Puerto Rico: university professors strike, president resigns

A confrontation between police and University of Puerto Rico (UPR) students on Feb. 9 at the Río Piedras campus in San Juan quickly escalated into what appeared to be the most violent event in two months of protests against an $800 tuition surcharge imposed this year.

The day began with two separate demonstrations. A group of students started to paint protest slogans on a street inside the campus, while administrative workers, members of the Brotherhood of Exempt Non-Teaching Employees (HEEND), took over the office of UPR rector Ana Guadalupe to demand the removal of the police from campus. Police agents attempted to photograph the student protesters, who claimed they were exercising their constitutional right to free speech. Shoving matches led to beatings and the use of pepper spray by helmeted riot police. Agents arrived on horseback and motorcycles while a helicopter circled over the campus. The students fled, but then regrouped twice and fought back against the police as many other students joined the protest. Outside supporters of the students organized two marches into the campus.

By the evening there were reports that 23 students had been arrested and 14 agents were injured, as were an unknown number of students; some agents, students and journalists had been splashed with the paint that was intended for writing slogans. Students hung a banner from the campus’ landmark tower reading: “We will win.” (WAPA-TV, Puerto Rico, Feb. 9, some from CyberNews; Primera Hora, Guaynabo, Feb. 9; Indymedia PR, Feb. 10; NCM Noticias, Feb. 13, via Indymedia PR)

There are indications that the conservative administration of Gov. Luis Fortuño had made plans to escalate the violence, even though police tactics in earlier protests had already brought charges of brutality and sexual abuse. The Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU), which represents UPR professors, said it had information about a high-level meeting on Feb. 7 in which it was remarked that “everything was turning out well” in the UPR crisis and that “all that’s missing” is a death to blame on the students. (NCM Noticias, Feb. 13)

If the Puerto Rican government was trying to provoke an incident, the tactic misfired badly. Even police superintendent José Figueroa Sancha admitted in a radio interview that the police response had been excessive. The APPU and the HEEND called a 24-hour strike for Feb. 10 to protest the police presence on UPR campuses and to shut down Río Piedras in order to prevent more violence. Campus maintenance workers joined the strike, which was extended through Feb. 11 despite the university’s announcement that it would dock the strikers’ pay. (Prensa Latina, Feb. 11)

As the strike was in progress on Feb. 10, UPR president José Ramón de la Torre sent a letter to police superintendent Figueroa Sancha requesting “the withdrawal of the police from the University of Puerto Rico.” De la Torre, who had previously supported the police presence, then resigned “for family reasons.” The resignation was made official on Feb. 11. (El Nuevo Día, Guaynabo, Feb. 11; TeleSUR, Feb. 12)

On Feb. 12, thousands of students and supporters turned out for “I Love the UPR,” a march to demand the withdrawal of the police. Supported by 72 social organizations and opposition political parties, the mass protest moved through San Juan streets, with motorists honking in support, and marched into the campus, with chants of “Out, out,” past police agents who were unable or unwilling to stop the procession. “If this is the minority, where is the majority?” protesters asked, referring to claims that only a small minority of students and other Puerto Ricans support the protests. Even former governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (2005-2009) joined the march, although some protesters jeered him because of his efforts to break a teachers’ strike in 2008.

“Whoever thinks this movement has run out of gas should look at this demonstration and think again,” Student Representative Committee (CRE) spokesperson Ian Camilo Cintrón told the crowd. “The police are in the university to guarantee a project for the privileged and the elite and not a project for the majority. What’s at stake here is accessibility for young people who can’t count on the resources to be able to come to this institution.” (END, Feb. 13; NCM Noticias, Feb. 13)

As the crisis continued in Puerto Rico, on Feb. 11 Gov. Fortuño was in Washington, DC, addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The governor is considered a rising star in the US conservative movement, and Republican strategists feel he might help the party reach out to Latino voters. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is hoping for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, has mentioned Fortuño as a potential running mate. (Times of India, Feb. 11, from AP; The Virginian-Pilot, Feb. 8, from Politico)

Update Feb. 14: Today Gov. Fortuño announced the partial removal of police agents from the Río Piedras campus. “The police shouldn’t be in the UPR,” he said. “They should be in the streets.” Agents were seen gathering their equipment and preparing to move out. (END, Feb. 14)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 13.

See our last post on Puerto Rico.