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Puerto Rico Needs Help: Unelected Fiscal Board Pushes Austerity as Island Continues Slow Recovery

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It’s been almost eight months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and at least 30,000 homes in Puerto Rico still lack power. As anti-austerity protests hit San Juan, we speak to Giovanni Roberto, director of the Center for Political Development in Puerto Rico.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, from those streets to our New York studio, we’re joined by Giovanni Roberto. He’s director of the Center for Political Development in Puerto Rico, an umbrella organization that sets up community kitchens after Hurricane Maria and now has 10 mutual aid centers throughout the island. He’s on tour now to raise awareness and meet with members of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Giovanni, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It must be very odd for you to be here in New York when this mass protest took place in Puerto Rico.


AMY GOODMAN: But explain what you’re confronting now. I mean, we’re talking Hurricane Maria more than six months ago, but you had another mass blackout in Puerto Rico just in the last weeks.

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah, exactly. And we are probably facing the new season of hurricanes, so we have an unstable situation in Puerto Rico, as you say, a lot of people still without energy and basic needs. So, from part of the mutual aid center, we are trying to get ready our centers, to be solar panels, to have water, to get ready, because what we see now is that the crisis is going to increase. What the board is doing is going to increase the crisis. And Maria gave us a glimpse of what is going to look like Puerto Rico in the next few years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, when you mentioned what the board is doing, there’s been very little attention here in the U.S. media about the oversight control board. There was more attention to the impact of the hurricane. But the board now is facing the fact that even the governor of Puerto Rico and most of the Legislature now is in open rebellion against its demands. Could you talk about that? Because the governor, Ricky Rosselló, originally was supportive of the board coming in, but now he’s saying, “You’re acting illegally. I’m opposed to the pension cuts.” Could you talk about that?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah. Well, that’s what he said. But, actually, what he’s doing is not different from what the board is doing. Because they know that the people are in need, and the politicians need, you know, some support by the people. But when you see the actual act that they’re sending to the Congress or to the local representatives, they’re sending really similar kind of law. So, what we are expecting—you know, the privatization of schools, the privatization of the energy and the cutting in labor rights—are going to put people in more need. So that’s why we are here in the United States, making people here aware of what’s happening in Puerto Rico, you know, because international press disappeared now from Puerto Rico, but people are still in need a lot there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the—what about the austerity measures that are being implemented? How many schools now have been closed again, after several hundred were closed previously?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah. We have to remember that Puerto Rico has been in a recession, a crisis, since 2006. So, these austerity measures have been being implemented in Puerto Rico for the last 10 years to 12. In the last five years, more than 500 schools have been shut down. This year, they’re trying to shut down 283 schools. They’re saying that it’s because there is a depopulation of the island, but if you shut down most of the schools, mainly elementary schools, you’re pushing people out of Puerto Rico. So that’s the main reason. You know, people are being pushed out of Puerto Rico because of the austerity measures. And they have already cut the pensions of teachers and other workers, public workers, in Puerto Rico. So they’re pushing people to poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this latest news of a number of unions in Puerto Rico and other groups suing the federal control board over the U.S. territory’s finances? They are saying that it should be declared unconstitutional, this coming after the board approved these fiscal plans with new austerity measures that the governor has refused to implement?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah, because the retired people have rights. You know, they worked their whole life, 30 years or plus, because they were expecting to retire and to have, you know, rights. So, they’re changing that. It’s a contract between workers and the government, and that contract, they cannot change it. You know, it’s illegal. It’s unconstitutional. And I hope the courts can attend the case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the resistance? Obviously, after—especially after Hurricane Maria, there was the development of all of these grassroots efforts of people helping themselves. Could you talk your organization’s work with these mutual groups at the neighborhood and local level?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah. Even before Maria, we had Irma, too. And people know from the reaction and from what the government has abandoned the people, that there’s no other way to get out of the crisis but to act ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Hurricane Irma devastated Puerto Rico, as well?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah, devastated a part. It actually awake—it awake a lot of the people. It didn’t devastate the island, but we were more ready. Because of Irma, we were more ready to Maria. So, across the island, you know, thousands of people were acting by themselves, organizing community. We, in Caguas, we started a mutual aid center, and we started a discussion with other activists throughout the island that we should do organizing on a grassroots level with the mutual aid principles and philosophy of helping the people, but also ask people to help themselves. We don’t want to do charity, because we know charity transmits passive attitude in people. A lot of the government, what they do is, you know, they throw food for a week, and then they disappear. We want a long-term change in Puerto Rico, so we need long-term organizations in Puerto Rico, too.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, the only blackout in world history bigger than Puerto Rico’s is the one that came after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in 2013. About 6.1 billion hours of power were lost after that massive storm. And, Juan, you just gave a major speech on Puerto Rico and follow this very closely. We’re talking about so many months, well over half a year. What do you think is most important to understand about what’s happened in Puerto Rico right now and how the island is going to come out of this? We just had this hour discussion on the Bitcoin industry moving in.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I mean, to me, the key thing to understand is not only that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, but it is now a colony for which the United States has no interest in. It can’t make money out of the colony the way it used to. I mean, it can still make finances, financial money, Wall Street money, Bitcoin money, but it’s no longer the cheap labor resource it used to be. It’s no longer the extractive industry that it used to be. And it’s no longer the military bastion that the United States needed during the Cold War. So you have a situation where you’ve got this strange situation of you’re holding a colony, you really don’t want the colony, but you don’t know what to do with it. And that’s, I think, the problem that Congress is facing, and then, of course, that the Puerto Rican people have to deal with the fact that they’re still a U.S. territory, but they’re not being treated anywhere near how other U.S. citizens are. And that’s the big dilemma of how to move forward. And you don’t want the people of the island to determine their own destiny, but you also don’t want to assume responsibility for holding it captive.

