Puerto Rico Student Strike Intensifies, Public Education and Civil Rights at Stake

Coincident with massive, at times explosive, student protests in Rome and London, the University of Puerto Rico has again become a flashpoint with a student strike beginning Tuesday that turned the main campus into a militarized zone of police, riot squads, and SWAT teams, complete with low-flying helicopters and snipers.  What began as a conflict over a steep student fee hike is now seen as a larger struggle to preserve public education against privatization.

Resistance to the imposed $800 student fee has triggered repressive state measures: police have occupied the main campus for the first time in 31 years, and Monday the local Supreme Court, recently stacked by the pro-Statehood political party in power, outlawed student strikes and campus protests.  More than 500 students defied the ruling by demonstrating on campus Tuesday, brandishing the slogan “They fear us because we don’t fear them” (“Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo”).  This current strike revisits accords to negotiate the $800 fee, which in June ended a two-month shut down of 10 of 11 UPR campuses, as UPR faces a $240 million budget shortfall precipitated by the state not honoring its own debt to the institution.

Civil rights groups have declared a state of high alert in the wake of disturbances last week and statements by leading public officials seen as creating a hostile climate that inhibits free speech rights.  In response, about 15,000 UPR supporters marched on Sunday from San Juan’s Capitol building to La Fortaleza governor’s mansion, under a balmy bright blue tropical sky in this U.S. Territory of about four million U.S citizens, though little known to most Americans beyond being a tourist destination.

In the standoff leading up to this week, top university officials have repeatedly threatened that a strike may prompt them to shut down the main campus at Río Piedras, which serves 20,000 plus students, employs about 1,200 professors and 5,000 non-teaching staff, and hosts millions in scientific research funding (system-wide the UPR serves about 65,000 students).  In addition, 10 of 11 University of Puerto Rico campuses remain on probation by its accrediting agency, the Middle States Association, in the areas of long-term fiscal viability and effective administrative governance, of which the current student mobilization is a symptom, not a cause.

Tensions mounted last week leading up to a two-day student walkout when Capitol Security, a private security firm contracted by the university for $1.5 million, demolished entrance gates to the campus.  Hired guards were young with little or no training or evaluation, bore no identification badges, and some were armed with sticks and pipes in a climate of intimidation perhaps not seen since dockworkers strikes of the 1940s.  Many of the guards had been recruited from marginalized Afro-Puerto Rican communities, such as Villa Cañona in Loíza, which has been the site of documented police abuses, lending a disturbing dimension of institutionalized racism, according to community leaders there.

Several violent incidents were reported, including a student who was seriously beaten and injured by guards.  One video purportedly of students breaking security van windows was repeatedly aired in the local media as the justification for the police occupation of the campus, just as students had peacefully concluded the two-day walkout last Wednesday evening.

“UPR has a long history of infiltrators and saboteurs involved to instigate such incidents,” said William Ramírez, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.  The purported incident capped off a series of provocations.  Gov. Luis Fortuño in a televised appearance openly declared that leftists would no longer be tolerated on the campus.  His Chief of Staff Marcos Rodríguez Ema publicly taunted that students and professors who dare protest will get their asses kicked out (“vamos a sacarlos a patadas”).

The university administration has also designated areas limiting protests to outside the campus, and on Monday Chancellor Ana Guadalupe formally prohibited all protests or group activities of any type on the campus through January 15.  The chancellor also issued an edict this week requiring all students to carry their student identification cards at all times.

According to Ramírez, Fortuño’s public statements targeting leftists, designated protest areas off campus, and protest prohibitions are violations of constitutionally-protected First Amendment rights.  The police presence and heavily-equipped riot squads also create a climate of intimidation that restricts expression, he added.

“Rather than responding to violence, they have created a violent environment,” Ramírez said, adding that under such conditions, in which a police occupation is deployed as a preemptive measure, “it is almost guaranteed that violence will occur.”

