It's a very tense evening in Puerto Rico tonight--you can feel it in the streets and towns around the Island. Tomorrow the workers' movement and its allies will face a showdown with the Government police and paramilitary forces, as the general strike called to protest massive layoffs in the public service will begin in the early hours of the day.
Just three weeks ago, Republican governor Luis Fortuño announced that nearly 17,000 public servants would be fired by November 6. In response, several labor unions (SEIU, Change to Win, AFL-CIO, the Puerto Rican Workers Union and more) together with a larger coalition, Todo Puerto Rico Por Puerto Rico, called for a national one day strike.
Since then, the public protest has gathered broad support in all social spheres, while the Government attempts to start a media campaign of terror to prevent its success. First the Fortuño administration stated that participants in the strike might be charged as terrorists under the U.S. Patriot Act, and later that the anti-riot police unit and the National Guard would intervene to "guarantee that all principal routes are clear and not obstructed by protesters."
Augmenting the tense atmosphere felt throughout the country this week: the surprising announcement of the closure of all nine state university campuses--allegedly to prevent "terrorist activities" related to the general strike.
As of all this has been going on and hundreds of thousands prepare to protest, Governor Fortuño has managed to fill up his daily schedule. Negotiating with workers, you ask? Not quite. In an intense media blitz, Fortuño appeared on what to seem like every TV news program in Puerto Rico, making his not-so-very-subtle threats suitably known to the workers' unions and its allies: "The police and the National Guard troops will be ready to intervene in your protest."
The fear campaign extended to the private sector, where the Manufacturers Association, the Chamber of Commerce and Construction Enterprises joined together to issue a public announcement against the strike; assuring anyone listening that it will provoke an economic disaster and calling on the government to show a hand of steel against protesters.
In the meantime, the SPT (SEIU Local 1996) and UGT (SEIU Local 1199) members and leaders have been preparing all the details for a massive mobilization of citizens and workers to participate in the October 15 strike. Both union headquarters were a seething mass of members getting ready for the big day.
This we know: it will be a long and tense night. But then dawn will come, and it will be greeted by the sound of "panderos" [tambourines] and thousands upon thousands of people chanting slogans demanding "Work, Not Welfare!" And as the crowd grows larger and stronger there will be no fear, because solidarity will take its place.