Thursday, May 27, 2010

University of Puerto Rico Student Strike Continues for Second Month

University of Puerto Rico

Students resolute as strike enters second month

Published May 26, 2010 1:46 PM

One month of striking has only encouraged the resolve of the students from the University of Puerto Rico to defend at all cost public education for the masses. Their energy and creativity seem to thrive on confronting the intransigent position of the university’s Board of Trustees. Their determination has grown following the stepped-up police repression unleashed by pro-statehood Gov. Luis Fortuño.

The students are not alone: Unions, social organizations, left political parties and the population in general have taken up this struggle as their own.

And it is their own, because the drastic measures that led to the university strike result from the government’s laws and decrees affecting many other areas. The government supposedly imposed them to combat the severe economic crisis in the island, but they really benefit only the business sector and the wealthy. These decrees leave thousands unemployed with no security or benefits.

This government policy follows a long-term attempt by Wall Street to transfer more wealth from the workers to the rich. An article written by journalist Jesús Dávila under the heading, “The University Becomes the Perfect Storm,” recalls the UPR strike of 2005: “On that occasion,” he writes, “Puerto Rico was under fire from U.S. accrediting agencies that claimed it was improper for this Caribbean country and U.S. colony since 1898 to almost entirely support higher education with public funds. In those years, a U.S. consulting firm with ties to the Defense Department was contracted under the concept of an ‘industry of the universities’ while the Public Accountants Association recommended that the system be dismembered and opened to privatization piece by piece.” (NCM-SJ-4-30-10)

Wall Street no longer needs a U.S. agency to be directly involved, since the Fortuño administration and the Board of Trustees are doing the bankers’ bidding. Many on the 13-member board directly represent the banking, real estate and construction interests, including the former vice-president of CitiBank in Puerto Rico. Their interest is definitely not quality higher education for the poor.

Their policies extend the vicious attacks on public education in the U.S. that have awakened courageous students’ struggles, primarily in California but spreading to other public campuses around the country. It is the same attack against the poor, be it in the U.S. or in the colony in Puerto Rico.

UPR students’ response

UPR students are redefining their resistance in the most creative way. They have erected tent cities occupying the campuses and have effectively shut down the university. They have also shown they are determined to “take the struggle to the spaces where the rich and powerful do not expect us to go.” (

On May 22 more than 200 students, carrying banners and signs, erupted into the main shopping center in the island, the multilevel Plaza Las Americas. Through slogans chanted to the rhythm of plena music they stated their demands: “Dialogue, negotiation, education, freedom, transparency, democracy and participation.” Riding up and down the escalators, they held mini rallies. At the end they had so much popular support that the whole shopping center seemed like a massive rally.

Music students from several UPR campuses tried to go to the Capitol on May 19 to demand that the tuition waiver for music students not be eliminated — one of the general demands. Several choruses, marching bands, string orchestras, flute players and many other musical groups turned the march into a street performance after the police prevented them from reaching the legislative Capitol building.

On May 20, Fortuño was holding a $1,000-a-plate benefit dinner at the Sheraton Hotel in San Juan. Students, unions and other supporters went there to demand that Fortuño re-establish the negotiations broken by the board. But riot police greeted the students with brutal repression.

Luisa Acevedo, head of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, was hit in the back, thrown to the floor and pepper-sprayed. Several other people were also beaten, including a student who was held down on the floor with several police on top, kicking and hitting him while using a Taser gun to apply electric shocks.

The following day, 500 people from diverse backgrounds marched to police headquarters to protest the brutal repression. That same May 21, in an unprecedented move, more than 1,000 faculty members from the 11 UPR campuses called for the dismissal of university President José de la Torre and board chair Ygri Rivera. The students also voted to continue the strike in the face of more police violence.

These actions have forced the board back to negotiations. As of May 24, the board has only agreed to amend the Certification 98, which eliminates the tuition waivers for honor, athlete, music and other students in special categories. It still refuses to drop charges against students for participating in the strike. It also refuses to open the books, claiming that the students want a co-government just because they demand to be part of the policy decision-making. But another negotiating meeting is projected for the evening of May 24 following a daytime assembly where the Mayagüez campus students ratified the strike.

Protests to continue

The graduates from Social Studies have called for a demonstration on May 25. On May 27 the National Coordinating Committee of University Campuses (CONARU) is organizing a march in defense of education, jobs and life, supporting the students’ demands, the repeal of Law 7 — which has been the source of the present conflict — and to protest the massive layoffs. The march will end in front of La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion. On May 28 there will be a workers’ march to protest the hundreds of layoffs that are to take effect that day.
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