Puerto Rican Students’ Shutdown of Universities Nears Fifth Week
As the sun rose on April 21, hundreds of students approached the main gate to the University of Puerto Rico’s historic Río Piedras campus and chained it shut.
Thus began an occupation that has now spread to all 11 campuses of the UPR system and become the first-ever system-wide public university strike. It is also the longest-lasting strike action of any kind in this U.S. island colony since the Río Piedras student strike of 2005, which lasted 29 days.
The students’ three main demands are: repeal Certification 98, which opens the door to eliminating tuition waivers for honor students, athletes, and employees and their families; stop summer term tuition hikes; and open the university’s books to public scrutiny.
Río Piedras strikers have humorously dubbed their own internal struggle as “Vietnam and Disney,” with the front gates controlled by radical humanities and social science students as the former, and the gates at the back of the campus, controlled by more moderate law and natural science students, as the latter. The comparison was overheard from a cop who had been assigned to both gates.
In terms of negotiations, “Vietnam” sees the strike as part of a broader struggle for social change, and tends to favor a hardball approach, seeking concrete successes and guarantees upon which to build a long-term movement. “Disney,” on the other hand, tends to conceive the strike as a necessary evil in the search for a more just, inclusive coexistence with university authorities, and would rather secure the successes at hand than risk them by pushing for more.
During the first two weeks of the strike, administrators refused to even recognize the legitimacy of the students’ 16-member negotiating committee, later doing so grudgingly.
All the while, some deans and administrative assistants have provoked confrontations by entering the campus through the one gate students have been unable to barricade. Students and professors have maintained a picket line, but constant police presence has precluded any hope of enforcing it effectively. Fortunately, scabbing by students and professors has been negligible. Thousands of students and supporters from all 11 campuses have thrown up massive pickets, including one in an important intersection in the middle of rush hour, delaying traffic for hours.
A coalition of unions called for a 24-hour work stoppage Tuesday in support of the students’ demands. They struck at several important government offices; there was civil disobedience in the morning at the Justice and Labor Departments and an office complex. The crowd at the Rio Piedras front gate was more than 5,000, and there were demonstrations at all 11 campuses.
UTIER (electrical workers) bused over workers during their lunch break, and the teachers (FMPR) didn't strike officially but several hundred teachers showed up at the protest.
Negotiations between the UPR Board of Trustees and the student negotiating committee finally broke down when the administration submitted a proposal that eliminated tuition waivers for students receiving federal Pell grants. This measure would brazenly discriminate against poorer students who receive federally funded need-based aid, making them ineligible for merit-based waivers.
A carefully orchestrated corporate media campaign then began, which proclaimed that the end of the strike was at hand and the ball was now in the students’ court.
In concert with the Río Piedras Student Council, the administration called for an assembly outside the campus, in hopes that students opposed to the strike, eager to graduate, or simply worn out by weeks of uncertainty and tension would vote to end or suspend the strike. The plan backfired when the overwhelming majority of the more than 3,000 students in attendance voted to keep the strike going. The Río Piedras student body is 18,000.
The administration appears to have hoped the grant-waiver tradeoff, which would be unacceptable to “Vietnam,” would divide the negotiating committee, isolating the radicals. That attempt failed when the strikers’ participatory process produced overwhelming support for continuing the strike, encouraging “Disney” to close ranks.
Following their unexpected victory, students marched to the Capitol building, to underscore the fact that the policies they are protesting are part of the government’s broader budget cuts. One bill that authorized the firing of tens of thousands of public employees also targets UPR’s funding, draining resources even further.
In response to the student assembly, Chancellor Ana Guadalupe declared an administrative lockout, closing the Río Piedras campus until July 31.
But soon after celebrating their ability to hold the strike together, strikers and supporters had a rude awakening. A notorious police riot squad cordoned off a one-mile radius around the Río Piedras campus May 14, and Police Superintendent José Figueroa Sancha confirmed that he had personally given the order to cut off food and water deliveries. Anyone with a problem should try the courts, he said. The administration announced it would request the shut-off of water and electricity service to the campus as well.
A father attempting to pass food and water to his striking son inside the campus was beaten and arrested. Later in the day, a physically disabled graduate student who had exited the campus momentarily was beaten unconscious, dragged into a squad car, and arrested. Police pepper-sprayed onlookers who attempted to aid him. The student was treated at a nearby clinic and released without charges late in the night.
Massive displays of public support poured forth. The blockade of food and water was broken early on when hundreds of supporters tossed bags of food and bottles of water over the fence and over the heads of police officers. Thousands of people arrived at the scene throughout the day, with huge picket lines forming at the gates. The tense situation continues to build and ebb.
José A. Laguarta Ramírez is a member of the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU). A longer version of this piece appears at jalaguarta.com