By Yarimar Bonilla
Yarimar Bonilla teaches anthropology at the University of Virginia.
The University of Puerto Rico (UPR), one of the largest universities in the Caribbean with close to 65,000 students across its 11campuses, has been paralyzed since April 21 due to a student strike. What began as a 48-hour stoppage became an indefinite strike, ratified by a majority vote at an assembly attended by thousands of students last Thursday.
The broader context for the student strike action is the increasing move towards privatization of public services that has characterized the island’s government in recent years. The changes proposed at the university are part of the government’s wider Fiscal and Economic Recovery Plan which has sought to reduce public expenditures by more than US$2 billion through massive layoffs and the gutting of government services and institutions. Puerto Rican citizens have been protesting these measures consistently.
In a diaspora column in October 2009 I pointed to the general work stoppage that involved close to a quarter million Puerto Ricans protesting the policies of the current government, including the dismissal of tens of thousands of government employees under a new ‘Public Law 7’. UPR students made their voices heard then, with one campus calling a mass meeting to back the general strike. Clearly aware of the potential of the university as a galvanizing site, 10 UPR campuses were closed one week before the general strike of mid-October to stop protestors using campus facilities as an organizing base.
Under Public Law 7 the current economic crisis has been used as a justification to alter the formula used to allocate public funds to the university. The University Administration accepted this change and used it as an impetus to increase tuition costs, eliminate much merit based aid and athletic fellowships, allow for the removal of existing fee exemptions for university employees and their families. This follows a wider move towards privatization of University resources such as the University Theatre which has traditionally been administrated by the Department of Drama and is now becoming increasingly inaccessible for student performances and audiences.
Efforts on behalf of the students to engage in dialogue with the university were systematically unfruitful and on April 13 over 3,000 students at Río Piedras, UPR’s main campus, agreed to a 48 hour occupation that would become an indefinite strike if the University administration refused to negotiate with them in good faith. The occupation of campus grounds started on April 21, and was declared a strike one day later following a meeting between the students’ Negotiating Committee (a broad-based group representing several student constituencies) and UPR President Ramón de la Torre. According to reports, all but two of the UPR campuses have taken various strike actions, with the indefinite stoppage concentrated at Río Piedras.
The University administration has been slow to negotiate – shortly after the launching of the strike the University Chancellor declared an administrative lockout – and has come under much criticism for deploying the riot squad to dismantle the barricades. As police presence has increased, the university has turned into a militarized zone, with security forces taking control of the perimeter of the campus to severely limit anyone gaining entry. There are reports of arrests of protestors who bring food and water to the striking students. Last Friday, which began with a failed early morning attempt by Riot Police to enter the Río Piedras campus, a viral video circulated on the internet of police roughly arresting Luis Torres, the father of one of the student strikers, who was trying to pass some food to his son through the university gates. Another video has also been circulating on the internet of a young student activist known as “Osito” who was also injured and arrested by the police at one of the gates. Police say that they are under orders to not let anyone in or out of the campus, but protestors claim that they are trying to force them out by denying them access to basic needs such as food, water, and medical supplies.
The protestors have consistently engaged in non-violent tactics: offering flowers to the police officers and carrying signs that demand dialogue and harmony. In fact the entire movement has been characterized by cultural and artistic performances with street theatre, music, and a carnivalesque atmosphere. Students have even launched their own internet radio: www.radiohuelga.com which is broadcasting on u-stream live 24 hours. The station features an eclectic group of radio personalities, DJ Barricada, DJ Gonzo, and El Castor among others, who give each show their own unique personality with a broad range of music ranging from salsa to classical, humorous horoscope spoofs, updates from the negotiating committee, and interactive debates where listeners send in questions and participate in the programming via live chat.
The station also features a radio serial: Love on the Barricades, which became an instant hit and has also produced its own techno dance song, huelgamix (huelga means strike) available now on youtube. One of these videos features images from the strike of placards, meetings, marches, parades, the strike vote, one young man holding a placard with a Che Guevara quote, ‘the future is ours’. The energy is unmistakeable.
The radio station has become the main source of news, updates and analysis on the strike by students themselves, providing an immediate and alternative source of information that connects those inside the campus grounds to broader society in Puerto Rico and the diaspora.
In addition strong communities have emerged on the university grounds, which are now completely occupied by students. Each gate that leads to the university is managed by its own committee, characterized by the academic unit of the student leaders involved. Decisions are made through democratic consensus among members, and in turn each gate committee is represented when wider decisions are made.
After over three weeks of camping on the university grounds, students have been reporting some illness, many are suffering from respiratory problems and minor wounds. Volunteer doctors have tried to tend to the students but have been denied entry by the police. Most minor wounds are being treated by the collective’s proclaimed strike “paramedic”, a student who has some minor medical training.
At this point, UPR Board of Trustees Chairwoman Ygrí Rivera announced last Friday the campus was closing down until July 31. Graduation ceremonies have been suspended and the first summer session appears to be cancelled, leaving most unsure of how students will recuperate the time lost during the strike.
However, students within the strike argue that they continue to learn and take informal classes within the community grounds. They have a student run garden, student provided medical services, and participate in yoga classes, classes on political procedure, and engage in long debates about local politics on the university grounds.
The University strike has received support from wide swaths of the Puerto Rican population, including popular artists such as Ricky Martin and the lead singer of the reggaeton group Calle 13, who has been rallying international support from international music stars. University employees – faculty and staff – have come out in support of the students, refusing to cross picket lines, helping to organize getting food and water onto campus grounds and participating in solidarity demonstrations that have included media personalities, artists, families and friends of students and members of the general public.
The official response – stepping up police presence, trying to deny food, water and medical attention to students – has only served to galvanize support. According to one Puerto Rican newspaper, Uruguayan literary icon Eduardo Galeano penned an open letter to the people of Puerto Rico a few days ago, in which he said: “The people who do not lend an ear to its students’ demands run the risk of losing their future…There is an international community watching with great interest how this movement develops. We expect the utmost respect from university and government authorities. Give up on the use of force. Sit and negotiate with them in peace, as equals. Hear them. Be generous. They are not inside the campus, entrenched, on a whim. They are there because they are the heart, the university’s living flame.” In Puerto Rico, Methodist Bishop Juan A. Vera, who is spokesperson for the All Puerto Rico for Puerto Rico Coalition, called on people to come out and show their support yesterday by taking food and water to students occupying the various campuses on the island. And several labour organizations have called for a national work stoppage tomorrow.
Throughout this processes parents and supporters of the movement have lauded students for their intelligent commentary and excellent coordination and democratic processes. We can only hope that they will continue to set an example for political actors in Puerto Rico, and that the creativity, determination, and maturity displayed by the students will carry forth and serve as an example for other social movements developing on the island and more broadly in the Caribbean.