May Day Protests in Puerto Rico Show an Economy Still on the Brink

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SAN JUAN, P.R. — In Puerto Rico, protests on May 1, a long-held tradition for workers, have become a portrait of a precarious economy.

No longer are the annual demonstrations limited to public schoolteachers and other unionized workers demanding better pay and working conditions. Other residents come out now, too — people fed up and frustrated that life on the island keeps getting a bit more expensive and difficult, year after year.

Puerto Rico has faced an economic malaise for almost two decades. Austerity measures, imposed by an unelected fiscal oversight board created by Congress seven years ago, have chipped away at public pensions and other benefits.

Also vexing are the island’s frequent power blackouts, foreign investors who buy property and displace local residents, and development projects on environmentally sensitive land.

“There are so many reasons to protest,” said Luz Elena Sánchez, 73, a former counselor at the University of Puerto Rico, which has faced steep budget cuts.

Here is what a few of the hundreds of Puerto Ricans who marched from the university and the local Department of Labor to the heart of San Juan’s financial district on May Day last week had to say about just how tough life has gotten on the island.

Ms. Anaya Luna has seen several friends and neighbors evicted or pushed out of their homes by rising rents, prompted by a surge in foreign investors buying property in Puerto Rico to flip for profit or to use for short-term rentals.

“What they want is to turn the island into a tax haven,” said Ms. Anaya Luna, an artist and translator. “For it to become a holiday and retirement place for white, wealthy Americans.”

Ms. Anaya Luna, who lives in a family-owned house in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, said she had seen a wave of displacement in her community and others across the island. The cost of living has gone up for local residents while substantial tax benefits are granted to high net worth individuals who move to Puerto Rico and buy property.

Such policies are making the island “inhospitable to live in for someone who is not a millionaire,” she said.

After working for 26 years as a high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Santiago Rodríguez now lives with what he called una pensión de hambre — a starvation pension. His annual salary of $32,000 left him with a monthly pension of $1,228, or about $14,700 a year.

That is not enough to cover the cost of food, rent, health insurance and ever-increasing utility bills, he said.

“I can barely pay for my health insurance,” said Mr. Santiago Rodríguez, who pays for supplemental private coverage because Medicare does not go far enough. “I’m still healthy, but my diet isn’t the best.”

He marched with fellow retirees from the Puerto Rico Department of Education to demand that the fiscal oversight board managing the island’s finances increase pensions to keep up with inflation. The board ordered several changes to the teachers’ pension system, including raising the retirement age to 63 and eliminating a defined-benefit retirement plan that guaranteed pensions at 75 percent of teachers’ salaries.

What he has now, Mr. Santiago Rodríguez said, “is just miserable.”

Ms. Rivera Sánchez, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Puerto Rico, said finding courses she can take, even in core subjects, has become more difficult each semester because budget cuts have limited the number of professors and sections available at the university. That makes it even harder to schedule time to work so that she can afford her studies.

Recent tuition increases have forced her and Mr. Maldonado Rodríguez, who are both on the university’s student council, to juggle coursework with paid jobs outside of school.

“Right now, we are not students who work, but workers who study,” said Ms. Rivera Sánchez, who is majoring in mathematics and working as a software engineering trainee.

Mr. Maldonado Rodríguez, a law student, said budget cuts have also limited students’ access to housing. Two of the three dormitories on the university’s main campus have been closed for about five years. As real estate investors snap up properties in the neighborhood, fewer affordable rental apartments remain available to students.

“With something so basic at risk, you cannot have a proper university experience,” Mr. Maldonado Rodríguez said.

Dr. Rodríguez García, a psychiatrist with $200,000 in student loan debt, said she understood why Puerto Rican doctors leave the island to work in places where can they earn more.

“In these conditions, there is no way to practice medicine in a dignified way,” Dr. Rodríguez García said.

As of May 2022, the number of physicians practicing in Puerto Rico had dropped by about 9,500, or half the total, since 2009, according to the Puerto Rico Department of Health.

Dr. Rodríguez Torres, a 34-year-old internal medicine specialist, is known in Puerto Rico for using social media to protest insurance company policies that he says hurt patient care.

“With doctors working so much, with them having to see so many patients a day, patients are dying,” said Dr. Rodríguez Torres, who now works as a telemedicine doctor, seeing patients who live outside Puerto Rico.

Dr. Rodríguez García said she wanted to keep practicing on the island. She is hoping to offer psychiatric services without going through insurance companies. “We want patients to donate what they can,” she said, “depending on their circumstances.”

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.

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