Showdown Looming in Puerto Rico Student Strike

There is no victory without a fight and we don't fight unless we have to

New York Daily News,  June 9th 2010

Juan Gonzalez

A showdown is looming in the student strike that has paralyzed all 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico for more than six weeks.

Late Tuesday, protest leaders rejected a 4 p.m. deadline from university President José Ramón de la Torre to cease their campus occupations and end the strike, which has kept 65,000 students out of classes since April 21. De la Torre and Puerto Rico’s Gov. Luis Fortuño warned the rebellious students they will seek court orders to have them arrested and removed.

The strike, one of the longest and biggest in modern U.S. history, has garnered considerable support from both the university’s faculty and the Puerto Rican public. Yet the mainland press ignores it. Many island residents admire the way the students have resisted massive government cutbacks to one of their most revered institutions.

This Great Recession, after all, has been a far bigger disaster for Puerto Rico than for rest of the nation.  Even before the Wall Street financial collapse, 45% of the island’s population was living below the poverty level. Since then, tourism and manufacturing, Puerto Rico’s main sources of income, have been devastated, and so have government revenues. More than 20,000 public employees have been laid off the past year by Fortuño as he sought to close a huge deficit. The unemployment rate jumped to 17.2% in April, while the pension system for public employees is nearly bankrupt.

For generations, a University of Puerto Rico education was regarded as a sure way to escape poverty. Sixty percent of UPR’s students, for example, have family incomes of less than $20,000 a year.

Since the university was largely funded through a 9.6% set-aside of all government tax revenues, it was able to maintain low tuition, about $2,000 annually, and even provide scholarships for standouts. It also enjoyed relative autonomy from the government.

But Fortuño’s administration has promised Wall Street bondholders that it will make students pay a bigger share of the university’s operating costs, downsize government and initiate more public-private partnerships. As part of that plan, Fortuño wants to rewrite the higher education law.

Students oppose the reductions in scholarships as well as a new $1,200 student fee the university wants to impose. They fear that a new education law will usher in privatization efforts. Their supporters in the Puerto Rican legislature are urging instead new revenue streams, either through increasing the island’s low corporate tax from 2.5% to 10% or through video lottery games, with the money earmarked for higher education.

Two weeks ago, the faculty senates of all 11 campuses met in their first-ever joint session and voted overwhelmingly to back the student demands. Many union leaders throughout the island have also expressed their support.

At first, the university’s trustees negotiated with student leaders and it seemed that a deal might be reached. But in recent days, both sides have hardened. In the midst of those talks, de la Torre suddenly announced a 24-hour ultimatum for the strike to end. At the same time, more radical students in the leadership vowed to peacefully resist any attempts to remove them.

Forty years ago, a similar protest at the UPR led to a tragic police invasion of the main campus in Rio Piedras. When the confrontation was over, 100 students had been injured. One, 21-year-old Antonia Martinez, was fatally shot in head by a police officer. Unless cooler heads prevail soon, Puerto Rico’s greatest university could once again spiral out of control.

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