Thursday, June 10, 2010

Puerto Rican student strike

A  showdown is looming in the student strike that has
paralyzed all 11 campuses of the University of Puerto
 for more than six weeks.

Late Tuesday, protest leaders rejected a 4 p.m.
deadline from university President José Ramón de la
Torre to cease their campus occupations and end the
strike, which has kept 65,000 students out of classes
since April 21.

De la Torre and Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortuño warned
the rebellious students they will seek court orders to
have them arrested and removed.

The strike, one of the longest and biggest in modern
U.S. history, has garnered considerable support from
both the university's faculty and the Puerto Rican

Yet the mainland press ignores it.

Many island residents admire the way the students have
resisted massive government cutbacks to one of their
most revered institutions. This Great Recession, after
all, has been a far bigger disaster for Puerto Rico
than for rest of the nation.

Even before the Wall Street financial collapse, 45% of
the island's population was living below the poverty

Since then, tourism and manufacturing, Puerto Rico's
main sources of income, have been devastated, and so
have government revenues. More than 20,000 public
employees have been laid off the past year by Fortuño
as he sought to close a huge deficit. The unemployment
 jumped to 17.2% in April, while the pension system
for public employees is nearly bankrupt.

For generations, a University of Puerto Rico education
was regarded as a sure way to escape poverty. Sixty
percent of UPR's students, for example, have family
 of less than $20,000 a year.

Since the university was largely funded through a 9.6%
set-aside of all government tax revenues, it was able
to maintain low tuition, about $2,000 annually, and
even provide scholarships for standouts. It also
enjoyed relative autonomy from the government.

But Fortuño's administration has promised Wall Street
bondholders that it will make students pay a bigger
share of the university's operating costs, downsize
government and initiate more public-private

As part of that plan, Fortuño wants to rewrite the
higher education law.

Students oppose the reductions in scholarships as well
as a new $1,200 student fee the university wants to
impose. They fear that a new education law will usher
in privatization efforts. Their supporters in the
Puerto Rican legislature are urging instead new revenue
streams, either through increasing the island's low
corporate tax from 2.5% to 10% or through video lottery
games, with the money earmarked for higher education.

Two weeks ago, the faculty senates of all 11 campuses
met in their first-ever joint session and voted
overwhelmingly to back the student demands. Many union
leaders throughout the island have also expressed their

At first, the university's trustees negotiated with
student leaders and it seemed that a deal might be
reached. But in recent days, both sides have hardened.

In the midst of those talks, de la Torre suddenly
announced a 24-hour ultimatum for the strike to end. At
the same time, more radical students in the leadership
vowed to peacefully resist any attempts to remove them.

Forty years ago, a similar protest at the UPR led to a
tragic police invasion of the main campus in Rio
Piedras. When the confrontation was over, 100 students
had been injured. One, 21-year-old Antonia Martinez,
was fatally shot in head by a police officer.

Unless cooler heads prevail soon, Puerto Rico's
greatest university could once again spiral out of


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