NEW YORK, N.Y.—The federal government needs to be told “not to forget Puerto Rico,” says SEIU 32BJ member David Soto.
His union and the American Federation of Teachers will be join protest in Washington on Tuesday, March 20, to demand that the federal government adequately fund rebuilding Puerto Rico and aid hurricane refugees who have moved to the U.S. mainland.
The protest, organized by the Power 4 Puerto Rico coalition, will begin with a rally at the Federal Emergency Management Administration offices, continue with a march to the Hart House Office Building, and conclude with lobbying and a sit-in. March 20 is the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Maria devastating the island.
“Congress needs to act. FEMA needs to get their act together,” Jose Lopez, organizing director of Make the Road New York, said March 15 at 32BJ’s Manhattan headquarters. About 40% of Puerto Rico’s residents still have no electricity, 300,000 don’t have access to clean water, and 60,000 families are homeless, he said.
“There continues to be a humanitarian crisis, and it is still being inadequately addressed,” said Public Advocate Letitia James.
The protest’s specific demands are for the federal government to appropriate enough money to restore power and clean water in Puerto Rico—without attaching
strings such as austerity and privatization, a spokesperson for the Center for Popular Democracy, part of Power 4 Puerto Rico, told LaborPress. It also seeks aid in finding housing and jobs for Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland U.S. after their homes were destroyed. James said 200,000 are projected to leave by the end of the year, and 11,000 are already in New York.
Many of those people are being housed in hotels on temporary FEMA vouchers. Daiza Aponte, 29, came to New York in December with her asthmatic daughter after her home in Carolina was totally destroyed. She was able to get an extension, she said, but another family was evicted.
The vouchers last 45 to 60 days, and can be extended if the refugee can prove they still need housing aid, but it’s a “lengthy, intense process,” says Darma Diaz, a Brooklyn Democratic district leader from Cypress Hills. Some people’s cases have been closed because FEMA hasn’t been able to inspect what’s left of their homes in Puerto Rico, she added.
“The stress is too much for me, but I need to be able to cope for my children,” said Nelliebelle Cordero, a former police officer now studying to be a special-education teacher. She’s staying in a Brooklyn hotel with her three children, one of whom is autistic. Her voucher has been extended until April 20. She said she is being treated for depression.
“We are American citizens as well,” she said. “There are a lot of us who are professionals. We can continue to give to the community, but we need help now.”
The storm “compounded” Puerto Rico’s deep economic crisis, said Lopez. With the commonwealth more than $70 billion in debt, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act of 2016 imposed a bankruptcy-driven austerity program, closing schools and, a month before the hurricane hit, eliminating future defined-benefit pensions for public workers. The hedge-fund creditors are nicknamed “buitres”—Spanish for “vultures,” Maria D. Maisonet of New York Communities for Change told LaborPress.
“They want millionaires to get paid before the Puerto Rican people,” said David Soto.
For Soto, like many Nuyoricans, the crisis is personal because they have relatives there. The intermittent electrical power makes it hard for his diabetic uncle to refrigerate his medications properly, he said.
“I have practically all my family there,” said Maria Beri of New York Communities for Change, who moved to New York when she was 7. “We will not rest until something is done for Puerto Rico for real.”