Advocate For The Poor In Puerto Rico Is Released After Arrest During Protest

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A report by Adrian Florido for NPR.

A well-known advocate for the poor in Puerto Rico was released from jail Thursday evening after a San Juan judge dismissed charges stemming from his arrest earlier in the day during a protest against the island government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Giovanni Roberto Cáez helps run a small network of community-run soup kitchens known as “comedores sociales,” and in recent days he had been calling on the government to allow school cafeterias to distribute meals to children going hungry during the island’s coronavirus shutdown.

On Thursday morning, Roberto was leading a caravan of cars making their way through the streets of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, to protest what many on the island have seen as the government’s indifference to a growing hunger crisis as Puerto Rico enters its eighth week of an economic shutdown.

Puerto Rico has a higher rate of poverty than any U.S. state. Bureaucratic hurdles have delayed the arrival of federal stimulus checks and people’s access to unemployment insurance, and until Wednesday night, the island’s governor, Wanda Vázquez, had refused to allow school cafeterias to distribute meals to needy families the way they have in most U.S. communities during the pandemic.

Unlike recent protests in parts of the U.S. that have called for reopening local economies and been generally dismissive of public health concerns, Thursday’s protest in San Juan was to demand the island’s government do more to help people who’ve run out of money and food during the nearly two-month lockdown. Organizers asked demonstrators to remain in their cars during the protest.

Videos posted on social media from the protest showed Roberto exchanging words with a police officer who was speaking with the driver of a pickup truck carrying a loudspeaker typical of those used at protests on the island. Witnesses said the officer was threatening to arrest the driver if he turned the speaker on. In the videos, as Roberto is returning to his car after the interaction, a second officer follows him and puts him in handcuffs, telling Roberto he’s under arrest for “obstructing justice.”

A request for comment from Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon, but later in the day, local media reportedthat officials had filed charges against Roberto for violating the governor’s executive order requiring people to stay home during the pandemic.

The arrest fueled outrage in Puerto Rico.

Lawyers’ groups called it illegal.

And advocates and other community leaders denounced the arrest of someone widely respected for his work to alleviate the plight of Puerto Rico’s poor, especially during the ongoing pandemic.

Benjmín Torres Gotay, one of Puerto Rico’s best known journalists, tweeted that Roberto has fed countless needy people and is among those individuals “who most labor for justice” in Puerto Rico.

In an interview with NPR earlier this week, Roberto said that in recent days, the network of soup kitchens he helps run had received more than 1,000 phone calls from people across the island who had run out of food. He has been fundraising to deliver groceries to people’s homes.

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