THE BLOG
07/04/2010 11:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

University of Puerto Rico Student Strike Victory Unleashes Brutal Civil Rights Backlash

As so many Americans gear up for Fourth of July fireworks this weekend, the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico roils from a brutal civil rights showdown unleashed by a far-right wing government, now seemingly hell bent on destroying the recent unprecedented victory of a two-month long student strike against privatization of higher education at the University of Puerto Rico.

The broader implications are crucial on numerous fronts, including the struggle to maintain broad access to public higher education and efforts to rein in runaway neoliberal economic policies that have wreaked havoc globally, resulting in draconian austerity measures worldwide. For the violence and repression seen in Greece and at the G20 in Toronto appears to now be visiting this Caribbean island nation of about four million U.S. citizens, the homeland of more than an additional four million Puerto Ricans in the United States, the second largest U.S. Latino group.

While the economic crisis in Puerto Rico--the worst since the 1940s, if not the 1930s--has been deepening for years, and the current right wing government has aggressively implemented a hard-line, unpopular neoliberal economic agenda since its broad electoral victory last November, it appears as if the recent UPR student strike victory has touched off a firestorm, with a police attack on peaceful demonstrators at Puerto Rico's Capitol building on Wednesday injuring dozens, some seriously.

The UPR strike concluded June 21 after a tense, two-month shut down of 10 campuses in a system serving nearly 65,000 students at the end of the academic year, with an accord that by all accounts was an unprecedented strike victory, in historic, hemispheric terms. A widely-supported student movement remarkable for its coalition building across traditionally distinct and even contentious social and political sectors coalesced against threatened erosion of broad public access to the widely-regarded state university, as well as its increasing privatization.

With tensions high after police and riot squads had attacked and injured students, their parents and journalists on at least three occasions, an agreement finally reached through judicial mediation met with the students' basic demands, reinstating canceled tuition waivers, temporarily forestalling a tuition hike or imposition of student fees, and protecting strike leaders from summary suspension reprisals. The accord, signed by a majority of the Board of Trustees, though those refusing included the university and board presidents, was hailed as an achievement in civil conflict resolution, especially in light of the history of previous UPR strikes that had ended in deadly violent repressions.

Immediately after however, the Puerto Rico state legislature, dominated by the extreme right of the local Pro-Statehood party, rapidly expanded the university Board of Trustees, with the governor approving four new appointees, and a new but divided board quickly imposed a $800 student fee starting in January, and made it permanent, reminiscent of the imposition of fees at University of California by then Gov. Ronald Reagan. The legislature also quickly dismantled a long-standing UPR tradition of student assemblies, replacing them with private electronic computer voting devoid of open debate. Other cuts were also implemented affecting professors and adjunct instructors, who now make up about 40 percent of the UPR faculty, following trends in the United States, where 60 percent of all professors occupy such increasingly precarious positions.

In a far worse economic straits than the states of California or Michigan, Puerto Rico is confronting its worst fiscal crisis in decades, and UPR the biggest fiscal crisis of its 100-year existence. As in other countries facing related circumstances, virulent and organized opposition to drastic cuts principally directed at the working and deteriorating middle classes has mushroomed, especially since the current global crisis, in Alan Greenspan's own befuddled words, was caused by greed-induced corruption among the highest echelons of the world economy.

While the neoliberal economic agenda of Puerto Rico's current political leaders look back to the very doctrines now being challenged in the United States and throughout Latin America, the UPR student movement embodies the vanguard of the contemporary 21st Century, as reflected by their symbols and tactics, including the democratizing internet; egalitarian rainbow flags; sustainable organic farming; an effervescence of alternative arts; and new coalition building among center, right and left; in tandem with occupation practices inspired by international student movements as far as California, Spain, France and Greece.

Though a shocking collective trauma, the violent crackdown at the Capitol Wednesday was not entirely surprising given the current administration's assault on all fronts since coming into power, targeting progressive, cultural and social welfare institutions and agencies with crippling budget cuts, attempting to dissolve Puerto Rico's bar association, lifting environmental protections to whole swaths of protected lands, and passing a now notorious law, called Ley 7, that not only dismisses 20,000 public employees, but declares null and void all public sector union contracts for three years, with the only recourse to challenging the law being to petition the local Supreme Court, now stacked with new appointments in the administration's favor. The governor has also activated the National Guard for civilian purposes, amidst criticism from groups such the Puerto Rico chapters of the ACLU and Amnesty International.

