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Highway Blocked in Puerto Rico

July 7, 1998

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Government workers in hundreds of cars blocked the highway to Puerto Rico’s main international airport Tuesday, their blaring horns heralding the biggest labor protest in the history of this U.S. territory.

Union leaders expected up to 500,000 of Puerto Rico’s 3.8 million people to join the two-day strike protesting the government’s sale of the state telephone company to private investors led by GTE Corp. About 6,400 telephone employees stopped working June 18.

On Tuesday, the first day of the strike, tens of thousands of government workers took to the streets, closing banks, shopping malls and small businesses.

``This has been a complete success. I think the economy is going to be feeling this today,″ striker Eduardo Bermudes, a maintenance worker for the Ports Authority, said as he sipped a can of beer and watched the airport traffic jam.

Under police escort, tourists dragged their bags a mile and a half to the airport terminal. Riot police had set up barricades to protect the airport but were taken by surprise when protesters blockaded the highway at dawn.

Demonstrations were generally peaceful. In the eastern town of San Lorenzo, however, police detonated a bomb planted at a bank, and gunmen shot out the windows of another bank in San Juan.

Also, telephone workers were accused of sabotaging phone lines, leaving more than 250,000 people without long-distance service.

The government, in justifying the sale, says it cannot compete in Puerto Rico’s newly deregulated telephone market.

The $1.9 billion sale is the cornerstone of Gov. Pedro Rossello’s privatization program. His government has sold hotels and a shipping company, transferred management of prisons and hospitals to private companies, and plans to privatize other utilities.

Union leaders who fear job losses and a loss of power accuse Rossello, who wants to make Puerto Rico the 51st U.S. state, of ``selling the national patrimony.″

Rossello’s supporters denounced the strike in newspaper advertisements Tuesday, saying union leaders were trying to frighten away foreign investment and create the perception that the Caribbean island is too unstable to be admitted to the union.

The telephone strike has cost Puerto Rico as much as $100 million, and the general strike by more than 60 unions could multiply that figure, said Santos Negron, a leading economist and former member of the government planning board.

Near the airport, many tourists sweated in the tropical heat as they dragged their luggage through the blockade of honking cars.

``Well, I’m never coming here again!″ Spanish tourist Felipe de Andrea said as protesters helped him heft his trunk and a case over the freeway divider. Riot police carried the bags to a police van that took him and others to the terminal.

LIAT Airlines canceled all flights, and at least two cruise ships canceled port calls for Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thousands of flag-waving strikers later took their protest to a telephone company office in the Hato Rey financial district and to company headquarters in suburban Guaynabo.

In the last general strike in Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of sugar cane cutters stopped working in 1934 to demand better conditions.

Update hourly