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Puerto Rico: The crisis for working class and poor people has intensified

Interview with Mercedes Martínez, President of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation

Interview by staff |
October 26, 2017
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Mercedes Martínez, President of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation
Mercedes Martínez, President of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (Fight Back! News/staff)

Mercedes Martinez was interviewed on Oct. 22 in San Juan, just over a month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Martinez is president of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR). The FMPR is a leading force in the struggle to defend public education and workers’ rights in Puerto Rico against attacks and attempted privatization. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, they initiated volunteer work brigades to address people's immediate dire needs, while also speaking out and mobilizing against the government's developing plan to use the hurricane as a pretext to close and privatize schools, like what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when public schools were replaced by charter schools. Interview and translation to English by Brad Sigal.

Fight Back: We're here in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Let's start with who you are and what is the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation?

Mercedes Martínez: I'm Mercedes Martínez Padilla, president of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation. The Federation is a union of Puerto Rican teachers, education workers, social workers, advisors, librarians. Educators who struggle to defend public and liberatory education in our country, in defense of the rights of Puerto Rican teachers above all, and for accessible and quality public education for our students.

Fight Back!: What's the situation with public education and with teachers in Puerto Rico?

Martínez: Public education in our country, like in all capitalist countries, has been under attack for many years. In the past four years, both of the major governing parties, the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party, have tried to close more than 320 public schools. They've created a situation with 35 or more students per classroom. They've been eliminating and repealing rights that the working class had won.

In the face of this general globalized attack on public education, the Federation has been struggling against the rolling back of rights that workers have won, defending the education of our kids. In this struggle we have succeeded in saving more than 300 schools that were threatened with being closed. In 2008 we had a strike and we succeed in stopping their goal of creating charter schools in Puerto Rico.

There is still not a single privatized school in Puerto Rico, mainly because of the militant struggle of Puerto Rican teachers. It was the Federation that led the 2008 strike that succeeded in winning an agreement with the government that stipulated that no public school would be privatized in our country. We still have a lot to do, and in that sense, we're working, organizing communities to do what is needed to defend public education in our country.

Fight Back!: What's changed since Hurricane Maria? What's the situation a month after the hurricane for the majority, the workers?

Martínez: The crisis has intensified. This country was already in a crisis before the hurricane. The bad distribution of wealth and the class difference between the wealthy class and the working class and the poor was enormous, is enormous. Obviously now that has intensified. Poor people have no access to drinkable water, no electricity or access to electricity. They don't have money to buy generators to have electricity. They don't have gas stoves so they're mainly eating canned goods. Roads are impassable, the routes to get to some homes is incredibly difficult. There are flooded homes. There are still many people missing that we don't know where they are even today, and the government hasn't given that the attention it needs. Because of all this, the crisis for the working class and poor people in our country has intensified a lot. Obviously with the hurricane the crisis of the capitalist model is showing in all its splendor, and all the Puerto Ricans here on the island are suffering it and living through it.

Fight Back!: What is the Federation doing after the hurricane? Can you tell us about the brigades you've organized?

Martínez: Yes. The Teachers Federation has organized work brigades. There’s an effort to establish access to public roads in our communities. We're installing roofs on the houses of compañeros who have lost their roofs. We're cutting trees [that block roads], collecting debris. We're bringing canned food and hot food out to communities. We're bringing gallons of water. We have different kinds of brigades. Brigades to make an impact to help clear roads, clean homes, deal with serious damage. We're doing brigades where volunteers bring food to people who have nothing to eat. We're bringing medications. We're coordinating with nurses in the U.S. who are coming to evaluate Puerto Rican people who don't have access to health care in these times. We're giving monetary donations to teachers, students and affected communities. So many people from the diaspora have reached out that I can't name them all because I'll surely leave someone out, but we're thankful to everyone that has helped, including with our GoFundMe. With this money we can go out and have an impact in communities.

Fight Back!: What can workers, unions and progressive people in the U.S. and other countries do to support you in your struggle?

Martínez: First, join in the call for a moratorium on the public debt they want to collect on. There's an illegitimate debt that we don't recognize of more than $72 billion dollars. A moratorium on the debt, that this debt not be paid.

That the Jones Act be completely repealed so that aid is allowed to arrive from people from other countries that want to show solidarity with our country. Aid from the Cuban people, the Venezuelan people, hasn't been able to arrive in our country because of the Jones Act which prohibits this much-needed humanitarian aid in solitary with our country from arriving. There needs to be an international outcry. The elimination of the debt, the repealing of the Jones Act.

Money can be sent in solidarity to our GoFundMe account. Talk to your friends.

Write to your president, your senators, your representatives in the U.S. so they hear the most important demands: that the debt be cancelled and the Jones Act be eliminated. These are two very important demands so that the aid that needs to get to our country arrives, and so that the working class and the people don't pay for the crisis. As the slogan says, “the people before the debt”. And help for the people, those who are really in need, and who are the ones raising up this country day by day with their labor and their sweat.

Fight Back!: What would you say in response to the words and actions of President Trump and the U.S. government regarding Hurricane Maria?

Martínez: President Trump is a very cynical person, a person that doesn't have any sensitivity. Puerto Ricans are lifting ourselves up day after day. We're helping each other with solidarity. Trump says that Puerto Ricans want everything done for them. That’s disrespectful to the Puerto Rican people and it’s not new. For more than 100 years as a colony our people have risen up day after day to move our country forward. Our fellow Puerto Ricans show solidarity by sharing food if needed to feed their neighbors. Our compatriots get up every day to clear roads with machete in hand without waiting for anyone to arrive. Help from the government hasn't arrived, the supposed help from the federal government. So Puerto Ricans aren't waiting for anything.

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