Puerto Rico’s student struggle after the strike

August 3, 2010

A two-month strike by students at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) ended in victory in June. The strike spread to shut down all 11 campuses of the public university and, in the process, shook Puerto Rico's political establishment.

Giovanni Roberto, a member of the UPR students' national negotiating committee and member of the Organización Socialista Internacional, spoke to Eric Ruder about the dynamics of the struggle--and what's ahead for those involved in the fight against the government's attack on students, workers and public education in general.

THE VICTORY of Puerto Rico's student strike was inspiring to people facing similar conditions in the U.S. and elsewhere. What specifically did you win, and can you describe the administration's latest counteroffensive after the strike ended?

FIRST OF all, this is the first big victory for the student movement against the university administration. In most other cases, the administration negotiates with the students, but about issues that are different from what the students want to address.

In the 1980s, students were opposed to a tuition hike, but at the end of the day, tuition went up, and the students couldn't claim a complete and clear victory. In this strike, we negotiated directly with the real decision-makers--the board of trustees--unlike in 2005 when students negotiated with the president of the university.

Secondly, we were able to participate in decision-making about the policies that control the university, not just reject policies being imposed. We stopped the tuition hike for the semester that begins in August, we successfully defended the tuition waivers of students, and we won a concrete commitment that none of the 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) would be sold to any private institution.

UPR strikers celebrating their victory in June
UPR strikers celebrating their victory in June (Puerto Rico Indymedia)

We also scored a political victory in the sense that we were able to organize a social force. We organized students, not just for the duration of the 60-day strike, but also to fight for different things in Puerto Rico. We were able to build a real political movement that brought together people organized at the base through a national coordinating body. And we had a national perspective about the roots of the problem facing the university and how to fight back.

At the same time, the administration and the government fought back, just as they do in the class struggle by workers. As we held a national student assembly to accept the terms of the settlement, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño was increasing the number of trustees so that he could pack the board with his handpicked supporters. The stated intention was to have control over the university and give the university "coordination" and "direction," in Fortuño's words.

By the end of the week, the board voted to impose an $800 emergency fee in January. During the strike, we had negotiated that the fee would not be imposed in August, and the planned amount of the fee would be $400. So what they did was to charge both fees in January, making it $800.

During negotiations, they had said that the scale of the budget crisis would mean that the fee would last three years. Now they're saying that this fee is permanent. And they also had originally said the fee would not exceed $800 per year, but now they say that they will decide annually on the size of the fee, and that it could exceed $800. So the situation is worse than the worst of what they had offered at the negotiating table.

Obviously, the reaction of the students was angry. The day after the national assembly, where students voted for the terms that a court-appointed mediator had proposed, we held a picket to denounce Fortuño's decision to enlarge the board of trustees. More than 200 students came to a picket that had been called that same day. As the board met over the weekend to decide to impose the fee, we held another picket, and this time, more than 500 students attended.

So we were able to continue organizing activities, and in fact, after the strike, we've established three new "base action committees," which is what we call a rank-and-file formations of student activists based around academic departments. All the committees have grown.

So I think the capacity of our movement has developed. Students are now much clearer about the relationship between what the government is doing inside the university and what it is doing outside the university.

That was the reason that some of us in the national negotiating committee pushed to get an agreement that stopped the tuition hike in August, even though we knew that we were going to face the same problem in January. Without a stronger, better-coordinated struggle on a national scale, tuition will go up in January.

But we believed that ending the strike when we did gave us an opportunity to grow the movement and make it stronger, putting us in a better position to fight back this fall. I think it has proven to be a good idea. And that's why students are talking now about not only organizing in the university and helping other campuses organize base committees, but also going to communities to engage with the broader population.

PART OF the settlement was agreement on a fair and just process if the administration tries to expel or otherwise discipline student strike leaders. Is the board trying to undo that part of the agreement as well?

THIS WEEK, they started disciplinary procedures against three students, inventing charges of aggression and obstructing the passage of administrators during the strike. Even though they are employing the usual disciplinary procedures, the students who they chose to discipline--all three are members of the youth group of the Workers Socialist Movement--clearly demonstrates that the administration is using the disciplinary process to try to eliminate a part of their political opposition as well.

Meanwhile, the rest of the negotiating committee is waiting for charges to be brought in the coming weeks. A university official has assured us that letters have already been sent.

At the same time, the university's offensive against students and the rest of the university community is continuing, and the cuts are truly staggering. They have cut classes by more than 30 percent, cut professors' salaries by 5 percent, fired professors who teach on a contractual basis, cut student jobs and much more. The university is swinging its budget ax without restraint.

