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PORTSIDE  July 2010, Week 1

PORTSIDE July 2010, Week 1

Subject:

University of Puerto Rico Student Strike Victory Unleashes Brutal Civil Rights Backlash

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Date:

Mon, 5 Jul 2010 21:31:07 -0400

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University of Puerto Rico Student Strike Victory
Unleashes Brutal Civil Rights Backlash

Maritza Stanchich, Ph.D.

The Huffinton Post

Posted: July 4, 2010 11:40 AM

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maritza-stanchich-phd/university-of-puerto-rico_b_635090.html?view=screen


As so many Americans gear up for Fourth of July
fireworks this weekend, the U.S. Territory of Puerto
Rico roils from a brutal civil rights showdown
unleashed by a far-right wing government, now seemingly
hell bent on destroying the recent unprecedented
victory of a two-month long student strike against
privatization of higher education at the University of
Puerto Rico.

The broader implications are crucial on numerous
fronts, including the struggle to maintain broad access
to public higher education and efforts to rein in
runaway neoliberal policies that have wreaked havoc on
the global economy, resulting in draconian austerity
measures worldwide. For the violence and repression
seen in Greece and at the G20 in Toronto appears to now
be visiting this Caribbean island nation of about four
million U.S. citizens, the homeland of more than an
additional four million Puerto Ricans in the United
States, the second largest U.S. Latino group.

While the economic crisis in Puerto Rico--the worst
since the 1940s, if not the 1930s-has been deepening
for years, and the current right wing government has
aggressively implemented a hard-line, unpopular
neoliberal agenda since its broad electoral victory
last November, it appears as if the recent UPR student
strike victory has touched off a firestorm, with a
police attack on peaceful demonstrators at Puerto
Rico's Capitol building on Wednesday injuring dozens,
some seriously.

The UPR strike concluded June 21 after a tense,
two-month shut down of 10 campuses in a system serving
nearly 65,000 students at the end of the academic year,
with an accord that by all accounts was an
unprecedented strike victory, in historic, hemispheric
terms. A widely-supported student movement remarkable
for its coalition building across traditionally
distinct and even contentious social and political
sectors coalesced against threatened erosion of broad
public access to the widely-regarded state university,
as well as its increasing privatization.

With tensions high after police and riot squads had
attacked and injured students, their parents and
journalists on at least three occasions, an agreement
finally reached through judicial mediation met with the
students' basic demands, reinstating cancelled tuition
waivers, temporarily forestalling a tuition hike or
imposition of student fees, and protecting strike
leaders from summary suspension reprisals. The accord,
signed by a majority of the Board of Trustees, though
those refusing included the university and board
presidents, was hailed as an achievement in civil
conflict resolution, especially in light of the history
of previous UPR strikes that had ended in deadly
violent repressions.

Immediately after however, the Puerto Rico state
legislature, dominated by the extreme right of the
local Pro-Statehood party, rapidly expanded the
university Board of Trustees, with the governor
approving four new appointees, and a new but divided
board quickly imposed a $800 student fee starting in
January, and made it permanent, reminiscent of the
imposition of fees at University of California by then
Gov. Ronald Reagan. The legislature also quickly
dismantled a long-standing UPR tradition of student
assemblies, replacing them with private electronic
computer voting devoid of open debate. Other cuts were
also implemented affecting professors and adjunct
instructors, who now make up about 40 percent of the
UPR faculty, following trends in the United States,
where 60 percent of all professors occupy such
increasingly precarious positions.

In a far worse economic straits than the states of
California or Michigan, Puerto Rico is confronting its
worst fiscal crisis in decades, and UPR the biggest
fiscal crisis of its 100-year existence. As throughout
much of the world facing related circumstances,
virulent and organized opposition to drastic cuts
principally directed at the working and deteriorating
middle classes has mushroomed, especially since the
current global crisis, in Alan Greenspan's own
befuddled words, was caused by greed-induced corruption
among the highest echelons of the world economy.


While the neoliberal agenda of Puerto Rico's current
political leaders look back to the very doctrines now
being challenged in the United States and throughout
Latin America, the UPR student movement embodies the
vanguard of the contemporary 21st Century, as reflected
by their symbols and tactics, including the
democratizing internet, egalitarian rainbow flags,
sustainable organic farming, an effervescence of
alternative arts, and new coalition building among
center, right and left, in tandem with occupation
practices inspired by international student movements
as far as California, Spain, France and Greece.

