The imposition of student fees appears imminent at University of Puerto Rico despite violent clashes of striking students with riot police last week. The final date to pay the fee is this Wednesday. The student movement is now regrouping into another phase of the struggle, with plans to continue the strike and preparing for future reimbursement of the fee through a possible class-action lawsuit.
Strike leaders today are asking students who oppose the $800 fee-the vast majority regardless of their position on the strike-to opt for paying the first installment and thereby retain their status of enrolment. Assuming it is not hiked, the fee will be $400 in the ensuing semesters.
“Paying and remaining students is not undermining the strike. Rather it’s pay and protest-the process continues,” said Xiomara Caro, a law school student and one of the spokespersons for the Comité de Representación Estudiantil (Student Representative Committee).
Students are also being advised to write “Pago Bajo Protesta” or “Payment Under Protest” on payments via checks or money orders for evidence of their opposition in the event of reimbursements through a class action lawsuit, successfully achieved in a 2010 ruling against University of California (as well as in an earlier class action suit against that same institution, Kashmiri v. UC Regents). However, the administration automatically charged the full fee from thousands of Pell Grant allocations without consent. Promised government measures to cushion the blow of the fee have not yet been institutionalized. It is estimated at least 10,000 students system-wide will drop out, including graduate students whose tuition is more expensive.
The University of Puerto Rico serves about 65,000 students on 11 campuses, and is the largest institution of higher learning in the Caribbean, the most important center of research in Puerto Rico with millions in scientific funding, and the largest Hispanic-serving university in the United States (since Puerto Rico is technically a U.S. territory).
The forced institutionalization of fees comes after violent clashes with strike police last week as the fees began to be processed on Thursday, when protesting students blocked workers from entering Plaza Universitaria, the administrative building housing the offices to process payments. The students brandished multilingual banners of “¡No a La Cuota!” and home-made shields of wood and plastic, some stenciled with “A Defender la UPR” slogans with the university’s emblematic clock tower. Strike police dislodged the students with full force, using tear gas, pepper spray and wielding batons and Taser guns, arresting seven, six of whom were later released without charges. One female student appeared to have been arbitrarily clubbed at her brow, and another hit by a car across campus on a main thoroughfare of Avenida Barbosa.
Here are two videos of what transpired that day. The first, at the bottom of this report from the independent online university newspaper Diálogo Digital, shows police videotaping student protestors. Fears abound that such videos are later used to make targeted arrests, a practice with a widely documented history in the persecution of independence movements throughout the 20th Century, often in collaboration with the FBI. Puerto Ricans have created their own word for this, “carpeteo,” coming from the word “carpeta” or file, and reminiscent of McCarthyism.
In this second video, by Telenoticias from Telemundo, at about six minutes, disabled American veteran Todd Wesley Fick, is arrested for allegedly attempting to block riot police but was later released without charges after having his leg prosthetic removed and being handled in such a way as to later require medical treatment; legal experts opined that the method of arrest may be in violation of the American Disabilities Act.
Meanwhile, Statehood Party and Reaganite aficionado Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño was in Spain, participating in a celebration of Spanish Conquistador and Puerto Rico’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León.
The fee was processed with fewer clashes the next day with a campus under police occupation. Everyone entering the campus is required to show university identification and occasionally bags are inspected. Ignored were calls from important sectors such as the Academic Senate for an end to the police occupation, a temporary moratorium on the fee, a postponement of the strike and in-depth dialogue between parties.
In response to the climate of repression, a broad coalition began last week with a day of solemn commemoration and tense protest on Tuesday, when the University reopened after the holidays to complete the fall semester, which had been extended due to brief semester interruptions related to the unrest. The traditional celebration marking the national holiday for Eugenio Maria de Hostos, a renown 19th Century, pro-Independence philosopher and liberal who was politically exiled from Puerto Rico, attracted about 300 participants drawn from 56 political, labor and civil rights organizations. The coalition entered the campus in violation of prohibitions against protest and assembly of any kind on campus from the local Supreme Court and the Chancellor Ana Guadalupe. The Chancellor’s edict was recently extended another month by the UPR Board of Trustees.
The event later turned sour when riot police intervened during a student-led march from the commemoration throughout the large campus, as members of a small, militant wing of the student movement, called “encapuchados” for the masks they wear to elude the aforementioned “carpeteo” practices, set off smoke bombs to disrupt classes being held despite the strike, and smashed windows and overturned tables in the Student Center’s fast food area. TV crews and journalists captured the mayhem, later broadcast and published as top news. Oddly no arrests were made, though police were present throughout the march. Leaders of Puerto Rico’s small Independence Party (PIP) issued statements reminding that their movement has always been infiltrated by provocateur and saboteur agents (perhaps most notoriously in the 1978 Cerro Maravilla political killings of two UPR students). The student movement committees issued statements repudiating the vandalism. The main professors’ organization, a supporter of the student movement, Asociación of Profesores Puertoriqueños Universitarios, called for prudence. Nevertheless, the governor seized the moment to denounce the student movement as violent and not open to dialogue.
Suspicions of foul play on the part of the government were fanned when the following day police arrested ten students for handing out informative flyers in a classroom, all of whom were later released without charges. The blind eye of the police to the vandalism of the previous day had quickly morphed into its opposite, a carte blanche to arrest. One witness, retired telephone company employee and UPR alum Enrique Miranda, seen in the striped shirt trying to intervene in the following brief YouTube video from WAPA TV, said he felt the incident had been orchestrated.
These incidents capped off a holiday season of extraordinary organizing on the part of the student movement: student leaders broadcast sophisticated videos explaining the issues; student groups reached out to economically-marginalized communities and their leaders; the groundbreaking, student-run radio station RadioHuelga projected an edgy cache; Facebook pages and online independent student journalism stoked constant debate; protesters converged on the Plaza Las Americas Mall and more recently blocked major avenues of transit; street theater, including the two-story tall puppet emblazoned with UPR No se Vende (UPR Not for Sale), became a leitmotif; and multiple spokespersons and leaders imparted a vibrant array of voices.
The administration response included suspensions of student leaders, and full-page newspaper advertisements as well as am radio ads, on a daily basis. Slick and sophisticated ads belie the administration’s claim to fiscal crisis, promoting a few options such as new scholarship and work-study program to defray the impact of the fee. Students greeted these measures as superficial and a smokescreen for eventual privatization. Demands for fiscal transparency have been studiously ignored, along with suggestions for improving efficiency.
The governor and party leaders met briefly with select student leaders before Christmas, taking advantage of slow news days for prominent photo-ops and then dismissed or misrepresented student proposals. Media blitz notwithstanding, few Puerto Rican voters fancy the spectacle of police clubbing unarmed students live on TV. The images come on the heels of recent coverage from The Economist that forecast Puerto Rico will have one of the lowest economic growth rates in the world next year.
“Around the world the fiscal crisis is being used as an excuse to abandon affordable public education and student activists worldwide cannot lose faith in the possibility of resistance,” said student spokesperson Caro. “We are not fighting for something small or simple and because of that it is a determined fight.”
Indeed student movements as far flung as Croatia and Pakistan are following the UPR strike, judging from international blog posts.
“The epicenter of the struggle for the public university in Latin America is Puerto Rico,” declared José Carlos Luque Brazán, a professor and researcher of political science and urban planning at Universidad Autónoma de la Cuidad de México. “My warmest regards to fellow allies in the struggle!”