MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Tuesday, April 10th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. In recent years Puerto Rico has produced a series of depressing headlines. As we mentioned a moment ago, it has mountains of debt. But also antiquated infrastructure, major damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. And a brain drain as the island’s young people flee to places where their prospects are brighter.
REICHARD: Many conservative analysts are particularly hard on public sector unions—like those representing teachers. On a recent Saturday, about 100 Puerto Rican public school teachers from across the island staged a demonstration outside the country’s capitol building.
AUDIO: Protest chanting
EICHER: It was no surprise to learn these teachers came to protest charter schools, something they see as detrimental to education. But one teacher spoke of a different sort of fear. WORLD Radio’s Susan Olasky has our story.
SUSAN OLASKY, REPORTER: AUDIO: Protest nat sound
Puerto Ricans are proud of their history and culture. Evidence of that history is everywhere in Old San Juan. Historical monuments stand guard in public plazas. Well-preserved forts and elaborate cathedrals testify to the city’s former power and riches.
Puerto Ricans still love their island, despite the weight of all its problems, as I learned at a recent teacher protest.
AUDIO: Protest nat sound
Under a brilliant blue sky, teachers and children circled and chanted outside government buildings. Most wore yellow or powder blue T-shirts. They carried banners demanding in Spanish No private escuelas. And NO privatization. A gray-haired woman clanged a cowbell to set the beat.
I looked for someone to explain what the protest was about. People pointed me to a middle-aged woman who was taking a break from the marching and chanting.
AUDIO: The teachers of the island, we are against the charter schools because it is the privatization of the education of the country.
Although she wouldn’t give me her name, she said she comes from the northeast corner of the island and has a son and daughter living in the States. She’s worried about the future of Puerto Rico. And worried about a plan to eliminate 7,000 teaching jobs.
AUDIO: That’s not fair.
She frets that Puerto Ricans who remain on the island are losing control of it.
AUDIO: There are us, we stay here. we have to fight for what is ours. Some people don’t understand it. They says we like to buy things that are not important, but this is important. This is important. The privatization, they are going to sell our land —our land—to those others, to Chinese to people from outside. It’s not fair.
Yes, she said the Chinese. She says leaders don’t talk about it, but everyone knows Chinese investors are buying up land on the island.
Her evidence—a proposal to teach Mandarin in the the public schools.
AUDIO: They are going to teach Mandarin in public schools. We are supposed to be bilingual, but not everyone can speak English.
That sounds kind of crack pot, but she was serious. A little research shows that Puerto Rican officials hosted 150 Chinese investors last year—and China’s biggest law firm has set up shop in San Juan.
Plans are underway for a $200 million Chinese theme park meant to attract well-heeled Chinese tourists. The teacher says that explains the need for Mandarin.
AUDIO: Yes (laugh) Why? It’s absurd. But Why. Because some Chinese people are going to buy land.
And here’s the fear. With Chinese investment will come Chinese control.
AUDIO: Arecibo, one of the cities of the island, it is said that some Chinese people are investing there. Okay, that’s why people are learning Mandarin, because when they build hotels, we’re going to be slaves there.
As I got ready to leave, the protesters had changed their chant.
AUDIO: They are talking about Mandarin. They are saying that the schools will be ruined if they teach Mandarin.
Puerto Rico’s future will depend on smart politicians who take seriously the island’s major financial problems. And also take seriously people’s fear—that the culture they love is for sale to the highest bidder.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Susan Olasky reporting from San Juan, Puerto Rico.