A month later: UPR barricades remain

After a month, the crisis in the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) is far from resolved. The student protesters remain steadfast in their opposition to the planned budget cuts of the UPR administration, which include, among others, eliminating the financial support given to student artists, athletes, and honor students.

Roberto Thomas, one of the strike leaders, revealed to the Orlando Sentinel that “two months after José Ramón De La Torre was appointed President of the UPR, he announced a proposal to cut $100 million from the budget saying that there was a deficit of $139 million, which is now estimated in $200 million. They were proposing a 40 percent cut to the budget to buy books and magazines, at the same time they were increasing the budget of the administration by $25 million.”

The students feared that these planned budgetary cuts are preliminary steps towards the  privatization of the government-owned university system, similar to what has been happening in other areas of the Puerto Rican public sector. Rafael Bernabe of Solidarity said that in Puerto Rico, “privatization has taken different routes: subcontracting activities to private companies (in electric power), privatizing the administration but not the actual physical installations (water authority), leasing public operations to private concerns (health system in the 1980s), as well as the outright selling of state-owned enterprises (shipping).”

The end of the student strike is not yet in the horizon. Negotiations were attempted but no one is budging. Time travelling is crossing fingers that the issue will be resolved the soonest.

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Several hundred students remain holed up in the premises of the Rio Piedras campus. Spread across the green lawn, a few meters from the university walls, are tents, about twenty of them. These are makeshift shelters and temporary discussion spots for the protesters. The gates are barricaded with wood, cardboard boxes, metals, and wires scavenged from school buildings. The students hold mobile rallies inside the university walls:  each one grabs a placard, marches in single file with the others, while chanting slogans. 

Those with a more creative bent organize skits and street plays. With the metal gates separating them from the  anti-riot squad, student strikers pass flowers to the stoic lawmen. At times, the street performers carnivalize the cold seriousness of the fuerza de choque. Dressing themselves in an all-black outfit with toy truncheons  and faces painted like clowns, they stand in mock alert in front of a unit of grim policemen. They stand face to face with the police and, for about 15 minutes, stare each other down with the intensity of opposing football players. Then, the brutal silence is pierced by a sharp chilling shriek followed by a chorus of sad howls. The reason? The street performers scream at every small twitch from the cops’ face in this stare down. Unexpected as it is hilarious, the screams break the ice between the lawmen and the protesters.

Outside the university gates, members of the university union and other supporters wear red shirts as they camp at the grounds of an adjacent building. The sharp metal stakes of the university walls–designed to ward off outsiders–become convenient places to hang protest streamers and placards. Portions of the cream-colored walls are painted with graffittis, screaming “La UPR No Se Vende.” Passing motorists honk their cars in support. Even the police–with their parked patrol cars and the intermittent buzzing of the hand-held radios–contributes too in generating this heavy air of protest. A tableau of sorts replete with real life characters.

Internationally, students outside of the island have expressed their solidarity in various forms, even declaring short university-wide boycotts as statements of support. Reputed Latin American artists and authors also chimed in to bolster the morale of the strikers. Eduardo Galeano, a critically-acclaimed novelist, has this to say on the UPR student strike:

“The people who do not listen to the demands of their students are in danger of losing their future. Student citizenship is the custodian of the sacred fire of hope for the people … We must listen to students … When the rest think not today, maybe tomorrow, students say now. When the rest get used to what is, students show us the shining path of the future,” said the author of “Memory of Fire” (1986) and “Open Veins of Latin America” (1971).

“At times like this, when our Latin America is suffering with the rest of the world the disastrous consequences of the collapse of the greed of unbridled capitalism, today more than ever, we can not afford to turn our back on our students,” Galeano said. “We hope the university and government authorities, with the greatest respect, halt the use of force, sit down and negotiate with them in peace, as equals. Listen to them. Be generous. They are not within the enclosure, entrenched in the campus, on a whim. They are there because they are the heart, the flame of the university.”

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