General Strike Sweeps the Island
Revolutionary Worker #966, July 19, 1998
For two days, on July 7 and 8, a general strike by hundreds of thousands of workers and others swept the whole island of Puerto Rico and stopped business as usual. The international airport in the capital, San Juan, was shut down for half a day. Buses and taxis did not run. Shopping malls, banks and universities throughout Puerto Rico were closed. Students smashed shop windows in San Juan and fought the police.
The general strike was a powerful protest against the sale of the Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC) to a group of investors led by GTE, a large corporation based in Connecticut. In mid-June Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Roselló announced the approval of GTE's bid to buy a controlling stake in the PRTC. If the sale goes through, Puerto Rico's entire telephone system will not only be "privatized"--it will be run by a U.S. corporation.
The 6,400 workers at PRTC immediately went on strike. The telephone workers say that hundreds or even thousands might be laid off if GTE takes over the PRTC. But their strike is not only about jobs. The workers insist that the telephone is a basic service that should remain in the public domain, rather than in the hands of a private corporation, especially one based in the U.S. They criticize the Roselló government for carrying out the negotiations for the sale in secret and agreeing to terms that are very favorable to GTE and its partners. The PRTC strikers have won widespread support from other workers and different sections of society in Puerto Rico.
The telephone strike is having a broad effect in Puerto Rico. PRTC officials admitted that one-fourth of the telephone lines are down and that hundreds of thousands of people are without telephone service. Many bank cash machines are out of order. Businesses that depend on phone and e-mail have been greatly affected. Protesters cut the fiber optic lines serving the huge U.S. Naval base at Roosevelt Roads, leaving the base without local telephone service.
Striking workers and police have clashed several times. The FBI is openly working with the Puerto Rican police in dealing with the strike.
One major target of protest is Banco Popular, a Puerto Rican bank which is participating in the consortium, led by GTE, trying to buy the telephone company. The people are denouncing the bank as a "traitor." And the bank's branches have been targets of boycotts, picketing and small bombings.
There have also been demonstrations at Banco Popular branches and other solidarity actions in New York, where there is a huge Puerto Rican community.
Business as Usual
On June 28, the Greater Committee of Labor, Religious, Civic and Cultural Organizations (CAOS)--which includes over 60 unions and other groups--announced the call for a two-day general strike. On the morning of July 7, a massive deployment of various police units and the FBI took their positions at the international airport in San Juan, in an attempt to prevent strikers from closing down operations there. But the strikers were able to outmaneuver the police and block the entrances to the airport with tractors and cars. Hundreds of workers began picketing. News reports said that the picketers had sticks and baseball bats and were prepared to do battle if the police attacked. The strikers chanted, "Struggle yes, surrender no." By 7 a.m., traffic jams extended for several miles on the approaches to the airport. All arriving and departing flights in the morning had to be canceled.
Even before the general strike started, the operators of Plaza Las Americas--the largest shopping mall in Puerto Rico and in all the Caribbean--announced that they were closing on July 7-8 because of the plans by CAOS to picket the entrances. Other large malls throughout Puerto Rico also shut down. Tourist cruises that were scheduled to be in the port of San Juan were canceled. All business was shut down in several other cities and towns.
Teachers picketed and blocked the entrances to the Education Department offices in San Juan. On the morning of June 8, a group of youth smashed windows at a Banco Popular and threw bottles and cans at the police. The police used tear gas and arrested 17 people.
The University Front Against Privatization organized a musical festival at Plaza Celulares in San Juan, as a show of support for the general strike. Several popular groups performed. The audience, mainly youth, danced to the music and shouted out strike slogans.
According to CAOS, as many as 500,000 workers took part in the general strike. CNN reported, "A carnival-like atmosphere reigned on picket lines [July 8], with protesters singing anti-Roselló jingles and chanting, `Never surrender--the telephone company belongs to the people.' Vendors did a brisk business selling Puerto Rican flags." Another popular slogan among the striking workers was, "Puerto Rico is not for sale!"
The general strike ended Wednesday night with several pro-independence rallies. Lolita Lebron, an unrepentant independentista, spoke at the biggest rally in San Juan. Lebron led the 1954 armed attack on the U.S. House of Representatives and was a political prisoner for decades.
An Expression of
Puerto Rican Nationalism
The Puerto Rican government had tried to carry out a privatization of the telephone company previously in 1990--but they were forced to back down because of widespread protests. The current governor, Roselló, insists that the strikes and protests will not stop the sale of the PRTC to private investors.
Roselló's move to sell the PRTC is part of a program to privatize various state-owned enterprises in order to attract foreign investments. Roselló has already sold off the government-owned shipping company and has put up hospitals and hotels for sale.
In many oppressed countries around the world--in particular in Latin America--the U.S. and other imperialist powers are promoting a wave of privatization in order to more thoroughly penetrate and exploit these regions. In Peru, for example, the Fujimori regime has sold off mining corporations and other state-owned firms to foreign investors at very low prices. The flow of investments into the country provided a very temporary "lift" to the Peruvian economy--but the privatization scheme has also led to an even tighter imperialist domination of Peru.
In Puerto Rico, the potential takeover of the telephone system by a U.S. corporation is a reminder of the long-time colonial status of the island. There is a widespread sense of this among the Puerto Rican people--which has given the telephone workers' strike emotional force and led to strong support among the masses. And the fact that the general strike hit Puerto Rico just a few weeks before July 25--the 100th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of the island--gave added significance to what was happening in the streets.
Official politics in Puerto Rico has tried to confine the "debate" about the future of the island to a "choice" between remaining a commonwealth of the U.S., or becoming the 51st state. But the strike, and the broad support for it, is a clear manifestation of the heartfelt national sentiments of the Puerto Rican people--their hopes for self-determination, hatred of U.S. domination and desire for liberation from the chains of colonial oppression.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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