Report from Puerto Rico — Part 1: Organizing against earthquakes and austerity

On Jan. 8, WW reporter Phebe Eckfeldt interviewed Alberto Barreto Cardona, a leading member of Partido Mundo Obrero/Workers World Party. Barreto spoke about his recent travels from Jan. 1 to 28 in his home island of Puerto Rico. 

Puerto Rican activists Oscar López Rivera (left) and Alberto Barreto on Calle la Resistencia (Resistance Street) in old San Juan, during a Jan. 20 demonstration denouncing both the colonial government’s negligence in meeting the people’s needs and the neoliberal program of the imperialist PROMESA Board.

The southern coast of Puerto Rico was the epicenter of a 6.4 magnitude earthquake on Jan. 7. The same area of the island was devastated by a 5.9 quake on Jan. 11, with a 5.0 magnitude quake hitting the area on Feb. 4. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, between Dec. 28 and Jan. 15, Puerto Rico suffered over 1,280 earthquakes, with more than two dozen magnitude 4.5 or greater.

 Workers World:  How are people dealing with the earthquakes? How are they organizing themselves?

Alberto Barreto Cardona:  It is important to notice even before the earthquake I could still see the damage that [2017 Hurricane] Maria did to the Puerto Rican infrastructure and also the grievances of the people about the lack of motivation from the government to intervene and improve the quality of life on the island. For instance, the people have discovered there are many warehouses all around the island with resources that were never delivered — that could have alleviated  people’s conditions..

When the [first] earthquake happened,  there was already a lack of faith among the people in the government to be proactive. The majority of those organizing the camps for the poor — the medical volunteers, the nurses, the social workers, the psychologists — were all volunteers. Our own people were taking care of our people. There was a clear movement of solidarity in all parts of Puerto Rico, including the land where the camps were. 

In the aftermath of the earthquakes 

I went to the camps in the south, to a town called Ponce, near the epicenter of the earthquake in Guanica. There is doubt whether this earthquake was caused by nature. There are some people who believe that there is an interest in exploring oil in the Caribbean, and perhaps some clandestine process may have contributed to this.  

I cannot testify to this because I do not have scientific evidence or information.  But other islands in the Caribbean, like Cuba, have experienced a major earthquake.   It is surprising that Puerto Rico is shaking, Cuba is shaking, Jamaica is shaking. Is it nature or are other factors involved here?  

WW: Are people living outside now?

ABC:  Many people are living outside because they lost their housing due to the earthquake.  Other people are living outside even though they have housing because they are so scared and panicked they do not want to sleep in anything that is cement. When I was there, I felt at least seven shakings every day. Also there is fear of a tsunami, so everyone on the coast [where the epicenter was] is trying to go to the hills. When I went to the camps, the first thing I noticed is each has a couple of people as point persons who are very organized about how food was distributed. There are portable toilets, plenty of them. 

But I also saw things I did not want to see. There was a 72-year-old man who’d had major surgery two weeks before, because of cancer of the stomach. It was not the best hygiene situation for somebody who had an operation of that type!

‘Our own people were taking care of our people’

I traveled through the center of the island to Ponce where all these camps were established by community organizers, volunteers and also some landowners who allowed people to make camps on their land. I visited almost six of the camps; they were all close together.  I noticed that they had enough water, enough food, because the community had intervened — not because the government had intervened. 

The response of people from the north and the northeast [of the island] to the people affected was incredible. But it was Puerto Rican helping Puerto Rican, and there was no government. When I went there, they had trucks full of water and full of food and donations. They had people from the School of Psychology who volunteered to do interventions with children around post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma. After nurses finished their work day in the hospital, they went and volunteered in the camps. There were doctors volunteering.

All was organized by Puerto Ricans and without the help of the government. Now the Puerto Rican government shows up for the pictures. To be seen in the newspapers.  

But in each camp that I went to, there was an incredible sense of belonging. It was powerful. Although it was a critical situation, I saw the resilience of the Puerto Rican people and the love everybody was demonstrating for each other — intervening in each other’s lives. There was collective cooking; there was even a playground created for the children with toys. All produced by the people, all generated by the people’s organizing.  

WW: Please talk about the role of women in response to the earthquake.  

ABC:   I witnessed myself the incredible strength of the women organizing in both the [camp] community and also primarily organizing around the demonstrations in San Juan against the government.  It was so refreshing not to see men in front of everything. In the majority of the chanting, the organizing, the picket line, there were powerful Puerto Rican women. 

I also saw the women being point persons in the camps, and the linkages that people are making about women’s oppression and colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism. There are separate organizations for women that are very powerful and very confrontational and very political. They are not “polite!”

It gave me a lot of hope because we suffered for so many years from the assumption of leadership by men. [It was good] to see the youth and women organizing, to see that they are trying to resolve grievances right there. Not sitting and discussing — they are resolving by doing. They are resolving by taking control, rather than “Let’s sit and talk about it.”  [Public] leadership is not something that PR women have been a part of; it has been a male problem in the left, and it continues to be a male problem.  

[While I was in Puerto Rico,] there were major demonstrations in San Juan in front of the governor’s house demanding the resignation of the governor — because we found products never delivered to people during Maria. 

I consider the youth of Puerto Rico right now to be the vanguard because they are the ones who are being more militant. They are the ones protesting almost every day about the neglect of the government. 

I am just happy when I return to Puerto Rico. I just want to be part of this. I don’t want a leading position.  I want to be led by youth: “Tell me how I can be helpful.” I try to keep myself in check about not being paternalistic or being condescending.  That is something that is a part of patriarchy, and it is also part of the bad habits that sometimes you find in the left.  

I think that is being corrected with action.  People have grievances, but the grievances don’t stay as grievances. You see the changes in the picket line; you see the changes in the demonstrations. You also see the creative way of doing politics. Sometimes we need innovations to keep things alive, and the youth have all kinds of ideas!  

Next: Part 2 of Alberto Barreto’s interview: “PROMESA and the earthquakes.”


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