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In New York City, Protesters Take On Puerto Rico's Governor Luis Fortuño Over Policies, Fundraiser

The governor has drawn the ire of the public sector by going after the bargaining rights of workers and has a controversial public image; one that finds him viewed as the champion of some and public enemy No. 1, by others.

But this isn't about Wisconsin's Governor, Scott Walker

It's about Puerto Rico's Governor, Luis Fortuño.

On a rainy, windswept Wednesday outside Central Park in New York City, 30 to 40 protesters gathered to condemn the policies of Fortuño, who was holding a $1,000 a plate fundraiser and cocktail reception nearby at the New York Athletic Club.

"We decided to come because living in Puerto Rico is becoming impossible," said Pedro Colón Almenas of the Puerto Rico Solidarity Network. He was one of the founders of the Facebook page for the protest. "Unemployment is at 17 percent on the island, he took away bargaining rights and fired 30,000 workers in the public sector.

"We had to come here to tell him to stop," Colon continued. "We're talking about an island that is dying."

The 30,000 layoffs referred to by Almenas and many of the protesters stems from a 2009 speech by Fortuño where he said that he was "afraid" the layoffs would amount to the firing of up to 30,000 public servants.

The final number of mandatory layoffs was 12,505 according to Carlos García, the President of Puerto Rico's government bank. When voluntary decisions to accept early retirement incentives and packages are factored in, the total number of people who are currently out of the workforce is 23,000, said Sarah Echols, spokeswoman for Fortuño.

“Governor Fortuño has been working in partnership with the Puerto Rico legislature to address an inherited $3.3 billion budget deficit – the worst proportionally in the country," Echols told Fox News Latino. 

"Without these cost-cutting measures, the government would have faced cash shortfalls, possible shutdown where salaries and services would be halted for all and an economically-catastrophic downgrading of its credit rating to junk status," she said.

Independent rating agencies like Moody’s and Fitch Ratings recently improved their ratings of the commonwealth. Standard and Poor’s upgraded its rating for the island's general obligation debt, the first upgrade S&P has given Puerto Rico’s credit in 28 years.

Echols also defended Fortuño's fundraiser. He had said this week that the fundraiser was with "old Republican friends" and that it was the legal way to pay the bills. 

"The Governor was in the financial capital of the world to speak to major investors as part of a comprehensive effort to attract new business to Puerto Rico," Echols wrote in an email. "In addressing the Municipal Forum of New York, the Strategas Investors Conference and a public-private infrastructure roundtable, the Governor was able to speak directly to over 500 investors from some of the world’s most important companies," she continued. 

"This is part of Puerto Rico’s aggressive strategy to make the Island the most attractive jurisdiction in the country to do business," Echols wrote.

One of the issues protesters mentioned was the continued uproar over the situation at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), where students have used social media to protest tuition hikes and increased police presence.They claimed that Fortuño hopes to privatize UPR.

But Echols says that's not the case.

“Our goal is to ensure that the University of Puerto Rico remains a viable, vibrant public university for generations to come," she said. "It remains today the most affordable public institution of higher learning under the U.S. flag."

Christopher Rivera, a 28-year-old former UPR student who lived in Puerto Rico until he moved to New York City to pursue his Master's, was at the protest. He said he feared the direction that things are going.

"What about a family with three kids at the university?" Rivera said. "It doesn't make sense; UPR should be more accessible so more students can attend and make the island more money."

Another major focus of the protester's concern, in light of the natural disaster in Japan, was the proposed 93-mile gas pipeline that would go through the middle of Puerto Rico

"With the nuclear explosion in Japan, you have to wonder about a hurricane or an earthquake and it what it could do to our tiny island with a gas pipeline running down the middle of it," said David Galarza, of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights.

Samuel Rosado, a 25-year-old attorney in New York and New Jersey, was vocal on the Facebook page for the protest, just like many others. But he defended Fortuño at every turn and believes the pipeline is a good thing for Puerto Rico.

"This is desperately needed," Rosado said. "As an island nation, energy is at a premium. This pipeline would reduce the island's reliance on imported oil, save citizens millions in energy costs, substantially reduce carbon emissions and create nearly 4,000 jobs during its construction.

"I can't see how improving the island's energy infrastructure is a bad thing."

Galarza also chimed in on the war of words between elected representative Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico and Chicago's Luís Gutiérrez. The escalating back and forth brought up the issue of whether U.S. Puerto Ricans can speak for Puerto Rico.

"How dare they tell Gutiérrez he can't speak for P.R.?" said Galarza, who has family in Puerto Rico and hopes to retire there.

"Any Puerto Rican can speak for P.R.," he said passionately. "Whether they live there or not."

Contact Adrian Carrasquillo at Adrian.Carrasquillo@foxnewslatino.com or on Twitter @RealAdrianC.

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