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No. 14, January 2018

Hurricanes, Colonial Government, Wall Street and Washington

University of Puerto Rico Students, Faculty and Workers Under Siege

Striking UPR students and cops face off in march on government offices during 48-hour walkout, February 2017. RIY calls for free, quality public education for all, independence for Puerto Rico and the struggle for socialist revolution from the Carribean to the U.S. (Photo: Ramón Tonito Zayas)

For All-Out Worker/Student/Teacher Action
to Defeat the Assault on the UPR!

DECEMBER 2017 – Following hurricanes Irma and Maria this past September, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) was left in tatters. Buildings were devastated, windows shattered, trees torn asunder by 174 mph winds, while flooding caused massive water damage. Of the UPR’s eleven campuses, only one was left with water and electricity in the aftermath (the medical campus in San Juan). As students, staff and faculty pitched in to remove the debris – often supplying their own gloves, rakes and shovels – campuses slowly reopened at the end of October. But even at the beginning of December, the university has barely begun to recover. At the flagship Río Piedras campus, library service is still partial: although 90-95% of the collections were saved, clean-up is still going on to remove dangerous black mold, while a number of buildings are closed because of problems with lighting, air filtration and air conditioning.

Meanwhile, several thousand UPR students have abandoned the island altogether, continuing their studies in stateside institutions, including New York University, Touro Law Center, state universities in New York and Florida offering in-state tuition, and Tulane University in New Orleans, which itself took six years to recover from enrollment losses due to Hurricane Katrina. This mass migration of youth isn’t solely a by-product of the hurricane but a direct result of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, exacerbated by the extortionate demands of Wall Street hedge funds and Washington bureaucrats. Today the bankers and U.S. imperialist government completely control the island’s finances through the Junta de Control Fiscal (JCF – Financial Control Board) put in place by Congress and then-president Barack Obama under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). And the University of Puerto Rico is tops on la junta’s hit list.

What that means for the UPR is massive budget cuts. Initial plans called for $300 million in  cuts, but then the JCF declared that fully half of the university’s $900 million budget – $450 million – would have to go. For the 60,000 UPR students, faculty and staff, this spelled disaster. Under the budget approved by the university’s Governing Board, tuition has doubled, from $56 to $115 a credit, or about $3,500 a year for a full-time student (El Nuevo Día, 31 July). Yet most UPR students are poor and working-class (70% are eligible for Pell grants). The median annual household income in Puerto Rico is $18,000 a year, barely half that of the poorest state in the U.S. (Mississippi, $36,000 a year) and less than one-third that of New York ($60,000 a year). Plus costs of basic necessities like groceries are about 15% higher than the U.S. average. The tuition hike will effectively drive thousands of students out of the UPR.

In fact, the university’s April 2017 fiscal plan “enrollment goal” aims to reduce the number of students from 62,000 to 54,000 by 2022. It justifies this by pointing to the dramatic decrease in the number of college-age youth due to massive emigration. From 2010 to 2015, as a result of the acute economic crisis, the population of Puerto Rico fell by 6.6%, but the number of 15-19 year-olds fell by more than 17% – a figure which the UPR “market projection” anticipates will rise to 22.5% by 2025. Yet even as young people have been fleeing the island, UPR enrollment has increased. No longer. Cutback plans also include reducing the number of classes, slashing the number of “temporary personnel” (notably adjunct faculty), “merging” campuses into three “hubs,” freezing pay increases and hiring, postponing new construction and other drastic steps.

Students Fight Back: Strike!

Striking UPR students and cops face off in march on government offices during 48-hour walkout, February 2017. RIY calls for free, quality public education for all, independence for Puerto Rico and the struggle for socialist revolution from the Carribean to the U.S. (Photo: Ramón Tonito Zayas)

Upon hearing of plans for a budget-ax murder of their school, UPR students took swift action. On February 22, a general assembly of students at the Río Piedras campus voted to hold a 48-hour walkout, marching to the legislature in the Capitolio and on to the governor’s office in La Fortaleza. Learning of the even more draconian cuts called for by the junta, Río Piedras voted for an indefinite strike beginning March 28. On March 31 they marched along with the university workers union (HEEND) and the faculty union (APPU) to the PR Convention Center where the JCF was meeting. On April 5, a National Student Assembly voted for the rest of the UPR to join the strike, which almost all the campuses did. For 72 days students occupied the school, blockading the gates and forming committees to provide meals, build activism, foster outreach and negotiate with university authorities, the governor, legislature and the Control Board.

