Washington march for Puerto Rico demands stepped-up rebuilding effort
The rally took place in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 19. | Unity March for Puerto Rico Facebook.

WASHINGTON—In a tremendous show of unity, under a sea of Puerto Rican flags being waved high, thousands of Puerto Ricans and their supporters joined in the Unity March for Puerto Rico in the nation’s capital November 19 to demand justice for Puerto Rico. Demonstrators from across the northeast, Ohio, and as far as Chicago raised their voices in unison to demand the U.S. fully fund the relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which tore through the island more than two months ago. Most of the island is still without basic needs, electricity, and potable water.

Congressional leaders and legislators from across the country addressed the marchers and excoriated the Trump administration for the dismally inadequate response and relief effort that has resulted in the humanitarian crisis for the island’s 3.5 million citizens. The lack of food, medicine, and healthcare in the aftermath of the hurricane has led to the death of hundreds of people, they charged.

Due to Trump’s “failure to plan, to act, and lack of leadership,” said New York State Public Advocate Leticia James, “millions of Puerto Ricans are still struggling and countless are facing death, children drinking dirty water, schools suspended, housing and infrastructure need to be rebuilt.”

“We are united with one purpose, standing shoulder-to-shoulder,” said Pastor Melissa del Rio, who also characterized and condemned the historical colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. “We feel invisible when a 97-year-old law, the Jones Act, has been allowed to cripple the Puerto Rican economy…. We feel invisible when our plea for a resolution of an unjust debt that has benefited in large part corporate America, has gone unanswered…. We feel invisible when the reconstruction of Puerto Rico is being delayed, deferred, and mismanaged.”

Speaker after speaker, representing community, religious, and activist organizations, echoed her commitment to “take a stand against relief money going to bondholders and hedge funds instead of restoration of electricity and healthcare for human beings.”

“As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans have fought in every war in the last hundred years and sacrificed life and limb to protect freedoms we all enjoy and we come together and call on the United States to support Puerto Rico”, said one speaker.

Thunderous cheers resounded throughout the National Mall as cries of “Presente” carried the demand to rebuild and respect Puerto Rico. “They can’t vote in November,” said New York Assemblyman Eric Dilan, referring to the non-voting citizenship status of Puerto Ricans who live on the island. “But we can! This is the first step in a serious legislative agenda at every level of government to help our people and our island.”

Representing Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., Jeff Cruz announced that upon the return of the Senate on Tuesday, November 28, Sanders plans to introduce comprehensive legislation for the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. “The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the history of the world, and it is unbelievable that half of the people of the island are still without electricity and drinking water…. It is unconscionable that Congress is spending time figuring out how to give our handouts to the wealthiest Americans.”

He said Sanders will call on Congress in the next month to provide supplemental funding to adequately restore Puerto Rico, to forgive some of the debt, and invest in the island’s infrastructure. “Privatizing public schools and selling lands will not help, the U.S. needs to double and triple its investment in Puerto Rico.”

Darlene Elias, chair of the Green Party, called for an end to the colonial status of Puerto Rico and for “allowing Puerto Ricans to determine and exercise control over their own future.” A major aspect of such a process would have to be the dissolution of the financial control board set up by the Trump administration to deal with the island’s $73 billion public debt, largely through severe austerity measures against its people. Cancellation of the debt and repeal of the Jones Act, the law which prohibits foreign ships from entering Puerto Rico’s ports, were presented as integral measures for ending the colonial stranglehold of the U.S. over Puerto Rico.

“It is a myth that Puerto Rico cannot survive on its own,” said Elias, “It can have a viable economy if allowed to control its own products, resources, trade, and revenues.” She warned against the “vultures who would love to capitalize on the crisis, buy up the island, and push development with fossil fuels, natural oil. and gases.”

The call to be vigilant against profit-driven opportunists rang throughout the speeches. Recently, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has been mobilizing to re-open Puerto Rico’s schools as private, for-profit charters, a move that would echo what was done to New Orleans after Katrina, and which the Teacher’s Union of Puerto Rico has vehemently opposed.

Cameron Orr, marching with a contingent from the Communist Party USA, condemned the colonial stranglehold that the U.S. has had over the Puerto Rican economy and linked their struggles to those being waged here in the U.S. “The same policies of privatization and profiteering that hinder the recovery in Puerto Rico, are also threatening our health care, public schools, and quality of life in New York and other cities.” He pointed to the tragic consequences for the New Orleans school system after Katrina and the horrific results of privatizing the water supply management system in Detroit.

Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, founding member of the National Puerto Rican Agenda, recounted how she wrote to her hometown paper in North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer, to mobilize the 90,000 Puerto Ricans living in the state and expose the 11 Republicans there who voted against the Hurricane Relief bill in Congress. “We must become citizen-advocates,” she told the crowd, “We must demand our tax dollars go to help Puerto Rico.”

One of the most vocal and staunchest champions of Puerto Rico in the Congress, Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told marchers, “What’s happening in Puerto Rico is one of the gravest injustices I’ve ever seen here in the Congress of the United States…. Puerto Ricans have always said ‘Presente’ each and every time they were called: World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. Planes were filled with Puerto Ricans, and many did not come back. So this country has a huge debt to the people of Puerto Rico. We need to stop talking about renegotiating debt.”

Carol Ramos/PW

He also called attention to the opportunity of restoring Puerto Rico’s energy with sustainable resources, which are abundant on the island. “When are we going to allow the people of Puerto Rico to be free to harvest the sun and wind in order to use nature to give us the energy that we need?”

Additionally, Gutierrez stressed that it was the sacrifice and struggles of the Civil Rights Movement which paved the way for the Puerto Rican freedom fighters of today. “Thank you to Martin Luther King, Jr. and all those who said we are all created equal in the eyes of God and should all be treated as such by the government. When we are fighting for our basic human rights, let’s not forget those who came before us.” He spoke of the women’s movement, the immigrant rights movement, and other progressive struggles that inspire and echo the message of the Puerto Rican Unity March.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in her remarks to the demonstrators, called for a new Marshall Plan to get Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands back on their feet. She charged that President Trump would rather give trillions of dollars to big corporations than to the people of Puerto Rico. “We aren’t going to turn our backs on fellow citizens—whether they live in Florida, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Carol Ramos Widom
Carol Ramos Widom

Carol Ramos Widom is an educator writing from Brooklyn, N.Y.

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