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Puerto Ricans decry austerity, hurricane help at hearing

The Associated Press — By DANICA COTO - Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hundreds of Puerto Ricans filled a coliseum on Friday to speak at a first of its kind public hearing organized by a group of U.S. legislators visiting the U.S. territory amid complaints about austerity measures and the pace of federal hurricane recovery funds nearly two years after Hurricane Maria.

The crowd came from cities and towns across the island and included students, retirees, people in construction boots and others in high heels. Some even brought gamecocks to protest a recent federal ban on the island's cockfighting industry.

Legislators heard dozens of brief speeches that ranged from unfair treatment by the federal government to homes without proper roofs to shrinking pension funds, with some speeches loudly interrupted by those who support statehood. Behind some speakers, the crowd held signs including "Prosecute bankers," ''Cancel the Debt" and "No more PROMESA," referring to the law that created the federal control board that oversees the island's finances and has imposed various austerity measures amid a 12-year recession.

"It's not fair to cut pensions to the elderly because it goes against the law. It's not fair that cockfighting businesses lose their industry because it goes against the law," said Eliezer Molina, a resident from the western town of San Sebastian as he addressed legislators. "The PROMESA law is pure colonialism and the people have to be respected."

Among those attending the hearing was 54-year-old Jose Nieves, who traveled from the eastern mountain town of Las Piedras and is worried about the effects of restructuring a portion of the island's more than $70 billion public debt.

"The situation in Puerto Rico was disastrous even before the hurricane," he said. "We Puerto Ricans have a lot of things to say."

The majority of people at the hearing support statehood for Puerto Rico, and many of them booed one of the first people to speak: Carmen Yulin Cruz, mayor of the capital of San Juan who opposes statehood and longtime critic of U.S. President Donald Trump.

"It's clear that the response of President Trump and his administration was inefficient, inadequate and bureaucratic," she said. "Only a few still dare to defend it. That inability unleashed a humanitarian crisis that cost the life of nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans."

The hearing was led by Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees affairs in U.S. territories. Grijalva is in Puerto Rico as part of a four-day trip along with representatives Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat from New York and Darren Soto, a Democrat from Florida. Also present was Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico's representative to Congress and a statehood supporter.

The legislators also wanted to hear about the effects of decisions taken by a federal control board overseeing the island's finances, including austerity measures.

"If they don't help pave the way for the board to improve the conditions of police officers, criminality is going to increase and officers are going to keep leaving," said Gregorio Matias, vice president of Puerto Rico's police association.

Grijalva said the committee will soon revise the law that created the board and said it was important to hear directly from people most affected by the economic crisis and the aftermath of the hurricane.

"We want to create a law that is more humane, more equal and less oppressive," he said at the end of the hearing, adding that the law might be amended by April or May. "We have to prioritize the interests, the future of the people of Puerto Rico...There is some urgency, no question."

The hearing comes a day after the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report stating in part that some Puerto Rico municipalities are struggling financially because they have not been fully reimbursed for work already completed after the hurricane.

The GAO said Puerto Rico has estimated it needs $132 billion to rebuild from Maria, and that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has obligated almost $4 billion in public assistance grant funding.

The group of federal legislators met earlier behind closed doors with FEMA officials, and they are scheduled to meet on Monday with Puerto Rico's governor and the federal control board.