Citizens take Vieques & Culebra residents’ transportation claims to ATM headquarters

Say protests will continue at La Fortaleza and Capitol until a long-term solution occurs

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Viequenses, Culebrenses and citizens from the main island protested Tuesday at the headquarters of the Maritime Transportation Authority (ATM by its Spanish initials) for a genuine solution to the island municipalities’ ferry and cargo service problems, which have dragged on for 30 years.

To the rhythm of bomba and slogans, citizens, community organizations and labor unions joined affected residents at the Roberto Sánchez Vilella Governmental Center in San Juan, the site of ATM headquarters, to request the repeal of the public-private agreement between the ATM and HMS Ferries, the inclusion of residents as participants in governmental decisions affecting the island municipalities, and for the Puerto Rico Police Bureau to withdraw charges against two Culebra citizens who were arrested in a protest action on Saturday.

Elda Guadalupe Carrasquillo, a spokesperson for the coalition Somos Más Que 100x35 (We Are More Than 100x35), said the demonstrations will not stop until both Vieques and Culebra find “a long-term solution” to their problems.

“La Fortaleza is going to get its turn, too,” Guadalupe Carrasquillo said. “We are going to cover all the bases. If we have to be in the water, we will be in the water; if we have to come here. … We are tired. Enough is enough and this has to be resolved.”

The protest came one day after the U.S. Coast Guard pulled the Cayo Blanco -- the only working ATM barge in operation to provide trips to and from Vieques and Culebra for some 400 residents -- from the water.

“At that moment, two other small barges that the ATM allegedly bought came in, but only one of them was in operation,” Guadalupe Carrasquillo said, adding that the replacement barges could only carry up to 150 people.

“It’s quite curious that physical distancing wasn’t enforced on the barges; however, when we arrived at the big island and the buses picked us up, they were now enforcing safety protocols,” she said.

Guadalupe Carrasquillo said the replacement barge was more unstable than the withdrawn barge because the smaller vessel “is not sufficient for the ocean we are breaking through.”

“We arrived at the island in a maraca,” she said.

As for the public-private agreement, although Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said Monday that the contract with HMS would solve the aforementioned problems, the Somos Más Que 100x35 spokesperson said otherwise.

“The contract, how it is written now, is not the solution,” Guadalupe Carrasquillo said. “If we have to sit down to renegotiate the contract, if that would be the only choice, we must do so.

If the contract is annulled, the government must pay thousands of dollars, but the government wastes thousands of dollars all the time. If we don’t reach any of those solutions that address our claims, we will carry on.”

“Please consider us whenever you [the government] make a decision; if you considered us, that contract would not have been approved,” she added. “That contract was based on a study that was completely irresponsible and ill-founded, as the study that the public-private agreement referred to stated that 75% of the ferry users are not residents, and anyone who has been inside those ferries knows that we are in fact residents and we need to travel here [to Puerto Rico].”

At about 11:20 a.m., residents attempted to enter the ATM office to hand over a two-page document to the authority administration that included some 14 issues that they say the entity should set as priorities, including access problems and health precautions.

However, police officers who were guarding the entrance did not allow demonstrators to come in, leading to negotiations between citizens and Sgt. José Guzmán, who is a police officer from the Santurce precinct.

At first, the residents decided to have five young members of their contingent meet with ATM officials as no officials had come down.

However, Guzmán later negotiated that only four residents could enter the building with at least two police officers escorting them.

“I consider it disrespectful that they are making us wait here, that they won’t allow us to enter a public building and to be attended to as citizens of this country,” said Vieques resident Yamilka Ríos, adding that residents were asking to meet with ATM officials as soon as possible because they had little time left before they had to return to the dock in Ceiba as only 14 trips were scheduled for the day.

In a written statement, the ATM said it recognizes the demonstrators’ freedom of speech and is “committed and working strongly.”

The agency said further that it has reached agreements that were made public, among them pending meetings with residents of the island municipalities.

However, as of press time no date for the meetings had been announced.

Ríos pointed out that “if it’s true that a meeting is pending, a date must be established.”

“It is extremely urgent to hold that meeting, preferably today or before the Holy Week weekend,” she said. “I have been informed that it is going to be after Holy Week, but that doesn’t solve the problem. The island will be packed with tourists.”

“What are we going to do? There’s no food, there’s no fuel on the island,” Ríos added. “How are you going to move around when there’s neither? Which restaurant will they go to?”

As the ATM office was not responding and police officers later said that only one person was to be allowed to enter, demonstrators moved the protest to the José de Diego Avenue intersection with the exit to Román Baldorioty de Castro expressway for 10 minutes.

During that part of the demonstration, at 12:45 p.m, Vieques residents Adelmarí Lassús and Mia Isabel Zenón, who is 12 years old, were able to meet with ATM officials and hand over the written demands for a decent life in both “La Isla Nena” and Culebra.

Only one member of the press, Revista Étnica, was allowed to enter with them, as they were escorted by three police officers to meet with ATM attorney Enzio Ramírez Echevarría and Executive Assistant Vanessa Márquez.

ATM Executive Director Jorge Droz, who assumed his duties on Monday, was not present.

“The least they could have done was to come down and ask what was happening, what did you all need,” Lassús said. “He [Droz] just began working yesterday [Monday]; he should be a good person and speak with the Viequenses, but that is where he is failing because these are the people who are controlling our lives.”

“With the current maritime transportation system, both Viequenses’ and Culebrenses’ lives are being gambled with,” she added.

Lassús also said the ATM officials assured her they would be sending the claims to the new executive director soon.

“I believe that we left them in good hands; what will happen with them? We’ll see, and we have to wait,” she said. “But as we wait, we will keep fighting and demanding because it has been too long, so it’s time to apply pressure and claim our rights.”

When the STAR asked Zenón how it felt to be demanding something at such a young age that the government should address, she said she did not like having to go through all the trouble “when it is a necessary system for us to live.”

“We live in two completely separate islands, and this is our road, and if that road is not doing well and we still don’t know what is actually happening with it, I really don’t want to live like this all my life,” Zenón said. “Most adults, or my parents, have gone through that because this has been going on for years. It’s not just from now, it’s not from 2015 or 2021, it’s been going on for years and we’re really tired of it.”

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