Puerto Rico: The State Counterattacks

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, April 18, 2011 (NCM) -With the strategic support of The White House, the government of Puerto Rico has unleashed a counteroffensive with multiple fronts that – if successful – would sweep away student resistance, environmental protests, remove independence supporters from the scene, and neutralize unions and other so-called civil society groups.

However, the political and economic instability, as well as a dramatic increase in crime, have combined with the major decrease in popularity of the governor Luis Fortuño to serve as an uncomfortable frame from which to attempt to change the foundation of institutional life in this island nation located in the northeast Caribbean, equidistant between Guantanamo and Caracas.

Until now, the principal focus of the state’s actions, which has recruited an amalgam of support from the right and the left, has been police and judicial persecution of the student leadership.  The process takes advantage of the situation in order to reestablish as legitimate the surveillance and harassment of citizens who have not committed any crime but who take the risk of participating in protest activities.

In one of the most dramatic cases of this practice, a judge took advantage of the moment to fine renowned environmental activist Alberto de Jesus “Tito Kayak” various thousand dollars for cursing at police officers who were following him during a student protest and warned that there is nothing wrong with police following or watching citizens without cause or suspicion of crime.  Almost at the same time as the judicial expression, the national police chief, Jose Figueroa Sancha, announced that one month ago a police regulation was put into effect that allows the recording with cameras of those who attend protests and other public activities, videos that would be maintained for various years in the vault of the office of the Auxiliary Superintendent of Strategic Operations.

The approval of the regulation, at first confidential and now public knowledge, occurred one day after a riot in the School of Architecture in the University of Puerto Rico, during which the presence of motorized police units and a high-ranking uniformed officer was documented. From this incident there are also reports that undercover agents of police intelligence took part in the aggression that took place against university guards.

The riot provoked public calls against the students, but the reports of police participation in the incident have not produced similar complaints. Similarly, the announcement by police officials about electronic surveillance of citizens has failed to produce major objections by the public.

What has also failed to garner further public interest is that two days after that riot, labor contracts for government workers expired, leaving them in such limbo for over 40 days now.  The Legislature approved an extension of the contracts for two years, but governor Fortuño vetoed that bill in order to make technical amendments, which will have the effect of placing the bill once again at his desk days before May 1st, when a massive protest is scheduled against the construction of a natural gas pipeline – a protest which will feature the participation of those very unions.

The legislature is considering at this time a measure designed to abolish all mandatory professional associations of actors, electricians, engineers, architects, and others, as has been done with the Bar Association, which is struggling to prevent the loss of its headquarters and until now has not been successful in having its members defray the costs of millions of dollars necessary to save its offices.

On the other hand, protesting students are taking advantage of the silence in media coverage in order to reorganize their forces without going public with how they are doing it.  Additionally, they are preparing the basis for challenging in court the secretive manner in which the University of Puerto Rico manages its treasury after witness revelations that alleged that the institution counts with hundreds of properties throughout the country, which it disposes of with no public scrutiny and that it sells off farmland and buildings below market rates while burdening students with tuition increases which have already had the effect of leaving thousands of poor students out of the classroom.

The country had two recent opportunities to confirm that the university uprising remains sensible including at the beginning of the month when administrative employees were successful at paralyzing the eleven campuses of the UPR, destroying the notion that they would act as strikebreakers.  The second occasion was during the visit of an evaluative group from the US accreditation entity, during which professors, administrative employees and students successfully denounced the UPR Rio Piedras campus president, Ana Guadalupe, who ended up being held responsible in the Final Report for the lack of democratic governance in the institution.

But there are more pressing matters in the public debate, such as the explosion of homicide rates that threaten to make 2011 the most violent in history with more than 1,100 violent deaths.  Into the remote past have been relegated not only the first decades of the last century with the number of annual murders barely in the tens, but also of the memory of the middle of the 20th century when the establishment of the autonomous regime was accompanied by almost 20 years of relatively low homicide rates.

Now, continuing the trend begun in 1971 that has now yielded more than 26, 300 deaths, the island has confirmed the prediction made in 1996 by criminologist Dora Nevarez, who warned of the new downward spiral of homicides once the generation borne out of “la mano dura” (the hard hand / re: heavy-handed policy) matured, a policy that was implemented when military forces occupied public housing complexes in order to try to control crime.

An ally for the government in its attempt to force the birth of a new country is the new policy report issued by The White House, which supports the actions taken with regard to the UPR and the energy policy regarding natural gas, which is characterized by the construction of a controversial gas pipeline.  The report also proposes plebiscites to be held in order to have Puerto Rico vote over rejecting independence and free association, which would open the way for the US government to consolidate itself over this nation of over 4 million inhabitants.

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