Last Wednesday, April 5th, thousands of students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) gathered at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan to discuss solutions to the austerity measures threatening the higher education system of the country. Back on March 9th, the Fiscal Control Board of Puerto Rico that constitutes the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) sent a letter to Governor Ricardo Rosselló requesting the government to come up with a plan that progressively reduces the annual “subsidies” to the UPR by a minimum of 450 million dollars by the year 2021 in order to pay Wall Street bondholders. This represents one-third of the university’s consolidated budget.
One of the chants of the ongoing student movement is: “Si en vez de vino, bebieran malta, estos recortes no harían falta,” (If instead of wine, they drank malt, these cuts would not be necessary). Although the fraud inside the university’s administration is evident, the students are aware that a reduction of 450 million dollars to the university’s budget can only represent the imminent destruction of the UPR as we know it. In this sense, a real solution to the mismanagement of funds in the university is the redistribution of funds, but not its reduction. Among other items, students are demanding the resignation of several officials and bureaucrats including UPR’s Interim President, Dr. Nivia Fernández.
Like baseball player Roberto Clemente, UPR students decided to represent their country with dignity. Continuing his humanist legacy, they batted the austerity pitch voting in favor of a system-wide strike involving all 11 campuses of the UPR starting on April 6th and not ending until they are sure that not a penny gets taken away from the university’s budget.
After 12 hours of sitting in the stiff chairs of the coliseum with empty bellies, debates, technical difficulties and batucada, the student assembly vowed to continue striking until the following conditions are met:
- No penalties for students participating in striking activities.
- A university reform that represents all sectors from the university community.
- The restitution of a civic commission that audits Puerto Rico’s debt, and a moratorium on debt payments before and during the auditing process.
- Zero tuition hikes and/or elimination of enrollment exemptions.
- Zero budget cuts to the University of Puerto Rico.
These demands continue the same path of the ones approved earlier by the Río Piedras campus, where students have been striking since March 28th. Veronica Figueroa Huertas, spokesperson of the student movement in Río Piedras said, “If we need to lose the semester […] we lose it, and retake it. I think that to be able to come up with solutions that change and transform the values of our society, and that transform the system, we need to invest in tools such as education. And we are the ones who need to put pressure and organize politically to make that happen.”
Figueroa Huertas is a senior student of psychology. She is expected to graduate in May and already has an offer to a Master’s Program. However, Figueroa Huertas is willing to adjourn her professional and academic future in order to ensure the existence of a public university for the generations after her. As Figueroa Huertas demonstrates, a selfless interest is one of the motivations driving many students to be at the gates closing the entire institution.
Yet, what makes this strike different from others is its “multi-sectoral struggle”, as the leaders of the movement refer to it. The students’ claims go beyond the spectrum of the university, and as their demand #3 shows, they are asking for a complete audit of Puerto Rico’s debt before the country continues signing checks to bondholders without even having a clue of what are they paying for. The type of pressure that the students are employing for an audit and a moratorium of the debt, establishes them as the leading opposition against PROMESA and its neoliberal agenda.
But Governor Ricardo Rosselló prefers to cover his eyes before seeing an audit, and has recently said that auditing the debt is not going to produce any positive result. Aside from the pressure he should be getting from the Fiscal Control Board not to advocate for an independent audit, Ricardo Rosselló might also be motivated to hold such a perspective for personal reasons. His father’s administration (Pedro Rosselló, 1992-2000) was arguably the most corrupt in the short history of Puerto Rico, and is almost certain to have many ties to an illegal debt. Pedro Rosselló also privatized many assets of the country, including the telephone company and the health system.
Pedro Rosselló’s administration was also repressive to protestors, and the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), the conservative pro-statehood party of the Rossellos, has a reputation of attacking university students. From its beginnings, the PNP set this tone. The first time the PNP was in power, the police of Puerto Rico murdered twenty-one-year-old student Antonia Martínez Lagares during a protest against militarism and police repression in Río Piedras. And the latest example was Luis Fourtuño’s administration, which supported the police of Puerto Rico in constantly beating and arresting students participating in the 2010 UPR strike against tuition hikes.
As of today, the police of Puerto Rico is keeping its distance from the gates of the university, except in Utuado’s campus where police entered the night of April 5th trying to identify a leader, to which students responded “We are all leaders.” The students picaron a‘lante and it seems that the government and the Fiscal Control Board underestimated their capacity to organize and resist so rapidly before the austerity measures began to be implemented. But it might be just a matter of time before police intervenes and the government tries to break the student strike.
Additionally, the Fiscal Control Board has the capacity to enforce law, which criminalizes protests and free expression. A report released on June 3, 2016 by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) states, “The board could enforce laws of Puerto Rico that prohibit employees of the territorial government and its instrumentalities from participating in a strike or lockout and, if necessary, effectively nullify any new laws or policies adopted by Puerto Rico that did not conform to requirements specified in the bill.” In a recent forum at the UPR in Río Piedras organized by the group Se acabaron las promesas, lawyer Ariadna Godreau Aubert emphasized the immunity that PROMESA grants to members of the Fiscal Control Board. Godreau Aubert stated, “You cannot sue the Fiscal Control Board and, at the same time, besides that lack of power to hold them accountable, there are policies being made here to the service of the board to repress the right to protest. This is also part of PROMESA’s apparatus.”
In the meantime students are getting prepared and their barricades hold the first line of defense. Right now the campuses of the UPR are the bastions of struggle against PROMESA, and their resistance camps have been transformed into the new classrooms.