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Demonstrators To March In Puerto Rico To Protest Austerity Measures


We're expected to be following large protests in Puerto Rico today. People there are grappling not only with a long recovery from Hurricane Maria but also a painful recession and a mountain of debt. Protesters are angry that in order to improve the island's economy and allow it to begin repaying that debt, federal overseers are requiring the island's government to implement a long list of austerity measures. This includes cuts to worker vacation and sick time, cuts to pensions, also the public education system. NPR's Adrian Florido is in Puerto Rico following this. Hi, Adrian.


GREENE: So what's the significance of today? Why have people chosen today to protest?

FLORIDO: So May 1 has, you know, long been considered an international day for workers. A lot of protests often happen on this day. And a lot of the people protesting today are, you know, government employees, teachers, people in low-wage and middle-class jobs, students, protesters - I mean professors. Excuse me - people who feel like a lot of these austerity measures are aimed at them. In addition to the ones you mentioned, you know, there are a bunch of others. The government plans to triple, essentially, the cost of tuition at Puerto Rico's public universities, reduce government health benefits, sell off the publicly owned electric grid, close a quarter of the island's public schools. And these are all things that are aimed at, you know, cutting spending and increasing revenue to get the island out of debt. But they're also measures that protesters feel are going to harm the most vulnerable residents of the island, a lot of whom are still, you know, recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

GREENE: Can you explain how this actually works? This is not the government of Puerto Rico making this decision on its own. This is an outside federal oversight board? Why are they involved?

FLORIDO: Right. Well, they're involved because Congress gave them the power to be involved. Remember that Puerto Rico's government has been, you know, buckling under more than $70 billion in debt. And two years ago, Congress passed a law that allowed it to essentially file for bankruptcy to seek protection from its creditors. But the law also created this seven-member board with huge power to make decisions about the island's finances. It's actually really similar to what happened in Detroit after Detroit declared bankruptcy.

GREENE: Interesting.

FLORIDO: Yeah. And so what a lot of protesters here are angry about is that you have this really powerful unelected board that is dictating the island's financial future.

GREENE: Outsiders, they feel like, who are dictating things.

FLORIDO: Yeah, exactly. And because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, you know, there's also a lot of anger here over the long history of the colonial relationship that the island has with the U.S., and to protesters this feels like more of that. And, you know, I should also mention that they aren't only angry at this board. They're also angry at their own government because one, it's going along with a lot of the board's recommendations. And two, I mean, the government had a very large role in getting the island into this financial mess. It wasn't only the federal government.

GREENE: So what is the scene going to be like today? I mean, this is an island where they've struggled to get power back. It's been this long, painful recovery with the hurricane. But how big could these protests be, and what's going to happen?

FLORIDO: Well, you know, police are preparing for massive protests. You know, thousands, possibly tens of thousands of people are planning to skip work and class. A lot of businesses are shutting down. You know, protesters are marching to both the Capitol and to the financial district here in San Juan to protest at the site of the banks that also played a role in selling a lot of the bonds that got the island into so much debt. This year, you know, police are increasing security, and they're also in fact going to be boarding up some of the banks in the financial district which were vandalized last year.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Adrian Florido in Puerto Rico, where we're watching to see how large these protests get today. Adrian, thanks a lot.

FLORIDO: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.