SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — 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.
Among those hoping to be heard was 54-year-old Jose Nieves, who traveled from the eastern mountain town of Las Piedras and is worried about the 12-year recession and 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.
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’s important to hear directly from people most affected by the economic crisis and the aftermath of the hurricane.
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 majority of that amount is meant for emergency work including debris removal and use of generators, according to the report, which did not include recommendations.
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.
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