Puerto Rico: Student Victory Batters Government’s Credibility


The government’s credibility and strategy were battered by the overwhelming victory of the student strike which had paralyzed the entire University of Puerto Rico system and surprised everyone with its legal and technological mastery, its willingness to resist the police, and its model of direct democracy which made the national political institution look bad.

After suffering losses that the government itself calculated at $305 million in the frustrated struggle against the students, the university leadership had to accept all the economic demands made by the strikers and postpone a plan designed in January 2009 in the Santa Catalina Palace by the then recently inaugurated governor Luis Fortuno so that the Puerto Rican government could keep all the increase in the US federal subsidy for the students.

“Victory, victory, victory for history!” chanted hundreds of students who arrived just after midnight at the Court Center in San Juan, having found out that 9 of the 13 members of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Board of Trustees had turned against UPR Board of Trustees President Ygri Rivera to support the agreement made with the student National Negotiating Committee.  The intense negotiations conducted with the help of a mediator were imposed by the Court last Friday, after the last attempts by the government to use the fearsome riot police squad in the conflict that the university leadership branded as illegal.

However, on Wednesday night — after having lost on all the economic points — the government accepted that it “would not bring charges against students and members of the university community who, in the exercise of their constitutional rights to the liberty of expression and association, participated in the strike, marches, riots, pickets, or any other related legal activity conducted anywhere within the University of Puerto Rico.”  Actually, even for those cases where there are accusations of property damage and other illegal activities, the government committed itself to not impose summary punishment and follow the strictest legal process in administrative forums.

The mention of “members of the university community” has the particular importance of protecting professors and other employees — especially those without permanent positions — from contract cancellation, since now they would have possible cause for legal action for violations of civil rights.  The issue dates back to the student strike of 1973, when after having had to negotiate with students the government proceeded to fire 70 professors who had supported the movement.

Regarding the crucial economic issues, the strikers were successful in guaranteeing that students who have tuition waivers will continue receiving the grants sent by the US; prohibiting alliances with the private sector designed to privatize university campuses; and, above all, ensuring that no new fees will be imposed in August, thus beating back the attempt to increase the tuition cost with new fees.  On this last point, the government made it clear in the agreement document that “the Board of Trustees considers it necessary to establish fees beginning in January 2011,” but the students then included another clause in which they warned that “the aforementioned should not be taken as acceptance” of the planned imposition.

Actually, Governor Fortuno told radio station NotiUno that “that is exactly what will be the solution,” referring to the fact that they will attempt to impose the increase again.  The governor explained that he had personally proposed the plan — so specified as to include the exact amount, $1,100, of the increases announced recently as something new by the university leadership — during a meeting “16 or 17 months ago.”

The talking points to promote the plan, backed by a million dollar propaganda, were designed to get people to believe that the UPR had an alleged deficit of $200 million resulting from previous bad administrations.  However, a document was released in which the UPR presidency itself vouched that the UPR had only a $20 million dollar deficit, which made it possible for the Fiscal Efficiency Committee to demonstrate that what was happening was the calculated reduction of hundreds of millions of dollars in funds allocated by the State itself.

But the true state of the current finances of the UPR, with a debt of $700 million traded on the Wall Street market, continues to be a mystery due to the fact the leadership preferred to lose $305 million rather than opening its books to the strikers, the state licensing agency, or the Court.  These presumed losses include the $16 million that they hoped to recoup from limiting waivers, the $60 million to be collected from the fees, and the $4 million daily that they said they were losing during the strike.

Even before the agreement that would victoriously end the 12th student strike in the UPR’s history since its foundation in 1903, the students had begun to clean up inside the campuses and even used a tractor to cut grass.  But as they prepare the student assemblies for ratification, the government is also beginning its preparations and the incumbent New Progressive Party is already discussing legislative measures that would prevent future student assemblies from discussing and decreeing any more strikes.

It would seem that there are two camps that will come head to head for the destiny of Puerto Rico.  During a symbolic graduation ceremony organized by the students, professors, and even various members of the Board of Trustees, strikers were given the honorary title of “exemplary citizen,” and during the ceremony, Distinguished Professor Samuel Silva Gotay congratulated them for following the “centuries-old tradition” of tying citizenship to compassion and charged them with a commitment to “that citizenship, so we must continue to build, every day, the future of the world, that of another world which is possible to build here.”

The original article “Puerto Rico: Victoria estudiantil afecta credibilidad del gobierno” was published by NCM-Noticias (San Juan, Puerto Rico) on 17 June 2010.  Translation adapted from Juan A. Ocasio Rivera‘s.

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