The future of our university is at stake

April 18, 2017

Students at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) are on an indefinite strike against proposed cuts demanded by an unaccountable Fiscal Control Board that would eliminate a full one-third of the 11-campus system's budget by 2021. The strike is the latest stage of a decades-old student resistance to repression and austerity, but the issue has come to a head as Puerto Rico suffered a Greece-style debt crisis that has left the island at the mercy of bankers and bureaucrats appointed by the U.S. Congress, where Puerto Rico has a single representative. The students not only oppose the cuts for their schools, but are demanding that repayments be halted until Puerto Rico's debt is audited by an independent commission.

In May 2016, Barack Obama and the Republican-led Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act--with the cynical acronym "PROMESA," meaning "promise" in Spanish--which established a seven-person Fiscal Control Board with unprecedented powers to carve up Puerto Rico's budget and finance the debt. Puerto Rico, already suffering from multiple crises of unemployment and public health, is now being devastated by a clique of financiers accountable only to the island's colonial overlord. Against this backdrop, students are gaining mass support for their strike.

Gabriel Casal Nazario is a student at the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico and an activist with the student group Colectiva Independista Radical. He talked to Dorian Bon to discuss the issues in this action and how the strike was organized.

CAN YOU describe the context surrounding the student strike?

IT'S REALLY important to understand that Puerto Rico has been in an economic crisis for the last 10 years and has been facing austerity for the past 20. What that has meant for Puerto Rico and especially for young people is that there are no longer prospects of living and working here, and because of this, hundreds of thousands of people are literally abandoning the country. More people have left than any other time in Puerto Rico's history during this period.

It's gotten to the point where there are more Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico living in the U.S. than there are here. To put that in context, we've lost 10 percent of our population in the past five years. It's really incredible.

I think we have to attribute this to the fact that the U.S.'s interests in Puerto are shifting. For a long time, Puerto Rico served as a place where U.S. businesses could manufacture pharmaceuticals.

But since then, U.S. business has taken advantage of the island as a Wall Street sanctuary, with tax-exempt investment opportunities for financial speculators, and also as a beautiful island for luxury tourists. In a sense, they're trying to force people out of here and keep the island for themselves and their businesses.

Students delegates vote to strike at a mass meeting in San Juan
Students delegates vote to strike at a mass meeting in San Juan (Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil | Facebook)

The University of Puerto Rico is just one example of this. The government's plan is precisely to motivate young people to leave the island. This is part of the U.S. Congress' plan when it passed the so-called PROMESA bill, which essentially installs a dictatorship of seven people who rule over all of Puerto Rico.

There's this shroud around the fiscal control board established by the U.S. Congress, as if it's this magical, untouchable creature. Many of the arguments that we face when we go out and do political work on campus or on the street is that we Puerto Ricans don't have the power to stop the fiscal control board. But we're out there saying that we actually can stop them.

HOW WERE you able to mobilize the whole student body to go on strike?

THERE HAVE been many cycles in the student movement here at UPR.

We had a student strike in 2005 in response to another proposed budget cut. Then there was a period of retreat as our organizers were exhausted, and many graduated. Then in 2010, when they tried to double the cost of our tuition, students struck again. Finally, there has been a gradual development of the student resistance over the last four years. In 2014, we had a two-day strike; in 2015, a three-day strike; and last year, a five-day strike. And now, we are on an indefinite national strike.

This is a result of a combination of years of organizational work and the dramatic moment that we're currently in as a country. We've been dreaming of a moment like this for years.

Let me tell you, though, that being on strike is immense work. Hundreds us of us are essentially living together on our campus, and we're trying to organize thousands. It's exhausting. It really takes a toll, emotionally and physically.

But it's also rewarding. Because you can feel the drive that people have for a new kind of existence, and you see that people are willing to risk their studies and their lives for this. And we understand that this is also for the next generation, for the elementary and high school students. Right now, they don't know if there will be a public university for them to go to when they are of age.

WHAT ARE the different forces and organizations that worked together to organize the student strike?

THERE ARE different political organizations that have been involved in this work historically, all of them of the left--socialists, anti-imperialists and feminists. But between 2005 and 2010, many of those fell apart.

The last few years have produced a whole new layer of activists and taught them how to organize and how to strike. So the campus left has been rebuilt in the process.

There isn't actually one organizing body that united the whole university, but different organizations and groups on all of the campuses, as well as non-organized students, who combine to form a kind of network of people who are willing to do this work and know how to carry it out.

There is an official student body called the General Council of Students. But it was created by the university administration and often responds to it, adopting a posture of neutrality. So the political work done in the university is primarily through mass movements and campus political organizations.

The decision this year first to go on a one-week strike and then on an indefinite strike was made in stages.

