Residents Of Puerto Rico Protest Austerity On May Day
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Puerto Rico, residents took to the streets for May Day yesterday. They were demonstrating against a federal oversight board that Congress appointed to take control of the island's finances. It's working to dig the U.S. territory out of more than $70 billion in debt. As NPR's Adrian Florido reports, spending cuts are driving people to protest here.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Yelling in Spanish).
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Police had warned that this May Day, they'd be out in force to block people from reaching the fiscal oversight board's offices in San Juan, as protesters tried last year. Still, a couple-thousand marchers came out. And though it stayed peaceful, people were angry, like Jacob Soto.
JACOB SOTO: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "They're closing our children's schools," he said. "They want to cut our old people's pensions. They're selling off our public assets. So little by little," he said, "people are uniting because this is affecting us all." It's true. The board is directing the island's government to do those things and more, like cut government health care benefits, slash spending and raise tuition at the University of Puerto Rico, make it easier for companies to fire workers. Protester Amira Odeh said it's like an onslaught.
AMIRA ODEH: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "Every year, they announce something new," she said. "They take away more of our rights, more of our money. And that's why people who've never really protested feel like they have to now." One of those people was Jose Cuadrado, a retired municipal worker.
JOSE CUADRADO: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "Our pockets are torn," he said, "because of how often they've stuck their hands in them." The fiscal oversight board says its strategy to get the island out of debt and turn its battered economy around is through a combination of spending cuts and structural reforms. But across the island, there is growing desperation over the feeling that while mismanagement by officials and predatory lending by banks was what got Puerto Rico into this mess, it's the island's oldest and poorest paying the price - and young people, too, like Aldo Valedon.
ALDO VALEDON: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "You see that desperation in all the people who've migrated," he said. "Back in 2000, we had almost 4 million residents. Today, only about 3 million." He said he's been looking for work since January.
VALEDON: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "And migration is knocking at my door," he said. "I'll probably have to leave in the next few months."
ANGELEE RIOS: I acknowledge that Puerto Rico is in a very difficult position and that the only way is through changes.
FLORIDO: This is Angelee Rios, a student at the University of Puerto Rico.
RIOS: But some of these changes are too drastic - raising the tuition and many changes like that.
FLORIDO: Her classmate, Gabriel Nieves, said he is angry.
GABRIEL NIEVES: Because we're tired of the austerity measures put by our government and the Junta de Control Fiscal. And we're also tired of being a colony of the United States.
FLORIDO: What makes you most mad about what the Junta de Control Fiscal is doing?
NIEVES: Personally, I am a student. And every time there are less courses, less professors, less resources in the university, that kind of holds us to reach our goals.
FLORIDO: And what do you want to do?
NIEVES: I want to be a lawyer.
FLORIDO: Do you feel like you're going to be able to become a lawyer here in Puerto Rico once you graduate?
NIEVES: Hopefully, because I love Puerto Rico so much. And I want to stay here and put up a fight to make things better.
FLORIDO: He said marching is part of his fight.
Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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