The University of Puerto Rico: A Testing Ground for the Neoliberal State

May 12, 2011

On March 10, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive director Anthony Romero issued an open letter to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice on the question of police brutality in Puerto Rico. In the letter Romero called on the Civil Rights Division, which has been investigating the Puerto Rican police since 2008, to complete its investigation and take into account reports of widespread abuses committed against University of Puerto Rico student protesters.


“Students have been mercilessly beaten, maced with pepper spray, and shot at with rubber bullets,” Romero wrote. “Police have also applied torture techniques on immobilized student protesters, including the illegal use of nightsticks to provoke serious and permanent injuries, and the application of pressure in the neck, eye and jaw of the protesters to provoke pain and cause unconsciousness. At most events young women are the first to be targeted for police violence and have also been sexually harassed, groped and touched by police.”1


The police violence unleashed against the contemporary Puerto Rican student movement, which emerged in spring 2010, has turned the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) into a testing ground for the neoliberal state. Beyond quelling the students’ exercising their rights of free speech and association to contest “austerity measures” imposed by the university administration under the cover of the island’s “financial crisis,” the state seems to be testing how much violence it can get away with when repressing protests against its agenda.


In a way that has become familiar around the world, state violence in Puerto Rico complements broad, fast-paced neoliberal reforms.2 This was made evident soon after the 2008 elections, when governor-elect Luis Fortuño (of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico, or NPP, and the Republican National Committee) started appointing the members of his cabinet. For the island’s police superintendent, he named a former assistant FBI director, José Figueroa Sancha, who quickly announced his commitment to “zero tolerance” policing (known in Puerto Rico as la mano dura, or, roughly, the iron fist). After Fortuño took office in January 2009, the NPP-dominated Legislative Assembly passed Public Law 7, which declared a state of fiscal emergency and authorized the government to fast-track the dismissal of some 17,000 public employees, while expanding private contracting (including with companies hired to manage the layoffs). Public Law 7 also cut funds to the public university system.


The following August, the government of the capital city of San Juan decided to strictly enforce existing regulations against public drinking. In an ominous precursor, large numbers of Puerto Rico and municipal police, including riot police, were mobilized to target Avenida Universidad, directly in front of the UPR campus in Río Piedras, a subdivision of San Juan. Instead of simply fining violators up to $500, as the law stipulates, the officers chased students down the street and tear-gassed them, in one case sending a young woman to the hospital with a badly wounded thigh.3


In April 2010 the UPR administration announced that tuition waivers, traditionally given to athletes, band and choir members, and honor students, would be eliminated for students eligible for Pell Grants, which are granted on the basis of financial need. This was touted as part of the solution to the university’s crisis; its budget was already depressed before the passing of Law 7, and the additional cuts have spelled disaster: The university now faces an estimated annual deficit of between $240 million and $300 million.4


Students responded by launching a strike. Originally planned as a two-day stoppage, the strike ended up lasting almost 10 weeks. Although one would hardly know it from the U.S. media, the students’ massive protests repeatedly paralyzed Puerto Rico’s 11-campus, 65,000-student public university system. They not only organized large demonstrations but also developed new participatory forms of decision making and created their own media—including some that are still going strong, for example the online newspaper Rojo Gallito, websites like Estudiantes de la UPR Informan, and online radio stations like Radio Huelga.5


After the student strike began, Fortuño framed his administration’s position toward the UPR strike. In a speech, he called the student strikers “members of a tiny minority” driven by selfish, “ideological” motives, as opposed to a “silent majority” that “really wants to study.” He referred to public, affordable higher education as a “privilege” that Puerto Rico provides to its students at no small cost to its citizens. “Tuition paid by students covers hardly 3% of the university’s budget; the rest is paid by us taxpayers,” he said, contrasting responsible citizens with the protesting students. “That is why our people—a just and noble people, but also respectful of law and order, and believing in democracy—get upset when they see what we have all witnessed at the university.”6


Officials and public figures—including ex-governor Romero Barceló, Police Superintendent Figueroa Sancha, chief of staff Marcos Rodríguez, and UPR Board of Trustees president Ygrí Rivera—echoed the governor’s sentiments, portraying the students as selfish, privileged, disorderly, and ideologically driven. Disparaging the students and their cause, politicians and administrators speaking to the media, especially radio, frequently described them as socialists, leftists, anarcolocos (anarchist crazies), and even terrorists.7


Yet by June, popular opinion seemed to side with the students. Editorials in major newspapers urged the university administration to negotiate with the students, as did San Juan Superior Court judge José Negrón Fernández, who named a mediator. Sixty-nine days after the strike began, the students ended it and an agreement was signed by a majority of the trustees that included some important victories: Tuition waivers would remain in place; the imposition of an $800 annual fee was postponed, pending reexamination and discussion; and university employees and students who participated in the strike would not be subject to administrative sanctions.8 The agreement, however, was not signed by either Rivera or UPR president José Ramón de la Torre.