Among the students who participated in the Comité de Lucha y Acción de Sociales y Empresas (CLASE) at the Social Sciences and Business Administration gate, one of the most militant, were Neyshka Díaz Maldonado and Clara Díaz Maldonado. “The barricades were all as tall as the gates, and, the students used basically everything they could find and use to build them. They used small stuff like wood pieces, tires, concrete blocks, chains, wires, and bigger things like desks and industrial refuse bins,” Neyshka told Revolution. The other gates to the Río Piedras campus were also barricaded, and students were stationed 24/7 to prevent anyone from entering. “Every campus was active and militant during the strike in their own ways,” Neyshka said, with the second-largest UPR campus, at Mayagüez in the west, getting a lot of media attention because of its militancy.

But a group of law students went to court, filing charges demanding that UPR authorities reopen the school. The interim president of the university then attempted to use the Fuerza de Choque, or “Shock Force,” of the notoriously brutal Puerto Rico police, to dislodge the students. However, faculty members mobilized and stood in front of the barricades, so the riot cops never showed up. During a demonstration at the Capitolio on April 23, two students, Adriana Quiles and Josué Román, were arrested by undercover cops who threw Quiles into the back seat of an unmarked car, keeping her sequestered for hours. On April 27, dozens of students showed up at a meeting of the UPR Governing Board to demand that university leaders oppose the crippling cutbacks. Several were hauled before court for this “crime.”

Meanwhile, the UPR announced that Pell grants and other federal financial aid would be suspended because of the student strike, and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education threatened to withhold accreditation (although this was due to the projected cutbacks, not the walkout). Despite the threats and repression, the students persisted. At the same time, the Puerto Rican government intensified the onslaught against public education by closing dozens of schools. After shuttering 168 elementary and secondary schools since 2013, the PR Department of Education, led by Washington, D.C. management consultant Julia Keleher, announced that another 184 schools would close in order to meet the demands of the New York-based Oversight Board. Thousands of teachers working on yearly contracts will lose their jobs.

So on May 1, International Workers Day, students joined with teachers, members of the UTIER electrical workers union, and other public and private sector unions in a paro nacional (national work stoppage) to protest “labor law changes, budget cuts, the refusal of the government to audit the debt, school closures, measures affecting the UPR budget” and environmental issues, El Nuevo Diario (2 May) reported. Over 150,000 marchers took to the streets in the largest protest Puerto Rico had seen in years. The demonstrations began at 4 a.m. in front of the Fortaleza when cops used pepper spray to disperse a feminist collective picketing outside the governor’s offices. At 6 a.m., hundreds of demonstrators blocked the highway into the international airport. By noon, marchers from five starting points converged on the Milla de Oro (Golden Mile) of bank headquarters in Hato Rey.

Once again, the response of the Puerto Rican government was repression. Even as union leaders were speaking from a platform, police began firing off tear gas. Some demonstrators responded by throwing rocks, others confronted the cops, yelling “¡Policía, fuera!” (police get out). The Fuerza de Choque stayed. As the event was breaking up, some protesters started throwing stones and water bottles at the UBS and Banco Popular. Clara Díaz recounted: “As everybody started running to leave, many people went to the train station. Police blocked the entrance, closed the gate with a crowd inside, and began tossing gas grenades. By the end of the day, the police pushed the front line back to the university campus some 10 miles away. People were panicking because many got arrested along the way for no reason.”

