First Published in The Progressive
Jesse Hagopian spoke with Mercedes Martinez, president of the teachers union Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico or FMPR, as it is known, on July 26, one day after former Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced his plan to resign amid mass protests and strikes sparked by revelations of his corruption and bigotry.
Protesters had many accumulated grievances, but what ignited the uprising was a series of text messages leaked by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, the Center for Investigative Journalism. In the leaked messages, Rosselló and his associates insulted people who died during Hurricane Maria and made sexist and homophobic comments.
Martinez, a longtime movement leader, speaks about the ongoing struggle of Puerto Rican educators to defend the schools from privatization, colonial policies, and disaster capitalism that has harmed so many. But importantly, they focus their conversation on the great uprising that not only toppled Rosselló but is leading to radical new democratic organizing on the island.
Q: It’s incredible to see working people rise up and fight back at a truly massive scale after all the work that you’ve been putting in for years to organize your educator’s union to resist the neoliberal policies of Governor Ricardo Rosselló and others.
Martinez: It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. There have been sleepless nights for two weeks, protesting at all hours, the entire day with so many people across seventy-eight cities, but just one country, all together.
People with so many differences that now have known what it feels like to be empowered, that now know the power of the people, and that will now fight against anything that comes at us about everything that’s happening to us and has been happening. We have been very much vindicated.
Q: We raised a toast here amongst teachers who have been following your work for years in Seattle. It’s an amazing example and I think it must be particularly sweet for you, given how Rosselló pushed for mass school closures and school privatization and vouchers and charters and high-stakes testing, the general destruction of the schools.
Martinez: We are so pleased to see him go. His public policy needs to be abolished, completely, entirely. So, we have a long road ahead of us. Teachers are eager to organize. To fight back to have all of those measures revoked.
We had a big victory this summer. They wanted to privatize ten percent of our schools effective now in August. They were only able to state that they will create one charter school out of eighty-six that could have been. So that is in big part thanks to all the organizing and work from all these years.
Q: Your victory against school privatization will help us redouble our efforts here! The last time I interviewed you was for May Day in 2018. That was an incredible outpouring of solidarity and striking workers against this neoliberal agenda of the Puerto Rican governor. But this struggle was on a whole other scale, including the largest general strike in Puerto Rican history.
Martinez: This has been the most powerful two weeks that we’ve ever seen in Puerto Rico. It’s a massive struggle. It’s an insurrection. People were so upset. They felt so betrayed, and so hurt by the words of the governor and his corrupt cabinet members—it was an explosion that was waiting to happen.
It was a huge protest of every sector in our country: unions, feminist collectives, environmentalists, political organizations, movements, teachers, students. It was everyone, honestly. And the struggle was very diverse, including huge marches that gathered more than one million people. One rally on the highway was counted at 1.2 million people!
“People with so many differences now have known what it feels like to be empowered, now know the power of the people.”
Q: That’s incredible.
Martinez: It was a huge demonstration of angry people telling the governor that he needed to resign. They also wanted to see his cabinet members resign. Eleven members resigned already. But, we needed his resignation—and the people were ready to throw him out of office!
We had marches from the teachers union, from the retirees, picket lines, and rallies in every city of our island there were protests.
We had motorcycle protests with [4,000] motorcycles gathering in front of the governor’s mansion. We even had scuba divers protesting under the sea.
Q: Underwater! You truly had them surrounded!
Martinez: Oh, yeah. It was crazy. People protesting on [boats] from around the Puerto Rican Diaspora. People took over the Grand Central Station in New York and at other places in different states. So it was a movement of the island that spread to the continental U.S. and to other countries. Wherever there was a Puerto Rican, they were gathering themselves to ask for the dismissal of this corrupt governor that we had.
And you should also know that there was repression—that part wasn’t covered on the news very well.
Q: Was it similar to May Day when the police rioted, beating students and teachers and shooting tear gas and rubber bullets?
Martinez: The same and more because there were a lot of rubber bullets shot at people every single day. It was not peaceful. The constitution seemed to be put to sleep in Puerto Rico and the police were tired of the people protesting, and not leaving from in front of the governor’s mansion, so at 11:00 pm they would tell people and the protestors that they needed to go.
And when people did not leave, because it was their right not to, police started throwing tear gas. A lot of residents of Old San Juan were affected. Police threw tear gas and shot rubber bullets, and people were defending themselves and throwing rocks, and throwing bricks, and setting fires on San Juan. So it was a war zone in San Juan at night, every day.
