board members were “listening” and “not in speaking mode” during the meeting, even though it focused mainly on presentations from the board, Puerto RicoDepartment of Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel Cidre Miranda, Invest Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority (P3), and Discover Puerto Rico. They emphasized the importance of foreign investment in the archipelago.
More privatization is slated for Puerto Rico in 2022. In 2020, P3 established both a 15-year contract with Luma Energy and a 23-year contract with HMS Ferries. P3 plans on facilitating the “modernization” of the San Juan Cruise Port Terminal as well as a private project for student housing at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez campus.
Invest Puerto Rico CEO Rod Miller spoke about the advertising campaign “Game Changers, Welcome Home,” which launched in November 2021 following a multi-million-dollar injection of CDBG-DR funds. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), CDBG-DR funds “can only be spent to meet the recovery needs caused by” disasters. Much of Miller’s presentation was about “closing deals” and ensuring a “turnkey user experience” for investors. He used words like “game-changers” and “innovators” to describe high-yield individuals and companies with buying power that are coming to Puerto Rico to benefit from Act 60 tax incentives.
“People who advocated for [Act 60] said [it] would bring investments to the people of Puerto Rico, that it would move the economy, that it would create jobs. In practice … it doesn’t seem like it has delivered on its promises,” Puerto Rican journalist Bianca Graulau said last week on Latino Rebels Radio. “It’s not a level playing field.”
By continuing to advocate for independence and educating the public about the neocolonial reality that exists in Puerto Rico on social media, organizers have sought to dismantle the prevailing narrative that often depicts the United States as a benevolent force rather than an occupying power.
The coalition has also organized protests and other forms of direct action while making information about current affairs in Puerto Rico “more accessible to the people.” Rivera, New York Boricua Resistance, said that New York Puerto Ricans (commonly known as Nuyoricans) and the Diaspora at large have a responsibility to follow the lead of their allies in the archipelago.
“I feel like a lot of people are becoming hip to the game as more and more exploitation happens in Puerto Rico,” Rivera told Latino Rebels, adding that the New York-based coalition will “continue to increase the power of the people through mass organization.”
James Baratta is a freelance journalist graduating from Ithaca College in May 2022 with a B.A. in journalism. He has written for Common Dreams, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, and Truthout, among others. Twitter: @jamesjbaratta