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Vol. 81/No. 42      November 13, 2017

(special feature)

Disaster for working people in Puerto Rico continues to unfold

Tens of thousands of homes destroyed. Most of the island still without electricity. Washington dispensing aid with an eyedropper. A decision to stop counting the growing number of dead from the storm. This is the social catastrophe for working people in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico weeks after hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Washington’s bipartisan Financial Oversight and Management Board, known in Puerto Rico as the junta, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2016 to squeeze the island’s workers to pay Puerto Rico’s $74 billion debt to profit-hungry bondholders. It is not looking to cut working people there any breaks.

At its meeting in San Juan Oct. 31, board members said they face a problem because tax collections are down in the wake of the hurricanes and thousands of workers are leaving the island.

Junta Executive Director Natalie Jaresko — whose credentials include forcing concessions on working people in Ukraine to meet the terms of International Monetary Fund loans there — has a solution: accelerate government “rightsizing.” That’s their code word for more layoffs of government employees, reducing the workweek and pay, slashing government services and using the “savings” to pay down on the bonds.

In fact the debt just got bigger! After Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced that the effects of the storms meant there wasn’t enough cash on hand to pay public workers through the end of the year, the U.S. Congress responded by approving a new $4.9 billion loan.

José Rodríguez Vélez, president of the Union Solidarity Movement (MSS), has a different solution. “Cancel the debt,” he told the Militant Oct. 31 from Máyagüez. “The debt was unpayable before the storms. It’s even more unpayable now.” The MSS organizes workers at Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the India Beer bottling plants.

U.S. capitalists have plundered the wealth created by labor and land in Puerto Rico ever since U.S. troops wrested the island from Spain and made it a U.S. colony in 1898.

Even before Hurricane Maria ravaged the island Sept. 20, working people have been battered by more than a decadelong worldwide capitalist economic crisis, exacerbated by Puerto Rico’s colonial status. U.S. colonial domination distorts the island’s economy to increase profits for U.S. bosses.

Puerto Rico’s gross national product contracted 18 percent since 2006. The government privatized hospitals, closed schools, raised sales taxes, cut pensions and laid off 30,000 government workers, including many electrical workers, leaving the grid on the verge of collapse.

“The government says that 30 percent of the island has electricity now,” retired hospital worker Luis Pardo said by phone from Aguadilla Oct. 31, but he noted that figure is misleading. “Shopping centers, airports, factories, they all use up a lot more power than people. Probably only 15 percent of households have power.”

“I’m one of the lucky ones, because I live on a main road to the airport,” Pardo said. “Aguadilla is in the dark.

“Many people still don’t have water,” he said. “And for those that do it comes and goes, sometimes just a trickle.”

It’s worse up in the central hills of the island, Pardo said, where little or no aid has arrived.

Six weeks after the storm hit, the government announced it was reopening 119 schools, even without electricity. Another 1,000 remain closed indefinitely. Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said the government plans to permanently shut as many as 200 of them.

Less than 400 miles of the island’s 5,000 miles of road had been cleared and reopened. A third of the hospitals are running on generators.

The state-run Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority was totally unprepared for the storm after years of government skimping on funds for maintenance and enforced reductions to the workforce.

“We are missing poles, crossheads, fittings, wires, trucks and insulators. There are areas where there are no boots for the workers,” Freddyson Martínez, vice president of the UTIER electrical workers union, told Caribbean Business. Workers are going through scrap heaps to find salvageable parts and are working 10- to 12-hour shifts. At least 14 workers have been injured on the job in the last few weeks alone.

Bypassing Prepa’s unionized workforce, the government of Puerto Rico has awarded contracts to private companies on the mainland to help restore power. Few believe that a majority of households will have electricity restored before sometime next year.

Without U.S. approval the Puerto Rican government is barred from accepting aid from other countries, and Washington has ignored the offer by revolutionary Cuba to send four brigades of electrical workers, a field hospital and 39 health workers.

Many workers are aware of Cuba’s solidarity. “In addition to Cuba, the Venezuelan government and the electrical workers union in Mexico have offered help,” union leader Rodríguez said, but have not been given permission by Washington. “It shows that we are a colony.”

More than 100,000 workers have lost their jobs since the hurricane, Rodríguez said, “and many employers are cutting hours and benefits.”
Related articles:
Workers still face social crisis 5 years after Sandy
Capitalism, not ‘climate,’ caused catastrophe
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