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Rossana Rodriguez, University of Puerto Rico Students Resume Strikes

University of Puerto Rico Students Resume Strikes
Rossana Rodriguez

Students from six campuses in the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) system have held a series of 48-hour strikes in the last week to oppose the imposition of an $800 fee that is scheduled to take effect at the beginning of the January 2011 semester. Students at the Río Piedras campus were among of the first to go out after they held a December 1 mass assembly and voted by an overwhelming majority to strike if the administration does not rescind the new fee by December 14. The chancellor of the Río Piedras campus used every means possible to try to stop the students from gathering, including the canceling academic recess, freezing the bank account of the student council so that it couldn't pay for the sound system, and denying students the use of a space for their meeting. But UPR students are already used to doing things the hard way, so the night before, they raised funds by approaching cars stopped at traffic lights so they could rent a sound system for the outdoor meeting that lasted five hours under the harsh rays of a sunny day at the university's athletic track.

The wave of strikes in the last week is a continuation of the struggle against tuition hikes that began last summer with a two-month strike that shut down all 11 UPR campuses. Students ended their strike in victory when the administration agreed not to impose a $400 fee at the start of the fall semester. But UPR is now trying to undo that victory for students by imposing an $800 fee for the spring semester. If imposed, the fee would place a college education out of reach of many working-class people. But students aren't ready to throw in the towel. The 48-hour strike at the Río Piedras campus ended December 8, but not before the university took extraordinary measures to try to stop it from even starting. First, the administration tore down the campus' historic gates to make it harder for students to control access to the campus. But students quickly built barricades in response to the administration's actions. Then the administration spent $1.5 million to hire a private security company managed by former professional wrestler Chicki Star (ironically, his character was known for using dirty tactics such as sucker punches and double crosses). The former wrestler placed a "help wanted" ad on his Facebook page for 200 people to work as security guards during the UPR strike. Given the high levels of unemployment on the island, it's not surprising that many young working-class people desperate for work showed up. Almost immediately, there were clashes between the two groups of young people. The guards were given batons and, in some cases, Taser guns to "protect" public property from the students. Some guards also carried knives, and at least one student was attacked and injured by a guard. But what the administration and Chicki Star hadn't counted on was that the students knew better than to see the young guards as their enemies. On the second day of the 48-hour stoppage, strike leader Giovanni Roberto got things started with a short speech in which he explained why the student strikers were fighting for demands that also served the interests of the newly hired guards. "If we win this strike, we all win--because we will have made this university more accessible to us, to you and to your brothers and sisters," said Roberto. "Everyone will have a chance for a [better] future." The episode ended with many students and guards shaking hands and hugging each other as they forged a peace based on their shared interests. According to Puerto Rico's Daily Sun [1]: Moments later, the young guards were replaced by a different--and evidently older--group of guards. An executive officer from Capitol Security Services, the independent contractor in charge of campus security, explained that the guards had been changed "because they suffered from Stockholm Syndrome," a psychological condition in which hostages tend to sympathize with their captors after an extended period of time. The man did not explain how such a condition could relate to the situation at the UPR or how he had reached that conclusion.

The administration is resorting to hardball tactics to try to intimidate, demoralize and isolate strike leaders. So far, there have been expulsions of students and arrests at several campuses. In Aguadilla, student activist Ovidio Efraín López Alers, a member of the Organización Socialista Internacional, was arrested and is now facing charges. Though the university has tried to blame students for a couple episodes of violence and damage to public property, it's the administration that has done far more damage to the campus--by removing campus gates in Río Piedras and Bayamón, for example. After students ended their 48-hour strike in Río Piedras, riot police occupied the campus, and it now remains under police control. This is the first time police have occupied the campus since the student strikes of the early 1980s, when riot police broke up a student assembly at gunpoint and then went on a rampage that left hundreds injured on campus and in the surrounding neighborhood. After the police riot, the university adopted a non-confrontation policy that kept police from entering campus--until now. But the university's attempts at intimidation have so far failed to stop the sutdents. Not only did the strike spread to a total of six campuses, but students already have pledged to begin an indefinite strike on December 15 unless and until the fee is rescinded. Public-sector unions are calling for a December 12 march to defend the university. In addition, UPR professors held a December 9 assembly and decided to stop performing any professional duties until police leave the campus. The professors also passed a resolution insisting that the administration place a moratorium on the fee and agree to negotiate with the students. However, they are also asking the students to postpone the strike so negotiations can take place. But the university has shown that it has no interest in good-faith negotiations. Case in point: The administration has repeatedly lied to students about the university's finances as it made its case for the tuition hike, making it practically impossible to have meaningful dialogue about resolving the crisis.

The administration told students that the $800 fee was necessary as collateral for a credit line of $100 million with Puerto Rico's Banco Gubernamental de Fomento (Government Development Bank, or BGF by its initials in Spanish). But a letter from the BGF now in the possession of student leaders directly contradicts this, stating that the collateral for the credit line is actually money owed to UPR by government agencies that have contracted with the university. This is merely the latest in a series of lies told by the UPR administration--which explains why its credibility among students and in the broader population is practically nil. The struggle of students in Puerto Rico is just one link in a chain of global protests against austerity measures. After bailing out the global financial system to the tune of trillions of dollars, governments around the world are trying to force students and workers to pay for the crisis. Puerto Rico's government has imposed a $140 million cut on UPR, showing that it feels no shame at making the workers and the poor pay for the government's own mismanagement. Now, it's up to students, faculty and university workers to refuse to pay for a crisis that they had no hand in creating.