Monday, May 24 marked the sixth week of a student strike at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) after protests at the main Río Piedras campus began on April 21. Students are protesting $100 million budget cuts, increases in tuition, and changes to the university program. While the student strike was intended to be only a 48 hour stoppage, the university administration was unwilling to negotiate with students, leading to an expansion and prolongation of the strike. The UPR administration shut down the university, which serves 65,000 students, after the April 21 protest at the main campus resulted in a confrontation with the police.
The UPR strike is one of several recent strikes on the island that is the result of the Puerto Rican government’s passing of Law 7 more than a year ago. The law gave the government power to make emergency financial decisions in response to the $3.2 billion state deficit. This year Governor Luis Fortuño’s government reduced the UPR’s budget in spite of the 1966 Puerto Rican law that guaranteed that 9.6 percent of the island’s general funds would be reserved for the university.
The May 18 general strikedemonstrated broad union support on the island for the students. This was not the first major national protest in the past 12 months. In October more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans protested the government’s proposed layoffs of 13,000 public employees permitted under Law 7. It was estimated that such layoffs would raise Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate from 15 to 17 percent. Nonetheless, the Puerto Rican Supreme Court ruled in favor of Law 7’s constitutionality.
The students at Río Piedras remain barricaded inside the campus, surrounded by riot police who prevent food and water from entering the campus gates. Police brutality has been reported, including an incident in which police pushed to the ground and kicked a student who tried to enter the campus. On May 20, the Puerto Rican tactical squad launched tear gas and beat UPR student protesters gathered at the Sheraton Hotel where Fortuño was staying. Five students were arrested. Police Superintendent José Figueroa Sancha defended the police action, telling El Nuevo Dia that the police were responding to students destroying private property and that one police officer had been injured. Yet the cause of the police officer’s injury remained unspecified.
That same day, the UPR student leaders of the National Negotiation Committee of Students met with the university’s president, José Ramón de la Torre, and presented a letter asking the administration to commit to negotiations. In addition, the students demanded that the university drop its lawsuit against 21 of the striking student leaders for allegedly committing violent crimes and vandalism, among other charges.
The veracity of these accusations remain questionable, however, in light of the students’ efforts to engage in peaceful demonstration. Columbia University Professor Saskia Sassen summarized the long list the peaceful activities pursued by the protesting students in a piece written for The Huffington Post. “This includes: daily lectures on a wide variety of topics, poetry readings, film screenings, traditional bomba dance workshops, and even a communal garden with lettuce, tomatoes, plantains, basil, and other crops which they plan to maintain after the strike is over,” wrote Sassen. Student protesters inside the Río Piedras campus normally respond to police intimidation by throwing flowers.
International support for the UPR students is rising in spite of the lack of media coverage. Students have received letters in support from students and professors from the City University of New York (CUNY), University of California Berkeley, and universities in Spain and Canada. More recently, Puerto Rican professors at such U.S. universities as Yale, University of California Los Angeles, Rutgers, and Duke signed a letter emphasizing the importance of public education, university autonomy, and demanded the demilitarization of the Rio Piedras campus, the beginning of negotiations, and the protection of civil rights.
Several musicians from around the world, including René Pérez of the band Calle 13, Bebe, Juanes, Rubén Blades, and Ricky Martin, made a video in support of the UPR students. The video is available online on the Radio Huelga website, which airs the radio broadcasts of the students barricaded inside the campus. A Facebook group was also created to allow Puerto Ricans living abroad to send messages, videos, and pictures in support of the student protesters. It currently has close to 3,000 members.
On March 18, nearly 200 protesters endured pouring rain in front of the New York Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Office in solidarity with the UPR student strikers. The New York protest was organized by the Network in Support of Workers in
Puerto Rico. Present were UPR alumni, union members, students, gay rights activists, and socialist groups.
For many of the protesters the UPR strike resonated with their own struggles to preserve the U.S. public university system. “It is connected to the struggle here in the U.S. for education,” said Moisés Delgado, a protester and member of The Internationalist Group. “We are watching in CUNY the budget cuts. Where in Puerto Rico they are getting the worst part first, eventually, it will all come back here too so it is important to show solidarity with the struggles on the island and here in the main land.” Some protesters carried signs that read “From Cuny to UPR: Fight the Cutbacks.”
Apart from budget cuts and tuition hikes, the fear of privatization of the public university system in Puerto Rico and the United States was also a motivation for the protest. “They want to privatize everything and they really want to leave those of us who are working class with less than what we have already to survive,” said protester Maritza Villegas. “The public institution should stay public and everyone should have the right to stay in school.”
Some protesters specifically spoke out against the UPR intention to limit the number of tuition waivers available to athletes, artists, and other students requiring financial aid. “They tried to make people that have a Pell Grant or other economic help not be part of the tuition waiver, which in the UPR, which is a public university, most of students have economic aid in order to go to the university and study,” said Giovanni Roberto, one of the student strike organizers inside the Río Piedras campus told Democracy Now.
To Celiany Rivera, one of the New York protesters and UPR alumna, the struggle to preserve tuition waivers is a crucial part of the protest. “I was a student who received a tuition waiver and so I understand the struggle,” said Rivera. “Any act of corporatization removes the university further from the people who need it.”
At the New York rally, many of the protesters chanted “they are students, not criminals” in reference to police aggression towards UPR students.
Other New York protesters connected their support of the UPR students with their desire for Puerto Rican independence from the United States. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been considered an unincorporated territory of the United States since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The rally ended with the singing of the revolutionary version of the Puerto Rican national anthem, La Boriqueña.
“I believe that the U.S. needs to understand that Puerto Rico is still a colony and they need to support us in defining ourselves as a nation,” said protester Tere Martinez. The New York Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Office guards reacted to the protest by pushing the pedestrian barricades, around which the protesters marched, away from the office buildings and further into the rain.
The UPR will remain , closed until July 31, according to the University Board of Trustees Chairwoman Ygri Rivera.
Paola Reyes is a NACLA Research Associate.