LATINO VOICES

Puerto Rico's Massive Anti-Austerity Protests Ignored By U.S. Mainland Media

05/16/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Students in Puerto Rico launched mass protests this week against the governor's attempt to slash some $166 million from the University of Puerto Rico’s budget. That's about one-fifth of the funding for the island's main public university system.

College students and their supporters flooded the streets in the capitol of San Juan on Wednesday, where they were met by a police presence that included a SWAT team. A video posted to Facebook by one of the activists appeared to show a police officer striking a protester with a baton.

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Lo pongo por aquí por aquello de que somos “violentos”. El primer macanazo del día está como al minuto 1:15.El video está público ahora ya que muchos lo están compartiendo pero quiero también aclarar que mi intención con publicarlo no es condenar a la Policía de Puerto Rico. El Nuevo Día ayer dejó entender que los estudiantes fueron los primeros en ejercer violencia física y la intención del video es que quede en récord que los estudiantes hicieron un llamado a la paz en todo momento. Aprovecho también para dejar claro que la mayoría del cuerpo de oficiales allí presente se comportó con respeto hacia los manifestantes, salvo por aquel que primero soltó el macanazo y el otro que usó pepper spray. Ellos están allí haciendo su trabajo y posiblemente algunos simpatizan con nosotros. Como me dijo uno de los oficiales: "No es personal".

Posted by Jorge L Falcón Garrido on Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The head of Puerto Rico’s police force, Superintendent José Caldero López, defended his department’s handling of the situation.

“We established a perimeter where we always do during protests,” Caldero told reporters Thursday, adding, “We have a plan of action and we’re prepared to protect everyone.”

Protesters chanted, “We are students, we’re not criminals,” in front of a police perimeter in Old San Juan on Wednesday, May 13.

Tensions flared even higher on Wednesday after reports that an explosive had detonated near the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza. No one was hurt by it, and police later described it as a small, improvised “chemical bomb” made of a soda bottle filled with acid and a piece of aluminum, according to Puerto Rican daily El Nuevo Día. Police said they did not know whether the explosion was directly related to the protests.

Student leader Chris Torres Lugo, who attended the protest, balked at the possibility that the explosion was linked to the students. “We don’t have much information concerning the ‘explosive’ and it comes directly from the police, which makes us doubtful of its accuracy,” he told The Huffington Post.

Whoever was responsible, the widely read Latino Rebels blog questioned why the explosion hadn’t received more attention in the English-language media.

“There were no injuries, but we do think that if a bomb-like device had gone off near where an elected official on the mainland was, it would be on a 24/7 constant loop coverage,” Latino Rebels wrote Thursday.

The proposed university cuts were part of a package of $1.5 billion in government spending cuts, proposed by Gov. Alejandro García Padilla amid budget shortfalls and a growing debt crisis -- not to mention the mounting tensions with the public.

On Thursday, the García Padilla administration managed to cobble together an agreement with legislators to stave off some cuts by raising the island’s sales tax from 7 percent to 11.5 percent and adding a value-added tax of 4 percent on services currently exempted from taxation. García Padilla did not announce which specific services would fall under the new tax, but said the health and education sectors would remain exempt, according to The Associated Press.

The new proposal would boost revenue by $1.2 billion, the governor said, though the tentative agreement still contains some $500 million in spending cuts. Puerto Rico’s legislature will vote on the plan Monday. While the governor’s Popular Democratic Party, which is traditionally aligned with mainland Democrats, holds a majority in both houses, the question of whether to impose the value-added tax has divided the party in recent months.

By Friday, the student protests had generally calmed, though many were still unhappy with the latest budget plan. Students at the University of Puerto Rico campus in Rio Piedras called a 48-hour student strike starting on Thursday, while the Mayagüez campus planned a similar strike on Friday.

Puerto Rico has spent eight years struggling through a crippling recession. The island’s unemployment rate stands at 13.7 percent, more than double the U.S. average of 5.4 percent. It's also on the hook for $72 billion in public debt, most of which is held by U.S. investors.

Along with years of financial mismanagement, many point to an initial round of austerity measures in 2009 by then-Gov. Luis Fortuño as a tipping point. To avoid a looming government shutdown and further downgrades from credit agencies, Fortuño took an ax to the public sector. His administration laid off 17,000 public employees and passed legislation allowing the government to suspend union contracts and collective bargaining rights. The pro-statehood Republican also lowered corporate tax rates to attract private investment, with mixed results.

Now García Padilla, a staunch critic of Fortuño’s policy moves, faces strong political and public opposition to his proposed tax increases. The governor’s plan to attract private investment through tax incentives for the wealthy has yet to turn the island’s economy around.

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