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Vol. 80/No. 41      October 31, 2016

(feature article)

‘Workers in Puerto Rico and US face common enemy’

SWP candidate for president makes solidarity, fact-finding trip to US colony

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — On a nine-day solidarity visit here in late September, Alyson Kennedy, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. president, joined protests against government attacks on the living standards and rights of working people. She exchanged experiences with fighters against U.S. colonial rule, unionists and other workers.

Kennedy addressed the pro-independence Grito de Lares celebration and a rally demanding that Washington release jailed independence fighter Oscar López. She also spoke at events sponsored by university students in San Juan and a public forum in the city of Ponce.

The SWP delegation also included Jacob Perasso and Cynthia Jaquith, the party’s candidates for U.S. Senate in New York and Florida, respectively, and Martín Koppel. We met with leaders of the electrical and water workers unions, and went door to door in working-class neighborhoods to talk with residents.

Everywhere we found eagerness to discuss the capitalist economic and social crisis that is hitting working people hard in this U.S. colony — and interest in meeting members of a revolutionary working-class party from the United States. That interest was reflected in coverage of Kennedy’s visit by the three main daily papers and some TV stations.

Interviewed on a live radio program sponsored by the water workers union, Kennedy said that on her return home she would “tell workers and farmers what we’ve learned from your experiences and struggles. We’ll explain that a successful fight for Puerto Rico’s independence from Washington’s colonial rule is in the interests of working people in the United States, because we face a common enemy — the U.S. government and the capitalist class it represents.”

Students at the University of Puerto Rico invited Kennedy to address a Sept. 21 “Forum Against the Junta.” The topic was how the U.S. government has imposed a hand-picked “fiscal control” board — the junta, as it’s called here — with powers to pay the colonial government’s $70 billion debt to U.S. bondholders by selling off public assets, laying off government employees and outlawing their strikes, and cutting the minimum wage to $4.25 per hour for young workers under 25. U.S. Congress established the board through a law known by its cynical acronym Promesa, Spanish for “promise.”

Protests, debate on debt squeeze

The students warmly applauded when Kennedy said the Socialist Workers Party supports those protesting Promesa and the fiscal board. Later she spoke at a campus meeting sponsored by the youth groups of the Hostos National Independence Movement (MINH) and the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP).

She also visited a permanent encampment outside the U.S. federal courthouse here that young people have kept up since June. One of the signs protesters display at the encampment says, “The problem is not the junta, it’s the colony!”

Dozens of people we met during our visit reminded us of the realities of living under the U.S. colonial boot. Unemployment is high, as indicated by a “labor force participation” rate of less than 44 percent of the adult population. Per capita income is about half of that in Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state.

But the cost of everything from basic food items to gasoline and electricity is higher than in the U.S. Forty percent of the population depends on food stamps, Medicaid or other public assistance.

To pay off the ballooning debt, successive colonial administrations have laid off 30,000 public employees, cut pensions, shut down schools, slashed vital medical services and raised the sales tax to 11.5 percent. Today an estimated 1,200 people leave the island every week for the United States.

One afternoon we went house to house in Villa Palmeras, a working-class neighborhood in San Juan. Kennedy spoke with Gladys López, a retired street cleaner, and her husband Nelson, who works in construction and “whatever job comes my way.” Gladys López said her rent is $300 a month, and her monthly Social Security check is barely $409. She plans to move to Pennsylvania to live with relatives.

Ruth Brito, a domestic worker, invited Kennedy into her living room to chat. Brito, who moved here from the Dominican Republic two decades ago, said she was disgusted with the government’s handling of the debt crisis and thought the new fiscal board might get the economy on a more stable footing than “corrupt politicians” — a view held by many working people.

Brito was interested when Kennedy described how the same capitalist economic crisis hits workers in the United States. She subscribed to the Militant and bought the book Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? Class, Privilege, and Education Under Capitalism, by Socialist Workers Party National Secretary Jack Barnes. “Thank you for your work in defense of the working class,” she told the socialist candidate.

Workers speak on pollution, blackout

We also visited Caño Martín Peña, a large working-class district in San Juan. We were accompanied by Joel Vázquez and José Caraballo, who have been active in a 15-year-long fight to force the government to dredge and clean up a polluted channel that runs through the densely populated area.

Gladys Tirado, whose house is at the water’s edge, said her home and surrounding streets were flooded with sewage-tainted water during heavy rains last April. As a result of the struggle in Caño Martín Peña, her family and others will be relocated to a safer location in the neighborhood.

While we were here, anger at the government was further fueled by a blackout that left much of the island’s population without electrical power, phone service or water, many for three days or more.

At the headquarters of the electrical workers union UTIER, Ricardo Santos, the union secretary for health and safety, told us the blackout was a consequence of the long-term refusal by the government-run Electric Power Authority to spend money on maintenance.

When a fire broke out at one substation, Santos said, other stations were unable to kick in because backup turbines had been shut down to save money — one of the measures proposed by widely despised U.S. “consultant” Lisa Donahue, whose firm is paid more than $20 million a year to help the utility “cut costs” and pay the government debt.