The government, meanwhile, did not miss a beat. Aggressively pursuing their agenda, Fortuño and the legislature set about undermining democratic governance at UPR, both in the administration and among students. On June 21, Fortuño signed a law that had been fast-tracked through the legislature the same day, expanding UPR’s Board of Trustees from 13 to 17 members, and announced the names of the new members the very next day.9 (To put this in context, UPR, with fewer than 60,000 students, now has almost as many trustees as the New York State university system, with more than 400,000 students.) Attuned to the legislature’s activities, members of student media, unions, and environmental groups attempted on June 30 to observe a legislative session in which several key new laws would be discussed—including one that would criminalize certain protests and another that would effectively abolish student assemblies and replace them with an anonymous electronic voting system.10 But the Capitol that morning was closed to the public and surrounded by riot police, despite the fact that the legislature’s sessions are open to the public under the Constitution. Numerous incidents of police brutality against demonstrators, as well as members of the press, were documented that day by both mainstream and alternative media.11


During the ensuing months the new majority on the Board of Trustees installed chancellors on several campuses who were openly rejected by faculty assemblies and search committees. At the Mayagüez campus, the new chancellor declared that any demonstrations or protests were to take place in a new “public expression zone” located in an old athletic track, far away from campus buildings—and potential audiences. The Puerto Rican satirical online newspaper El Ñame wondered whether such a move was not, after all, equivalent to sending protesting students to the moon, to “freely” express what nobody would hear.12


Finally, in December, Fortuño signed the law that made student voting electronic, effectively eliminating open, public debate in student assemblies.13 Soon after, the trustees ratified the postponed $800 fee, to be implemented in January, without so much as a glance at student and faculty proposals—some of which even agreed to allow students and employees to shoulder more of the university’s financial burden, as long as the trustees agreed to demand that the legislature undo the cuts to the university budget mandated by Law 7, as well as to direct monies owed by other government agencies, estimated at $300 million, to the university.14 All these proposals were ignored, however, and the student fee simply implemented.


These developments prompted the students at the Río Piedras campus to mobilize for a second strike, beginning with a 48-hour stoppage on December 7–8, with the option to begin an indefinite strike December 14. Then, in the early-morning hours of December 7, when the two-day strike was to commence, private security guards hired by the university demolished the gates to the Río Piedras campus to prevent the students from barricading themselves in, as they had done earlier in the year.15 Many of the private guards were young men from impoverished communities with little training and education, hired—in a surreal turn of events—by the ex-wrestler Chicky Starr, well-known years ago for his cheating ways in the ring and now a recruiter for the Capitol Security company.


By December 9, private guards, riot police, and Puerto Rican police had virtually occupied the campus. They have, with few interruptions, remained ever since. The police occupation of the UPR campus beginning in December marked the first time that the police had entered university grounds in the decades since the drafting of the NoConfrontation Policy, created to promote non-violent negotiation between conflicting groups at the university in the late 1980s, following violent confrontations between police and students. It required that the police stay off campuses.


Further crimping students’ rights, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled on December 13 that university students do not have a right to go on strike. Because students are not employees, the Court argued, what they “call ‘strike’ is simply an organized protest.” As a consequence of this decision, the UPR administration was now legally empowered to “regulate the orderly exercise of free speech and association within the university community.”16 Immediately after the Court’s ruling, the chancellor of the Río Piedras campus circulated a letter announcing that large gatherings and demonstrations on campus would not be permitted until January 12, when classes were to resume, in order to “preserve safety.”17 The chancellor’s decision was later found unconstitutional.18


Despite the students’ efforts in defiance of the crackdown on their right to protest, the $800 fee has remained in place. It is expected to bring in an annual $40 million. Meanwhile, the Board of Trustees in April decided to request a $75 million line of credit for new construction projects that will be outsourced to private developers. One of the projected buildings will house the Army ROTC, a program that will serve only about 100 students and whose presence on campus has historically been criticized and resisted.19




Although students and their supporters have faced police violence since the first strike began, it intensified in the winter, once the $800 fee was instituted and students defied official limits on their expression. Now there were incidents every day, and numerous students were arrested, with many of the women reporting being groped by the arresting officers.20 In January, UPR professors joined the chorus of denunciations, condemning the techniques used by the police during the arrests as torture.21 In February, riot police attacked demonstrators at a sit-in at the Capitol with rubber bullets, arresting more than 150.