In response to the campus police presence, a majority in a meeting of about 300 professors Thursday voted to refuse to hold classes on campus while under siege, with senior professors recalling the trauma of deadly campus police violence during the last occupation in 1981.  On Saturday, Police Chief José Figueroa Sancha announced plans for a permanent police precinct on the campus, using drug interdiction as the justification despite common knowledge that drug puntos or selling points operate a steady business a short distance from the university.  Normally the campus operates with its own contingent of security guards.

Some student leaders who are not pro-strike have also voiced complaints about the police takeover of campus.  Omar Rodríguez, Student Council president for the College of Education and founder and editor of the 30,000+ member-strong Facebook page Estudiantes de la UPR Informan, reported that he was attacked without provocation by private security guards and that the police stood by and laughed when he pleaded for their intervention.

“The exaggerated police presence is unnecessary and intimidating,” he said, adding that it was pedagogically absurd to expect students to concentrate properly on their studies in such an environment.

Making the best of these tensions, student strike leader Giovanni Roberto reached out to dialogue with Capitol Security guards in working-class solidarity.  “They brought us the youth who are precisely the reason we are struggling, so that they could have access to the university,” he said.

It is estimated that the new $800 fee will force 10,000 UPR students to leave the university, though the state legislature and the Fortuño government have enacted last-ditch efforts to create funds for student jobs and scholarships.  Numerous proposals from credible sources detailing fiscal alternatives to the fee seem to fall on deaf ears.

The strike itself has yet to build broad support, however.  Widespread concern that a strike will jeopardize the institution’s survival has mobilized some against the strike, including students, despite majority opposition to the $800 fee.  While students from some UPR campuses held walkouts or approved strikes, yet other campuses recently voted down such measures.  And non-striking students at the Río Piedras campus, including previous strike leaders, signed a public proclamation to keep the campus open and classes running normally.

Nevertheless, strike organizers are gambling that the blunders of the administration will win support for the students as well as mobilize other groups.  The largest professors’ organization, Asociación Puertorriqueña de Profesores Universitarios, and the non-teaching staff union, La Hermandad de Empleados No-Docentes, issued standard calls to members to respect pickets.  And president of the UTIER electrical workers union, Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, issued a public call for support from Tuesday’s campus demonstration.

Whether or not this current conflict has the potential to destabilize the Fortuño administration depends in part on a broader context of economic wellbeing.  Fortuño and a legislative majority from the extreme right came to power with a broad mandate to punish the previous party in power for the worst economic downturn in decades, with no mid-term or recall elections in Puerto Rico as a check on current policies.

A self-described Reaganite, Fortuño has become a darling of the Republican Party for imposing highly unpopular austerity measures through legislation called Ley 7 (Law 7), laying off 20,000 public sector employees; targeting government agencies, including UPR, with crippling cuts aimed at perceived ideological enemies; and declaring null and void all public sector labor contracts for three years.  Such a move, reminiscent of President Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers, should have stateside unions wary of Republican Party policy interest.

It has also been reported that the Fortuño administration has already begun negotiations to sell off — or long-term lease — UPR campuses to private colleges, including those owned by major contributors to his campaign.  And this just as a student loan default crisis associated with mediocre private colleges in the United States threatens to spiral into as costly a mess as the mortgage crisis.

The events unfolding cohere with the popular thesis of Canadian author Naomi Klein, known as “disaster capitalism.”  However, students are mobilizing in Puerto Rico and worldwide around deep cuts to public higher education and subsequent privatization, in movements that may just be getting their first wind.

“From San Diego to Rome, from San Juan to London and Amsterdam, 2010 will be remembered as the year of student protests internationally,” commented Antonio Carmona Báez, Ph.D., a political science lecturer at the University of Amsterdam.  “Not since 1968 have university students stood up around the globe — simultaneously — against authority, this time to save public education.”

Maritza Stanchich, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico.  This article was first published in the Huffington Post on 15 December 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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