Many UPR labor unions have expressed skepticism about a strike, but they have gone back and forth to a degree because they are also responding to a push from below from workers who participated actively in the student strike. For example, at the Cayey campus, workers were an essential part of the strike and stood side by side with professors and students in what they called a "community strike."

So repression is part of the dynamic, but it isn't the only factor. We have developed a movement that strongly believes we are all leaders, capable of sustaining and pushing the struggle forward. That's something that is being tested at this moment.

YOU'VE DESCRIBED the government and administration's disregard for what was agreed on, but also the continued determination of students to continue the struggle. Is that what was behind the June 30 demonstration at the legislature, which ended with the police again using disproportionate force against protesters?

IT'S TYPICAL as a dynamic of struggle that once two forces start clashing, there will be ongoing clashes as long as the heart of the conflict goes unresolved.

The student movement gained a lot of support during the strike, and not just symbolic support. One of the factors that led many to offer us real concrete support was that they saw that our movement was not only able to protest the government in words, but to back that up with action.

Our ability to do that with this strike really stood out. And this is an important point because people are taking action in solidarity with us, but also as a means of building their own struggles.

On June 30, we went to our version of Capitol Hill to "retake," in the words of the students, our basic rights. The president of the senate, Thomas Rivera Shatz, didn't allow the press or any citizens to watch the senate's proceedings during those weeks that they were discussing and debating the country's budget.

The police and the government interpreted our protest to "retake our rights" as a threat--as if we had declared some intention to forcibly take Capitol Hill! Obviously, 100 students--without arms or anything else that could constitute a threat--weren't going to do this, but the police nevertheless attacked us.

The way they did it was obvious for everyone to see. They wanted to hit and club students and others who were there as a way to intimidate us--to make us feel fear. We were winning concrete things, and our capacity to win was inspiring other sectors to fight as well. So they wanted to teach us a lesson.

I think they believed--mistakenly--that their attack would force us to retreat or go on the defensive. What happened was exactly what happened during the strike--every time they attacked us, we gained more support, we gained a larger hearing for our message, and we demonstrated that our method was about fighting back and not allowing the government to take advantage of us.

We fought back on that day, students resisted and threw stones at the police, and the public didn't reject the tactics, but instead defended us on talk radio, asking, for example, what else could students do when the police are attacking them?

One of the tactics we used during the student strike was nonviolent civil disobedience. But people are making the connection between nonviolent civil disobedience and the right to self-defense.

I think that the relationship between nonviolent civil disobedience and self-defense that students displayed, albeit in a small way, is important in demonstrating to many people who reject all violence--on the grounds of an absolute pacifism--that it's impossible to equate the violence of the oppressor with the use of violence by the oppressed in resisting oppression. I think this is important for the political radicalization going on in Puerto Rico at the moment, among students and within the national movement.

This confrontation at the legislature led to a protest against police brutality and in defense of civil rights on July 18 that drew more than 50,000 people into the streets. For many, it was their first march. People are starting to become activists and organizers, and to think in political terms.

During the July 18 demonstration, the student movement again called on people to mobilize from below to challenge the Fortuño administration's priorities for our country. We had tables, and about 20 students fanned out to sign people up and get their contact information so we can build a real national network. This is an organizational initiative that is already generating discussion within newspapers and on radio.

Based on the living example of the strike, we are in a unique position to argue for this as a general strategy of resistance. It's interesting because people have even started discussing the very concept of democracy in a different way. This struggle has started a debate in the traditional left around organization, mobilization and actions. Now, two ideas of democracy are being discussed--democracy from below and democracy from above.

CAN YOU talk about the political demands that the student movement is trying to advance?

PEOPLE NOW have more understanding that what the government is doing favors the rich, favors corporations and helps to sustain Puerto Rico's colonial subservience to the U.S.

I think the slogan "Que la crisis la paguen los ricos"--which in English might be translated "Tax the rich" or "The rich should pay for the crisis"--now has a greater chance of being adopted as the main slogan of the movement. People are angry at the government and want to fight back. But most people do not belong to any organization dedicated to this project, and there isn't yet a clear perspective about how to accomplish this.

In mid-July, the government announced plans to close almost 60 schools, which will force some 18,000 students to move to different schools. And that has also created a basis for the slogan of "Tax the rich" to grow in popularity.

There is also growing consciousness of the growing divide between rich and poor in Puerto Rico because the student movement has highlighted the disproportionate impact of the increased fees on poor students. That's why we have an opportunity to bring more class-conscious slogans and class struggle actions to the national movement.

