Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Feb. 3 approved a law (PDF) calling for a non-binding referendum on statehood for the US territory. The referendum, to be held in June, will allow the voters to choose between statehood, independence or "free association." Those in support of statehood believe it could help Puerto Rico restructure its $70 billion in public debt and stave off further federal austerity measures. If approved, statehood would allow Puerto Rico to receive $10 billion in federal funds per year, as well as allowing government agencies and municipalities to file for bankruptcy. Rosselló called the vote "a civil rights issue" and said the US will have to "respond to the demands of 3.5 million citizens seeking an absolute democracy." Puerto Rico's citizenry is currently denied many of the benefits of citizens of US states, including equal access to Social Security and Medicare, despite paying taxes for these services. In addition, Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Jenniffer González, is only allowed to vote in House committees in which she is a member.
Oscar López Rivera, the longest-held Puerto Rican political prisoner in the US, was among 209 federal inmates granted clemency by President Barack Obama on Jan. 17. His sentence commuted, López Rivera is now set to be released in May from the federal prison at Terre Haute, Ind. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), in announcing the commutation, said: "Thank you, President Obama, thank you on behalf of millions of Puerto Ricans on the island and around the world." Arrested by the FBI in Chicago in 1981, López Rivera was convicted of "seditious conspiracy" as an adherent of the pro-independence Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN). Other charges included armed robbery, although he was never accused of any actual act of violence. If Obama had not intervened, he would have remained in captivity until June 26, 2023, five months after his 80th birthday.
Some 150 supporters greeted Puerto Rican independence activist Norberto González Claudio at San Juan's international airport on Jan. 15, hours after he was released from a federal prison in Coleman, Florida. González Claudio, a former member of the Boricua Popular Army-Macheteros, had served a three and one-half year prison term for his involvement in the group's 1983 armed robbery of $7.1 million from a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Conn.—until then the largest heist on record. Arrested in May 2011 in the central Puerto Rican town of Cayey after 25 years as fugitive, González Claudio pleaded guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence. He was due to be released last September, but his time in Coleman was extended four months because of an alleged infraction. His relatives and colleagues saw this as part of a pattern of physical and psychological torture they say he endured.
As of Dec. 11 authorities had closed the Playa Grande beach area in the western region of a national wildlife refuge on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques following the discovery of pieces of inactive munitions there. The US Environmental Protection Agency said the US Navy had removed a projectile, a mortar tail and other objects, although officials insisted that the materials didn't pose any danger to visitors. The munitions are left over from the Navy's use of Vieques for testing weapons from the 1940s until May 2003, when mass civil disobedience by Vieques residents and their supporters forced the Navy to withdraw. A total of 1,640 arrests were made from 1999 to 2003 as activists carried out militant protests, including a yearlong occupation of the bombing range. Federal judges handed down jail sentences to protesters totaling 26 years, along with fines totaling $50,980.
As of June 19 several Puerto Rican public employee unions appeared set to call a general strike to protest Law 76, a special austerity measure that Gov. Alejandro García Padilla signed on June 17. A coalition of 35 unions said it had selected a date for a general strike but would keep it secret so as to take the government by surprise; the union didn't describe the form the strike would take. Two major unions—the Union of Workers of the Electrical Industry and Circulation (UTIER), which represents workers at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA, AEE in Spanish), and the Authentic Independent Union (UIA), which represents workers at the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA, AAA in Spanish)—held strike votes on June 17 and then staged a protest at San Juan's Plaza Las Américas shopping mall. Some unions also started holding smaller job actions in the first week of June. In October 2009 the unions responded to earlier austerity measures with a powerful one-day general strike, but it was unclear whether they would be able to mount a similar action now.
Latin American activists joined thousands of environmentalists and farmers around the world in an international protest May 24 against genetically modified (GM) crops and Monsanto, the Missouri-based multinational that dominates the transgenic seed industry. This was the third March Against Monsanto since May 25 last year, and organizers expected the day of action to include protests in some 351 cities in 52 countries.
The US financial services company Standard & Poor's Ratings (S&P) announced on Feb. 4 that it was reducing the Puerto Rican government's bonds to junk status; another US ratings agency, Moody's Corporation, made a similar move on Feb. 7. Gov. Alejandro García Padilla responded on Feb. 4 that Puerto Rico would be able to overcome the financial crisis by implementing budget cuts; for the fiscal year 2014-2015 the island would have its first balanced budget since the 1970s, he said. The government faces a tremendous $70 billion debt, fueled in past years by its ability to offer tax-free municipal bonds to US investors. For comparison, last July the US city Detroit declared bankruptcy because it faced a debt of $28 billion; with a much larger debt, Puerto Rico is ineligible for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy protection. The administration of US president Barack Obama has indicated that it isn't considering a bailout for the island. (Prensa Latina, Feb. 5; Reuters, Feb. 7)
According to Puerto Rican education secretary Rafael Román, some 35,000 of the island's 38,000 public school classroom teachers stayed off work on Jan. 14, the first day of a two-day strike protesting changes to teachers' pensions mandated in Law 160, which was approved by the Legislative Assembly and signed by Gov. Alejandro García Padilla in December. Student attendance was just 0.09%, Román said. While 51% of the principals reported to their schools for what was to be the first school day after Christmas break, Román admitted that the 1,460 schools in the system were effectively shut down. The job action was called jointly by all the Puerto Rican teachers' unions, principally the Teachers' Federation of Puerto Rico (FMPR), Teachers' Association of Puerto Rico (AMPR) and Educamos ("We Educate").