AMY GOODMAN: And I assume Trump doesn’t want the massive number, the hundreds of thousands, of Puerto Ricans moving from the island, where they can’t vote for president, to moving to the continental United States, where they can—for example, in Florida—changing the demographics of places like Florida, because they would most likely vote Democrat.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’m interested, Giovanni, where you think things go from here, because for a while there wasn’t a sign of massive resistance to what was going on. Now, with this May Day protest and others, you’re beginning to see people getting their second breath and beginning to organize again. Where do you think it goes from here?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah, I think we are going to see in the next week a couple of struggles, especially in teachers. They are going to face, and they are going to strike against, the privatization of schools. And I think that might help to increase confidence in people. You know, after the traumatic situation like the disaster after Maria, it was hard to talk to people about struggling, about striking, about protesting. But now that things have passed, and months and months after Maria we see the situation in the same level, I think more people are going to be willing to protest and to be out there striking and other things.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, talking about determining the politics of the continental United States, the conservative Republican governor of Florida, where so many hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are going, has just said he supports making Puerto Rico the nation’s 51st state. He said the United States should “respect the will of the people of Puerto Rico.” It sounds like he understands they’re going to be voting in the next election, where, I believe, he’s running for Senate. Is that right?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: There’s a lot of politicians in the U.S. paying attention now to Puerto Rico. I think Cuomo was in Puerto Rico within the last weekend.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I think it’s his third or fourth trip that he’s made there, yes.

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah. So, they’re paying attention to the Puerto Ricans now. And they don’t want the people to be in Puerto Rico, but they want Puerto Rico for them. They want the place, the land.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll continue to cover this issue, of course. Giovanni, you mentioned teachers, and we’re going to move on to what’s happening with teachers in Arizona right now, tens of thousands continuing to protest. Giovanni Roberto is director of the Center for Political Development in Puerto Rico, an umbrella organization that set up community kitchens after Hurricane Maria and now has 10 mutual aid centers throughout the island, on tour now to raise awareness and meet with members of the Puerto Rican diaspora. When we were just recently in Puerto Rico, one of the things we saw in the midst of the devastation is that the mutual aid groups, even—well, much more so than FEMA, were the ones that were there for the people, that people were depending on.

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah, and depending on people’s support from the States, from the diaspora, which is really important for us, people-to-people support.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Giovanni, thanks so much.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, teachers strike in Arizona. Stay with us.

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