First, we invited known student organizers to a meeting at the main Río Piedras campus in San Juan. The Colectiva Independentista Radical, of which I'm a member, proposed the idea of going on strike at a 300-person meeting on our campus.

After some changes to the proposal at that meeting, the 300 people present there organized a campus-wide assembly at the Río Piedras campus, attended by 5,000 students, where the decision to strike was voted on and approved. To put this into perspective, the Río Piedras campus, which is the largest of 11 University of Puerto Rico campuses, has 16,000 students. So we had almost a third of the student body at Río Piedras present at this meeting.

From March 28 to April 5, our campus went out on strike. We were very successful. We were able to get a meeting with the governor and even with the Fiscal Control Board. Of course, no concrete victories came from this, but we got their attention and scared them. This also inspired the other 10 campuses to join us.

We then organized a national student assembly on April 5, which brought out 11,000 students. We filled an entire stadium. There, we decided that all 11 campuses and all 58,000 students in the University of Puerto Rico system should strike. So we struck indefinitely, beginning on that day.

Committees have been set up on all of the campuses to coordinate the work, and are comprised of many of the organizers who carried out the strikes of the previous years.

One of our main claims in the mass assembly was that we need a national audit of the debt, because we understand that our problems stem from that fundamental crisis. The government in Puerto Rico thinks that it can pay off this debt rather than providing education for its people.

Our argument for an audit of the national public debt flows from our interests as students. We're literally selling our lives to pay this debt, created by corrupt officials in the government and the banks, both here and in the U.S. So we need to know the truth about this debt.

We know the vast majority of Puerto Ricans agree with us on this. There was a survey circulating that asked Puerto Ricans if they thought there should be an audit of the debt, and 86 percent responded yes. But the governor has done nothing.

WHAT KIND of reaction to the strike have you seen from the governor and the Fiscal Control Board on the one hand, and from ordinary Puerto Ricans on the other?

TODAY, WE went into the subway and handed out flyers to explain our demands and what we're doing. The response was very positive. I spoke with an elderly woman who had just seen her pension cut by hundreds of dollars, and who is now at risk of losing her home.

People see that the demand to audit the debt is in all of our interests. Everyone is fed up.

Governor Rosselló and the Fiscal Control Board have tried to delegitimize our claims. They say they're willing to negotiate but they're actually not. Rosselló is behaving like a puppet of the Fiscal Control Board. He's doing what they want him to do: destroy our public education system, our health care, our pensions. We know that won't solve our crisis. Austerity is not a solution to any social crisis.

But Governor Rosselló isn't the only opposition. We're aware of the fact that we're up against the U.S. empire, the most powerful empire in the world, which is intent on seeing this austerity package through to the end. We recognize that, and people are afraid.

We know that the U.S. has the most powerful military in the world. That's part of the fear many Puerto Ricans have. But I think that the youth is ready to leave those fears behind and take action.

DO YOU expect the government to move in to repress the strike?

MANY STUDENTS are worried about the threat of police brutality. The police were very violent when students struck against tuition hikes in 2010. That experience affected a lot of students. We understand the need to defend ourselves and our campuses.

We actually expected a more rapid police backlash than we've seen so far. We barricaded the campuses, and we don't allow any police officers in at all. We know that the more pressure we apply and the longer the strike goes on, the more risk there is of government repression.

We set up our barricades on the second day of the strike. We have seven gates on the Río Piedras campus, all barricaded. There are a few points of entry where people can come and participate. We had a family day last Sunday, where we played sports, painted, told stories and organized. The university is open to everyone who wants to participate in this fight.

The administration, of course, says that our occupation is illegal. But the students recognize only the authority of the mass assembly that met on April 5, which approved going on strike. So if we break our occupation, we break our democratic commitment to that assembly. All of the other campuses, except one, are also barricaded and occupied. On one campus, nearby high school students have also gone on strike.

We have to think about ways to involve people outside of the university. A lot of people are saying that this needs to be a national strike. There's so much at stake. And what we do here as students will affect what happens in the rest of the country.

WHAT MESSAGE do you have for students in the U.S.?

WE ASK for your solidarity. Half of our nation is there in the United States. There has been organizing in Puerto Rican communities--in Boston, New York, Chicago and Orlando--by people displaced during this crisis. American students need to see that we're fighting the same fight: for accessible, universal education.

Of course, we need you to fight against imperialism from inside the U.S. Get informed about Puerto Rico's status and history.

The reality is that you have more power to pressure the government there than we do here. You can do a lot there to support us.

The student movement on the main campus here at Río Piedras has a communications forum called Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil, which Spanish speakers can follow. Fight for us, organize for us, pass resolutions--everything you can think of--and speak to as many people as possible about this strike and what is going on in Puerto Rico.

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