The same week, a “paint-in”—in which students gathered at the university to paint slogans against the fee and the police presence on campus—ended in chaos, after the police attacked the demonstration, and dozens of student activists, as well as passersby, ended up wounded or arrested.22


University faculty and employees joined the students’ protests against the police violence and occupation of the university, culminating in the resignation of UPR president De la Torre on February 11. Following a massive march of some 15,000 people on February 12, Fortuño, who had spent the weekend in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference, returned to Puerto Rico and announced that the police would be withdrawn from campus. By the 25th, however, they had returned.23




If the university became a testing ground for the violence of the neoliberal state, it has also become one for an exhausted student movement that has come under increased criticism, including from within its own ranks, for tactics such as wearing hoods, closing down the campus, and throwing smoke bombs inside buildings.24 This critique reached a high point in March, when Ana Guadalupe, the Río Piedras chancellor, was assaulted by an angry mob of protesters.25 Predictably, the government and its supporters immediately condemned the incident; some in the media who had supported the students, like Mayra Montero, a popular columnist for El Nuevo Día, now scolded them and called the strike “a failure.”26


Others lamented the incident for its improvised and violent nature, so different from the nonviolent yet creative and assertive expression people had come to expect from the student movement. Yet others have noted that the state and the administration were quick to investigate, arrest, and prosecute students for pulling Guadalupe’s hair and throwing water at her, but that the numerous abuses committed by police against the students never seem to be adequately investigated, if at all. To name just one example, in May 2010 videos and photos posted online supported allegations that Assistant Police Superintendent José Rosa Carrasquillo had repeatedly kicked a subdued student in the genitals, prompting the ACLU to demand that he be dismissed and charged with assault.27 Nothing came of it.


Although the use and abuse of police forces and the erosion of civil rights are the most visible, and the most visibly violent, tactics of neo-liberalism being tested at UPR, they are not the only ones. They have accompanied a concerted effort to shrink the institution and funnel public funds away from it. Although the administration has not explicitly stated plans to close campuses or eliminate programs, it publicly bases its revenue projections on an estimated student body of 50,000 students, which is 15,000 fewer than in 2008, and the lowest number since the early 1970s.


When the administration reported that about 54,000 students had registered in late January and early February, it called this “a success.”28 The number of registered students has declined since 2010 for a variety of reasons—some have been asked to leave, as exchange students recently were, for “security reasons.” Some have left because of the conflict, as the administration is quick to point out. And some have left because they simply can no longer afford it, though their number remains unknown.


Perhaps the most significant factor in the loss of students, however, has been the deliberate elimination of course offerings, which prevents students from being able to achieve full-time status. Low-income students are particularly vulnerable to this, since to qualify for a Pell Grant students must register for at least 12 credits. These low-income students who leave will become particularly attractive as “customers” for private colleges, which may end up benefitting from how the legislature plans to use $30 million to “help” the UPR budget. Instead of giving the money directly to the troubled institution so that the fee could be reduced for everyone, it will be given away to individual students, selected by a board, as a “scholarship.” It would not be surprising for these “scholarships” to eventually morph into a sort of voucher system that students would be able to use in the private colleges that are proliferating on the island.29


Indeed, the deliberate shrinking of the UPR system is equivalent, if not identical, to the privatization of higher education. This would be consonant with the broader neoliberal agenda of Fortuño, who once served on the Board of Directors of one of the largest private education institutions in Puerto Rico, the Ana G. Méndez university system. The consequences of this agenda would be devastating for the diversity of the student body. Because socioeconomic inequality translates into pre-college educational inequality, students from poorer communities tend to have lower admission, retention, and graduation rates. As the university gets smaller, the students most likely to be affected are precisely those with the most economic need. They will likely end up at private institutions in Puerto Rico, most of which have higher tuitions and lower graduation rates than UPR. This has implications for the student profile, for institutional diversity, but even more critically, for the ability of Puerto Rico to face its current and future social and economic challenges.


