Epic student strike continues in Puerto Rico

Forty six days into their strike against the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), students were occupying 11 of 12 UPR campuses despite heavy police monitoring and the UPR President’s ultimatum to vacate the campuses by June 7. The largest university in the Caribbean, with 65,000 students, remains paralyzed as Wall Street bonds come due, public spending plummets, corruption allegations flourish, and public support remains steady.

The General Student Assembly, meeting April 13 at UPR’s Rio Piedras campus, the strike epicenter, announced a 48 hour strike set for April 21. Students were responding to plans to hike tuition, cut employee salaries, and drop services. With UPR debt obligations garnering wide attention, students demanded financial transparency.  Six months earlier, unions had carried out a general strike protesting cost-cutting dismissals of 20,000 public employees.

Stonewalled, students opted to continue their strike indefinitely. In an effort to discredit excuses for student presence on campuses, Rector Ana Guadalupe closed them down until July 31.
The students’ National Negotiating Committee has periodically met with Board of Trustee representatives, to no avail.  At meetings June 2 and June 4, UPR spokespersons didn’t budge from plans for tuition hikes of $1000 – $1500 per semester over three years aimed at covering $200 million in debt. Cuts in salaries, university courses, professional services, supplies, and scholarships are imminent. Earlier tuition increases had come with assurances of no further fee hikes during a student’s tenure. Some 45 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty.
Students continued with demands for no tuition increase, no sports and arts programs dropped, no sanctions due to strike participation, and no secret fiscal audits. They called for university democracy and autonomy.

The New York publication “Bond Buyer” gained attention for reporting UPR obligations to financial markets of $569 million in one bond package, $71 million in new loans incurred last December, and another $78 million in bonds used to finance construction of the University Plaza complex, now privately owned. The University needs $40 million in new loans to cover its July payroll.

Puerto Rico’s government accounts for half the UPR annual $700 million budget. For several years U.S. educational accrediting agencies have pressured authorities to privatize University operating costs.
Attention has focused on the UPR Board of Trustees. That group of volunteer, private citizens allegedly absorbs $4 million annually to pay for secretaries, administrators, drivers and more. Its executive secretary earns more than does the UPR president. According to Claridad, the University’s Central Administration, overflowing with “politically recommended advisors and assistants,” takes in an annual $16 million.  University scientists say funding reductions have crippled research projects and allowed infrastructure to deteriorate.

Students occupying buildings have busied themselves with discussions and strategizing. They showed films, started gardens, picked up trash, listened to music, and discussed politics. Family members, friends, and unionists provided food. Reporting from Radio Huelga (“Strike Radio”) circulates nationwide. On June 3, some 200 students demonstrated in San Juan’s financial district to protest Wall Street complicity in the University’s financial dilemma.

Public worker unions launched a general strike on behalf of the striking students on May 18. Unions speaking out for the students include the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors, other teachers’ unions, and the UGT union federation. The Brotherhood of Non-Teaching University Employees pledged to strike should Governor Luis Fortuño resort to police force to remove students from university precincts.

Cuban solidarity with the students has been strong. Independence hero Rafael Cancel Miranda spoke on their behalf on Cuban television, The Cubadebate web site has carried daily strike updates. University of Havana students and professors sent a message of solidarity. Famous Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez, in concert in Puerto Rico on May 31, dedicated a song to the students and had a message read referring to their “right to education’ and the “beautiful page of progress for your country.”

Taking a note of the death of a striking student, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon interrupted a speech on another subject. He commended “the youth and the people of Puerto Rico in giving birth to this beautiful battle for liberty and culture. They make us see the future with optimism.”

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W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.