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Puerto Rico Sí, Hedge Funds No: Solidarity Pressures Harvard

February 2018

Grassroots International joined nearly 200 people in Harvard Yard January 24th to stand with an island still facing disaster. Rallying before the austere John Harvard statue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, protesters demanded the university drop its investments in a hedge fund complicit in Puerto Rico’s continued devastation.

“We are here in front of Harvard University because they have decided that it’s better to make money than to support a whole island that right now is suffering,” said Julio López Verona, state director of Make the Road CT and an organizer from Hedge Clippers.

Harvard University has $2 billion in investments in the Baupost Group, a hedge fund owned by Seth Klarman. Baupost currently holds the largest amount of Puerto Rico’s debt, some $931 million. After Hurricane Maria hit the island last September and left millions of people without food, water, or electricity, the spotlight of journalist and activist scrutiny exposed Baupost’s role in the crisis.

Hedge funds have been instrumental in making the situation in Puerto Rico even worse. Even before last year’s devastating hurricane season, hedge funds bought up Puerto Rico’s public debt, charging high interest rates for obscene profits while demanding deep cuts to public services. Public funds went to servicing that debt while nurses’ salaries, teachers’ jobs, and proposed electrical grid repairs were jettisoned.

By the time Hurricane Maria’s 175-mile-per-hour winds hit, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure had become a fragile window pane. Even after the hurricane, the government continues to put bondholders first, promising to sell off the public electric grid to private hands and trying to close public schools.

“I was there through the hurricane. I saw the destruction. I saw people who couldn’t eat,” Julio said. “After the hurricane, players like Seth Klarman decided it was better to buy a Ferrari than do something for Puerto Rico.”

More than a third of Puerto Rico remains without power today. FEMA contracted with a company that only delivered 50,000 meals out of the 30 million promised for the island. Yet despite residents’ protests outside his Boston-area office and home, Klarman and hedge fund managers like him have refused to drop the debt. Pressure has now shifted to hitting hedge funds where it hurts: their investors.

Among the dozens assembled at Harvard stood students, religious leaders, labor activists, and travelers from as far as Philadelphia. Minutes before the rally started, more than 100 people marched across the Harvard grounds from the Science Center. New York Communities for Change (NYCC) had organized two bus-loads of supporters, who made the four-hour journey and swelled the crowd.

Protesters chant and march in solidarity with Puerto Rico through Harvard Square.
Puerto Rican flags wave in the winter winds in Cambridge.

During the rally, speakers like Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang called on the wealth-flush Harvard to drop its Baupost investments. They also connected Puerto Rico’s fate to the university’s and Klarman’s role in attacks on the environment and workers on the U.S. mainland.

The protesters then marched through Harvard Square, across the Charles River to Harvard Business School. Along the way, chants like “Puerto Rico sí! Hedge funds no!” and “Puerto Rico no se vende! Puerto Rico se defiende!” (“Puerto Rico’s not for sale! Puerto Rico defends itself!”) rang out. Dozens of the island’s red-white-and-blue flags waved in the winter wind.

Cecil came up from New York on one of the NYCC buses. He had followed similar disaster-capitalist activities on the island of Antigua, where wealthy investors had scooped up the best coastal land. But the ongoing disaster in Puerto Rico angered him.

“Make money, sure, but make sure people are taken care of,” he said.

“Someone mentioned the protest at the end of my music and activism class,” said Issa, a Harvard University junior in Music and Anthropology. “I didn’t know Harvard was so implicated in this. I think it’s ridiculous an institution with so much power is doing so little to help people.”

“We are here to tell Harvard to divest for justice; for peace; for Puerto Rico,” said Opal Mita, a staff member at Grassroots International. The island “needs their debt to be erased, and [we’re here to show] our solidarity and support.”

Grassroots International staff add to the pressure on Harvard University, in solidarity with Puerto Rico.

Grassroots International is a member of the Climate Justice Alliance’s Our Power campaign, which includes calls for a Just Recovery, a cancellation of Puerto Rico’s debt, and a repeal of the colonial-era Jones Act. The same week of the Harvard protest, we joined a Food Sovereignty Brigade to Puerto Rico to document the ongoing devastation and resistance on the island.

Grassroots International will continue to stand with Puerto Rico and the Boricuan diaspora in their campaign for justice and recovery.

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