Obviously, it's not immediately obvious what forms this will take, but it's clear that the student movement can bring these ideas into future collaborative efforts with other forces organizing resistance to Fortuño and the broader priorities of the government.

Of course, most of the students who participated in the strike did not think of themselves as socialists. In fact, it was the first time that many had ever been involved in activism at all. But through taking part in the strike and through the discussions about how to proceed, many have developed an openness to class politics. We hope that this makes a contribution to the rebuilding of the organized left in Puerto Rico.

The strike also brought together students from across the ideological spectrum--some strikers are pro-statehood, some are for independence, and others are in between.

But though these students may belong to electoral formations committed to diverse political platforms with respect to Puerto Rico's relationship to the U.S., the attack by the government on education in general and the university in particular has created an interest in discussing the roots of the crisis, the foundations of the system and possible alternatives to the present social and economic system.

The questions have also spilled beyond the bounds of the education system into discussions about the environment, for example. What are the causes and consequences of the relentless drive to build more streets, more highways and more hotels in every corner of the island?

I think the magnitude of the government offensive has forced people to make the connection between attacks in one area and attacks in another. The rulers of the country haven't understood this and perhaps have made a big mistake by doing all of this at the same time, because they are concretely forcing the question of unity in action on all of us engaged in these struggles.

For example, the July 18 protest is the first example in years of an action that was able to bring together the two sectors of the labor movement. We have two main labor federations. There is the Coalición Sindical that has associations with international unions like the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, and then there is the Coordinadora Sindical, which includes the teachers union, the electrical workers union and the water workers union.

During the October general strike last year, these two federations organized separate actions--on the same day and in almost the same place, but different actions. But because of the student movement and because of what happened in the attack on protesters on June 30, both came together on July 18.

This is an important step forward--to see these two formations together at organizing meetings for this protest--to overcome what are historical and deep divisions, sometimes compounded by a clash of personalities between people who have been longstanding leaders of the labor movement. Unity in this instance is a positive sign, both for the future of the labor movement and for the future of the national movement against the government's attacks.

I hope that unity will continue to build in the wake of this protest, but I think in any case, the student movement has been able to play some small role as a catalyst in the process of building this unity. And I think that the combination of a growing sense of the need for unity generally and the victory of the student strike in particular means that many rank-and-file union members are themselves pushing for this unity also.

Part of this is also a positive response to the idea advanced by the student movement that rank-and-file workers should also have their own assemblies to decide questions such as whether to go on strike and so forth. This is a powerful message in the context of government and corporate attacks on wages and working conditions.

LOOKING FORWARD, what do you expect will happen during the fall semester?

STUDENTS WILL continue to organize on campus as well as step up efforts to build a real national opposition beyond the university.

But within the university, it's not yet entirely clear how things will look. While it's almost certain that responding to the scale of the university's attack will require another strike, it's not yet clear what the character of such a strike would be.

To stop this administration, I think we're increasingly convinced that we will need to go beyond even a student strike--that we need a community strike that brings together professors, campus workers and students. We will also need to try new methods for building a strike. The university has suggested that they might decide to shut down the university, and we know that they want to shut it down for at least one semester because that would help them fix their budget crunch.

But that would be awful for professors and workers, because the shutdown would mean that they wouldn't have any income during that period. We know that they have already discussed this, and we have even seen documents that discuss this as a strategy for addressing the budget crisis.

So there is a legitimate fear among labor leaders that a student strike might hand the university the pretext it needs to essentially lock workers out for a semester or more, and we have to figure out how to fight back in this context. We have an administration that doesn't believe in the university--or at least doesn't believe that the university should fulfill the same positive social function that we believe in. But in order to prevail in this context, we need more than a student movement.

Some sectors are discussing a people's strike. In 1998, there was a strike against the privatization of the telephone company, and the whole country joined in the struggle against the sale of this public company. So a people's strike means that not just the local sector that is under attack--such as telephone workers or university students--but everyone joins in the struggle.

In such a circumstance, it's possible to imagine ways of putting pressure on the government through a variety of channels, such as workers' actions that shut down transportation hubs--in other words, a real general strike.

The aim would also be to draw in participation of workers who aren't in a labor union and to provide ways for broad participation in the form of street mobilizations. Acting together, we have an opportunity to push back the plans of the government and the rich.

And we need international solidarity--from people in the U.S. and elsewhere. Puerto Rico is in a deep crisis. The level of social violence is escalating. The government depends on tourism and on its relationship with the United States to keep the economy going, so the more that international solidarity efforts raise our demands, the better the opportunity we have of being heard and of winning.

Further Reading

From the archives