Historically, the people of Puerto Rico have viewed their public university not as a cost or as a burden but as an investment—the kind of investment most needed in times of economic crisis. At stake in the students’ continuing struggle are the civil rights of Puerto Ricans and the question of whether the public university, and indeed the very notion of public investment in the common good, will survive.



Rima Brusi-Gil de Lamadrid is a cultural anthropologist and an Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico–Mayagüez.



1. Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director, to Mr. Thomas E. Perez Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, March 10, 2011.


2. Paul Treanor, “Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition,” December 2, 2005,


3. Maribel Hernández Pérez, “Salpafuera en la avenida Universidad deja policías y civiles heridos,” Primera Hora (San Juan), August 21, 2009.


4. Tanishka Colon, “Propuesta para atajar la crisis fiscal de la UPR,” Diálogo Digital, June 22, 2010.


5. For a list of blogs, websites, and indie radio stations, see


6. Luis G. Fortuño, “Mensaje de Presupuesto,” speech, April 26, 2010.


7. José Ramón de la Torre, “Vandalos(…) anarco/locos,” interview, Radio Isla, December 8, 2010,


8. Maritza Díaz Alcaide, “Termina la huelga en la UPR,” Primera Hora, June 21, 2010.


9. Nydia Bauzá, “Fortuño firma ley y anuncia nuevos miembros de la Junta de Síndicos UPR,” Primera Hora, June 22, 2010.


10. Érika Fontánez Torres, “Criminalizar la protesta: una forma de censura,” 80grados, September 28, 2010.


11. El Nuevo Día, “Calidad de vida,” blog, June 30, 2010.


12. Oscar Marrano, “UPR garantiza derechos de estudiantes: establece áreas de expresión pública en mona y caja de muertos,” El Ñame, December 10, 2010; Cangrimán, “De La Torre designa la zona fantasma como área de expresión pública del sistema UPR,” El Ñame, January 19, 2011.


13. CyberNews, “Ya es ley el voto electrónico en la UPR,”, December 8, 2010.


14. Leysa Caro González, “La cuota de $800 a los estudiantes de la UPR sí va en enero,” Primera Hora, December 15, 2010; 80grados, “La universidad: sumando ganamos todos,” editorial, December 3, 2010; Comité Negociador Estudiantes UPR, “UPR: propuesta preliminar del comité negociador de los estudiantes en huelga,” Indymedia Puerto Rico, April 19, 2010.


15. Nydia Bauzá, “Capitol se agenció contrato millonario,” Primera Hora, December 8, 2010.


16. Juan A. Hernandez, “UPR Student Strike Starts Today at Río Piedras: De La Torre Says ‘No Way’ to Most Proposals,” Puerto Rico Daily Sun, December 14, 2010.


17. Wilmarie Hernández Vélez, “Un derecho protegido: las manifestaciones estudiantiles,” Diálogo Digital, December 21, 2010.


18. Ibid.


19. Cynthia López, “Aprueban construir un edificio para el ROTC en la UPR,” El Nuevo Día, April 7, 2011.


20. Maritza Stanchich, “Violence Against Student Strike in Puerto Rico Escalates With Police Brutality and Rubber Bullets,” The Huffington Post, February 2, 2011.


21. Maritza Díaz Alcaide, “Profesores de la UPR le achacan ‘abuso policial’ al Gobernador,” Primera Hora, January 29, 2011.


22. CMI-Puerto Rico, “Policías convierten pintata estudiantil en jornada de violencia,” photo report, February 10, 2011.


23. Leysa Caro González, “Regresa la Policía al Recinto de Río Piedras,” Primera Hora, February 25, 2011.


24. See for a number of articles pertaining to these debates.


25. Camila Espina, “Manifestación termina con empujones y cristales rotos,” Diálogo Digital, March 7, 2011.


26. Mayra Montero, “Universidad,” Antes Que Llegue el Lunes (blog), El Nuevo Dia, March 13, 2011.


27. Eduardo Andrade, “ACLU pide destitución de Rosa Carrasquillo,” Diálogo Digital, May 25, 2010.


28. Inter News Services, “CGE desmiente a De la Torre sobre matrícula,” January 24, 2011.


29. CyberNews, “Estudiantes recibirían doble ayuda,” January 14, 2011.



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