The battle for UPR heats up

February 17, 2011

Rossana Rodriguez reports on the revival of the fight at the University of Puerto Rico.

STUDENTS AT the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), supported by faculty and campus workers, are standing up to a new attempt by the administration and the government of Gov. Luis Fortuño to impose a crippling fee and crack down on dissent--and the first weeks of action in the spring semester have led to the resignation of the head of the UPR system.

After a series of clashes between student protesters and riot police who were occupying the biggest UPR campus in Río Piedras, President José Ramón de la Torre resigned on February 11. One day later, more than 10,000 people marched in Río Piedras in support of students and against the police attacks.

At the beginning of this week, Fortuño relented and ordered police officials to pull most of their cops off campus--a clear retreat by the government. But the $800 fee demanded of students for the spring semester has not been revoked, and students are continuing the struggle.

The backdrop for this year's struggle is the victory against tuition increases won by students last spring, after a two-month strike that shut down all 11 campuses in the UPR system. The administration caved in the face of the students' inspiring unity and agreed not to impose a $400 fee planned for the start of the fall semester.

Riot police attacked student demonstrators for the crime of writing and painting slogans in support of the struggle
Riot police attacked student demonstrators for the crime of writing and painting slogans in support of the struggle (Indymedia)

But administrators betrayed their agreement with the students by imposing an $800 fee for the spring semester. That fee is equal to more than half of annual tuition, and it would make it impossible for as many as 10,000 students to continue their studies.

Before the end of classes last December, students organized several protests against the $800 fee--and the administration responded asking the government to send police onto the Río Piedras campus, the first police occupation at UPR in 30 years, according to columnist Juan Gonzalez.

To prevent students from continuing their actions during the break between semesters, Ana Guadalupe, chancellor of the Río Piedras campus, issued an order December 13 prohibiting any form of protest, demonstration or public event on campus in open defiance of students' right to free speech.

The students tried to challenge the decision in court, but the justices of Puerto Rico's Supreme Court, who are appointed by the governor, decided it was in the best interest of the university community to keep Guadalupe's order in place.

Nevertheless, students continued organizing marches and protests on campus, openly challenging the administration. The repression against them since has been brutal. Leaders of the strike, like Giovanni Roberto, were summarily expelled. More than 100 students have been arrested so far in protests and civil disobedience acts, though no charges can be pressed against the vast majority of them. Police have beaten student activists, fired tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrations, and even sexually harassed a female student.

The brutality of police was so extreme that even a mainstream English-language newspaper The Daily Sun wrote in an editorial:

The police must leave campus. The latest events at the University of Puerto Rico have made evident, even to the most conservative, that the administration's heavy-handed policy towards the students is abusive, ineffective and plainly wrong.

The indiscriminate aggression of police riot squads against students, who are exercising their constitutional rights in public areas without interfering with any academic or administrative activity, is a gross violation of their rights and an act comparable only to the acts of the dictatorships we all denounce and reject.

ADMINISTRATORS HOPED a show of force from police on February 7, the first day of the spring semester on the Río Piedras campus, would intimidate students. At least 400 officers, clad in riot gear, were on hand.

But the students have taken so much that they aren't scared anymore. And they aren't alone either--unions, political organizations, and community and religious groups participated in a large act of resistance that forced the police to retreat. On the same day, a group of students managed to get in to a meeting of the UPR Board of Trustees to make their voices heard.

Later that same day, a judge declared unconstitutional both Guadalupe's order prohibiting public events at the Río Piedras campus and Giovanni Roberto's expulsion after the student challenged both decisions in court.

Students decided to celebrate the judge's decision by having a free-speech event that consisted of writing and painting messages against the fee and the police presence on the main street of the campus. A squad of riot police descended on the demonstration to intimidate the students, leading to a confrontation. The pictures of police using excessive force were broadcast for all to see. Around two dozen students were arrested.

Supporters of the students were angered, leading to strikes organized by the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors and the Brotherhood of Exempt Non-Teaching Employees. Other unions promised not to cross picket lines.

According to Maritza Stanchich, an associate professor at UPR, writing in the Huffington Post, the UPR president, de la Torre, wrote a letter to the police superintendent calling for riot officers to be removed from campus. The next day, he resigned--suggesting, as Stanchich wrote, that de la Torre "was the one removed."

But the student actions and strikes in solidarity led to a huge march on February 12, with more than 10,000 people demonstrating to demand the police get off campus and the elimination of the $800 fee. Two days later, Fortuño ordered the police chief to get officers out of the university, though a minimal number were left to provide security.

Students are still organizing to get the fee rescinded. But this isn't the only struggle they face. The government and the administration want to privatize the university, and several academic programs have been suspended with no explanation as to why.

The agenda of the Fortuño government is to destroy the University of Puerto Rico and what it represents--an institution that provides quality and affordable education to poor and working-class people, and a place for the development of critical thought, political discussion and the evolution of the Puerto Rican culture.

The students are defending their struggle with all they have. They and their supporters must come together and reclaim the university for those it belongs to: the people.

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