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Marchers demand Puerto Rico’s freedom

Protest marks one year since Hurricane Maria

Catherine McGloin
Marchers demand Puerto Rico’s freedom
Activists and community members marched from the South End to hedge fund manager Seth Klarman’s offices in Back Bay, carrying a full-size casket and banners. Photo: Catherine McGloin

Activists calling for the “decolonization of Puerto Rico” marched through the South End last Thursday in protest against the U.S. government and to mourn the thousands of lives lost since Hurricane Maria hit last year.

Protestors carry signs with Hurricane Maria’s death toll, 4,645 and counting, according to a report released in May by Harvard University. Photo: Catherine McGloin

Protestors carry signs with Hurricane Maria’s death toll, 4,645 and counting, according to a report released in May by Harvard University. Photo: Catherine McGloin

Members from the event’s 12 co-sponsor groups, including the Boston crew of Mijente, the nationwide Latinx collective that issued the initial call for action, rallied alongside survivors and those directly impacted by Hurricane Maria, in Betances Plaza on West Dedham Street at around 6 p.m. Sept. 20. Protestors marched from the South End to the offices of Seth Klarman, an investor and hedge fund manager who owns a large amount of Puerto Rico’s national debt, before gathering at St. Stephen’s Church on Shawmut Avenue to share their experiences and remember those who have died in the 12 months since the storm.

“This event is a space to mourn, to heal and to hold each other, because although many lives have been lost, we’re still here and we’re still fighting,” said Vero Navarro, a BPS teacher at Blackstone Elementary School and an organizer with Mijente.

Activists, including members from AgitArte, the Raíces Borikén Collective and United American Indians of New England, called for an end to what they see as the colonization of Puerto Rico by the U.S. government through decades of oppressive policies and economic exploitation.

“We want freedom from the U.S.,” said Navarro. “Puerto Ricans are oppressed citizens without the ability to vote for president, with no vote in Congress.”

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, but residents were not granted full citizenship until 1917. Jenniffer Aydin González-Colón is currently the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, and the island’s one non-voting representative in Congress.

Many protesters agreed with Navarro, who said that the federal response to Hurricane Maria was another example of the government’s “ongoing sabotage and woeful neglect of Puerto Rico.”

Chronic underfunding by the U.S. government exacerbated Hurricane Maria’s impact, particularly on the island’s infrastructure, Navarro added. It took 11 months for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to return electricity to the majority of homes.

“This disaster was not a natural disaster, this was a manmade disaster,” said Jasmine Gomez, co-founder of the Raíces Borikén Collective. “This event is not just a reaction to the hurricane, but an acknowledgement of a history of oppression.”

This history includes enactment of the Jones Act, protectionist legislation from the 1920s that mandates all goods transported between U.S. ports must be shipped on vessels that are primarily American-owned, a policy that severely hindered relief efforts following Hurricane Maria.

Decolonization, to advocates and members of the Puerto Rican community, also means the dissolution of the Fiscal Control Board (FCB), also known as “la junta,” the unelected body nominated by Congress to help restructure Puerto Rico’s outstanding $73 billion debt and encourage economic growth. The FCB was established under the 2016 federal Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA).

“PROMESA is a terrible colonizing policy,” said Gomez, who believes that FCB decisions have led to further economic exploitation of Puerto Rico.

One of the fiscal board’s most controversial restructuring policies was to reduce the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $4.25 an hour for workers in Puerto Rico aged 25 and under. Continued underfunding of education means that more than 400 schools have closed since 2016, and the FCB has slashed the University of Puerto Rico’s budget by $201 million. As more homes are foreclosing, being bought by U.S. and other foreign investors, Gomez said the political dynamic between Puerto Rico and the U.S. is “shifting from colonial in nature, to settler colonial,” which also involves the privatization of precious resources.

In June, Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, signed a bill privatizing the island’s power grid. But electricity is not the only facility falling into private hands. Roads, ports and water systems are all up for grabs, as are the island’s world-famous beaches.

“That’s all they use us for, is for our beaches, is for tourism,” said Maritza Agrait, a retired occupational therapist and one of about 100 protestors at the Boston rally carrying signs printed with pictures of coffins, whose Puerto Rican family members’ prospects were ruined by Maria.

Her brother left Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit because he was unable to get the cardiac care and medical assistance he needed. He was one of the few who managed to leave the island early on and has relocated, like three of Agrait’s cousins, to Florida. One of her cousins was a farmer whose entire crop of plantains and cilantro was destroyed by the storm. Agrait told the Banner that even after rebuilding his farm, the island’s continued reliance on imported produce from countries like China means her cousin is still struggling to rebuild his business.

“The results are as expected,” said Gomez. “People on the ground are being hurt, while hedge fund folk are getting their timely payments.”

The group set off for the Back Bay offices of the Baupost Group, a hedge fund managed by investor Seth Klarman that owns $900 million of Puerto Rican sales-tax bonds. The FCB last month approved an agreement to restructure Puerto Rico’s sales-tax bond debt, reducing this class of debt by 32 percent. A federal court judge overseeing the island’s bankruptcy case is expected to sign off on the deal Oct. 15.

While taper candles were handed out for the procession to St. Stephen’s Church, where healing ceremonies were performed, Gomez thanked the collective effort of event coordinators, recognizing the diversity of the groups present and the shared experience of oppression across the world.

“If we don’t do the work now to break these cycles of abuse, they’ll continue to happen,” said Gomez. “When they bury us they forget, we are seeds and we will grow.”

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