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Puerto Rico: Decisive Moment 50 Days into the Student Strike

Students of the state-run University of Puerto Rico (UPR) have sustained a student strike that enters its 50th day today. On this decisive day, the students’ National Negotiating Committee has another round of negotiations with the UPR's administration. Students have transmitted their second message to the country via the website UPR es un País [ES] in which they explain their proposals:

Students’ message to the country on the 50th day of the strike.

Ten of the 11 campuses of the UPR -in which approximately 62,000 students are enrolled- have been paralyzed in protest against massive budget cuts and the elimination of fee waivers that would unfairly affect low-income students with federal grants and talented students (in academics, sports and arts). Students have been living inside the UPR's main campus in Río Piedras -with 22,000 students registered- which has become the focus of demonstrations, artistic performances, urban agriculture, and academic workshops. (Please see Global Voices’ Special Coverage page)

Students in Río Piedras. Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz from Diálogo. Republished under a CC License.

Students raise funds for three non-profit organizations. Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz from Diálogo. Republished under a CC License.

There have been a number of violent confrontations with police special forces at the Hotel Sheraton [En], the Río Piedras and Aguadilla campuses, and outside the UPR's central administration. Students and parents have been beaten and arrested. The pro-statehood Governor Luis Fortuño imposed a “mediator” to intervene in the conflict, the Episcopalian Minister David Alvarez, who was rejected by the students [ES]. The student strike has catalyzed a national civil society movement that has supported them throughout these 50 days. Students have also creatively used online media and Internet-based radio to speak for themselves (please see Global Voices’ compilation of online citizen media resources).

"The UPR wants peace." Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz from Diálogo. Republished under a CC License.

The students’ National Negotiating Committee has been negotiating with the UPR administration. They have made important advances: the UPR's Board of Trustees changed the language of the Certification 98 regarding the fee waivers so that students will not be penalized. Two fundamental issues remain on the table [ES]: the elimination of the recent UPR's proposal of imposing a special fee of $1,100 per semester in addition to the registration costs, and the guarantee that the administration will not incur any disciplinary actions against the students who have participated in the strike.

In the meantime, an interesting and passionate debate is taking place online. Historian and UPR professor Carlos Pabón questions the strategic usefulness of continuing the strike [ES] and of closing the campus:

Lo que viene en término de políticas hacia la Universidad es mucho más que lo está en juego en los reclamos de la huelga. Los estudiantes en huelga deberían consolidar y certificar lo que han logrado hasta ahora (que son algunas de sus demandas principales), proclamar un triunfo y levantar la huelga, dando paso a que se abra la Universidad. De lo contrario, se corren el riesgo de quedar entrampados en la estrategia del gobierno, que es quién apuesta al cierre de la Universidad y en este escenario lo que nos espera será nefasto (ya ayer se anunciaron algunas medidas de recortes presupuestarios y reducciones salariales que tendrán efectos drásticos sobre los distintos componentes de la Universidad). Cada día que pasa este escenario se hace más probable, pues el tiempo y el cierre favorecen al gobierno y a la alta administración universitaria.

The upcoming policies that will be applied to the University are much more than what's at stake in the strike's claims. The striking students should consolidate and confirm what they have accomplished up to this point (which are some of their principal demands), declare victory and end the strike, thus paving the way for the opening of the University. If they fail to do so, they risk being entrapped by the government's strategy, who's betting on the closure of the University, and within this scenario what awaits us is dreadful (yesterday they announced some budget cutting measures and salary reductions that will have drastic effects on diverse components of the University). With every day that passes, this scenario becomes a more probable one, since time and the closure favor the government and the University's top administrators.

In the comment section of Pabón's post in La Acera [ES and EN], graduate History student, activist and blogger Iván Chaar-López [ES] argues that students have unveiled the administration's project and urges professors to make proposals [ES]:

Si bien puede ser cierto que la huelga viabiliza el proyecto destructivo de la administración universitaria y el gobierno, también es cierto que la huelga ha desenmascarado el programa. En ese sentido, la huelga ha viabilizado la articulación de resistencias en cada sector comunitario de la Universidad. Los profesores no se habían expresado ni habían producido documento alguno sobre la anti-democracia y la implosión del proyecto universitario hasta que los estudiantes rompimos con el ritmo monótono del curso lectivo. Desde esta perspectiva, la huelga ha abierto camino para reflexionar y pensar la Universidad desde otras coordenadas.