Over the next month, striking students joined a Multisectoral Dialogue Commission set up by the interim rector of the Río Piedras campus. In a 5-to-1 vote on May 10, 2,500 students on the Río Piedras campus defied a judicial order to reopen the campus. Two weeks later, a series of “preacuerdos” (pre-agreements) were established by the Dialogue Commission. However, in the meantime the interim rector of the Río Piedras campus, the interim president of the UPR and three members of the Governing Board resigned and were replaced by hard-line supporters of the pro-statehood PNP (New Progressive Party) named by Governor “Ricky” Rosselló. Students voted on May 28, by a much smaller majority, to continue the strike until the UPR Governing Board approved the “pre-agreements.” An advisory University Council gave its OK, but not the new UPR administrators. On June 5, the Río Piedras students voted by 2,209 to 82 to call off the strike.

Subsequently, the new president of the UPR Governing Board, Walter Alomar Jiménez, and its vice president, Zoraida Buxó Santiago, have launched a witch hunt against student strikers. Alomar Jiménez refused to support the “pre-agreements,” saying that dropping charges against student strikers would “exonerate” those who had committed “crimes” (Pulso Estudiantil, 8 July). At the end of July the fiscal plan doubling tuition was approved. In late August, Board members demanded an investigation of the strikers to see who could be brought up on charges for the “illegal strike.” After a pause following the hurricanes, the UPR is now threatening to gut the pensions of university employees, and arrest charges have been filed against four students who “disrupted” the April 27 Governing Board meeting (Pulso Estudiantil, 2 December).

Mobilize Workers Power to Defeat Assault on Public Education

Thousands of students on ten of the eleven campuses of the University of Puerto Rico fought back against an assault that puts the future of the UPR in question. They fought hard, but they lost this battle. That is the hard truth. Right-wing, pro-government groups like the “Coalición Universitaria por el Progreso” (CUP), the student auxiliary of Rosselló’s PNP, called strikers leftists and radicals. In reality, they were a cross-section of students concerned for their future, led by student governments rather than the organized left. The strikers faced powerful capitalist, colonialist and imperialist forces, and they lost above all because the strike lacked a strategy to mobilize more powerful forces to defeat the onslaught. Yet the struggle in defense of public education continues. This is a class war, and it will take a revolutionary program to win it.

In any war you have to know first of all who are your friends and allies, and who are your enemies. Many of the student demands were calls on the university authorities to refuse to implement budget cuts and tuition hikes, take a stand against privatization of the university, etc. Yet the Governing Board of the UPR and the Board of Trustees are bodies selected by the ruling class with the mission of administering the university in the interests of capital. Calling on them to lead a struggle against privatization and in defense of students and faculty only builds illusions in a non-existent “university community,” and illusions help prepare the way for defeat. The administration was never going to fight the Puerto Rican government and the bankers’ junta: that task falls to the students, faculty, campus workers and the workers movement as a whole.

Equally illusory are programs for “student power.” Students have limited social power and no economic clout, but with revolutionary leadership they can be a spark to launch a working-class struggle for power. In the context of our militant solidarity with such inspiring struggles as those at the UPR, instead of futilely seeking to pressure campus authorities or calling on students to go it alone, we of the Revolutionary Internationalist Youth seek to change the nature of the struggle on university campuses from a purely or essentially student movement into a class fight that unites all those who make the university run, against the bosses who preside over it on behalf of the bourgeoisie. A strike council centered on the students that also includes full-time and “part-time” faculty, together with administrative staff, maintenance workers and others, could be the base for a fight to abolish the administration and implement student-teacher-worker control of the universities.

The RIY calls not only to oppose tuition increases, but to demand open admissions and no tuition, as well a living stipend to make possible free higher education for all. The present system combining a heavy burden of tuition with some financial aid for students from the poorest families results in the de facto exclusion of working-class students while condemning many middle-class students to years of debt servitude paying off student loans. In the present situation, facing a solid front from La Fortaleza in San Juan to the White House and U.S. Congress in Washington and their masters on Wall Street, all demanding a tuition hike that will drive thousands of students out of the UPR, a fight to abolish tuition is no more utopian than opposing the exclusionary tuition hike. It all comes down to a question of power, class power.

