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World & Nation

Puerto Ricans protest in anger over unused emergency aid

Puerto Rico protests
Protesters in San Juan hold an image of Gov. Wanda Vázquez during a rally organized by Puerto Rican singer René Pérez of Calle 13 over emergency aid that until recently sat unused in a warehouse amid ongoing earthquakes.
(Carlos Giusti / Associated Press)

Hundreds of people joined a protest Thursday organized by Puerto Rican singer René Pérez of Calle 13 fame in a demonstration reminiscent of those that ousted the governor last year. Anger is growing over emergency aid that until recently sat unused in a warehouse amid ongoing earthquakes.

Protesters gathered under heavy rain at the governor’s mansion as they waved flags and banged on pots, demanding the removal of Gov. Wanda Vázquez, who took office in August, shortly after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló was forced out amid massive demonstrations.

“This is not the end! It’s just the beginning!” one of the protest organizers yelled to a cheering crowd, which had marched to the mansion from the Capitol building.

The newest protest unleashed debate about whether Puerto Ricans should try to oust Vázquez as the U.S. territory struggles to recover from a recent 6.4 magnitude earthquake that killed one person and damaged hundreds of homes in the island’s southern region. Officials are still awaiting millions of dollars in federal funds for Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that hit in September 2017.

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“We’ve had enough,” said 82-year-old Iris Guardiola as she waved a tiny Puerto Rican flag. “The people are tired of the abuse ... of the lack of humanity. I am here helping those who cannot be here.”

One former protest leader, Rey Charlie, who gained fame after leading hundreds of motorcycle riders in a demonstration last summer, said he would not participate in the most recent one.

“A massive demonstration like the one last year would cause great damage, damage that I think would be irreparable,” he said. “You are holding up the economy, you are holding up aid supplies to victims in the southern region, you are paralyzing the country. ... You have to think of the consequences.”

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Charlie and other critics of the recent protests argue that the most effective strategy is to vote in the upcoming general election in November, in which Vázquez is seeking a full term as governor. But first, she will face Pedro Pierluisi, a veteran politician who served as Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, in the primary of their pro-statehood party. Pierluisi was sworn in briefly as governor last year before the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled that Vázquez was constitutionally next in line to succeed Rosselló.

Vázquez has only briefly addressed the recent protests, warning of people who want to talk about “negative issues.”

“We cannot allow groups with other interests to divert our attention,” she told reporters Wednesday. “We’re in a moment of helping people in the south, not of creating controversy.”

Vázquez came under fire Saturday after a blogger posted a live feed of a warehouse in the southern coastal city of Ponce filled with water, cots, baby food and other supplies dating from Hurricane Maria. A group of people broke into the warehouse and began distributing supplies to those affected by the recent quake, which prompted President Trump to approve a major disaster declaration for more than a dozen municipalities in the island’s southern region. More than 4,500 people remain in shelters.

The governor fired the director of Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency shortly after the incident, as well as the secretaries of the departments of housing and family, blaming them in part for not distributing the aid.

Pérez, the singer, said people should not wait until the general election to express their discontent.

“We’re not going to wait until November because the politicians in this country are not going to wait until November to steal. They’re going to steal starting now,” he said.

Pérez was joined by Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Báez and St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

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Concerns over alleged corruption and mismanagement have delayed federal funds to Puerto Rico and led federal officials to impose new restrictions as the island struggles to emerge from a 13-year recession.

Carmen Velázquez, a 71-year-old retiree, said she doubts the protests will accomplish what they did last year, “but I can’t remain sitting at home. The lies and the cheating are still going on.”

She dismissed concerns that the protest would create more uncertainty in Puerto Rico.

“It’s already unstable,” she said.


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