Friday, August 6, 2010

The Students Are the Guardians of a Radical Past

What began in April as a call for a 48-hour student strike at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Río Piedras campus, is now reaching its second month. This student struggle has not only surprised and mesmerized multiple political sectors of the island, from the university administration and the central government, the independence movement and the unions, but more importantly the general populace and the international community.

As reported in our last edition of La Voz del Paseo Boricua, the student strike that has now extended to all 11 of the campuses of the university system, began as a response to the austerity measures of the school's administration and the government of the right-wing and pro-statehood Luis Fortuño. UPR is no exception, with the government vying to reduce its legally-binding subsidies, but the students have been keen in defending their “right to education.”

On July 1, the 14-member National Negotiating Committee (NNC), which was chosen in democratic student assemblies of thousands of participants, clearly stated the students' demands to the island through multiple internet and radio outlets.

Demand number one: withdraw Certification 98, which removes student waivers for many students and university employees and their families. Demand number two: stop the policies of privatization of any campus. In essence, UPR must remain a public university. Demand number three: end the rise in tuition costs. And the last and fourth demand: no legal sanctions against any student who has participated in the strike. The UPR administration has not fully promised to meet these demands and thus, the students remain unwavering in this struggle.

The message also reported that tuition was raised 33% in 2005 and a total of 16% in 2007 and will, once again, be raised this upcoming August. Furthermore, the students stated that in a letter sent by the UPR administration on June 28, 2007 and one sent in 2009 by the President of the Board of Trustees, Ygri Rivera, that “raising the cost of tuition is not a viable solution and will not resolve the situation.” Meanwhile, the administration has admitted that it has been “incapable of collecting more than $300 million in debt owed to UPR.”

The students, in the face of so much defamation and lies, have remained strong in their convictions, as well as their character. Students have painted murals, conducted educational theatrical performances, study groups, community clean-ups, their own radio station, Radio Huelga, and will even organize their own graduation on June 13. This strike has offered the concrete application of student skills, proving that political struggle and community work is also bastion of educational possibilities.

Nonetheless, on May 20, numerous students were arrested and dozens of others were beaten, in broad daylight and in front of Univision news cameras, by the police for simply protesting in front of the Convention Center where Fortuño was speaking. Two days earlier, after numerous violent altercations instigated by the police squad guarding the Río Piedras campus gates, the students and the unions joined in a peaceful national march and strike that invoked thousands of people.

On May 22, in solidarity with the general strike, the Union for Puerto Rican Students (UPRS) student organizations at Northeastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois-Chicago hosted a “Charla sobre la Huelga Estudiantil en Puerto Rico” with the President of the Comité Pro-Derechos Humanos de Puerto Rico, Eduardo Villanueva, J.D., as the main speaker. In the intimate conversation on Paseo Boricua, with over 30 people in attendance, the prestigious lawyer described the UPR strike as new hope for the island in continuing the radical work for political and social change that was established in decades pasts. This is echoed by the main slogan and website of the NCC, “UPR es un País” - “UPR is a Country.” The student strike is intricately connected to the problems facing Puerto Rico and as such, the students are offering solutions, ones that should be applied throughout the nation.

Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua, June 2010

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