SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Thousands of demonstrators swarmed Puerto Rico’s financial hub last Thursday, blocking highways and setting fires in the streets of the capital to protest massive layoffs of government workers.
As a sea of people waved flags and banners, sound trucks blasted chants criticizing Gov. Luis Fortuno, who says the dismissal of more than 20,000 public employees is necessary to close a $3.2 billion deficit and pull the economy out of a three-year recession.
“This government wants to take food out of people’s mouths,” said Hanser Moreno, 54, who owns a restaurant in the college town of Rio Piedras. He carried a homemade sign saying, “The people deserve respect.”
Labor unions, business owners and others supporting the dismissed workers converged on the Caribbean’s largest shopping center, Plaza Las Americas, which closed for the day because of security concerns. In the capital’s nearby banking district, hundreds of trucks honked as they rolled slowly past gleaming office towers.
Traffic was light elsewhere in the capital as unions of public and private employees answered the call for a one-day general strike. San Juan’s international airport was operating as usual and hotels were not affected, said Jaime Lopez Diaz, director of Puerto Rico’s tourism company.
The governor, who took office earlier this year, defended the job cuts.
“There are many difficult personal stories created by layoffs like this. However, without these layoffs the government would face future deficits that would affect thousands more workers, inside and outside of government,” Fortuno said in a statement.
Puerto Rico has a jobless rate of 15.8 percent — higher than any U.S. state or territory. That is expected to rise to 17.1 percent once most of the layoffs take effect in November.
Sergio Marxuach, an analyst with the Center for the New Economy think tank, said it is too early to tell whether the government plan will work, but he predicted that in the short term, at least, the layoffs will deepen the recession.
“You can expect a lot of those laid off government workers to actually expect more in government service. For example they might have to take their kids out of private school and send to public schools,” Marxuach said. “The net effect for savings in government may not be realized.’”
Roughly 15,000 police were assigned to the protests, according to superintendent Jose Figueroa Sancha.
Officers cleared blockades from two highways, but there were no immediate reports of violence.
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