SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — August 31 is now remembered as a day of victory in the struggle against the US-imposed Fiscal Control Board in economically fraught Puerto Rico, despite that struggle having only just begun.
On August 31, US President Barack Obama announced the seven members of the imposed board, as part of an extended austerity campaign Washington is pursuing in the territory amid a growing debt crisis there. But the day will be better recalled for the clash between police and protesters during the first PROMESA Conference at the Condado Plaza Hilton, which was cancelled after the violence.
The conference was slated to include several panels on the island’s economic development under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA, which in Spanish means promise).
Financial experts, business people, and politicians were among the guests, and the conference also included a discussion for bondholders. Given the fact that the Control Board’s priority is to assure that payments are made to investors, and that its very existence represents a US imposition that bypassed democratic consultations at the local level, grassroots activists called for action to prevent the meeting from going ahead.
The PROMESA bill created the Fiscal Control Board with powers that will override those of the government of Puerto Rico, including its constitution. Two members of the board, Carlos García and Jose Ramón González, were former presidents of the Development Bank under different administrations.
García’s appointment was of particular concern to Puerto Ricans, since he was one of the architects of Act 7, a law passed that eliminated thousands of government employees in 2010.
The first PROMESA Conference was sponsored and organized by the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, Birling Capital Advisors, LLC, Select Global Advisory Group, LLC, and local newspaper El Nuevo Día.
The group Se Acabaron las Promesas (Promises are Over) used social media to encourage activists to mobilize against the conference.
Tensions with authorities had begun days earlier when six activists were arrested at the headquarters of GFR Media during a civil disobedience protest.
GFR Media publishes El Nuevo Día, the largest newspaper on the island that supports PROMESA and the imposition of the Fiscal Board.
Activists from “Se Acabaron las Promesas” and “Campamento Contra la Junta” – the camp of activists located outside of the federal district court in San Juan – used Facebook to update followers on the arrests, including a list of those who were arrested and footage of the event.Protesters hold hands in an attempt to block entrance to the conference. Photo from Juventud Trabajadora-PPT’s Facebook page.
Since early August, activists of “Se Acabaron las Promesas” were protesting the PROMESA law, but the protest that took place in front of the Hotel Condado Plaza received the most media attention and also criticism from traditional news outlets in Puerto Rico.
The plan was simple: to interrupt the conference and make their dissent clear. The avenue was blocked by protesters who arrived early in the morning to find the police riot squad lined in front of the hotel. Se Acabaron las Promesas and the youth organization Juventud Trabajadora-PPT were two of several groups publishing live videos.
The protest culminated when activists met face to face with policemen on a nearby bridge. In a tremendous display of strength and unity, activists pushed the riot squad back. As officers attempted to disperse protesters, many involved were injured, but some news outlets and commentators blamed the demonstrators.
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Attorney and activist Alvin R. Cuoto de Jesús filmed several videos that are now published in the digital magazine 80grados. Footage shows how protesters were trying to convince officers of their just cause, and various trade unions and other social movement organizations joined the demonstration.
Musician Fernando Samalot published a video on Facebook that shows the moment at which the riot squad used pepper spray against activists. Samalot explained the clash between people and authorities: “One of the most perplexing moments of the day. When in unison fellow citizens finally pushed the strike force after they were being bombarded with blows, the officers responded by spraying pepper spray…It is a huge disappointment to see our fellow Puerto Rican policemen brothers being used as pawns to repress their own people […] On the other hand, seeing your own people rise up against oppression is a powerful feeling.”
After a long hot day filled with tension, the conference’s cancellation was announced. Most guests were not able to attend the event and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo published a photograph of a nearly empty room inside the conference.
“Se Acabaron las Promesas” joyfully claimed victory, as the demonstrators, reportedly around 300 people, successfully interrupted the conference. “Se Acabaron las Promesas” declared that this is only the beginning.
This article by Ana Gabriela Calderón originally appeared on Global Voices on September 11, 2016.