Unionists say: Puerto Rico is still a mess, politically and physically
After the failure of FEMA to help Puerto Rico residents, many still live in damaged homes nearly two years after Hurricane Maria. Here, Yeinelis Oliveras González accompanies her father, Luis Oliveras, while eating dinner, in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Their home is still missing its roof. | Carlos Giusti / AP

LAS VEGAS—Puerto Rico’s politics are a mess. And so is its recovery from Hurricanes Maria and Irma almost two years ago, thanks to the GOP President Donald Trump’s administration withholding aid, on top of governmental corruption in San Juan.

That’s the impression left by two top members of Puerto Rico’s delegation to the three-day Communications Workers convention in Las Vegas.

Puerto Rico’s political chaos came up briefly at the convention on July 30. Members planned a measure denouncing incumbent Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s mismanagement of hurricane relief, and his sexism, racism, and homophobia revealed by investigative reporters.

But mass public protests culminated in a commonwealth-wide union-called general strike in late July. It sent up to one million people into San Juan’s streets and effectively shut the island down. The protests, just a week after the governor ordered other protesters tear-gassed, drove Rosselló from office, effective August 2.

“In the name of democracy, we were able to do it”—force Rosselló out—“in 15 days,” said Local 3010 President Valonder Hernández, the Puerto Rican CWA delegation’s leader. “The fight will continue because we deserve respect—and so do our brothers and sisters.”

They will have to continue the struggle, because whoever takes the governor’s chair will have a big say in future progress, or lack of it, in reconstructing Puerto Rican institutions and services.

That recovery is so bad in part due to Trump. In just one example, the temporary blue tarps his Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided to cover holes in roofs are now wearing out and rife with holes. And FEMA refuses to replace them.

Furthermore, Trump’s Housing and Urban Development department is sitting on $1 billion in aid to replace and rebuild islanders’ homes.

The street protests will also continue because who succeeds Rosselló is completely up in the air, Nestor Soto of The News Guild-CWA’s Puerto Rico local and Luis Benítez-Burgos, of the union’s Telecommunications and Technologies Sector, told People’s World.

Under Puerto Rico’s constitution, the top Cabinet official, the Secretary of State, would become governor when that office falls vacant. But as of August 1, there was no Secretary of State.

Before he left, Rosselló nominated fellow New Progressive Party member Pedro Pierre Pierluisi for the job. Pierluisi is a political veteran: He was Justice Minister, the #3 job, a decade ago, and then Resident Commissioner, a post that manages Commonwealth-U.S. relations, from 2013-16. That means, as far as the protesters are concerned, that he’s part of the island’s corrupt elite.

And he is. Pierluisi is wired into two more prominent political families. One brother-in-law heads the financial control board, Promesa, which the GOP-run Congress set up to make sure Puerto Rico, virtually bankrupt, repays debts to Wall Street financiers by cutting workers, pay, pensions and services—and diverting hurricane relief. Another Pierluisi brother-in-law is a member of the family which owns the island’s biggest bank.

Neither the Puerto Rican House Speaker nor its Senate President, both NPP members, favor Pierluisi for the job, however. The NPP has overwhelming majorities in both houses and Senate President Tomás Rivera Schatz wants the secretary’s job for himself.

Rivera Schatz is no great prize, the two Puerto Rican unionists say, though he has occasionally supported pro-worker legislation. But he’s a darling of the radical right: Anti-choice, pushes a “religious liberty” bill to let firms discriminate on the basis of faith, and he’d even allow so-called—and scientifically false—“conversion therapy” for LGBT people. “He’s a machista, homophobic and abusive,” especially to women, Soto said.

If Pierluisi and Rivera Schatz don’t get Rosselló’s job, it would fall constitutionally to Justice Minister (attorney general) Wanda Vásquez. She doesn’t want it, and the masses don’t want her. That’s where corruption comes into the picture: Vásquez was tried, and acquitted, while in office, for illegal intervention in a court case involving her family members. And she’s no friend of unions, either.

The Office and Professional Employees have waged a long organizing campaign among Vásquez’s workers, primarily its social workers and workers on its helpline for women in crisis. She’s still battling OPEIU, the CWA unionists say.

Her workers “complain about her abusive character and how she’s mean and disrespectful to the women who help others and who protect women’s rights,” adds Benítez-Burgos. “And I don’t ever recall her supporting workers’ rights.”

All this has left the recovery from the hurricanes in a shambles, “and the protests in the streets have not stopped,” Soto says. “There are people who are somewhat decent” in the ruling NPP, “but no way you’ll find the Archangel Michael,” Benítez-Burgos adds.

The corruption “gives Trump and the GOP even more reason to delay federal dollars” the Commonwealth’s three million residents need for recovery, they add. They note Puerto Ricans are all U.S. citizens, though Trump doesn’t seem to think so. He says $91 billion has been sent since the hurricanes hit. Puerto Rican officials say the total is one-sixth of that.

Trump’s FEMA not only won’t replace the blue tarps, but it won’t release aid to repair schools, houses, and community centers either. Private insurers are withholding money, too. “And there’s been no official investigation of why so many people”—more than 3000—“died.”

“So we don’t foresee the protests stopping,” Benítez-Burgos adds. He quotes a description of the whole mess he heard from a friend: “It’s like stepping out of the mud and landing on shit.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.