Puerto Rico: Student strike intensifies, public education and civil rights at stake

Scene from UPR student strike in spring 2010

by Maritza Stanchich, Ph.D, Associate Professor of English, University of Puerto Rico

Coincident with massive, at times explosive, student protests in Rome and London, University of Puerto Rico has again become a flashpoint with a student strike beginning Tuesday that turned the main campus into a militarized zone of police, riot squads, and SWAT teams, complete with low-flying helicopters and snipers. What began as a conflict over a steep student fee hike is now seen as a larger struggle to preserve public education against privatization.

Resistance to the imposed $800 student fee has triggered repressive state measures: police have occupied the main campus for the first time in 31 years and Monday the local Supreme Court, recently stacked by the pro-Statehood political party in power, outlawed student strikes and campus protests. More than 500 students defied the ruling by demonstrating on campus Tuesday, brandishing the slogan “They fear us because we don’t fear them” (“Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo”).

This current strike revisits accords to negotiate the $800 fee, which in June ended a two-month shut down of 10 of 11 UPR campuses, as UPR faces a $240 million budget shortfall precipitated by the state not honoring its own debt to the institution.

Civil rights groups have declared a state of high alert in the wake of disturbances last week and statements by leading public officials seen as creating a hostile climate that inhibits free speech rights. In response, about 15,000 UPR supporters marched on Sunday from San Juan’s Capitol building to La Fortaleza governor’s mansion, under a balmy bright blue tropical sky in this U.S. Territory of about four million U.S citizens, though little known to most Americans beyond being a tourist destination. Continue reading

Students, teachers at University of Puerto Rico-Piedras boycott classes as long as police remain on campus

Students at the University of Puerto Rico, a public university that serves 65,000 mostly working class students, have been organizing and mobilizing to defeat a government plan to increase their tuition fee by $800 in January 2011. To protest this attack on their right to education, students sat down and slowed traffic on a major highway in the capital city of San Juan in November. This Tuesday, students raised barricades t0 blockade the UPR-San Juan campus for two days, beating off attacks by police and security guards. In the spring of 2010, UPR students went out on  strike for 62 days, shutting down 10 of 11 UPR campuses and defeating most of the government’s cuts to the university’s budget and changes to the academic program.

A student, wearing a mask, sits on a barricade during a protest at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan early Tuesday Dec. 7, 2010.

Puerto Rican Daily Sun, December 10, 2010

Students at UPR Piedras hold vigil to keep cops off campus

“As long as  there is a police presence inside the University, there will be no classes,”  said the spokeswoman for the Student Representation Committee, Maria Soledad Davila. “Police have not entered the university for the last 30 years, and  when they have, it has been to repress ideas and limit the project of a public university.”

It was not business  as usual at the University of Puerto Rico Piedras campus Thursday as  students, teachers, labor groups and political organizations presented a united  fund to boycott classes.

While students gathered outside the gates, refusing to go to class, their professors met off- campus and voted not to teach as long as police remained on campus. They also postponed the strike vote they had approved last week in  exchange for the administration receiving the  students for a dialogue. Several organizations demanded that the police  be removed.

“There is no doubt that the government is frightened by the  university’s power, and the love the people have for it as an institution,” said  Maria Gisela Rosado, president of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors, in reference to the presence of police on campus.  “We  want this fee to be canceled, or at the least put on hold, until the institution  can get on an even keel, and all of us can look for ways to resolve this,” she  said. The group also urged the people to join the march from the Capitol  to La Fortaleza scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. Continue reading