Protesters spill Puerto Rican rum outside an exclusive party to decry Puerto Rico’s AIDS crisis

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Torruella (in orange hat) and Eddie Fukui participate in the
Puerto Rican Rum Party

It was a black-tie affair inside the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration holiday party at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night, but many guests, most of whom were Puerto Rican or have business dealings with Puerto Rico, were red with embarrassment. That’s because as they walked into the swank bash, they had to walk a gauntlet of 16 protestors chanting “Puerto Rico AIDS Crisis, Save Lives Now!” and distributing fliers explaining that, despite more than $50 million in federal funding, basic services aren’t getting to the island’s people living with HIV/AIDS.

About an hour into the protest, the activists, who came from Housing Works, D.C. Fights Back, Campaign to End AIDS, ACT UP Philadelphia, the Students Global AIDS Coalition and George Washington University dumped out two bottles of rum—the party was sponsored by Rums of Puerto Rico—into a bucket bearing the logo that has come to represent their struggle: a Puerto Rican flag merged with a menacing skull. The three-hour picket and “rum party” took place under the wary gaze of several security guards and one policeman, though it was entirely legal.

The catastrophe in Puerto Rico has left people without medication and support services and lacking crucial prevention. The protestors’ demands included oversight by the Human Resources and Services Administration, an investigation into the mismanagement and fraud that has led to a crippling of Puerto Rico’s AIDS health care infrastructure and immediate action to provide prevention tools to IV drug users. IV drug users account for the majority of new infections in the commonwealth. More than 30,000 people in Puerto Rico have HIV/AIDS, and more than 19,000 Puerto Ricans have died from AIDS.

He moves in mysterious ways…

At the demo, the loud chanting and sight of the protesters drew stares from inside the party and interest from passersby, particularly from a faux-celeb—the impersonator of U2 lead singer Bono. The professional-Bono impersonator listened carefully to Housing Works legislative counsel Michael Kink, who filled him in on the details of Puerto Rico’s crisis.

“I am very aware of what’s happening all over the world and I encourage what you all are doing,” “Bono” told the Update.

While other guests were salsa dancing, National Minority AIDS Council Assistant Director of Government Relations and Public Policy James Albino distributed protest fliers inside the party prompting party organizers to tail him the entire evening. “I put fliers in the bathrooms, by coat check and everywhere I went people were reading them,” Albino said. As partiers left the party around 9pm, some applauded the protesters actions while others acknowledged the similarity to the AIDS crisis in another U.S. territory with no Congressional representation: D.C., where one in 20 people is living with HIV/AIDS.

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Kink briefs fake-Bono
on the Puerto Rico AIDS crisis

One party guest refused to take a flier from activist Rafael Torruella, saying, “I give money to that,” referring to AIDS.

“But do you know where your money is going?” Torruella replied.

“Probably not,” the man acknowledged, as he hurried off.

Torruella, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said that Puerto Ricans in the U.S. needed to take an active role in ending the island’s AIDS crisis. “It’s important to keep pressure going on multiple sectors of society, and to let the government and elites of Puerto Rico know they’re not immune from scrutiny and that we are talking to them,” said Torruella, who arrived in D.C. on a van from New York with a handful of Housing Works employees and Omar Polo, an HIV-positive visitor from the Dominican Republic who was learning about AIDS activism in the U.S.

Everyone who protested was passionate that the U.S. take Puerto Rico’s AIDS crisis seriously. “The government here needs to be monitoring the money and know where it is going,” said Alexis Semidey, 24, an HIV-positive Puerto Rican, who is a member of ACT UP Philadelphia.

Keeping up the pressure

Various types of activist pressure have been applied over the past few months: phone zaps of the offices of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt (who oversees HRSA), Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini-Padilla, and a die-in at HRSA’s Federal Building offices in New York. Twelve protesters were arrested at that action for stopping traffic. HRSA has said that Puerto Rico must voluntarily cede control of its AIDS funding, but advocates say HRSA has the power to cut off funding that’s being misspent.

“Today’s protest makes me want to be more radical and to hold leaders accountable when I go home,” said Polo, 24, and president of Sovisida, an AIDS organization in the Dominican Republic.

Read the Update next week for news on HRSA’s most recent site visit to Puerto Rico.

Link to Gallery of Images

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STUDENTS, AIDS GROUPS TO PICKET PUERTO RICAN
GOVERNMENT HOLIDAY PARTY IN D.C., DEC. 12

AIDS activists and Washington, D.C.-area students will be chanting “Puerto Rico AIDS Crisis, Save Lives Now” and handing out informational fliers at a vociferous legal picket outside the “Friends of Puerto Rico” Holiday Reception on December 12 at the National Geographic Society at 1145 17th St. NW from 6 pm to 9 pm. (This information is embargoed until 6pm on December 12)

The holiday party is being thrown by the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration and is sponsored by Rums of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican Tourism Bureau. The picket is the latest in a series of activist measures intended to pressure the Puerto Rican government into taking immediate action to address the island’s escalating AIDS crisis.

Organizations participating in the picket include D.C. Fights Back (dcfightsback.org), the Campaign to End AIDS (c2ea.org), Housing Works (housingworks.org), ACT UP Philadelphia (http://www.critpath.org/actup/), Latino Commission on AIDS (latinoaids.org) and student groups from American, Howard and George Washington Universities.

The groups picketing demand immediate federal control of AIDS funding in Puerto Rico; an independent authority to investigate the mismanagement and come up with a plan to end it; and immediate action to provide HIV prevention tools to IV drug users, who account for the majority of new infections in Puerto Rico. The picket follows a series of grassroots events in November with the same goals, including a civil disobedience action outside the Federal Building in New York City and phone and fax zaps of the offices of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá and San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini-Padilla.

More than 30,000 people in Puerto Rico have HIV/AIDS, and more than 19,000 Puerto Ricans have died from AIDS. Since 2006, AIDS services and treatment in Puerto Rico have been crippled by neglect and criminal activity.

  • Audit after audit by the federal government of millions in U.S. tax dollars has documented Puerto Rico’s failure to provide basic care to people with HIV/AIDS.
  • In December, the FBI raided four San Juan Health Department offices, freezing millions in U.S. Ryan White CARE Act funds intended to help people with HIV/AIDS.
  • The Puerto Rican Health Department claims there is no longer an AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) waiting list for medications, but advocates have documented hundreds of people who are still waiting to receive medications on which their lives depend.
  • The U.S. Office of the Inspector General has recently said that the Puerto Rican Department of Health may have to return $28 million in federal AIDS funding due to mismanagement.

HHS Secretary Leavitt has the power to instruct the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the division of HHS that oversees HIV/AIDS in all U.S. states and territories, to take over the dispersal of millions in Ryan White CARE Act funds in Puerto Rico. HRSA has taken such action in U.S cities such as Washington, D.C, Baltimore and Orlando. In response to last month’s protest in New York City, HRSA has said that the Puerto Rican government must voluntarily give up control of its AIDS funding, but in the past HRSA has threatened to cut off funding to cities that refused to do so.

To learn more, visit The New York Times and the Housing Works AIDS Issues Update for in-depth articles about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Puerto Rico.

HOUSING WORKS is dedicated to fighting the twin crises of HIV/AIDS and homelessness. We are the largest grassroots AIDS organization in the U.S. and the largest minority-controlled AIDS organization in the U.S. We provide housing, medical care, job training, case management, HIV prevention, counseling and testing, and other services to low-income and homeless New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS.

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