Posts Tagged ‘Caribbean island’

Puerto Rico strikers shut down center of San Juan

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

* Stoppage called to protest large public sector layoffs
* Strike closes government offices, businesses, schools
* Governor appeals for calm, defends layoffs (Updates with protest
details, governor’s comments)
by Matthew Goldstein
Reuters (Oct 15, 2009)

SAN JUAN, Oct 15 (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Puerto Rican public workers protesting layoffs shut down the center of the capital San Juan on Thursday in a one-day strike that closed many government offices, businesses and schools.

Labor unions in the U.S. Caribbean island territory called the 24-hour stoppage to protest the firing of thousands of workers by the government, which is trying to shrink a $3.2 billion budget deficit.

While Governor Luis Fortuno insisted the layoffs were essential to cut government spending and bolster the island’s credit rating, around 50,000 protesters packed Roosevelt Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the central Hato Rey financial district in San Juan, witnesses said.

Most government offices and schools, and many businesses remained closed on Thursday during the strike protest, which was also backed by religious and student organizations.

“The street will be our battleground. There will only be peace when those that govern respect the will of the people,” said Methodist Minister Juan Vera, who addressed the protesters along with labor leaders and other personalities.

Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate was 15.8 percent in August, higher than any U.S. state.

The island, which has a population of nearly 4 million and is a manufacturing hub for petrochemical, pharmaceutical and technology companies, as well as a major tourism destination, has been in recession for more than three years.

Fortuno, who last month announced the firing of 17,000 public workers, appealed for calm but defended the government’s strategy. Heavily indebted Puerto Rico is a leading issuer of tax-free bonds in the United States.

“I will not allow our credit ratings to suffer any further because of the effects it would have on the population,” Fortuno told Reuters in an interview. “It is just unthinkable …. We would be impaired from providing basic services.”

The government is hoping to avoid a downgrade of Puerto Rico’s bond rating to junk, or non-investment, grade.

Bond rating agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s rate Puerto Rico a notch above junk level and Fortuno says any downgrade would lead to even more job cuts.

San Juan’s international airport, as well as the port area, operated normally on Thursday. Buses stopped running but many taxi cabs and the light rail system ran as normal.

Plaza Las Americas, the Caribbean’s largest mall located in the Hato Rey district, shut its doors.

Fortuno says the public sector layoffs are necessary to cut government spending by $2 billion annually. He told Reuters the government had already achieved savings of $1.2 billion and was on track to reach the $2 billion target.

Puerto Rico’s economy shrank a record 5.5 percent in the 2009 fiscal year that ended June 30. The Puerto Rico Planning Board said the decline showed the economy had touched bottom and predicted 0.7 percent growth in fiscal 2010.

(Additional reporting by Michael Connor in Miami; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Jim Loney)

Puerto Rico eyes statehood status

Monday, May 5th, 2008

By Brian DeBose

Washington Times (April 26, 2008)

The status of Puerto Rico — commonwealth, U.S. state or independent — could be settled soon by the island’s populace if Congress will allow it.

Earlier this week, a bill to allow Puerto Rico residents to hold an official vote on whether to become a U.S. state or continue commonwealth status, passed a congressional committee for the first time, and the head of Puerto Rico’s governing party says the time has never been more ripe for the Caribbean island to become the 51st state.

The New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico, which is pro-statehood, has been trying to get Congress to sanction a vote for more than two years and says it thinks a bill can be passed this year. Previous referendums on the island’s status have been held by its government without U.S. authorization.
“In the past, we’ve never had a federally sanctioned vote, which caused turnout to drop to about 70 percent, and we feel we can reach our average of 83 percent participation if we have Congress’ support,” said Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth D. McClintock, a party member.

Mr. McClintock’s party is at the height of its political power, controlling both Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives and Senate, and 42 of the island’s 78 mayoral posts. Party Chairman Luis Fortuno is the territory’s nonvoting delegate to Congress. In addition to that, their chief rival and leader of the opposing party, Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila has been indicted on 19 count of campaign-finance violations and mail fraud, negating his ability to effectively advocate against the bill.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, New York Democrat, introduced the Puerto Rico Democracy Act in 2006, along with with Mr. Fortuno, but the bill had been languishing in committee until this week. “I am very pleased that the process is finally moving forward to allow Puerto Ricans the ability to decide once and for all whether they would like to be a state or an independent nation,” Mr. Serrano said.

Mr. McClintock wants a congressional floor vote by summer in order for his party to reach its goal of a referendum on the territory’s status before the end of next year. “We are very excited now, because my trip here was to advocate for the bill to come out of committee, and an hour before I arrived Tuesday, it was moved, and we are now calling for Congress to hold a vote on the floor,” he said. Mr. McClintock is also involved in the Democratic presidential race as co-chairman of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s National Hispanic Leadership Council.

He said it should be no surprise that recent polls of Puerto Rico voters show her getting 50 percent to Mr. Obama’s 37 percent in advance of the island’s June 1 Democratic primary, in which 63 delegates are up for grabs. While both Mrs. Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have significant Puerto Rican populations in their states, her policy record is far more robust in terms of issues specific to Puerto Rico.

“In six years, she has either sponsored or worked to get passed a number of bills, including the domestic-manufacturing tax cut, and working to expand the child care tax credit so that any Puerto Rican with a child is eligible,” he said. Currently, Puerto Ricans must have three or more children to receive a child tax credit. He also said Mrs. Clinton has visited the island many times, most notably after Hurricane Georges to make sure the island received Federal Emergency Management Agency funding. Mr. Obama’s only recent trip has been a fundraiser, in which he met with Mr. Acevedo Vila, but not with Mr. McClintock.

“Senator Obama has not sponsored or co-sponsored any legislation related to Puerto Rico,” Mr. McClintock said. “I have had two private meetings and one political meeting with her, and none with him.”