Puerto Rico faces the neoliberal storm

May 2, 2018

Natalia Segura, a Chicago public school teacher, traveled to Puerto Rico during spring break to volunteer and to learn about the island with a group of some 20 activists composed of fellow members of the Chicago Teachers Union, students from the University of Illinois at Chicago and activists from Chicago Boricua Resistance and the community. Here, she comments on some of what she saw and heard.

PUERTO RICO is facing a wave of neoliberal reforms that the government has put in place to extract as much as possible from its people who then have to leave the island to look for other opportunities. Some of these neoliberal reforms were plain to see while I visited.

Hurricane Maria became the perfect excuse to intensify the colonial relationship that has oppressed and abused Boricuas for centuries.

When we landed in San Juan, the devastation from Maria wasn't visible to anyone who isn't familiar with the city's history or how it looked before the hurricane. In the areas where tourists are likely to visit, most stores are open, with light and running water, and there are beautiful new hotel constructions close to Old San Juan. It seems like things are running as normal.

It was only after we left Old San Juan and arrived to a comrade's family's home close to the university that the reality of the devastation from Maria started to reveal itself.

The apartment didn't have electricity when we arrived, though fortunately, it came back hours later. The "new normal" is to have electricity for only some of the time in the main cities, while in small towns, there is often no electricity at all.

Members of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico protest standardized testing and privatization
Members of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico protest standardized testing and privatization (Steven Singer)

The public electric company is in the process of being privatized, with the justification that bureaucratization caused the failure to update equipment. People are worried about how much will their bills will go up, even as their service goes down.

MY GROUP was able to meet with Mercedes Martinez and Edwin Morales, the president and vice president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR).

Edwin explained that it is illegal for teachers to strike in Puerto Rico, and that as punishment for a strike some years ago, the FMPR was punished with legal sanctions, a big hit for both union organizers and teachers.

The meeting also focused on how the U.S. government is carrying out a neoliberal agenda under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (cruelly, its acronym PROMESA is Spanish for "promise") passed during Barack Obama's presidency.

PROMESA has been used to carry out privatization of public education--both K-12 schools and universities and public corporations, lowering minimum salaries and continuing the massive debt burden on the island.

There are different ways in which the public has been misinformed and deceived so the privatization program can take place.

One way is for the government to release statistics of schools being underutilized, apparently because the population of the area has left and a big school is no longer needed. The solution given the government proposes is to close the public school and send its remaining students to another school.

Parents are given a choice for the new school: a brand new charter school or another slowly defunded public school that will now have bigger class sizes. Which school do you think parents will choose?

The neoliberal wave of privatization is sold to parents as giving them "a free choice" for their children's school. But the effect is to strangle the public school system.

Equally devastating to the public education system is how buildings that used to be public schools have been sold to private schools and charter schools, often at a ridiculous low price. This is another way of taking funds and services away from public schools.

Recently, a closed public school building was given to a church organization called Fuente de Agua Viva to allow it to open a private school. The church will pay the government the price of $1 a month for the building until further notice.

As if that was not enough, the government is also taking funds away from public schools by lowering investment.

Letting buildings crumble, not buying enough materials for students, letting textbooks get a decade or more old--all this is blamed on a lack of money in the budget. But the system is able to invest in renovating closed public school buildings and giving them to charters, or constructing all new ones. This same model that is being carried out in Puerto Rico took place in Chicago.

THE DEVASTATION from Hurricane Maria has given the government one more tool to privatize education in the island.

This is similar to what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit--the city was seen as the perfect place to spread charter schools. Taking advantage of schools being closed because of the disaster, the government simply opened up many of them as charters. Confusion from the disaster gave the government the chance to carry out privatization without much opposition.

The same thing has been happening in Puerto Rico, but the FMPR has fought back, and with the help of parents, it is stopping this process.

Both Martinez and Morales say that there will be no negotiation with charter schools, and they are joining forces with teachers across the U.S. to support each other in this struggle. The FMPR is trying to build strong ties with other teachers' unions during the wave of strikes among educators across the country.

Higher education is also at risk of being privatized. While I was there, I witnessed meetings where students organized to protest a significant increase in their tuition.

Both teachers and university students are joining forces to defend public education. Discussions have taken place in universities, where students are taking up their objectives, list of demands and how to accomplish them. There was talk of a wider student strike to protest the whole neoliberal agenda of "PROMESA" and "La junta fiscal" (the Fiscal Control Board).

Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S. empire that lives under economic policies that are inflicting suffering on the population and reducing even the minimal basic services that are needed to survive. People are in a continuous struggle, and a process of political and social change needs to take place on the island and in the world.

Puerto Rico se defiende--and we need to support Puerto Ricans in their struggle.

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