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Vol. 80/No. 40      October 24, 2016

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Protest in DC demands: ‘Free Oscar López now!’

Attacks on pay, rights fuel anger in Puerto Rico

Militant/Ruth Nebbia
Washington-imposed fiscal board takes over Puerto Rican economy, highlights island is U.S. colony. Opposition to this attack builds fight to free Oscar López, jailed in U.S. for 35 years.
WASHINGTON — “President Barack Obama must understand that the release of my father is a demand not only of the people of Puerto Rico, but an international demand,” Clarisa López, daughter of Oscar López Rivera, told a crowd of 1,000 people at Lafayette Park across from the White House Oct. 9.

Participants came here by plane, bus and car from Puerto Rico, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey and elsewhere to demand his freedom. The 73-year-old Puerto Rican independence fighter has been held in U.S. prisons for more than 35 years.

The protest took place as outrage is growing among Puerto Rican workers and farmers over how they are being battered by the economic crisis of capitalism, exacerbated by U.S. colonial domination. Washington has twisted and distorted the island’s economy to maximize profits for its bankers and bosses, leaving Puerto Rico’s economy in shambles and its colonial government $70 billion in debt.

A so-called fiscal control board — known by Puerto Ricans as the “junta” — has been appointed by Obama and given broad powers to guarantee capitalist bondholders will receive repayment for the overwhelming bulk of the debt. The seven bankers, lawyers and well-paid consultants can impose layoffs, reduce the minimum wage as low as $4.25 an hour, and slash social spending, pensions and other benefits.

“Obama, listen to me, Oscar López must be free!” chanted members of the New York group 35 Women for Oscar in front of the White House. The women have held lively monthly protests to win support for López. Their Puerto Rican counterpart, Women on the Bridge, was part of the delegation of more than 100 people who came from the U.S. colony.

“Puerto Rico is being held down by the junta,” Frances Gonzalez, 32, a student at Boricua College in the Bronx, told the Militant. “Things are getting worse over there, but it’s bad in the U.S. as well. We need jobs to live. I send money to my family every month and take supplies every time I visit.”

“The junta won’t solve anything,” said Evelyn Ruiz, 62, a retired member of the Communications Workers of America at Verizon in New York. “It takes money from the workers to pay the bondholders. Capitalism is a predatory system.”

“There are almost no jobs for youth on the island,” said Alejandro Gonzalez, 25, a member of the theatrical group Jóvenes del 98.

“Puerto Rico is living in a moment when the fact that it is a colony is naked and exposed,” Luis Rosa, who spent 19 years in U.S. prisons for his actions supporting independence, told the Militant. “The U.S. government is wringing profits out of the island and securing further privatizations of industries. Within this crisis we have our best opportunity to explain the urgent fight to free Oscar.”

The haves and the have-nots

“The fight for Oscar López strikes a chord,” said Hemmer Pascal, a Marine veteran and student at Long Island University. He came with members of Mothers on the Move, a neighborhood organization in South Bronx. “It’s the division between the haves and the have-nots. There is a commonality among those who are fighting and it’s in our interest to unite.”

“My brother is a man totally committed to the independence of Puerto Rico,” López’s brother José, who lives in Chicago, told the crowd. “But he has also become an emblem of Puerto Rican unity. For that reason we have the support of every Puerto Rican political current.”

Dorian Ortega, 29, who works at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, agreed. “The fight to free Oscar López is gaining support. It brings together those for statehood and those for independence,” he said. “We all agree, 35 years is too long!”

Ingrid Vila Biaggi, president of the Puerto-Rico based Coalition for the Freedom of Oscar López, which initiated the action, spoke. The National Boricua Human Rights Network was the main group organizing participation from more than 11 cities in the U.S.

María de Lourdes Santiago, Puerto Rican Independence Party candidate for governor of Puerto Rico, and Carmen Yulín Cruz, Popular Democratic Party mayor of San Juan, both spoke.

Others addressing the crowd included Democratic Party political figures, including Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito and New York State Assemblyman José Rivera.

A delegation of Puerto Rican unionists came, including José Torres, president of the Brotherhood of Non-Academic Employees of the University of Puerto Rico, and Eric Sevilla, education director of the Central Workers Federation (FCT), which is affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“As Puerto Rican workers we ask for solidarity from all U.S. and Latin American workers because we face the same oppression,” Torres told the Militant, “but it’s double in Puerto Rico because we’re a U.S. colony.”

Well-known Puerto Rican singers performed, including Roy Brown, Danny Rivera and Tito Auger, and actress Johanna Rosaly emceed.

Socialist Workers Party presidential candidate Alyson Kennedy and Jacob Perasso, SWP candidate for U.S. Senate from New York, both of whom just returned from a nine-day fact-finding and solidarity trip to the island, joined the event.

“We intend to use what we learned talking to workers, youth and political activities of all stripes in Puerto Rico to campaign for freedom for Oscar López and to win solidarity for an end to U.S. colonial rule,” Kennedy told fellow participants in the action.

SWP members carried signs saying, “No to the Junta, No to the debt,” “U.S. and Puerto Rican workers fight together,” “Independence is not granted, it’s taken,” and others.

Arlene Rubinstein contributed to this article.  
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