Protesters spill Puerto Rican rum outside an exclusive party to decry Puerto Rico’s AIDS crisis
Torruella (in orange hat) and Eddie Fukui participate in the
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.
Kink briefs fake-Bono
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.
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