Protesters in Philadelphia denounce Puerto Rican governor's role in withheld relief supplies
From Philly to La Fortaleza, Puerto Ricans are calling for the resignation of government officials after the discovery of a government-run warehouse full of aid supplies.
On Jan. 20, a small but vocal crowd gathered on the steps of Taller Puertorriqueño on North 5th Street in Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood to stand in solidarity with protests being held in Puerto Rico and throughout the U.S.
Protesters on the island and throughout the U.S. mainland are calling for the resignation of Puerto Rican Governor Wanda Vázquez and other government officials after the discovery on Jan. 18 of a government warehouse full of unused disaster supplies in Ponce, a city in the southern part of the island that is among the areas hit hardest by the recent earthquakes.
A crowd found expired water, expired baby food, tents, mattresses, tarps, and more inside the warehouse - supplies which some believe date to relief efforts following Hurricane María, which hit the island in September 2017.
The warehouse sits in the southern part of the island, where currently more than 8,000 people are displaced by the sequence of more than 2,000 earthquakes which have rocked the island since Dec. 28, causing widespread destruction and at least one death.
As news spread, Governor Wanda Vázquez responded by firing the director of Puerto Rico’s Office of Emergency Management, Carlos Acevedo, and on Sunday dismissed two other top members of her cabinet.
On Monday, Puerto Ricans continued to protest, calling for Vázquez's resignation in San Juan, outside of the governor's residence at La Fortaleza, as well as in other cities throughout the island.
Así está el ambiente en la protesta frente a La Fortaleza https://t.co/sSjNOhnev0
— El Nuevo Día (@ElNuevoDia) January 20, 2020
But the group of around ten protesters who gathered in North Philadelphia on Monday said that the governor is part of the problem, and point to charges of corruption which date back to the response to Hurricane María.
“I worked in Puerto Rico, and I can say that we didn’t have quick access to many things because [government officials] were stopping us,” Charito Morales, nurse and community organizer at Providence Center, said of her experience in emergency relief efforts on the island immediately following Hurricane María.
The discovery of the warehouses on Jan. 18 was evidence, Morales said, of what many Puerto Ricans already suspected.
“For this reason, their hands are stained with blood,” she said of the Puerto Rican government. “For this reason, 4,645 people and many more died,” she continued, citing the death toll from Hurricane María as calculated by a 2018 report from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Some protesters said that former Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who resigned after widespread protests last summer, was just one of many Puerto Rican government officials who have abused their power at the expense of the island’s more than 3 million residents.
“You can’t get rid of the umbrella without getting rid of the handle because you have others that already knew what was going on, that have been in communication with what’s been going on,” Asteria Vives, a Puerto Rican activist in Philadelphia, said.
She noted that the discovery of the warehouse supplies “disappoints” her family on the island, some of whom live in that area, and had reached out to Vives on Saturday as the supplies were being discovered.
“The question is who is it that we can trust to sit in these seats to do the right things,” Vives added.
Increased pressure on Puerto Rico’s government officials in the wake of the warehouse discovery comes as Puerto Ricans have continued to call for the release of more than $10 billion federal aid currently being held by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Priscilla Bell Lamberty organized the Jan. 20 action in Philadelphia along with Morales and other members of the grassroots organization Philly Boricuas, which has been collecting relief supplies for emergency backpacks that two of the group’s members are now directly distributing to people on the island.
Lamberty said that it’s “heart wrenching” to know that vital help has been withheld from people struggling on the island with the physical effects of the earthquakes, as well as the mental exhaustion that has taken a toll on many people who have continued to struggle to rebuild throughout the more than two years that have passed since Hurricane Maria.
In the face of government inefficiency and corruption, Lamberty said, the diaspora and community efforts have provided key support to people in need on the island both after María and now, as Puerto Ricans contend with the ongoing earthquakes.
“We’re seeing the pueblo are all coming together and supporting one another,” Lamberty said, citing Philly Boricuas and Lotus of Compassion, both in Philadelphia, and El Maestro, Inc. in the Bronx, NY, as a few examples of grassroots organizations on the mainland delivering vital help to Puerto Ricans on the island.
As for the government, Lamberty said that “they all need to go.”
“It’s up to the people on the island to vote in people who will actually help,” she said. “Those right now who are holding power are doing just that, holding power.”
Morales, who noted that Philly Boricuas has extended their Philadelphia-based donation drive for emergency backpack supplies through Jan. 31, shared her message for Puerto Ricans on the island on Monday.
“The diaspora is listening and...we are ready for whatever we have to do for our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico. You’re not alone, we’re not going to abandon you,” Morales said.