Puerto Rico teachers fight to reopen schools

January 4, 2018

Months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leading to hundreds of deaths and devastating much of the island's infrastructure, ordinary Puerto Ricans are still struggling to put their lives and communities together--with little help from the U.S. government.

In November, Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR)--a teachers' union that has organized against school closures and attacks on public education for many years--talked to New York City educator Peter Lamphere about how teachers are continuing the fight to rebuild Puerto Rico and what others can do to help.

In early November, 18 FMPR members were arrested as part of a civil disobedience action demanding the reopening of schools and drawing attention to the threat posed by advocates of neoliberalism--who view the hurricane as an opportunity to privatize public education and further weaken the power of the teachers' union.

I WAS hoping to start with the November 7 civil disobedience. What was the main goal, and what response did you get from people in support?

THE GOAL was to reopen all the schools in our country. We were pressing for this. We were there about an hour and half--two hours at most--and then they arrested us.

The support was amazing. We received support from lots of people, including from lawyers who worked pro bono.

We got help from outside our country--internationalists in Canada and the United States--and from lots of folks within Puerto Rico, including different unions. National and international support came from the British Columbia Teachers Association, from the Badass Teachers' Association, from MORE [the Movement of Rank and File Educators in New York City], and from a lot of a lot of unions, parents and people in our country.

WHAT PROGRESS have you made since then in the demand for reopening some of the schools?

THE PRESSURE has mounted against the government, not just because of the civil disobedience. We are organizing the community on a daily basis. We had five basic schools protesting, so they sped up the process of reopening.

Puerto Rico teachers demand the reopening of closed schools
Puerto Rico teachers demand the reopening of closed schools (Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico | Facebook)

Now, we have about 1,000 schools open out of 1,100, so almost every school is open now. And the schools that were ordered to be shut down, the majority of them have been school closures--so this has been a very big problem for us.

HOW MANY schools were they trying to shut down after the hurricane?

THEY TRIED to close about 30 schools after the hurricane. They revoked the closures on 20 of them, so we have had to fight for 10 schools that have been ordered shut down.

CAN YOU tell me a little bit about that efforts that rank-and-file teachers and community members have been involved in with cleaning and repairing damaged schools? I know you've been sending some brigades out.

WELL, THE brigades that we are working with have been involved different teachers, and we have been working with other unions--like the CGT, the Confederación General de Trabajadores that represents private-sector employees. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) has been very involved as well.

We have been going to schools that were covered in mud from rivers that had flooded. We have been going to the schools, removing the debris, cleaning them up with hoses and preparing the school in order to avoid the government closing them.

We have been doing a lot of work with teachers--not only in the brigades, but with our members in school communities doing the same.

The schools that are going to reopen those that have already reopened are open because of the community's work--of the teachers, parents, students and every member of the community that have done what the government is supposed to do and repaired the schools themselves.

WHAT ARE you planning to do in the months to come now that many of the schools are reopened.

WE ARE hoping to continue the involvement of parents and students. The majority of schools have been ready for over 30 days now, so that's why people have been saying that the schools are open. But whatever was done to fix the schools has already been done by the parents and the teachers.

The schools are ready because of what they did, but their involvement now is more in protesting and demanding action from the government. We still have 31 schools that are refugee centers for people who lost their homes.

We have 320 schools that have been shut down by the government over the past three years, so those people could be moved to another school while the government provides them with newer housing.

We have over 200,000 homes that have been repossessed by the banks, and we are requesting that the government fix those homes for the people who lost everything here.

WHAT IS the next step for the movement to get these last schools open?

WE HAVE a lawsuit against the government. We are demanding all the remaining schools be reopened. We are requesting that the government comply with the constitutional rights of providing education. We are hoping that the court is with us.

We have been organizing with affected people in occupying schools to target the government to give the order to open those schools. So some schools are opening without the consent of the government. That is showing people's empowerment.

People from three schools in one region have just opened their schools. They know that the school is ready, so they are set to open the building.

ONE OF the things that happened in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina was that a majority of New Orleans schools were converted to charter schools. Are you worried that Puerto Rico's Secretary of Education Julia Kelleher will use the hurricane to try to bring charters back to the island?

YES, SHE has talked about it before the hurricane. We have no doubt that they are working on school "reform." In January, the legislature will be working on a bill to move in that direction, so we are definitely expecting that.

They have to change the law before they begin to bring in charters. They don't have to change the constitution, but they do have to do something in the Senate.

OBVIOUSLY, A lot of the devastation is connected to austerity policies. How has the struggle to reopen schools connected to the struggle to abolish the debt that is crippling the island?

IN GENERAL, teachers are working on taking the government to task about the debt and about the Jones Act.

We are talking about the illegal debt, we are talking about the conditions that they want to impose on working and poor people. And we are organizing to defend what we have. They can literally destroy all of our public services and leave people without jobs.

So we're going to have more jobless people. We have people who are leaving because of the crisis caused by the government, and the government is planning on applying more austerity measures.

So we are talking about all these things to the parents and the community, so we can continue to work with them in different areas, not just around getting a school reopened. We need to organize for the future and protest to fight for a better life for the people and their country.

LASTLY, WHAT can rank-and-file educators and community members here in the U.S. do to be in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico as they try to rebuild the island?

PEOPLE CAN donate. Our union, the Federación de Maestros and other unions are collecting donations. We have a lot of children right now who don't have book bags. They need to replace damaged clothing. They need mosquito repellent. They need anything you can think of.

So people can donate. They can call their congressperson and ask them to work to abolish the debt and eliminate the Jones Act. We have been offered international solidarity--the government knows that Cuba can send doctors here. So many people from across Latin America are ready to help and are prevented by the Jones Act, which needs to be eliminated completely.

We are under the PROMESA Act signed by President Obama that imposed an oversight fiscal board in Puerto Rico, an imperial dictatorship. Current members of this board are making thousands of dollars. The president is making $635,000 a year--more than the president of the United States.

So call on your congressperson, write on Twitter, write on Facebook, hold a press conference. Help us make this an international crisis, where people understand that we need the debt to be abolished, we need the Jones Act to be eliminated, and we need a different world--a just world without colonialism towards our country.

To help us in solidarity, people can spread the word, and they can call the governor of Puerto Rico and ask him to ignore the orders of the fiscal board,

We are a strong country, a strong people. I am sure that we will not fail, but it will take a lot of work that we need to start doing right now. With help and solidarity from other people, from other workers from other countries, I know that we will succeed.

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