Protest in Puerto Rico Over Austerity Measures Ends in Tear Gas

Officers walking through tear gas in San Juan, P.R., during a protest against austerity on Tuesday.

SAN JUAN, P.R. — Thousands of demonstrators joined a general strike in the capital of Puerto Rico on Tuesday that ended in mayhem after the police fired tear gas and pepper spray to end a tense standoff with some of the protesters.

The demonstrators gathered to oppose school closings, university tuition increases and potential cuts to pensions and other benefits. As the island rebuilds in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the economy and prompted an exodus of Puerto Ricans left with few options, the protesters said they feared that looming austerity measures would decimate what remained of the island’s middle class and force even more residents to leave.

“We’re overwhelmed,” said Carlos Cofiño, a 20-year-old political science student, as he prepared to march. “We need to express our indignation and let the government know that there are people who are suffering.”

Protesters met at several points in San Juan and marched down Ponce de León Avenue, known as the Gold Mile, in the heart of the financial district. Surrounded by bank buildings and glass high-rises, they gathered at a stage in the middle of the street and chanted “They won’t stop us!” as salsa music blared. A scuffle by the stage forced nearby police officers in riot gear to fall back, before a drizzle briefly dampened the fervor.

About an hour later, as the main crowds began to thin and police seemed ready to depart, the officers clashed with a few dozen protesters, many of them young people holding wooden shields, dressed in black and covering their faces with bandannas. They left amid tear gas and chaos. The Public Safety Department said that 13 people had been arrested and that 15 police officers had been injured by projectiles or irritated by the gas.

“This kind of violence damages the good name of Puerto Rico,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a news conference late Tuesday.

He said that the smaller group of protesters had tainted the demonstration by throwing “projectiles” at police officers. Law enforcement had fallen back to try to de-escalate the situation, the governor said, but the “vandalism” continued.

A similar protest last year on May 1 — International Workers’ Day — also ended in violence and resulted in damaged property; this year, shopkeepers prepared by covering windows with plywood and hurricane shutters and closing their businesses for the day.

Mr. Cofiño drove two hours into the capital from Mayagüez, in western Puerto Rico, to protest a tuition increase at the University of Puerto Rico, where the cost per credit will more than double, to $115 from $56.

“We’re in a downward spiral,” Mr. Cofiño said.

The tuition increase was ratified on Monday by the university based on a plan approved last month by the federal control board that oversees the finances of Puerto Rico’s bankrupt government, which is $72 billion in debt because of an economic recession that has lasted 11 years. Most of protesters’ wrath on Tuesday was directed at the unpopular board, which they view as undemocratic. Puerto Rico’s elected leaders are subject to the board and to a federal judge handling the island’s bankruptcy in court.

“This is an entity that was not elected by the people of Puerto Rico,” said Edwin Morales Laboy, the vice president of a teachers’ union that organized its members to attend the protest. Participating meant losing a day’s pay, since the government did not declare Tuesday a holiday.

But teachers said they had no choice but to protest, given the plan by Puerto Rico’s Department of Education to close 280 of about 1,100 public schools on the island this summer, citing low enrollment. That comes after 179 schools were shuttered last year by the Rosselló administration.

“We found out from the press,” said Lourdes Torres Santos, 31, who teaches at República del Perú, a San Juan middle school scheduled to close. “A lot of the teachers cried.”

In the coming weeks, Ms. Torres expects to lose her job.

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