While Catholics around the world celebrated Good Friday on Good Friday, the people of Culebra and Vieques were Islands took to the streets to protest the faulty maritime transport system. Their cry for justice echoed with the chants: “We want transport with dignity and efficiency.” “The waterway is our road – it is not a luxury.” And “We denounce inhumanity and join our hands.”
The islands of Culebra and Vieques are part of the Puerto Rico archipelago, which has been a colony of the United States for 123 years.
The residents of these islands face an unpredictable and challenging ferry service on a daily basis. Problems are overbooked reservations and sometimes the cancellation of the ferry altogether. The waterway is the main transit route between Vieques and Culebra with the main island of Puerto Rico. Lack of access puts employment, education and health care at risk.
Vieques does not have a hospital. The most vulnerable patients – dialysis patients and cancer patients – no longer have vital medical services. This disruption of the maritime system has contributed to food shortages as most of the food on these islands is imported.
On March 28, after exhausting petitions and meetings with lawmakers to resolve this urgent crisis, the many residents of the two small islands went to sea in kayaks and small boats to block the ferries and prevent them from closing the port leave.
Dolly Camareno Díaz, a candidate in the recent Mayor of Culebra elections, was one of the leaders of the protest in a kayak and one of the many women who prevented the ferry service from leaving the port. Despite several arrests and fines, the demonstrators considered this action necessary to make their demands visible and to reinforce them. They vowed to continue their struggle for justice.
News outlets covered the story both in Puerto Rico and internationally. Some of the requirements related to the designation of maritime transport services as an essential service, the participation of residents in decision-making processes and the appointment of representatives of the maritime transport system in order to ensure the accessibility of designated tours for the residents of the islands.
The top priority is the immediate termination of the current contract with the Public-Private Partnership Authority (APP)., which was procured under questionable circumstances with catastrophic consequences for residents who rely on ferry services.
PROMESA and postponement
The passage of the Puerto Rican Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) by the US Congress in 2016 had devastating consequences for the people of Puerto Rico. The passage of this bill was a direct result of the Puerto Rico government’s US $ 72 billion debt originated due to its colonial relationship with the United States.
PROMESA facilitated the introduction of an unelected seven-member tax control appointed by the United States Congress to manage the state finances of Puerto Rico. The stated mission of this board is to restructure debt. In reality, it serves as a debt collection agency seeking to pay the debts on behalf of bondholders and vulture capitalists at the expense of the people of Puerto Rico.
While the megaphones sounded, chants among demonstrators deny the danger of displacement: “They want to beautify themselves, but we will not allow it.”
In January 2017, the government of Puerto Rico passed a law allowing US citizens who become residents of Puerto Rico to use it as a tax haven. The tax laws – Act 20, the Export Service Act, and Act 22, the Individual Investor Act – protect new residents of Puerto Rico from paying most federal taxes. These residents pay minimal or may no taxes on interest and dividends, as well as on capital gains.
After Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, a flood of investors has come to Puerto Rico to buy real estate at an alarming rate, particularly in the islands of Vieques and Culebra. As investors take advantage of laws that create tax breaks for millionaires, the tax authorities continue to implement austerity measures that further impoverish the Puerto Rican people.
The people of Culebra, Vieques, and the mainland will continue to fight on the streets or at sea as they face austerity measures, privatizations, school closings, cuts in essential services, and the sale of land and natural resources.
At the forefront
The people of the islands of Vieques and Culebra have been at the forefront of the fighting for decades. They have fostered international solidarity and support in their historic removal from the United States Navy and their war maneuvers. Your victory is considered to be one of the greatest human victories.
Once again, international solidarity is needed to support their struggle for essential maritime services and against gentrification and displacement. The main cause of these problems is their colonial status, which can only be resolved with independence from Puerto Rico.
Starting April 6, a series of protests are planned in the streets of Puerto Rico promoting justice over environmental racism. Some of the Topics are coal ash deposits, the privatization of energy and the sale of public land and beaches.
A seven-part virtual series of panels on Thursday, with English and Spanish translation, will discuss the colonial complexities of the Puerto Rican people from April 15 to May 27. These panels are held in conjunction with the documentary “Landfall”, which explores the colonial relationship of Puerto Rico and how that relationship evolved after Hurricane María.
Please visit the A Call to Action in Puerto Rico Facebook page for information on the developing situation in Puerto Rico.