Across the globe, strikes and protests are regular features of each May Day, which marks International Workers’ Day. Sometimes, these protests function as pressure valves, an opportunity for people in the international working classes to air grievances and demand better conditions. But other times, the demonstrations represent something more—sounding warnings against significant inflections in global or national political trends, and pointing to turbulent times ahead.
It’s too soon to tell whether the general strike in Puerto Rico earlier this week will fall firmly into one category or the other. But it did come at a critical juncture in the island’s ongoing political and economic story. On Tuesday, thousands of people poured into the streets of San Juan, protesting both sweeping new cutbacks to the island’s spending and a painfully slow hurricane recovery. In a clash with riot police, protesters were met with tear gas and pepper spray. Though the demonstrations were ultimately disbanded, they could signal a deeper reckoning about the future of Puerto Rico and the limits of the ongoing austerity program.
There are three groups that have emerged as players in the island’s power struggle, and each played a role on Tuesday. There were the people facing off against officers from the Puerto Rican government: mostly workers, youth left behind by the mass exodus to the mainland after Hurricane Maria, and students. There was the government itself, whose chief representative, Governor Ricardo Rosselló, criticized “vandalism” from the protesters and said that the mayhem “damages the good name of Puerto Rico.” And then there was “La Junta,” a financial oversight and management board created by Congress in 2016 to solve Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and with whom residents and local government alike are currently at odds.