University of Puerto Rico students go on strike
Monday, 24 May 2010

Student strike in Puerto Rico underscores widespread discontent

A strike experts say is unprecedented has paralyzed 10 of the University of Puerto Rico's 11 campuses.

 

SAN JUAN -- University of Puerto Rico drama student Mariana Monclova has a work-study job, a federal financial aid grant and, like all of her school's artists, musicians, cheerleaders, athletes and honor students, she gets a tuition waiver.

 

Under a fiercely debated proposal to help chip away at the university's $200 million deficit, the school's board would have had her choose: need-based financial aid or the waiver.

 

"I live with my mother and, even like that, I have just enough to pay for what I need,'' Monclova said.

 

So the 20-year-old student joined ranks with thousands of UPR students in shutting down the university in protest. The strike, which began April 21, has paralyzed the university and mesmerized Puerto Rico as calls of support come in from the likes of Ricky Martin, Juanes and Ricardo Alarcón, the head of Cuba's National Assembly.

 

On Saturday, the university reversed the proposal limiting scholarships -- but the strike continues until other matters such as tuition hikes are resolved.

 

Not since Puerto Rico rallied to chase the United States Navy out of Vieques a decade ago have so many different social sectors rallied around a single cause. Experts say a university with a history of often-leftist political struggles that sometimes ended in violence has, for the first time, launched an island-wide walkout that underscores discontent felt throughout Puerto Rico.

 

As more people here lose their jobs, experts say the UPR strike stands as a symbol of a society fed up with a soured economy and messy politics.

 

"In many ways, this strike has no precedent,'' said Pablo Navarro, a professor at Lesley University in Massachusetts, who wrote a book about the history of UPR student uprisings.

 

"The strike has so many factors converging that reflect the social crisis Puerto Rico is living at this time: a financial crisis that is very deep, an unemployment rate that is very high, and add to that the proposed changes that would affect the scholarships of athletes, artists, chorus and high honor students.''

 

With the semester and pending research at stake, students say the strike could last months as the fear of violence escalates and negotiations stall.

 

Desks and chairs barricade university gates, and dorms were taken over by students. An effigy of the school's president is propped on the police-guarded front entrance as the student-run radio station -- www.radiohuelga.com -- transmits around the clock.

 

The strike that began at the main Rio Piedras campus swept to 10 of the university's 11 campuses, cost one campus rector her job and landed the student negotiating committee in court. On Friday, more than 1,000 faculty voted to continue the strike should university officials end it by using police force against students, and called for the president and board chairwoman's ousters.

 

On Thursday, a student protest against Gov. Luis Fortuño ended with injuries, arrests and pepper spray. On Saturday, hundreds of students rallied at Plaza de las Americas, San Juan's largest shopping mall.

 

In an interview with The Miami Herald, university President José Ramón de la Torre and Board of Trustees president Ygri Rivera insisted that the strike did not have popular support.

 

In an apparent reference to labor unions, Rivera said "radical forces'' that seek to destabilize the university, are manipulating vulnerable students.

 

"This is not a strike,'' de la Torre said. "A strike is an action by recognized protesters against an employer. This is a stoppage by students, where they went overboard. This whole thing has been unnecessary.''

 

The controversy began because 30 percent of UPR's 62,000 students get talent-based tuition waivers, but there was no established standard for distributing them. Athletes who quit the team still got them, de la Torre said.

 

The university, acting on advice by its auditors, simply seeks to regulate the waivers, he said. With tuition at just $2,000 a year, they only cost the university $16 million annually.

 

He and Rivera said the university will not make students choose between tuition waivers and federal Pell grants which go to the neediest students, despite an addendum to a February board resolution that says exactly that. The addendum, Rivera said, was just a proposal.

 

"It sounds like she says one thing in interviews and another thing at the negotiating table,'' said negotiator Arturo Ríos, a law student. "Sixty-eight percent of UPR students get federal financial aid, and a third of those also get waivers. So what they are trying to do is have it so that the only people who get tuition waivers are the people who have the money to pay the tuition.''

 

On Saturday, the board officially emitted a new resolution saying no student could lose their waiver just for having federal financial aid.

 

Ríos, named in the university's injunction, drives around in circles in other people's cars: He's constantly on the lookout for process servers.

 

The university is under fire for taking the negotiators to court to force them to open the gates. Rivera, who called off the summons servers, said the move was an effort to avoid using the police.

 

Students and police have died at previous UPR rallies. The public is deeply committed to free public education -- and still very sensitive to the use of force on campus.

 

As far back as the 1940s, the university lost entire semesters to student uprisings. In the '60s and '70s, students planted bombs in the ROTC building, and clashes left both students and officers dead.

 

Police were filmed clubbing students at a protest Thursday.

 

"The University of Puerto Rico is a catalyst, a microcosm of Puerto Rico,'' Ríos said. "It has always been proactive in taking the first step in social struggles.''

 

But many of those student rebellions were tied to Puerto Rico's independence activists, who lead the charge on most social movements here.

 

"This strike is very important because in the past, the strikes were almost always ideological,'' said former UPR political science dean José Luis Méndez, a socialist. "The parents would be telling the kids: `You stay home!' Now this time, you have parents and grandparents climbing fences to bring their kids food.

 

"Everybody is at this strike, except the party that is in power.''

 

Gov. Fortuño's office could not be reached for comment. Fortuño has publicly spoken out against the strike, which he believes is being led by a small minority.

 

Despite the major strides made over the weekend, the future of the strike was still in doubt Sunday as students wrestle with more issues such as tuition hikes and amnesty for strike leaders.

 

"This is essentially a fight between high-class elites that run the university and the students, the majority of whom are poor,'' said Alicia M. Petru, 22, who is among the 250 students camping out at the school.

 

"They don't want to accept the strength of the students because it's like sending a message to the people: If you struggle, you can win.''

 

Author:  FRANCES ROBLES

Source:  Miami Herald

 

 
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