SAN JUAN – Thousands of union workers, students and members of grassroots organizations marched in front of Puerto Rico’s capitol Friday to protest Gov. Luis Fortuño’s plan to layoff 30,000 public employees as the U.S. commonwealth endures its fourth year of recession.
Methodist Bishop Juan Vera, spokesman of the All Puerto Rico for Puerto Rico coalition that organized the march, said police estimated the size of the crowd at around 100,000, an unprecedented turnout for an event of this kind on the Caribbean island.
Vera said the size of the protest prompted Fortuño to agree to a meeting next week with representatives of the coalition.
All of Puerto Rico’s main unions backed the demonstration, as did the political opposition, while the Catholic bishops issued a statement expressing solidarity with those losing their jobs.
The leaders of the main opposition Popular Democratic Party, PPD, and the much smaller Puerto Rican Independence Party were in the front ranks of the procession.
The aim of the protest was to persuade Fortuño, of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, or PNP, to desist from his plan to fire upwards of 30,000 public employees, which he says is necessary to trim an annual budget deficit of $3.2 billion.
Fortuño’s economic program sailed through the Puerto Rican legislature, where the PNP has big majorities in both houses.
Besides the public-sector layoffs, his plan calls for a temporary hike in income taxes on corporations and affluent individuals, increased sales taxes on wine, beer and cigarettes and extensive outsourcing of government functions.
With the PPD still reeling from the rout it suffered at the polls last November as scandal-plagued Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila lost his bid for a second four-year term, labor unions have taken the lead in opposing Fortuño’s austerity plan.
The latest report by the Department of Labor and Human Resources says that Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate stands at 14.7 percent, its highest level since the shutdown of the island’s government in May 2006, when the rate briefly soared to 19.8 percent.
Puerto Rico is now in its fourth year of recession and the economy of the U.S. commonwealth is expected to remain sluggish for the remainder of 2009. EFE