The futures of the 60,000 students enrolled in the UPR are hanging by a feeble thread in the wake of hurricanes, cutbacks and a massive tuition increase. After giving their all in 72 days of hard struggle, many veterans of the strike may be discouraged. Some may join the mass exodus from the island. But analyzing the lessons of the 2017 UPR strike can be an antidote to that defeatist perspective. Students do not produce profits for the capitalists. The bourgeoisie can just wait out a student strike – it costs the bosses little or nothing. The same is true of teachers strikes, as the epic 2008 Puerto Rican teachers strike showed.1 However, a struggle of the working class, not just a march or one-day work stoppage, but shutting down production and mobilizing to throw out the privatizers and union-busters – that has real potential power.

Today, with students, teachers, electrical workers and all government workers in Puerto Rico under attack, with the mass of the population in desperate straits deprived of the basic necessities of modern life, the immediate struggle is for survival. But if that fight is waged with a political perspective taking aim at the ruling class that has condemned them to misery, this calamity can be a clarion call and starting point for militant class struggle. The Rossellós and Carrións and Kehelers should be driven out of office and off the island, the banks should be occupied, and workers control of the electrical industry could restore power and launch a viable program of supplying the energy needs of working people.

As the CUNY Internationalist Clubs wrote in an open letter to striking students of the UPR in 2010, “Joint mass action by the students and workers – in Puerto Rico, the U.S. and elsewhere – is key to winning. ‘Student power’ is an illusion, but together with the working class we have the power. In our view, the demand for free, quality public education for all, along with other democratic demands (including for the independence of Puerto Rico) will only be assured when those who produce the wealth take power and extend socialist revolution internationally” (“Victory to University of Puerto Rico Student Strike!Revolution No. 7, April 2010). In that strike, as in earlier Puerto Rican student and teachers struggles, the UTIER electrical union expressed its solidarity. But much more is needed: it will take militant industrial action to bring the bosses to their knees.

Can it happen? Yes. What’s needed is revolutionary leadership.

In 1999, the students of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) occupied the huge Ciudad Universitaria (250,000 students on one campus) in a strike against the introduction of tuition, ordered by the World Bank. The Grupo Internacionalista (GI) advocated a joint strike of UNAM students and the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), who were fighting against privatization of the electrical industry, together with the CNTE primary and secondary school teachers. The GI called for worker-student defense guards to counter the government’s threats of repression. Many student strikers dismissed this call as pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but in July 1999 the SME dispatched hundreds of union members to Ciudad Universitaria, where together with students and campus workers they blocked a threatened army occupation. The strike lasted ten months, there were over 1,000 arrests, including several GI comrades, but the strike won: to this day there is no tuition at Mexico’s National University.

Ever since the Córdoba university “reform” movement of 1918 – with its call for no tuition, open admissions, university autonomy and student-teacher co-government – student struggles in Latin America have been linked to revolutionary politics. Puerto Rican students have a powerful history of militant struggle going back to the fight during the Vietnam War to expel the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) from the UPR … and martyrs including Antonia Martínez Lugares, murdered by the police in 1970 in that heroic battle. The situation facing UPR students today – and Puerto Rican workers and teachers – cries out for an internationalist workers party built on the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution. That is key to the fight for international socialist revolution to expropriate the banks lining the Golden Mile and repudiate the imperialist debt, as the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky did in Red October exactly a century ago.

Los imperialistas yanquis quieren fuego – ¡hay que darles candela! A los buitres de Wall Street y su Junta de Control, al supremacista blanco en la Casa Blanca, a sus socios menores en La Fortaleza y el Capitolio, y a sus títeres en la UPR les decimos: ¡Fuera!

(The yankee imperialists want fire – so give it to ’em! To the Wall Street vultures and their Junta, to the white supremacist in the White House, to their junior partners in La Fortaleza and the Capitolio, and their puppets in the UPR, we say – throw them out!) ■

  1. 1. See “Puerto Rican Teachers: Unbought and Unbowed,” The Internationalist, June 2008.