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Puerto Rico: The Battle Over Public Lands

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Residents of Villas del Sol – photo by José Antonio Rosario republished with permission of Prensa Comunitaria.

Recently, the Puerto Rican government issued an order to remove 200 families from the Villas del Sol community in Toa Baja, under the premise that they illegally occupied lands that are prone to flooding. Police forces tear-gassed and assaulted members of the community, most of them immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

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Police forces entering the community – photo by José Antonio Rosario republished with permission of Prensa Comunitaria.

This past week, the government cut their water and electricity supply. The families are resisting the eviction order stating that they have lived there for years, built their houses and their community, and are being pushed out without warning. In Puerto Rico, for many years, people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds have occupied public lands to build their homes because the government's existing social policies and programs have done little to curtail poverty and provide an adequate affordable housing stock.

The controversy has provoked impassioned debate in the Puerto Rican blogosphere. In her blog Poder, Espacio y Ambiente (ES), the law professor and expert on environmental issues, Erika Fontánez, condemned the Police aggression (ES):

La realidad es que por ser dominicanos, muchas de estas familias han tenido que soportar por todos estos años la discriminación, violencia e intimidación de la policía y de funcionarios de vivienda y hoy fue el más reciente episodio, justificado públicamente por el hecho de que no son propietarios. No son propietarios, cierto, pero acaso eso los descualifica de su dignidad humana, acaso el no serlo les priva de sus derechos civiles, de la dignidad y respeto. ¿No merecen, por no ser propietarios, un trato humano?

The truth is that because they are Dominican, most of these families have had to put up all these years with discrimination, violence and intimidation from the Police and Housing officials. Today was the most recent episode, publicly justified as reasonable because they do not own the properties they reside in. They are not owners, true, but does this mean they do not have human dignity? Does not being home owners disqualify them of their civil rights, of dignity and respect? Do they not deserve, even if they are not home owners, to be treated as humans?

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“Pistola” – photo by José Antonio Rosario republished with permission of Prensa Comunitaria.

Fontánez also questioned (ES) why the government applies different standards to the developers who construct in equally dangerous or illegal terrains:

Y es que para los ciudadanos la implantación de la ley por medios violentos en este caso carece de legitimidad cuando ven que se aplica selectivamente contra un sector que está irrumpiendo el ordenamiento porque carece de un derecho básico y se le vuelca contra sí toda la violencia y el poder del estado, mientras otros irrumpen la ley para el lujo de casas de verano y permanecen impunes.

In this case, to enforce the law through violent means has no legitimacy for citizens when they see that it is applied selectively against one sector that violates the judicial order because they lack basic rights and are subject to violence and the power of the state, while others violate the law to have luxurious summer houses, but they remain unpunished.

Michael Castro, author of the blog Poder 5 (ES), says:

Aquí hay un dilema entre lo justo y lo legal. Ellos están violando la ley pero no por eso es justo que se les tire a la calle y se les deje desamparados sin un techo.

There is a dilemma here between what is fair and what is legal. They are violating the law, but that does not mean it is fair to throw them on the streets and leave them without a roof over their heads.

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Residents and police – photo by José Antonio Rosario republished with permission of Prensa Comunitaria.

In El blog de Sheila Vélez (ES), the author, who is a lawyer, states:

Se trata de un derecho humano fundamental: el derecho a una vivienda adecuada.  Ciertamente las estructuras  que conforman la comunidad Villa del Sol distan de ser “viviendas adecuadas”.  El suelo: inundable, las paredes: frágiles, los techos: de zinc y sin anclajes,  agua potable y electricidad…En Puerto Rico existe un problema histórico de acceso a vivienda adecuada  para amplios sectores de nuestra sociedad.   Sobre todo en un sistema económico que privilegia la propiedad privada de la tierra y la vivienda.   Y donde el concepto de vivienda  aceptado socialmente se relaciona a una estructura unifamiliar, terrera y privada.

