In Response to Massive Budget Cuts, Here’s How University of Puerto Rico Students Are Fighting Back

Thousands of UPR students march toward el Capitolio in protest. EFE/Archivo

Seven years after the historic 2010 strikes at the University of Puerto Rico—which resulted in expulsions, arrests, police violence and included a monumental 62-day lock-in at the Río Piedras campus—the island’s primary higher education system is now facing its most significant budget cut ever. Originally proposed at $300 million, amounting to about 20 percent of the operating budget, the reduction was officially upped to $450 million under Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s fiscal plan, which was approved on March 14th by the federally appointed fiscal oversight board, La Junta de Control Fiscal.

El Movimiento Estudantil of today is not unlike its previous incarnations; resistance and protest is effectively ingrained in the University of Puerto Rico’s history. Student movements and manifestations dot its timeline from its earliest days, from pushback against the government’s newfound tightened grip in the early 1900s to intense spikes in the ’60s and early ’70s against militarization through the presence of the United States’ ROTC program. In 1981, a 5-month strike ensued in response to tuition hikes, and in the ’90s and mid-2000s marches and other actions were organized with similar grievances as roots.

It’s not only the University of Puerto Rico under attack in 2017—it’s the entire island.

Now, however, the student movement is more intertwined with other efforts. Days after the unprecedented resignation of 11 University Board members in mid-February, a general student assembly was held at the Río Piedras campus and a 48-hour strike resulted. But it’s not only the University of Puerto Rico under attack in 2017—it’s the entire island.

“The budget cuts proposed by La Junta aren’t to help Puerto Rican people, they’re to pay off a debt whose origins are unclear, a debt we’re not sure was taken on responsibly,” says Wilmarí De Jesús Álvarez, President of the Consejo General de Estudiantes del Recinto de Río Piedras.

Masiva manifestación estudiantil supera las 18,000 personas. Estudiantes de todos los recintos de la Universidad de Puerto Rico se congregaron en el lado norte del Capitolio. Junto a sindicatos y sectores solidarios, repudiaron las medidas de austeridad que adelanta el Gobierno y la Junta de Control. El estudiantado marchó hacia la Fortaleza, donde reiteraron su intención de impedir los millonarios recortes a la universidad pública. #ElContrapeso

Posted by Contrapeso Mediático on Friday, February 24, 2017

An audit of that $73 billion debt, she says, is absolutely necessary. She’s not alone: Since PROMESA was passed and its federal oversight board instated, groups have mobilized, protested. They argue that the debt is inherently illegal; they publicly resist any measures taken by the government in its efforts to repay bond holders and hedge funds.

The steps students at the University of Puerto Rico will take next are to be decided at a National Assembly on April 5, to be held at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan. A second Rio Piedras assembly will be held on March 21 in which students will vote—likely favorably—on whether they’ll join. So far, De Jesús Álvarez says, five of the 11 campuses have already confirmed attendance. A major strike like 2010’s seems like a viable option, but the breadth of the issues presented requires wider solidarity. It’s about social consciousness, De Jesús Álvarez says.

“It’s a general protest,” she adds. “It’s a call for other sectors to wake up to the rights of Puerto Ricans.”

Beyond its educational purpose, the University of Puerto Rico has a social purpose.

Beyond the university budget reduction, Governor Rosselló’s fiscal plan, approved with amendments by La Junta de Control Fiscal, also accounts for a 10 percent reduction in pensions, a decrease in government labor, restructuring government subsidized healthcare (fewer programs and more out-of-pocket costs for patients), the extension of sales tax to Internet sales and other measures for increasing revenue. This comes on the heels of La Reforma Laboral, which greatly reduced benefits for workers who, considering the 12.4 percent unemployment rate, have little freedom to opt out and look for better conditions when their employer implements the downgrades.

Giovanni Roberto Caez, a UPR-RP alum who served as negotiator during the 2010 movement, says “the cycle has already started,” but notes the differences of the current circumstances.“It’s not a strike against the University like our first strike was, and it’s not a strike against the government like our second strike was. This is a strike against La Junta, and that makes it difficult. It makes it totally different—in some ways, it’s similar, but it makes it very difficult,” he says.

A university student protests as riot police stand guard at the main gate of the University of Puerto Rico during a 2010 student strike in San Juan. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
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Roberto Caez graduated the same year he was expelled for leading a march. Deemed a “danger to the University,” he sued the University, defying the order by continuing to attend classes. He won his case.

De Jesús Álvarez notes that the student population of the University system has changed since then. Fewer remain on campus as often; instead, many leave to work multiple part-time jobs. Bringing those students into the fold, she says, is crucial. And while the process has already begun, there’s still much work to do: Educating, identifying problems, unifying the campuses.

“Beyond its educational purpose, the University of Puerto Rico has a social purpose. It has a responsibility to the country to provide an opportunity for people to develop, to access an education that will improve their quality of life…for social mobility in this country,” she says.

Roberto Caez expresses concern about the development of the students’ opposition strategy.

“At the end, what we have is a big monster, and we can only face it if more people strike.”

“We [had] committees the year before [the strike]. People trained in…developing the organizing skills that a strike would require from people. To handle the press, being able to actually gain support from people…and political thinking. Lobbying, correct strategies for the adversities that they’ll face—that needs training,” he says. “They have 30 people maybe, between 15 and 40, trained in some of these striking skills. They’re not in a bad position, but I’m just comparing, we had more. They are now organizing those committees against the clock because they have the strike maybe on April 5.”

Working with other resistance groups in a way that reflects “what collectively affects us,” De Jesús Álvarez says, will be key. At the February assembly, she points out, education on gender perspectives—Rosselló withdrew its inclusion in Puerto Rican schools earlier in the month—and the treatment and rights of trans students were a major part of the discussion.

Roberto Caez adds, “At the end, what we have is a big monster, and we can only face it if we have a strike in more places. [We need] a process or a climate—a political climate—that can actually face the agenda, because it’s an agenda.”