SAN JUAN, May 20 – This evening, there was a picket of several hundred students of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) and workers from a number of sectors, including port workers, university professors and many others. The picket was held in front of a fancy fundraising dinner for businessmen where Governor Luis Fortuño was to give a speech.
When several dozen students entered the luxurious restaurant of the Sheraton Hotel in the Convention Center where the event was being held and tried to go up to where the privatizing, anti-worker governor was scheduled to speak, the notorious Fuerza de Choque (Shock Force) riot squad of the Puerto Rican Police poured in and savagely beat the students, spraying pepper gas in their faces and in some cases directly into their eyes.
The Shock Force brutally beat many students, as well as some older ladies. When the students managed to escape, the police took off after them and charged into the workers who were still picketing the hotel. This militarized police force also fired off large amounts of tear gas, to the point that a cloud of gas hung over the area.
The police also beat and pepper-sprayed a number of union leaders in the face, among them the president of the UGT (General Workers Union), Manuel Perfecto, a representative of the Puerto Rican Labor Federation (FTPR), John Viguera, as well as the president of the Solidarity Union Movement (MSS), José Rodríguez.
Perfecto estimated that more than 25 people were injured. “They threw them on the ground, they kicked them and beat them with riot sticks,” he told Primera Hora, one of the leading San Juan daily newspapers. The president of the FCT (Central Labor Federation) Luisa Acevedo was beaten in the back, and José Rodríguez Báez, president of the FTPR, was also injured. Both were taken to the hospital, according to the UGT leader. Several demonstrators were arrested.
A student from the UPR Humanities Department, Mariana Lima, told our reporter: “We came here to demonstrate because the universities are closed in protest over privatization. Governor Fortuño held a tea party here in the Sheraton Hotel, charging $1,000 a plate. One thousand dollars is what my education costs, in a public university! They want to take away our scholarships. They beat us with riot clubs. They tear-gassed us. They sprayed pepper gas right in my face.”
An airport worker who is a member of the HEO (Brotherhood of Office Workers) of the port authority, Jesús, said: “We’re here because we’re fighting against privatization of the ports, of the UPR and the rest. We have to keep on fighting against these outrages by the police and the government.”
Gilberto, another port worker who handles heavy machinery, said: “The police provoked this incident and they were ruthless. We’re here partly because Law 7 affects us indirectly. We don’t want them to privatize us like they did with the Puerto Rican Telephone Company” (in 1998). We have to show that we are united, students and workers.”
(Law 7, introduced by the governor and rammed through the legislature last year, authorizes the government, in the name of the economic crisis, to lay off public employees despite union contracts. It also changed the financing formula for the University of Puerto Rico, leading to the budget deficit that is now being used to justify the elimination of tuition waivers and other measures against the students.)
Another student, from Social Sciences, said: “They were beating us with riot clubs, especially in the back, affecting people’s disks.” A Social Work student, Joel, who uses a wheel chair, gave a speech on the corner were a number of students and workers managed to regroup after the police assault. He said: “People should stay militant to the end. We have to keep on fighting. I’m glad we spoiled Fortuño’s party.”
At this moment (9 p.m.), there is a picket line in front of the main entrance to the UPR campus in Río Piedras (in metropolitan San Juan) where students and workers are chanting, “Struggle yes, sellout no!” They are also singing a famous anthem of the workers movement that goes back decades. Along with indignation, they are showing their determination to continue this fight, which is shaking up bourgeois public opinion as well as important sectors of the working class. It is this class that has the power to defeat the increasingly brazen and brutal attacks by the bourgeois government.
We must not allow the ruling class and its rabid guard dogs to attack labor leaders and student activists with impunity for coming out in defense of the struggle against privatization. The strike this Tuesday (May 18), where thousands of workers joined with students and professors in front of the Río Piedras campuses and at UPR campuses around the island, shows that the working class of this country is vitally interested in defending public education, along with the fight against layoffs, Law 7 and other attacks by the bourgeoisie. It is urgently necessary to carry out powerful strikes to shut down key sectors of the economy and to multiply solidarity protests internationally.