This is about a basic human right: the right to adequate housing. The structures in Villas del Sol are very far from being ‘adequate houses.’ The soil: prone to flooding; the walls: fragile; the roofs: made of zinc and makeshift; no running water or electricity…In Puerto Rico there is a long history of problems of access to adequate housing for ample sectors of society. In an economic system that privileges private property and housing, and where the socially accepted concept of housing is a single family, single story structure that is privately owned.

Villas del Sol is the second community that has captured space in the blogosphere this summer. In June, the governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, signed a law that dismantled an innovative community project of collective land ownership called Fideicomiso de Tierras del Caño Martín Peña. The doctoral student in Planning and Development, Deepak Lamba-Nieves, who also participated in the creation of the project, explained in his blog Trans(actions): Trans(acciones) (ES):

El Fideicomiso de Tierras del Caño Martín Peña, orquestado por el Proyecto Enlace y el Grupo de 8 comunidades aledañas al cuerpo de agua, es un proyecto ejemplar que le sigue la pista no a las misiones de Hugo Chávez ni a la Reforma Urbana de Cuba, sino a iniciativas similares en los Estados Unidos que han logrado mantener un caudal de vivienda asequible para los pobres y las familias de escasos recursos.

The Caño Martín Peña Land Trust organized by the Proyecto Enlace and the Group of 8 communities residing alongside the body of water is an exemplary project that follows the tradition, not of Hugo Chavez’ misiones or the Reforma Urbana in Cuba, but of similar initiatives in the United States that have been able to maintain an adequate stock of affordable housing for the poor and low-income families.
This post was also translated by the author.

27 comments

  • Fantastic first post, Firuzeh!

  • Thank you Jillian! See you soon!

  • […] by displacing hundreds of families from public lands.   Firuzeh Shokooh-Valle has published an excellent piece in Global Voices, that offers some insights on what has transpired. The lead paragraph reads: […]

  • Laura Irizarry

    Muy bueno, Firuzeh. Hay sed the periodismo objetivo y puntual.

  • Mike Thompson

    ‘Objective’??? The second sentence of this shows a completely biased slant. So the police ‘assaulted’ members of the community and there is no public outcry? This is what is wrong with blogging. This should be listed as an editorial because this is totally biased. Nobody has a right to that land, even if they have been there for years and I am certain the police weren’t ‘assaulting’ people. The police have a job and if they tell you to do something and you resist, they will get physical. It’s not a conspiracy against Dominicans. Stick to blogging.

  • Interesante nota, novedoso enfoque y uso de las fuentes hacen de este un texto de referencia para los que hacemos contenido para internet. Felicidades y cuenta con nuestro apoyo. Carla

  • Lorraine Foulkes-Bancells

    It sickens me to think that the Government can evict these people and leave them with no place to go. Maybe the Government and developers should build housing for these people first.

    It seems to be the same old story all about money.

    I wish I could help somehow.

    Maybe Firuzeh should dig up some dirt on the developers and publish it.

    Good on you Firuzeh

    Lorraine Foulkes-Bancells
    Western Australia

  • Very nice story. Could you put in a Google map to show where the community is?

  • Gracias por amplificar la voz de aquellos y aquellas que sólo son utilizados como recipientes de promesas no cumplidas por parte de los partidos políticos de turno.

  • Sofia

    Firuzeh, gracias por esta nota. Hacen falta mas noticias sobre Puerto Rico en Global Voices. Mi unica queja es sobre la cita final, pues de todas las cosas importantes que necesitan ser dichas sobre el Fideicomiso y el G8, el escoger la cita en la que se distancia ese proyecto de Cuba y Venezuela me parece que simplemente suaviza y afloja la importancia del proyecto. No hay que estar esquivando comparaciones con la izquierda todo el tiempo, ni reclamando similitud a proyectos estadounidenses como si eso implicara que son buenos.

    De todas formas gracias, y espero leer mas de ti, ciertamente el gobierno actual en PR nos dara mucho mas de que hablar, comentar, quejarnos y reportar…

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