On April 2nd while Catholics worldwide observed Good Friday, the people of Culebra and Vieques took to the streets to protest the maritime transportation system.The outcry for justice echoed “We want transportation with dignity and efficiency” “The waterway is our road, it is not luxury” and “We denounce inhumanity and unite our hands”. The islands of Culebra and Vieques are part of the archipelago of islands that constitute Puerto Rico, which has been a colony of the United States for the past 123 years.
The residents of these islands confront a daily unpredictable and challenging ferry service including overbooked reservations, or the cancellation of the ferry altogether. The waterway is the main road that connects the islands of Vieques and Culebra to mainland Puerto Rico and lack of access jeopardizes employment, education, and healthcare. Vieques does not have a hospital; the most vulnerable patients on dialysis and receiving treatments for cancer are left without vital medical services.This inadequate maritime service has contributed to food shortages since most of the foods on these islands are imported.
On March 28th the many residents, having exhausted petitions and meetings and with legislators to remedy this urgent crisis, took to the sea in kayaks and small boats to block the ferries and prevent them from leaving the port. Dolly Camareno Díaz from Culebra, a candidate for the mayor of Culebra in the last elections, was one of the leaders of the protest in a kayak and one of the many women that prevented the ferry service from leaving the port.
Despite several arrests and fines, protesters deemed this action as necessary to give visibility to, and amplify their demands. They vowed to continue their fight for justice as news outlets covered the story both nationally and internationally. Some of the demands put forth were the designation of maritime services as an essential service, participation of residents in decision making, and the designation of representatives of the maritime transportation system to ensure accessibility of designated round trips to residents of the islands. A top priority is the immediate cancellation of the current contract with APP that was procured illegally under questionable circumstances, with disastrous effects for residents that rely on ferry services.
The passage by Congress of The Puerto Rican,Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in 2016 has had devastating consequences on the people of Puerto Rico. The passing of this law was a direct outcome of the 72 billion dollar debt incurred by the government of Puerto Rico as a result of its colonial relationship to the United States. PROMESA facilitated the imposition of an unelected seven member fiscal Control Board appointed by the United States Congress to administer the government finances of Puerto Rico. This board’s mission is to restructure the debt, but in reality it serves as a collection agency that seeks payment of the debt on behalf of bondholders and vulture capitalists, at the expense of the people of Puerto Rico. As the megaphones sound off chants among protesters resound the threat of displacement “They want to gentrify but we won’t allow it.” In January 2017 Puerto Rico passed legislation making it a tax haven for U.S. citizens that become residents of Puerto Rico . The tax laws, known as “Act 20”, “the Export Service Act” and “Act 22, Individual Investor Act” , shield new residents of Puerto Rico from paying most federal tax, residents pay minimal or possibly no taxes on interest and dividends, as well as capital gains.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017 a flood of investors have come to Puerto Rico, particularly the islands of Vieques and Culebra to buy properties at an alarming rate. As investors take advantage of laws that create tax advantages for millionaires the fiscal control board continues to implement austerity measures further impoverishing the Puerto Rican people.
The people of Culebra, Vieques and the mainland will continue to take their struggle to the streets or the sea as they face austerity measures, privatization, closing of schools, the reductions of essential services and the selling of land and natural resources.
The people of the islands of Vieques and Culebra have been at the forefront of struggles and galvanized international solidarity and support in their historical removal of the United States Navy and it’s war maneuvers. Their victory resonates as one of the most outstanding people’s victories. Once again international solidarity is needed to support their struggle for essential maritime services and against gentrification and displacement. The root cause of these problems is the colonial status which can only be resolved with the independence of Puerto Rico .
As of the writing of this article there are a series of protests that have been scheduled in the streets of Puerto Rico clamoring for justice on issues of environmental racism such as coal ash deposits, energy privatization, and the sales of public lands and beaches. There is a seven part virtual series on Thursdays from April 15 to May 27th, with English and Spanish translation, that will discuss the colonial complexities facing the Puerto Rican people. These panels are in conjunction with the documentary “Landfall” that explores the colonial relationship of Puerto Rico and how that relationship has unfolded in the aftermath of Hurricane María.
Please visit the facebook page of A Call to Action on Puerto Rico to receive updates about the evolving situation of Puerto Rico.
GPUS Latinx Caucus
By Lorraine Liriano Chávez