Q: So can you talk about the text messages that detonated this uprising?
Martinez: Well, it was [nearly] nine hundred pages of text messaging. And one of the most offensive messages that I read was when they were mocking the people that died after Hurricane Maria. Christian Sobrino, who was part of the cabinet says, “Oh, I wonder if we have a corpse to feed the crowd of all the corpses that we have laying on the forensic sciences.” And they all start laughing on the chat.
We’re talking about families that lost loved ones. Four thousand, six hundred and forty-five people died and you’re mocking them.
Q: What about the deeper structural issues that helped to create the conditions for this movement?
Martinez: We’ve been a colony of the U.S. and the U.S. has been governing in our country forever. More recently, we had the imposition of an oversight fiscal board that has imposed on the Puerto Rican people severe austerity measures.
It’s also critical to understand that it has not only been the measures imposed by the fiscal board that have hurt us, but they’ve had alliances with so-called unions.
For example, the AFT [American Federation of Teachers] in Puerto Rico, in alliance with the AMPR [Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico], which is the other so-called teachers union, made an alliance with the oversight fiscal board.
But in June, we did have a big victory. The AFT, in alliance with the fiscal board and the AMPR, reached a tentative agreement where teachers would have to give up their pensions and change them for 401(k)s. They even waited for the semester to be over to have for the vote. But we were able to organize against this and we won. The people voted no.
Q: The drive towards privatization and austerity has wreaked havoc on the mainland, too. We have had our share of school closures. In Chicago they closed around 50 schools, we’ve had significant closures in my own hometown of Seattle, and all around the country. But it seems like what you all are facing in Puerto Rico is on another scale.
Martinez: We have had 442 schools that have been shut down in two years. They wanted to shut down about 800 schools. We were able to save a little less than half of what they wanted to, but 442 is too much—way too much. It has affected the services that we provide to the children. They approved Law 85, which allows vouchers to be implemented and which allows charters to be created.
Q: Weren’t you even arrested in a struggle to reopen schools?
Martinez: Yeah, me along with the entire board of the FMPR and our lawyers and our press person on November 7, 2017, after the hurricane. We were helping to repair the schools. We were fixing the roofs. We were removing debris. We were cleaning the classrooms. The schools were ready, thanks to the heroic work of the teachers. Because they knew that the kids needed some type of normalcy after such a big natural disaster.
But then the human disaster of capitalists hit us and even though we were ready, they did not want to open up the schools. So we filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of Education. We did civil disobedience. We organized the communities and she was not able to shut them at that time because people felt so powerful fighting for what they needed.
“It cannot just be about having a governor resign. It’s so much more than that. It’s about bringing the system down. The system that oppresses us.”
Q: You have to think that the corruption that was exposed against Education Secretary Julia Keleher, and the movement that you all built to force her to resign, were part of instigating this larger revolt against Rosselló. And I heard you say that what’s really messed up is that she won’t even be prosecuted for the worst things that she did.
Martinez: That’s right. She’s being accused now of corruption. But one of the worst crimes that she committed was shutting down 442 schools. She’ll never be charged for that. The Supreme Court here said that she could close as many schools as she wanted because she was the secretary—with no due process. So she won’t pay for the worst of her crimes, which is dismantling the schools that belong to our children.
Q: Well it’s certainly time for us on the mainland to rise up and rid our selves of our own corrupt and bigoted politicians.
Martinez: Obama is the one who’s responsible for signing the PROMESA Law [Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act] that was meant to implement austerity in Puerto Rico and forces us to pay back a debt that we the people never owed. Then Trump came along and completed the work that had been started for him.
The truth is, both parties have been responsible for a lot of the things that we are facing today. That’s why one of our demands in this uprising is that the oversight fiscal board has to leave our country and the PROMESA Law needs to be abolished and that more than seventy percent of the debt needs to be canceled right away.
Q: What’s next?
Martinez: Well, right now we are organizing the people. It cannot just be about having a governor resign. It’s so much more than that. It’s about bringing the system down. The system that oppresses us.
We are making calls to form people’s assemblies in every municipality, to organize themselves around the demands that they come up with. These assemblies will ask, “What are our demands? What is the country that we want to live in? What does it look like?” And organize around that to make it possible.
We know that as one working class we will prevail some day. This moment that has happened here in Puerto Rico has proven it. Many thought it would never be possible and now we’ve seen it with our own eyes. We have proven that we can do the impossible.