The UTIER leader said the government has been running the electrical company into the ground to justify selling it off to private owners. It is also seeking to weaken the union, which has been part of the resistance to the anti-working-class offensive.

We were also invited by Pedro Irene Maymí, president of the water workers union, UIA, for a discussion at their headquarters with several officials and other union members. They described how the UIA, like UTIER, is in the crosshairs of the capitalist rulers, who seek to privatize the public water utility and deal blows to the union, which has joined the protests against Promesa and the fiscal board.

In face of the economic catastrophe, the two colonial parties that dominate the government — the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which favors the current Commonwealth setup, and the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) — have become deeply discredited. “Many people don’t see much difference between them,” said UIA Secretary Héctor Motta. That’s a big shift in a nation that for decades was polarized between loyalists of one or the other party.

Growing discussions on colonial rule

As a result of this growing political ferment, partisans of Puerto Rico’s independence say they are getting a wider hearing. Rafael Cancel Miranda, one of five Nationalists who served more than 25 years in U.S. prisons for their pro-independence actions, told us that when he goes to the supermarket, people who for years backed one or the other ruling party now come up to him and say, “Don Rafael, you were right all along” about the disastrous effects of colonial rule.

Adrián González, candidate for mayor of San Juan of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, described to us how, “as we go through neighborhoods, people are opening their doors to us who previously never did.” The change is not that many more people are now pro-independence — it’s the openness to discuss and consider new perspectives, González said.

The interest in what socialist workers in the United States are saying and doing was part of the openness we encountered. An example of this was our visit to Ponce, where Kennedy spoke at a public forum at El Candil, a popular bookstore that holds book presentations every Saturday.

That week’s event featured José “Che” Paralitici, author of several books on the history of U.S. repression against the independence movement and of resistance to U.S. military conscription in Puerto Rico. Paralitici welcomed our attendance and told the audience that the Socialist Workers Party has a long history of fighting FBI attacks on the labor movement, going back to the union battles of the 1930s.

After the book presentation, most of the 50 people stayed to hear Kennedy. She was welcomed by local PIP leader Carlos Reyes, and the program began with questions to the socialist candidate by well-known radio host Alfonso Giménez. Then audience members asked questions, ranging from the state of the U.S. union movement to the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump election campaigns, immigrant rights, police brutality and the response to the Socialist Workers Party campaign.

Kennedy explained that the world capitalist economic crisis “has come crashing down on working people in Puerto Rico sooner and harder because of U.S. colonial rule. But it’s hitting us too. And just as you are seeing here, the assaults on our living standards are generating widespread anger by workers in the U.S.

“That’s reflected in the crisis in the two main capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans,” she noted. “Most workers don’t like either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. No matter which one gets elected, nothing is going to change for the better for working people.”

Kennedy underlined that “it’s only through massive struggles that we will change things, that we will transform the unions into strong fighting organizations. Look at the labor struggles of the 1930s, the mass battles for the rights of Blacks in the 1950s and ’60s. Workers need to organize a revolutionary movement that can take political power out of the hands of the capitalist minority in order to reorganize society. We point to Cuba’s socialist revolution as an example.” And as we knock on doors across the country, she added, “we’re finding willingness among workers to consider this perspective.”

Kennedy said, “As you build your fight against colonialism here, it’s going to have a big impact and strengthen the struggles of working class in the United States too. And the other way around too.”

History of anti-colonial resistance

In Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, we learned more about the long history of resistance to U.S. colonial rule, from the 1898 U.S. invasion to today. Jose Escabí, the PIP’s mayoral candidate, took us to a park and statue dedicated to Pedro Albizu Campos, located in the neighborhood where the historic Nationalist Party leader was born.

PIP leader Reyes went with us to the Museum of the Ponce Massacre. It vividly documents the events of March 1937, when cops in Ponce, under orders from U.S. Gov. Blanton Winship, fired on a Nationalist Party parade and killed 19 people.

Escabí also took us to the port in Ponce, where two giant cranes loom, unused since they were built six years ago. They were erected to handle super-sized tankers now coming through the Panama Canal, but the colonial government has suspended the megaport project because capitalist investors don’t consider it profitable enough. The idle cranes stand as a monument to Puerto Rico’s warped colonial economy.

Nearby, we met stevedore Juan Alindato, who told us he earned just $2,000 last year from working on the docks. Only three ships are loaded a month and the work is done in about three days. Alindato supplements his income by making miniature traditional papier-mâché masks to sell to tourists.

Alindato and his wife, Anabel Figueroa, who works with him at their stall, said they have always been “a PPD family.” Now, however, “I’m not sure we’ll vote at all,” he said.

The dockworker got especially interested when he found out Kennedy was a veteran unionist and former coal miner in the United States. He put us on the phone with his local union president to stay in touch and explore future opportunities for solidarity between workers in the two countries.
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Trump, Clinton broadly distrusted by workers
SWP candidate speaks to Wash. high school students
SWP: ‘Standing Rock part of working-class resistance’
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