SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hundreds of Puerto Ricans took to the streets of the island's capital on Wednesday to protest austerity measures as anger builds over an unrelenting economic crisis that has hit the working class especially hard.
Protesters clutched posters decrying austerity measures including new taxes, increases in utility bills and looming furloughs and cuts to a public pension system facing nearly $50 billion in liabilities.
"They're taking advantage of us poor workers. We did not steal. We are not corrupt," read one poster held up by 70-year-old Eva Feliciano, a retired government worker who said she sometimes cannot afford to buy the groceries she and her husband need.
Protesters shielded themselves from a blazing sun as meteorologists warned of a heat index that could reach 110 degrees. The crowd converged at the offices of a federal control board created by U.S. Congress last year to oversee Puerto Rico's finances. The board earlier this week sued Gov. Ricardo Rossello for refusing to implement measures including a 10 percent cut to a public pension system that officials say is running out of money and furloughs that are supposed to go into effect on Friday.
Puerto Ricans have joined the governor in rejecting the board's demands.
"The measures that are being approved affect everyone in Puerto Rico," said Luis Pedraza, leader of a union that represents some 20,000 workers in the public and private sector.
He warned that if people don't protest, they will be hit with additional measures to generate more money for bondholders demanding payment amid multimillion-dollar defaults as Puerto Rico tries to restructure a portion of its $74 billion public debt.
Joining the protest were dozens of workers from the island's public power company who launched a 24-hour strike that forced the agency to temporarily close its offices. Among them was 39-year-old Christian Garcia, who said his family has cut back on TV, internet and grocery shopping amid the crisis.
Nearby, several retired police officers held up posters demanding the government pay their pensions in full. Currently, police officers and teachers in Puerto Rico do not receive Social Security and depend solely on the crumbling public pension system.
Diego Figueroa, who retired in 2003 after working 35 years at the island's police department, defended the creation of the federal control board and said it is sorely needed.
"It is lifting the veil on millions of acts of corruption committed against the people of Puerto Rico," he said, referring in part to previous administrations that borrowed millions of dollars to cover ballooning deficits. "We demand respect for a people that is suffering."
The island of 3.4 million people is struggling with a 10 percent unemployment rate and a decade-long recession that has sparked an exodus of nearly 450,000 people to the U.S. mainland.