Puerto Rico: Operations Calculated to Restrict Civil Rights

A calculated police operation, according to sworn testimony this morning by one of the agents, left yesterday afternoon in front of the Capitol dozens of demonstrators injured and journalists attacked, and served as a framework so that behind closed doors the legislature could annul the university students’ constitutional rights of assembly and freedom of speech.

The sworn statement, a copy of which NCM News obtained, specifies how the order to disperse the crowd was given at least two hours before more than a hundred Puerto Rico Police, among them the anti-riot force, the horses of the mounted unit, and a helicopter, swept with batons, kicks and gas hundreds of demonstrators who insisted on asserting the right that the legislature be open to the public.

To make matters even worse, the first to be violently dispersed were the reporters from the student media, who had gone to the Capitol to cover the events, and whose press credentials the government refused to recognize. Several members of the general press and at least two legislators ended up injured as well.

At the close of this edition, a statement was expected from the media guilds as well as an urgent press conference by the Puerto Rican Independence Party, calling the Puerto Rico Police action “gorilla-like.”

Without knowing that it had all happened in a calculated way by police commands, Capitol employees last night expressed their indignation at the picture of some of their vehicles overturned by the mass of students, professors, and support groups that faced the onslaught of batons and gas by police who had no fear of punishment. A little later, the legislature announced the approval of a new measure that eliminated student assemblies and substituted them with a remote electronic voting system, which any public expression by an official student leader must also be subjected to.

The measure substitutes for another which had proposed the system of internet voting for assemblies of every university organism, including professors, and which a source in the industry estimated would cost over $50 million to establish. That measure would have exempted only the Board of Trustees, which would be the only organism capable of deliberating and decision making without being subjected to the restrictions.

But, in fact, a source of the ruling New Progressive Party, which in the past has provided reliable information and even confidential documents, assured days ago that the objective was to change the project to the one that was ultimately adopted. The source indicated that it’s all part of a broader agenda to eliminate in Puerto Rico the old constitutional right of freedom of assembly and substitute it with electronic voting, which would guarantee the preponderance of the so-called silent majority.

Minutes before the new restriction on constitutional rights was approved, the minority opposition Popular Democratic Party had withdrawn from the Senate floor, as a sign of protest. Senate president, Thomas Rivera Schatz, proclaimed that they had managed to be able to complete the final work of the ordinary session of the Legislature “in this peaceful environment.”

Rivera Schatz, himself, was an important piece in the entire operation when on Friday last week, in an action for which officials provided contradictory explanations, he ordered the expulsion of all journalists from the Senate sessions. To accomplish this, he used armed police and locks that blocked the press from entering, and it stood out in public opinion that the public galleries in the third floor had been closed since the end of last year.

The PDP minority and the journalists turned to separate legal recourse, still pending in court, while a group of students from the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez campus called for a demonstration yesterday, at which the student collectives from several campuses throughout the country came together. The Senate, meanwhile, which had gone back to permitting journalists to enter and which had opened its galleries, put the locks back on, and starting early in the afternoon the anti-riot squads, known as the “Shock Troops”, entered the building.

The problem of civil rights is crucial for the statehood movement, which has been complaining for years that the social and political institutions don’t recognize its overwhelming majority, as a result of which they have taken steps such as last year’s elimination of compulsory bar association membership for attorneys, because statehood has never gotten a majority at its conventions. On the other hand, the government understands that the student movement carried out a successful two month strike that paralyzed the eleven UPR campuses.

Similarly, the legislature approved another measure, to criminalize any social protest that paralyzes public or private construction sites.

But the isolation of the NPP, barely a year-and-a-half after having won the most sweeping electoral victory in its history, isn’t limited to the student revolt or the political opposition. The party is already showing signs of division, such as growing complaints from important business sectors such as the hotel and insurance industries, as well as small town governments.

The situation has a lot to do with the attempts to increase government funds, while the country continues to be submerged in a galloping economic crisis, with more than 100,000 jobs lost since the beginning of last year. In this context, the divided labor movement continues to be paralyzed, and in the social sphere, only groups like the students present an articulate opposition to governmental plans.

With great difficulty, at the end of the night, the legislature managed to approve a deficit budget for state agencies, from the marble and alabaster building of the Capitol, in whose shadow, even hours after the incidents, the acrid odor of tear gas could still be breathed.

  • Translated from Spanish to English by Jan Susler.
  • Jesús Dávila is an investigative reporter who has revealed many political scandals in Puerto Rican politics. Read other articles by Jesús.