University students across Puerto Rico organized a national strike that sparked demonstrations and protests on May 1, 2017, as reported by David Cordero, Sarah Vázquez, and Ronald Ávila Claudio for the Metro. The strike, el Paro Nacional, resulted from public outrage over announced austerity measures affecting education and pensions, as well as outrage over the lack of transparency in the process through which those measures were approved. Due to a mass promotion effort, multiple civic organizations, student groups, and individual citizens came together to stop all work and engage in protest.
The austerity measures, including $512 million in cuts to university funding, were to be implemented by a fiscal joint committee, la Junta de Control Fiscal, as part of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), a US federal law responding to the island’s fiscal crisis. PROMESA, introduced by Representative Sean Duffy (R-WI) on May 18, 2016 and signed into law by President Barack Obama on June 30, 2016, established the joint committee as “an Oversight Board with broad powers of budgetary and financial control over Puerto Rico.”
University students, labor unions, and civic groups requested an audit of the government accounts to justify the austerity cuts because a public oversight commission, la Auditoría Integral del Crédito Público (CAICP) found nearly $40 billion in illegal debt in 2016. As Charlie Cooper reported for the Nation, this “extra-constitutional’ debt was saddled with predatory interest rates or ‘toxic’ interest-rate swaps.”
However, Governor Ricardo Roselló prevented further auditing by discontinuing CAICP through legislation, Ley 3, which he signed January 23, 2017. In response, the island’s government received 100,000 petitions the following month demanding that auditing resume, as Adriana De Jesús Salamán reported in Diálogo UPR. Subsequently, students began a movement that “shut down university operations since March,” according to Cooper, and formed protests commencing in mid-April in front of the island’s Capitol against the austerity measures and for the restitution of CAICP.
Due to these protests’ impact, as Cindy Burgos Alvarado reported for Caribbean Business, the Puerto Rican senate approved a resolution “to request the Comptroller General of the United States to audit the public debt of Puerto Rico based on what is established in section 411 of the federal PROMESA law.” Alvarado explained that “the report will not be an audit like the one presented by the Audit Commission for Public Credit, but a report that would not go into details of how the debt was issued.” The short answer is that protesters’ demands for a detailed audit would not be met, which is why the massive strike and demonstrations took place on May 1st, 2017.
Since Ley 3 also froze government salary raises, made cuts to school transportation, and severely limited the extent public-sector unions could participate in labor negotiations, as reported by Gloria Ruiz Kuilan in El Nuevo Día, students expanded the scope of the protest, allowing them to collaborate with other public interest groups such as the Brotherhood of Exempt Non-Teared Employees (HEND), the Central Federation of Workers, the Puerto Rican Union of Workers (SPT), the General Union of Workers (UGT), and the Union of Workers of the Electrical and Irrigation Industry (UTIER), as mentioned in the Metro’s coverage of the national strike. Puerto Ricans came together to protest the Puerto Rican government’s lack of transparency and the forceful imposition of the austerity measures by La Junta without an audit.
US corporate media coverage of this massive strike has been close to nonexistent. When the commonwealth entirely shut down, corporate media didn’t bat an eye; when a referendum of the territory’s future status was conducted with a low voter turnout, it was covered by CNN. This reflects the invisibility of a people who refused to be silenced through a colonial rule euphemized as a “commonwealth.”
David Cordero, Sarah Vázquez, and Ronald A. Claudio, “Paro nacional: contundente manifestación en contra de las medidas de austeridad,” Metro, May 02, 2017, https://www.metro.pr/pr/noticias/2017/05/01/paro-nacional-contundente-manifestacion-medidas-austeridad.html.
Ed Morales. “Students Are Now Leading the Resistance to Austerity in Puerto Rico,” The Nation, April 27, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/students-are-now-leading-the-resistance-to-austerity-in-puerto-rico/.
Cindy Burgos Alavarado, “Sen. Seilhamer: The debt will be audited,” Caribbean Business, April 19, 2017, http://caribbeanbusiness.com/sen-seilhamer-the-debt-will-be-audited/.
Adriana De Jesús Salamán, “Gobernador y cuerpo legislativo reciben 100 mil peticiones para auditar la deuda,” Diálogo UPR, February 22, 2017, http://dialogoupr.com/gobernador-y-cuerpo-legislativo-reciben-100-mil-peticiones-para-auditar-la-deuda/.
Gloria Ruiz Kuilan, “Cero aumentos para empleados hasta el 2021,” El Nuevo Día, January 30, 2017. https://www.elnuevodia.com/noticias/locales/nota/ceroaumentosparaempleadoshastael2021-2285882/
Student Researcher: Christian Andino Borrero (Syracuse University)
Faculty Evaluators: Chad Seader & Jeff Simmons (Syracuse University)