March 20, 2018; The Intercept
Last week, Puerto Rico’s daily newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, reported on Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s announcement of initiatives from his new fiscal plan. These include a repeal of Law 80 “which protects workers from unjustified dismissals,” the elimination of Christmas bonuses for private corporation employees, a reduction of vacation and sick time from 15 to seven days each, an increase in the minimum wage in 2019 from $7.25 to $7.75 an hour and again in 2021 to $8.25, a taxpayer bonus for work ranging from $300 to $2,000, and work requirements for beneficiaries of the Nutritional Assistance Program.
Reporter Gloria Ruiz Kuilan writes that these will “make way for the second labor reform of his administration.” According to Ruiz Kuilan, Rosselló, in an address to the country via WIPR, said that the goal is to tackle the island’s low workforce participation rate, discourage a continuous exodus, and encourage companies to come to the island. Another article by the Center for Investigative Journalism notes that this reform “encourages less aggressive measures than those requested by [the Fiscal Control Board]” which seeks an average reduction of 10 percent for pensioners receiving over $1,000 a month, a reduction of vacation and sick days to zero, the immediate elimination of Law 80, the elimination of maternity leave, and further reduction of government staff. Rosselló has already shut down two-thirds of the government’s executive offices, bringing the number down to 35 from 115.
Not following the Board’s requests could result its rejection of Rosselló’s plan and the approval of its own, which is allowed by PROMESA, the Obama-era law that gives the Board final decision-making power over the debt-restructuring process and major economic policies. In fact, while a decision was expected this Monday, March 26th, last Friday the Board announced a postponement of certification of the governor’s plan.
The day before the governor announced his plan, Puerto Ricans learned that the new director of the Electric Power Authority, Walter M. Higgins III, will earn $450,000 a year, plus bonuses and benefits, “with the possibility of charging double if it complies with certain performance metrics that are still being defined.” This is a two-year position. Meanwhile, the Electric Power Authority is considering an increase in already high rates and a reduction of employee benefits.
They already know that Secretary of Education Julia Keleher earns $250,000 a year, Secretary of Public Security Hector Pesquera earns $248,000, Destination Marketing Organization CEO Brad Dean earns $250,000, and Fiscal Control Board Executive Director Natalie Jaresko earns $625,000.
And they know the government is offering privatization as the only option, as seen with the push to privatize PREPA, the power company. Another article last week, this one by Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine) in the Intercept notes,
There is a great deal of talk about more privatizations to come: highways, bridges, ports, ferries, water systems, national parks, and other conservation areas. Manuel Laboy, Puerto Rico’s secretary of economic development and commerce, told The Intercept that electricity is just the beginning. “We do expect that similar things will happen in other infrastructure sectors.”
The government calls the new privatization initiative “Paradise Performs.” Klein, however, reflects a different vision for the island. She was in Puerto Rico for a convening of organizations and movements from across the island, the US, and Central America hosted by PAReS, a collective of anti-austerity University of Puerto Rico professors, and the Mariana Mutual Aid Project. Klein writes, “It was the first time movements had gathered across such a broad spectrum since Maria changed everything. And many observed that it was the first chance they had had in months to step back, take stock, and strategize.”
Monica Flores, an environmental sciences graduate student, told Klein that “truly democratic resource management is the island’s best hope.” Klein notes, “Many Puerto Ricans point out that the promise of lower prices and greater efficiency that would flow from privatizing basic services are contradicted by their own experiences.” She writes,
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Puerto Ricans now know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that there is no government that has their interests at heart, not in the governor’s mansion, not on the unelected fiscal control board…and certainly not in Washington.…That means that if there is to be a grand new experiment in Puerto Rico, one genuinely in the interest of its people, then Puerto Ricans themselves will have to be the ones to dream it up and fight for it.
Klein notes that many Puerto Ricans feel the inadequate government response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria was intentional, with the goal of creating what Rosselló touts as a “blank canvas.” However, Klein observes,
Precisely because the official response to the hurricane has been so lacking, Puerto Ricans on the island and in the diaspora have been forced to organize themselves on a stunning scale.
Now this confidence is rapidly spilling over into the political arena and with it, an appetite among a growing number of Puerto Rican groups and individuals to…come up with their own big ideas, their own dreams of an island that performs for them.
Klein reminds those of us that need reminding that Puerto Rico has struggled for national sovereignty for generations, and now that movement is expanding. She concludes,
It seems significant that as discussions unfold in Mariana, a broader definition of sovereignty emerged. I heard talk of “multiple sovereignties”—food sovereignty, liberated from dependence on imports and agribusiness giants; energy sovereignty, liberated from fossil fuels and controlled by communities. And perhaps housing, water, and education sovereignty as well.
In the weeks after I left the island, the 60 groups represented in Mariana solidified into a political bloc that they named JuntaGente (the People Together) and have had meetings all over the archipelago. Inspired by different models around the world, they have begun drafting a people’s platform, one that will unite their various causes into a common vision for a radically transformed Puerto Rico.
While a tragically disconnected Rosselló struggles to sell Puerto Rico to people who could care less about Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans are busy building a movement of sovereignty over basic needs.—Cyndi Suarez