Striking Puerto Rico students remain defiant

April 30, 2010

Yolanda Rivera, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, reports on the student struggle to keep their university affordable for working-class people.

A STUDENT strike at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) is entering its second week and gathering widespread support, as civic organizations, labor unions and artists showed support despite the repressive measures by university and government authorities.

The decision to strike was made in an April 13 assembly of 3,000 UPR students, who voted democratically to start what was originally intended to be a 48-hour walkout April 21. They took this action despite intimidation tactics from the university administration, which announced the cancellation of the semester and an open-ended postponement of the students' graduation.

Once it became clear that the strike was on, administrators changed tack by making an offer designed to head off the struggle. For example, the UPR-Río Piedras chancellor, Ana Guadalupe, announced that there would be no new tuition hikes for summer classes and full coverage of summer tuition by Pell grants. She promised summer teaching salaries for professors at higher levels than what other campuses offered.

Students debate how to respond to an imminent police presence on the fifth day of the strike
Students debate how to respond to an imminent police presence on the fifth day of the strike (Puerto Rico Indymedia)

The response to these concessions from students and professors was a clear "no." They knew that despite short-term promises, the administration plans to privatize parts of university operations, impose an additional tuition hike in August, and undermine professors' salaries even further.

With all this in mind, professors from the Río Piedras chapter of Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU) also met April 13 and decided to support students' decisions, reject the administration's violent response to previous student protests and call for a 24-hour walkout on April 29. However, it was the students' decisions and actions that initiated the walkout--and the 48-hour strike became an open-ended one.

For their part, students are demanding that the administration finds ways to solve a $100 million deficit they claim the university has. There's no evidence of such a deficit. In fact, UPR's president said originally that the deficit included $100 million, then changed the figure to $200 million, and then $75 million. It's clear that the administration has no intention of providing proof of such deficit, since they never provide evidence of their accounting or bookkeeping.

The students' other demands include keeping tuition waivers intact, a ban on new tuition hikes, a prohibition on selling off public university facilities to private interests.

Privatization is the main goal of the UPR administration and Gov. Luis Fortuño. In a country where almost 50 percent of the population lives under the poverty level, UPR and Fortuño want to raise tuition, eliminate tuition waivers for some poor students with high grade point averages, and force students to pay their full tuition at the beginning of the semester.

These are simply ways of making a public institution inaccessible to working-class students and provide higher education only to those who can afford a private university. For example, the legislature has worked on projects to provide significant advantages to private institutions such as the Ana G. Méndez university system, which has undue influence on legislators.

PROFESSORS FROM the national chapter of APPU and the Brotherhood of Non-Teaching Employees (HEEND, according to its initials in Spanish) joined the 48-hour walkout. Support for students didn't stop there. Parents, Department of Education teachers (Federación de Maestros), local food business and singers (Ricky Martin, Tito Auger and Andy Montañez, among others) showed their support. Several of the musicians performed for strikers on April 28.

Students had worked all semester long on the grassroots organization of students according to colleges. Students in the College of Humanities had several meetings and complete days of activities, including talks and movies about privatization. This kind of work had a lot to do with attendance and results during the April 13 assembly. In fact, students have shown that they can run and improve the university through the activities they have organized since the walkout began. They have:

-- Elected a negotiating committee representing all groups involved in the strike, including the Committee in Defense of Public Education, Committee Against Homophobia, a representative of each college and the General Student Council leadership;

Created common kitchens throughout the campus to provide food for everyone;

Held regular assemblies to discuss important issues, showing a true democratic process (unlike the lack of democracy that characterizes the university structure);

Established a well-organized communication system;

Organized management of campus gates, so that researchers can access their labs;

Held regular discussions and study groups;

Coordinated artistic activities, such as musical activities and yoga at 8 a.m.;

Shared washing and cleaning activities;

Launched a Red Sunday in which students clean, mow the grass and improve the general appearance of the UPR campus.

Students covered their faces during "Red Sunday" activities to protect themselves against repressive measures that the administration has promised to carry out after the strike is over. In fact, administrators have tried to criminalize students by lying about the destruction of buildings and facilities. One of the APPU members has documented and gathered evidence that these accusations are false.

So while administrators give speeches are about "negotiation" and "dialogue," UPR officials have threatened possible sanctions against students from the beginning. And the same day that the UPR president recorded a message calling for a dialogue and composure, the chancellor's special forces beat students in the Social Sciences buildings.

In fact, the UPR's president didn't even show at the negotiation table. Nor did he provide an excuse to students, who waited for hours to talk. In Río Piedras, the chancellor has already announced sanctions--not only against students, but also against non-teaching employees and professors. The university will deduct all days lost from the clerical employees' regular schedule, and won't pay professors until classes are made up when the semester resumes.

Both the government and the administration have shown their true colors during the strike. Several battalions of police special forces showed up at the gates after students closed the gates on the first day of the walkout. These policemen used pepper spray against students and pushed them to keep them from closing the gates.

The UPR-Río Piedras chancellor said that 19 policemen were hurt. In fact, not even five policemen were hurt--and they were only scratched. Meanwhile, some strange events have taken place, such as the sudden trashing of some areas with old tires, and the presence of provocateurs who students can't recognize as fellow students.

However, the administration's worst decision has been to forbid the delivery of food and water at the beginning of the walkout, and later the closing of restrooms. This tactic of starving students and cutting basic services has been used before by Police Chief Figueroa Sancha, who once deprived water and electricity services to a poor community in Toa Alta, Villas del Sol, to force them to move from the government's property where they lived.

THE UPR strike has made it clearer than ever that the current government--as well as previous administrations--steals from the poor to give to the rich. And to get away with it, Gov. Fortuño consistently lies about the university's finances. Nearly two years ago, Fortuño said that Law 7, which he used to justify the firing 23,000 government employees, did not apply to the UPR. But the law also bars the university from receiving funds from new taxes.

Essentially, the governor is starving UPR of resources: despite the imposition of 812 new taxes from which the public university cannot receive a penny. During his April 26 message on the government's budget, the governor lied on TV about the finances of this public institution. Two letters sent to the governor to use federal stimulus funds to deal with the "deficit" were completely ignored in his speech.

In a country with a very high cost of living and rising inflation, students found the governor's message on April 26 insulting. Eight UPR campuses had joined the Río campus during the walkout the previous week (Humacao, Mayagüez, Bayamón, Carolina, Arecibo, Aguadilla, Utuado and Ponce), and after the governor's message, five of these campuses have joined the strike (Bayamón, Carolina, Arecibo, Utuad and Ponce), and more might join soon.

Moreover, in one of these campuses, UPR-Mayagüez, students from private institutions joined UPR students at the gates to protest high tuition costs at their own universities. APPU professors as well as non-teaching employees (HEEND) have attended all activities and resisted the intrusion of police inside the campus. Their militancy and solidarity has been outstanding.

Students from different socialist organizations, such as the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), the Union of Young Socialists (UJS) and the International Socialist Organization (OSI), have had an important role in the process. After the governor's message, members of the university community feel betrayed and offended.

Students' spirits are high. And the fact that other campuses have joined the strike is very significant given the general lack of trust in workers' and students' ability to fight the recent attacks on the working class.

As Alma Torres, a member of the OSI, said recently:

The strike is strong, and people know we are going to win. I had the experience of participating in previous strikes, and I did not see the militancy and organization that I have witnessed during this process. People have done their research and feel prepared to talk about the issues. We have had support from people in the island. We now need international support. I hope this process becomes a trigger for a general strike.

Further Reading

From the archives