Today we bring you a conversation with Liza Fournier and Mercedes Martinez, unionized teachers in Puerto Rico. They discuss how public education was imperiled even before Hurricane Maria, but was absolutely devastated after the storm, especially with the recent passage of a law to privatize schools on the island. They also discuss the importance of solidarity with other striking teachers on the US mainland.
Sarah Jaffe: Puerto Rico has been hit with two disasters. There was the debt crisis [with the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA)] and all of that, and then [Hurricane Maria]. Take us back to before the hurricane. What were the big issues that you were dealing with before the storm hit?
Mercedes Martinez: Prior to the hurricane, as you know, President Barack Obama and Congress approved the PROMESA law. People in Puerto Rico were already facing a lot of austerity measure attacks against their dignified life. We were exposed to proposals, such as pension cuts, school closures, thousands of layoffs, cancellation of public agencies. It is the disposal of all the public goods to the corporate sector, into the private sector, into the bankers, into that 1%. So, before the hurricane, our colonial situation allowed the government to approve this law and they wanted for the people of Puerto Rico to pay a $72 billion odious debt that was not created by the workers, and the workers are the ones that are being expected to sacrifice their working conditions, their lives, to pay these corporate moguls.
What were some of the things before the hurricane that you were struggling with in your union?
Liza Fournier: Well, before the hurricane, we even had schools that were shut down … because it was all part of the system. They wanted to reduce the system. They want[ed] to cut money from schools before the hurricane, so we had … how many schools were shut down before the hurricane?
Fournier: One-hundred-and-sixty-six schools last year. Before that, there were 120. Things were pretty bad before the hurricane; teachers struggling because they were moving teachers from one school to another in the middle of the semester. It was pretty much bad before, and it got worse after the hurricane.
I know in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, I have heard stories of teachers going back in and cleaning the schools up to get them open again and stuff like that. Can you tell us what that was like in that time?
Fournier: I work in a school. I am an active teacher. We went back a week after the hurricane. Schools were completely damaged by trees, trash, structures had fallen down. So, the teachers were the first ones who got [to] school. We were the ones with the machetes, cleaning the schools, taking out all the garbage, trying to get schools fixed as soon as possible to bring students back. But guess what? They didn’t let us open the schools. My school was ready to be open like two weeks after the hurricane, but we opened in November. So, my students were two and a half months without going to school. Not because we weren’t ready or it was our fault. It was because they didn’t let us open. Mainly, the teachers and organizations and the community were the ones who really cleaned the schools to reopen.
Martinez: After the hurricane, teachers, as Liza said, were the ones that reconditioned the schools. A lot of women…. They were ready to receive their children. Every psychologist knows — they will tell you, after a disaster like the one we had — [after] a Category 5 hurricane, you need to come to some type of normalcy again, and the Department of Education was denying our children their right to an education.
It is very important that after the hurricane happened, even though the schools were ready, they denied the schools to open, but school communities that had no light, that had no water, that had no communication, organized themselves. There were multiple protests … the Teachers Federation was in a lot of communities organizing the parents and requesting the secretary of education [Julia Beatrice Keleher] to open the schools.
When she denied that after the protests, we performed a civil disobedience activity in her office. Twenty-one of us got arrested for requesting her to open the schools…. After that, she still denied the schools to be opened, so we took her to court. When we started the court case, she had 300 schools — that was in November — that were still closed. For the first hearing, when the judge ordered her to tell us why the schools were still closed … she had already opened 260 schools, leaving only 40 closed, so the protests, the civil disobedience, the pickets in front of her office, plus the court case stopped her from implementing the agenda that she had.
She said that she was going to shut down 200 schools during the hurricane and the community organization — plus all the activities that I mentioned — stopped her from doing that, from converting Puerto Rico into the New Orleans of the decade.
Fournier: The delay to open the schools is what provoked … many students [to come] to the [United] States, because they were waiting to go back to school … many students came to the States to study and find better conditions, because we had no electricity. I got electricity in January, and there are still a lot of people in Puerto Rico that don’t have electricity or water.
They announced that they want to privatize the schools.
Martinez: They announced that they want to privatize it … from day one. Now they just made it into a law. They approved the law March 29…. The teacher unions went to public hearings and we presented them with a lot of letters from different community organizations from the states that have charter schools, that have voucher programs — telling the legislature, “Don’t vote in favor of this bill, because this is what happened to us in the States.” Hundreds of letters.
They did not listen. Obviously, this is an agenda — it is to fill the pockets of the ones that have too much that want more. They just approved the bill into law. The same day they were voting on it, we — the teachers’ alliance … and other organizations of teachers — performed a one-day strike. Sixteen thousand teachers were absent from their schools. We organized that. We announced the strike on Wednesday and it started on Monday.
Now that they approved the law … they have just announced last week the … closures of 283 schools. We are having a general assembly on the 15th of April — all of the organizations, the teachers unions’ — to propose an action plan which definitely will take us back to the streets until we get justice for the people of Puerto Rico and our children and our workers.