It may be true that the strike has facilitated the destructive project of the university's administration and the government. But it is also true that the strike has unmasked this program. In this sense, the strike has facilitated the formation of manifestations of resistance in every community sector of the University. The professors had not expressed themselves, nor had they produced any documents on the anti-democratic movements and the destruction of the university project until the students broke the monotony of classes. From this perspective, the strike has opened a pathway to reflect and think about the University from different coordinates.

"The UPR is not on sale," by Brazilian artist Carlos Latuff. Latuff authorizes his drawings to be republished.

Law student, activist and blogger Mariana Iriarte [ES] questions the effectivity of prolonging the strike and proposes the formulation of new strategies to strengthen the student movement:

Las negociaciones finalmente comenzaron, sin embargo, nunca parecen haber estado destinadas a la reapertura de la Universidad. Por un lado, la administración se sienta con el Comité Negociador mientras que por el otro desarrolla campañas publicitarias, anuncia la imposición de una cuota especial ridículamente alta y empiezan a llover en el Capitolio proyectos de ley destinados a enmendar la ley de la Universidad. Ante este escenario, es preciso que empecemos a reflexionar en qué momento comenzamos a permitir que fuera la administración quien dictara cómo y cuándo íbamos a desarrollar nuestra huelga. Que nos preguntemos si la dilación de los procesos no está, maliciosamente, destinada a mantenernos en una huelga que parece no tener fin. Que pensemos si no estamos dando vueltas como el perro que intenta, infructuosamente, de morderse la cola.

The negotiations finally started, but they never seemed to be destined to open the University. On one side, the administration was talking with the Negotiating Committee. But, on the other side, they developed ad campaigns in the media, announced the imposition of a ridiculously high special fee, and law projects destined to amend the University Law started to fly in the Legislature. In this scenario, it is fundamental that we start to reflect on the moment that we started to let the administration dictate when and how we were going to conduct our strike. We have to ask ourselves if the dilation of the processes is not maliciously destined to keep us on a strike that seems to have no end in sight. It is time we start to think if we are running around like the dog that unsuccessfully tries to bite his own tail.

UPR Law professor and blogger Erika Fontánez [ES] has also weighed in on the debate:

Lo cierto es que la gesta de más de 50 días de los y las estudiantes del sistema universitario ha visibilizado estos temas, los ha traído al debate público, los ha presentado al país. Cierto que habría que decir que el debate público ha recogido esto en un nivel todavía muy insuficiente en cuanto a los términos estructurales que se requiere, pero ciertamente, como mínimo, es claro que este proceso huelgario ha permitido, al menos, rasgar de las paredes de la indiferencia, poner en escena el tema universitario y el riesgo en que se encuentra la posibilidad de la Universidad pública, de excelencia y accesible. Para comenzar, como mínimo, nos ha hecho ver las caras, incluso, a sectores universitarios que dentro de la ‘normalidad’ universitaria de la UPR (no de otra Universidad posible), difícilmente coincidimos. Ese ‘saldo’ tendremos que seguir analizándolo por mucho tiempo, en la contingencia de su día a día, dentro del proceso y tiempo después de éste.

What's true is that the feat of more than 50 days of the students from the university system has made these themes visible, has brought them to the public debate, it has presented them to the country. True, we have to say that the public debate has picked this up at a level that is very insufficient with regards to the structural issues that are essential, but certainly, at a minimum, it's clear that this strike has permitted, at least, a clawing of the walls of indifference, placed the university system in the scene as well as the risk that the possibility of a public University, of excellence and accessible, faces. To begin with, at a minimum, it has made us see the faces of university sectors that within the “normalcy” of the UPR (not of another possible University) do not coincide. We will need to continue analyzing that “remnant” for a long time, in the day to day juncture, within the current process and for some time after.


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