Though a shocking collective trauma, the violent
crackdown at the Capitol Wednesday was not entirely
surprising given the current administration's assault
on all fronts since coming into power, targeting
progressive, cultural and social welfare institutions
and agencies with crippling budget cuts, attempting to
dissolve Puerto Rico's bar association, lifting
environmental protections to whole swaths of protected
lands, and passing a now notorious law, called Ley 7,
that not only dismisses 20,000 public employees, but
declares null and void all public sector union
contracts for three years, with the only recourse to
challenging the law being to petition the local Supreme
Court, now stacked with new appointments in the
administration's favor. The governor has also activated
the National Guard, amidst criticism from groups such
the Puerto Rico chapters of the ACLU and Amnesty
International.

Common in Puerto Rico, however, though unusual at most
U.S. state universities, is the way political parties
assume control of UPR leadership by appointing a new
president, also recently achieved. This is in part
because the UPR is widely regarded as national
patrimony, and is one of the few places left in the
country where dissent may be cultivated.

As opposition to these policies expands, as seen in a
massive national strike in October which drew a quarter
of a million workers into the streets, so has the
government's seeming intolerance to any opposition, as
Gov. Luis Fortuno, Senate President Thomas Rivera
Schatz and UPR president Jose Ramon de la Torre
commonly resort to Cold War era red-baiting with media
campaigns labeling protestors as Socialists,
Communists, and professional rabble rousers out to
destabilize the country. The clamp down has so far gone
as far as banning journalists from Senate chambers for
four days last week during the country's budget
sessions, prompting media organizations to petition in
court to regain access.

"I don't think there is any doubt that the intention of
this government is to set back civil rights," said
Judith Berkan, a long-time civil rights attorney and a
law professor at University of Puerto Rico and
InterAmerican University in San Juan, adding that the
administration has enacted a staggering number of
measures to neutralize and debilitate all those
perceived as a threat to a local oligarchy acting in
concert with U.S. interests.

Attempts were made to reach Resident Commissioner Pedro
Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's non-voting representative in
the U.S. Congress, and UPR President Jose Ramon de la
Torre for comment, but they were not available at press
time.

The irony that the Pro-U.S. Statehood party of Gov.
Fortuno is now curtailing the most basic press and
civil liberties is not lost on UPR student strike
leaders who witnessed and were injured at Wednesday's
melee, including those who belong to the pro-Statehood
party themselves, and voted for the sitting governor.

"It pains me as a statehooder that this government has
not learned the lessons of U.S. civil rights struggles
of decades ago," said Anibal Nunez, a student at the
UPR law school and a member of the student negotiating
committee.

Nunez acknowledged the participation of students
affiliated with Socialist groups among strike leaders
and the student negotiating committee, and said they
overcame their differences via universal concerns for
education as a social necessity, as they gained each
others' respect while coalition building together,
adding that if he could not overcome ideological
differences enough to collaborate, he would still
believe in their right to pluralistically exist.

The notion that accessible, quality higher education
contributes to economic recovery runs counter to the
widening U.S. trend of students graduating with
crippling debt, as public education has for years now
faced diminishing state support. A common argument used
by the administration during the UPR strike was its
affordable tuition, at less than $2,000 per year for
undergraduates before the recently imposed fees. But
while tuition is cheaper than probably any other state
university in the United States, average income in
Puerto Rico is also far lower than any other U.S.
state, with about 48 percent of the population living
in poverty as defined by U.S. federal standards, and
the cost of living in San Juan at least, far higher
than at oft compared institutions in Baton Rouge,
Louisiana, or Oxford, Mississippi. This tradition of
maintaining broad public access to a quality state
institution of higher learning is a hard earned point
of pride at UPR, compared to institutions that have
recently reneged their public mission with sudden and
steep fee/tuition increases, such as at University of
California, where students also opposed, occupied and
met with police repression, but could not stave off a
32% fee hike imposed in November.

As UPR administrators continue to grapple with what was
a nearly $200 million budget shortfall for next year
going into the strike, in search of additional or
alternative money saving and raising sources, an
emboldened student movement will also regroup and weigh
all its options. Future conflicts may be averted by
altering the very style of governance at UPR, a
top-down and paternalistic holdover from the past, as
this could go a long way toward making students, as
well as professors and staff who also have large stakes
at play, part of a give-and-take process.

For come what may in the global fiscal crisis in the
coming decade, these students are the future of new
Americas of increasingly porous borders and dramatic,
rapid demographic, political, cultural, informational
and economic shifts, as the old order, the vestiges of
the Cold War in Puerto Rico and in South Florida for
example, fade into the proverbial sunset.

"We may not hold the power but we have the will power,"
stated law student Nunez, "and given the choice, I
prefer the latter."

UPR administrators and Statehood party leaders would do
well to recognize and reach out to the productive
potential of this new power, shift gears and learn to
act on the principles they purportedly hold dear.

_____________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

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