It has become almost a cliché now to talk about the “shock doctrine,” the things that they came in wanting to do, [which] they then pushed through because of the hurricane. What is the response from parents, from students? How are they feeling?
Fournier: We have lots of parents that are supporting us. Since they know that schools are shutting down, they are calling the different unions … they are calling us. It is because they want us to be in their assemblies, they want help from us to organize the communities because they want to fight back.
We are talking about schools that are really in the country, that children would have to wake up at 5:00 in the morning to get ready to go to school and sometimes come at 6:00 to school, and schools open at 8:00. So, we are talking about kids from six, seven, eight years [old] that would have maybe to travel an hour, 45 minutes to get to school. Parents are very supportive. They are ready to fight for their schools and the teachers are going to be standing right next to them because this is the work that we have to do together. We are grateful for that. We can hardly wait to go back home to start organizing the communities. We are going to fight back.
What has it been like here, connecting with some of the other teachers and their other struggles around the US?
Martinez: Well, when we come here, we know that is the same struggle that we are given in Puerto Rico — not only in the States, but throughout the globe with teachers. Teachers in the entire continent are fighting against this capitalist agenda, this neoliberal agenda that wants to destroy not only public education, but all the public services in our country.
The attack is not only on education. They want to privatize schools, to implement those charters, they want to give the voucher programs, they want to shut down the schools, they want to fire public employees. We are talking about 100,000 employees that will be fired from different agencies. They want to destroy the University of Puerto Rico, which is a state university, by eliminating campuses. They want to increase the admission fee, they want to increase the cost per credit, per course. They want to cut the pensions from 10 percent to 25 percent [for] people that do not have enough to live. It is not only an attack on public education….
We have heard [of] the same attack against all public sectors; this is a generalized attack. I don’t even think it is the “shock doctrine” anymore. It is the terror doctrine that they have implemented here in Puerto Rico…. Being here and talking to teachers and listening to the stories — West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona. We have a great alliance with MORE from New York, and just listening to them, it just renews our energy and it lets us know that this is one struggle of the working class, and that we will have small victories until we triumph entirely. We are not hopeless. We have much hope to go back to our country and give the fight that we have to give.
What can people in the mainland US do to support you?
Fournier: Yesterday, we were talking about that in one of the workshops. All of the teachers were interested in helping Puerto Rico…. They can make videos, they can take pictures, send us messages. Maybe we will open another GoFundMe campaign if we go on strike. So, they can help by donating to the GoFundMe campaign. But it is very important … yesterday, they made a video with teachers from 12 states saying, “We are here with Puerto Rico. We support you.” We spread it out on Facebook and the teachers went, “Oh my god! I can’t believe it! This is great. We feel that we are getting renewed with this.” That is very important that we know that we are not alone in this. But it is very important for the teachers over there in Puerto Rico to know that we have support.
Martinez: And not only support for the teachers. We have been working with other comrades in other unions, we have been working with a sisterhood program where you adopt a school in Puerto Rico, but it is not a charity. It is a solidarity event. Then, they create pen pals between schools from different schools — Puerto Rico and the States. So, kids can understand why we are fighting in Puerto Rico and … know why the teachers and the children of the States are fighting the same fights. So, they get to know each other. They get to be in solidarity with each other and they get to know that what we are going through…. It is building relationships, it is not just a solidarity event. It is more than that. It is a lasting bond. It is a long-term relationship that we need to construct.
What else should people know about what is going on in Puerto Rico and what is going to be happening in the next few weeks and months?
Martinez: They should know that we are definitely going to our general assembly on the 15th of April. That we are going to vote for a strike. That we are going to propose a strike indefinitely for the time that we have to — until they revoke this law and they guarantee that no charter schools will be implemented. That they stop the school closures. That we are going to take the case to court, but we don’t rely on the court case for justice; it has proven to not benefit the workers in history.
We are giving the biggest fight of our lives and we are very energized. Being here with so many wonderful people, so many union members that are working, that are fighting, that are organizing — the best gift I take with me is to know that people all around the globe are organizing and are giving the same struggles that we are giving. We are all in this together, and ultimately, it is not an individual situation of a country. It is a global situation about the working class. We are in it together and we take to our country renewed energies to fight for what is right and more than just defend public education, to fight for the world that we want to build — a just world, an equitable world for the children of Puerto Rico.
Fournier: People need to know that Puerto Rico is still struggling with the hurricane that we had. That we still have a lot of places that don’t have electricity, that still are reconstructing their houses. That is the main thing going on. That teachers are getting ready to strike pretty soon. We are going to organize and we are going to defend our public schools. That is the main thing. We are united together and we are going to do whatever it takes to defend our public schools and education for our kids…. It is not even a thing about teachers. It is about, as Mercedes said, our legacy for our future, what we want to leave for our children, for our kids. That is the main thing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.