Puerto Rico: student strike wins most demands

After a new four-day round of talks with a court-appointed mediator, students and the Board of Trustees at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) reached an agreement on the night of June 16-17 to end a two-month strike that had closed 10 of the public university’s 11 campuses. The trustees agreed to drop plans for cutbacks in the budget and for reductions in scholarships and tuition exemptions, and they postponed until next January a plan to impose a special tuition surcharge of about $1,100 for each of the next three years. They also agreed not to penalize the strike leaders. The strikers’ National Negotiating Committee (CNN) said the shutdown would end if students ratified the agreement in a national assembly on June 21.

The breakthrough in negotiations came after the mediator, former judge Pedro López Oliver, brought all 13 trustees into the talks, which had been dominated previously by Board of Trustees president Ygrí Rivera. Rivera and three other trustees refused to sign the final agreement.

The strike began on April 21 with a two-day protest at the Río Piedras campus in San Juan, the largest campus in the system, which has a student body of about 65,000. On April 23 student leaders at Río Piedras declared an open-ended strike, which quickly spread to all but one of the other campuses. The strikers won support from Puerto Rican unions and grassroots organizations along with much of the island’s artistic community, reflecting anger at Gov. Luis Fortuño’s policy of responding to the world economic crisis with layoffs, budget cuts and privatization. There was also strong international support for the students.

Strike leaders called the agreement the first big victory for the student movement in the university’s 107-year history. They said they planned to use the June 21 national assembly, to be held at the Pachín Vicéns Auditorium in the southern city of Ponce, to solidify the student movement. Meanwhile, after celebrating on the night of June 17, students who had been sitting in at the various campuses began clearing out their encampments. Arianis Pacheco, an education student at Río Piedras, told a reporter on June 18 that they would donate the food they’d been stockpiling to earthquake victims in Haiti. (Univision, June 17 from AP; Prensa Latina, June 17; New York Times, June 17 from correspondent; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, June 18; El Nuevo Día, San Juan, June 19; Primera Hora, Guaynabo, June 18 from staff, June 19 from IPS)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 20.

See our last post on Puerto Rico.