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Puerto Rico: Tense Prelude to the Student Strike

This post is part of our special coverage Puerto Rico Student Protests 2010/11.

The tower, the emblem of the University of Puerto Rico. Photo by A. Gonzalez, republished under a CC License.*

A 48-hour blockade organized by students from the state-run University of Puerto Rico in protest against a proposed $800 annual fee got off to a tense and violent start early Tuesday morning, as students raising barricades around the Río Piedras campus clashed with private security guards hired by the administration.

The day began as students, many of them masked in order to protect their identities, were photographed by the local press [es] as they built and patrolled their barricades in defiance of the administration's efforts to undermine the protests. Such administrative measures included taking down several University gates [es] around the main campus in Río Piedras early Monday morning, allegedly as a way of guaranteeing entrance to those students, teachers, and employees who showed up for classes and work; and hiring the private security firm Capitol Security, whose guards have proven to be inexperienced and volatile [es] during the first 24 hour cycle of events.

Violent acts were reported and decried by both students and Capitol Security, with one university student allegedly having been beaten by a team of twelve security guards, and several guards allegedly suffering injuries in skirmishes with students. Students and security guards have since declared a truce, according to news reports [es]. Vandalism to school property has also been reported.  Radio Huelga, a ‘pirate’ radio station and website set up by university students during the two-month long strike last semester was able to capture video of the student beating as it took place.

Several in the online community, including local blog Parpadeando [es], have expressed their frustration with the university administration's apparent lack of initiative and judgement in preventing these events:

Cualquier administración universitaria normal, en casos como este, se sienta a dialogar con los constituyentes, pronto. Más aún cuando existen dos propuestas concretas, pensadas, académicamente responsables, que pueden utilizarse como punto de partida.

¿Por qué? ¿Por qué la administración que se supone vele por los intereses de la UPR sigue en un curso de acción que a todas luces nos lleva hacia la confrontación y la erosión de la calidad institucional, de su relevancia para el país, de su capacidad de ayudar a Puerto Rico?

Any normal university administration, in situations like this, would sit down and have an open dialogue with its constituents, pronto. Even more so when two concrete proposals, thought-out and academically responsible, can be used as a starting point [for negotiation].

Why? Why must the administration – who are supposed to care for the University of Puerto Rico's best interests – continue with a course of action that under all scrutiny leads us towards confrontation and the erosion of the institution's quality, of its relevance to the country, and its capacity to help Puerto Rico?

Adding to this frustration are reports of the costs related to both the removal of campus gates – estimated by the University's Río Piedras provost, Ana Rosa Guadalupe, at 1.5 million [es] dollars in an interview with local radio station RadioIsla1320 AM [es] – and Capitol Security current contracts – reportedly surpassing 1.4 million dollars [es].

Capitol Security guards. Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz, of Diálogo. Republished from 80 grados under a CC License.*

Others, like Poder, espacio y ambiente's [es] Erika Fontánez, also a professor at the University of Puerto Rico's School of Law, voiced their concern about the student movement's actions earlier during the day:

Creo que aún cuando hay que poner energía en reprochar con rigor los actos de la administración de la UPR y del gobierno, los y las estudiantes tendrían que preguntarse urgentemente: ¿Cómo es que lo anterior fue sustituído? ¿Qué pasó? ¿Qué factores inciden/han incidido en un cambio tan drástico de metodología, de estrategia? Con todo el respeto al movimiento estudiantil y consciente de su diversidad, creo que tendrían que preguntarse genuinamente si el camino por el que se anda hoy es un buen camino para lograr sus objetivos.

I think that even though energy must be spent in rigorously reproaching the actions of the University's administration and those of the government, students would need to urgently ask themselves: How is it that what worked previously was substituted? What happened? What factors result or have resulted in such a drastic change of methodology, of strategy? With all due respect to the student movement and conscious of its diversity, I think they would have to genuinely ask if the road they travel today is a good one in order to reach their objectives.

Part of that characteristic diversity of the student movement was captured by @eldifusor of local podcast #EnProfundo through a series of short audio interviews [es] with student leaders José Carlos Vélez Colón, spokesman of anti-strike group Rescate UPR [es]; and Ian Camilo, of the University's Student Representative Committee; as well as Luis Díaz of local hip-hop group Intifada [es], also an ex-alum.  Through #EnProfundo, whose members recorded their most recent episode on the eve of these events last Monday night [es] from one of the ‘free speech zones’ delineated inside the Río Piedras campus by the administration. @eldifusor makes the following suggestion:

Por ahora les propongo que escuchen bien lo que los tres tienen que decir y partamos a discutir sus puntos de vistas. Todos, dentro de su realidad, nos demuestran una parte del rompecabezas que debemos armar: ¿Para qué queremos una universidad pública en Puerto Rico?

For now, I propose we listen well to what all three have to say and lets part from there and discuss these points of view. All of them, within their own realities, demonstrate a piece of the puzzle that we must complete: Why is it that we want a public university in Puerto Rico?

However, requests for dialogue by the students seem to have fallen on deaf ears so far, and student leaders like Waldemiro Vélez and Giovanni Roberto of the Student Representative Committee have since expressed through local news sources [es] their concern that a strike – already scheduled for next Tuesday, December 14 – seems like the onlyalternative at this point.

*Please read the student blog Desde Adentro [es] and the digital magazine 80 grados [es] for updates and news on the student's protests.

*Photo of the UPR tower by A. Gonzalez, republished under CC License A-SA 2.0. Photo of security guards taken from 80 grados, under a CC License NC-SA 3.0

This post is part of our special coverage Puerto Rico Student Protests 2010/11.

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