Common in Puerto Rico, however, though unusual at most U.S. state universities, is the way political parties assume control of UPR leadership by appointing a new president, also recently achieved. This is in part because the UPR is widely regarded as national patrimony, and is one of the few places left in the country where dissent may be cultivated.

As opposition to these policies expands, as seen in a massive national strike in October that drew a quarter of a million workers into the streets, so has the government's seeming intolerance to any opposition, as Gov. Luis Fortuño, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and UPR president José Ramón de la Torre regularly resort to Cold War era red-baiting with media campaigns labeling protestors as Socialists, Communists, and professional rabble rousers out to destabilize the country. The clamp down has so far gone as far as banning journalists from Senate chambers for four days last week during the country's budget sessions, prompting media organizations to petition in court to regain access.

"I don't think there is any doubt that the intention of this government is to set back civil rights," said Judith Berkan, a long-time civil rights attorney and a law professor at University of Puerto Rico and InterAmerican University in San Juan, adding that the administration has enacted a staggering number of measures to neutralize and debilitate all those perceived as a threat to a local oligarchy acting in concert with U.S. interests.

Attempts were made to reach Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress, and UPR President José Ramón de la Torre for comment, but they were not available at press time.

The irony that the Pro-U.S. Statehood party of Gov. Fortuño is now curtailing the most basic press and civil liberties is not lost on UPR student strike leaders who witnessed and were injured at Wednesday's melee, including those who belong to the pro-Statehood party themselves, and voted for the sitting governor.

"It pains me as a statehooder that this government has not learned the lessons of U.S. civil rights struggles of decades ago," said Aníbal Núñez, a student at the UPR law school and a member of the student negotiating committee.

Núñez acknowledged the participation of students affiliated with Socialist groups among strike leaders and the student negotiating committee, and said they overcame their differences via universal concerns for education as a social necessity, as they gained each others' respect while coalition building together, adding that if he could not overcome ideological differences enough to collaborate, he would still believe in their right to pluralistically exist.

The notion that accessible, quality higher education contributes to economic recovery runs counter to the widening U.S. trend of students graduating with crippling debt, as public education has for years now faced diminishing state support. A common argument used by the administration during the UPR strike was its affordable tuition, at less than $2,000 per year for undergraduates before the recently imposed fees. But while tuition is cheaper than probably any other state university in the United States, average income in Puerto Rico is also far lower than any other U.S. state, with about 48 percent of the population living in poverty as defined by U.S. federal standards, and the cost of living in San Juan at least, far higher than at oft compared institutions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or Oxford, Mississippi. This tradition of maintaining broad public access to a quality state institution of higher learning is a hard earned point of pride at UPR, compared to institutions that have recently reneged their public mission with sudden and steep fee/tuition increases, such as at University of California, where students also opposed, occupied and met with police repression, but could not stave off a 32% fee hike imposed in November.

As UPR administrators continue to grapple with what was a nearly $200 million budget shortfall for next year going into the strike, in search of additional or alternative fund-raising or saving sources, an emboldened student movement will also regroup and weigh all its options. Future conflicts may be averted by altering the very style of governance at UPR, a top-down and paternalistic holdover from the past, as this could go a long way toward making students, as well as professors and staff who also have large stakes at play, part of a give-and-take process.

For come what may in the global fiscal crisis in the coming decade, these students are the future of new Americas of increasingly porous borders and dramatic, rapid demographic, political, cultural, informational and economic shifts, as the old order, the vestiges of the Cold War in Puerto Rico and in South Florida for example, fade into the proverbial sunset.

"We may not hold the power but we have the will power," stated law student Núñez, "and given the choice, I prefer the latter."

UPR administrators and Statehood party leaders would do well to recognize and reach out to the productive potential of this new power, shift gears and learn to act on the principles they purportedly hold dear.