Puerto Rico: police occupy campuses

Students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) started a 48-hour strike on Dec. 7 to oppose plans for an $800 tuition surcharge at the public university beginning on Jan. 1. Five people were injured during the first day of the strike as students confronted guards at the Río Piedras campus in San Juan, and the campus was closed down through Dec. 8. On Dec. 10 police chief José Figueroa Sancha announced that police agents would patrol UPR campuses, at the request of university president José Ramón de la Torre. This is the first time the police have had a presence in the university in nearly 30 years.

The tuition increase is the main issue that was left unsettled after a 62-day student strike last spring, and UPR administrators and the Puerto Rican government are clearly afraid of a renewal of the student protests, which shut down 10 of the 11 UPR campuses and largely defeated efforts to impose an austerity budget. Some observers think students are less likely to support a strike now, and the authorities are playing to students’ concerns about their education. On Dec. 7 UPR Board of Trustees president Ygrí Rivera warned that the loss of more school days in a strike might lead to the university being denied academic accreditation and possibly funds from the US federal government. (Prensa Latina, Dec. 7; EFE, Dec. 10, via Telemundo TV Atlanta)

The use of police on campus might build support for more protests, however. Student strikers responded to the police presence at Río Piedras by starting a vigil there, while an assembly of professors at the campus decided not to hold classes as long as the police remained. (La Raza, Chicago, Dec. 10)

On Dec. 12 hundreds of parents, students, professors, alumni and university employees marched against the surcharge in a demonstration organized by the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU) and the National Confederation of Associations of University Professors (CONAPU) and endorsed by the Action Committee of Mothers, Fathers and Relatives of UPR Students. With banners, puppets and drums, the protesters marched in San Juan from the Capitol to La Fortaleza, the governor’s residence; the traditional Christmas-season Three Kings led the parade, carrying Puerto Rican flags. Alis Morales Pérez, a spokesperson for the relatives’ committee, told reporters that she was “the mother of three daughters at Río Piedras that I raised by myself” and “[u]nlike the legislators” she didn’t “have the money to pay even the $800 for one of them, much less the $2,400 to cover the [extra] tuition for all three.” (Primera Hora, Guaynabo, Dec. 11, Dec. 12)

UPR professors noted parallels between the protests in Puerto Rico and those in the United Kingdom, where students held massive mobilizations on Dec. 9 against the imposition of tuition at public universities. “What’s obvious in both cases is that the citizenry and the students are demanding that the state honor its moral and ethical responsibility for public education,” historian Pedro Reina said. According to social sciences professor Samuel Silva Gotay, “both [countries] are experiencing the imposition of the economic policies of neoliberalism…. They could destroy a whole generation of the intellectuals who are the ones that the development of any country or place depends on.” (El Nuevo Día, Guaynabo, Dec. 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 12.

See our last post on Puerto Rico.