Impressions on a Visit to Guanica

This blog article can also be accessed at my other blog site, Anthropology Corner.

PhotobucketThe southern end of Puerto Rico is a place one could easily associate with old Western films because of its crusty and brown rolling hills. The mighty central cordilleras, a rugged spine of verdant forest across the island, trap the moisture that should have been reserved for these parts, rendering the terrain dry and desert-like.

The 2-hour drive from San Juan to Guanica is a good trip for understanding the impact of the central cordilleras on the Puerto Rican natural environment. Starting from Salinas, the surrounding topography turns yellow and brown, different from the usual tropical green valleys we associate with islands around the equator. Instead of trees dominating the landscape, what you see are grasses, shrubs, short scraggly trees, and cacti while a flock of migratory turkey vultures hovers above.

PhotobucketThe situation of being at the wrong end of the central cordilleras (with seasonal rainfall averaging only 860 mm annually) does not stop life from blossoming at this southwestern part of Puerto Rico. The unique topology and microclimatic conditions created a biome that has been described as the “best preserved and best example of a tropical dry forest in the Caribbean.” This United Nations Biosphere Reserve is home to nine of the fourteen endemic bird species of the island and a host of other flora and fauna.

This 4000 ha. forest reserve however is sandwiched in tourist, agricultural, and urban development zones. The main road leading to the Guanica State Forest shows a landscape bearing its story of human occupation. A cursory look by the roadside would show that certain portions of the land are devoted to cattle and horse grazing. The plains are turned into fields of banana, papaya, and vegetables–the primary cash crops of Puerto Rico. Back in the day, historians recorded that the southern area also had a thriving sugar industry like the rest of the island but was abandoned when the world prices of sugar dropped to record lows (Guanica ending it in 1981). Vestiges of that sugar culture can still be gleaned from the artisanal production of guarapo, a sugarcane juice drink, and ron cana, a toxic sugarcane rum that burns your insides.

PhotobucketThe seaward edge of the Guanica dry forest is a winding road that threads the series of hotels and beach spots along the coasts. Sightseers and tourists go to this area primarily because of the beach and Gilligan’s Island, an islet just across the forest. From the road, footpaths go deep into the forest reserve where hikers climb the rocky hills and explore the remarkable flora and fauna. Occasionally, a Santeria shrine of a saint could be found bearing offerings of fruits and flowers.

I don’t know how much of an impact human activities contributed to the Guanica Dry Forest. I tried searching through the literature and found that studies along this line have been wanting. What I saw instead was a comprehensive study of the influence of hurricane winds on the dry forest cycles. Apparently, dry forests are resilient enough to confront winds as strong as 152 knots. But droves of people? Who knows.

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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.”

For more info, please click the links below:

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More from the UPR student strike

A friend of mine sent these pictures of the University of Puerto Rico student strike to my inbox. Seeing that our blog, time travelling, is not only about Puerto Rico’s beaches and tourist spots, I am posting these photos of the students’ boycott in several of UPR’s campuses. To know more about the issue, please click here.

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UPR Students Declare Indefinite Boycott

Student protesters have extended the initial 48-hour student boycott indefinitely after failed negotiations with the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) administration.  The students earlier demanded for the re-audit of the UPR’s financial accounts as a response to the series of fiscal and administrative policy changes.

Here’s more from the Puerto Rico Daily Sun:

The 48-hour stoppage set for Wednesday was called by students to protest the administration’s plan to cut the budget and overhaul the tuition waivers system.

“The stoppage will continue and the only thing that will end it is if the Board of Trustees cancels the resolution on the tuition waiver,” Arturo Rios, the student group’s spokesperson said.

He was referring to a resolution approved by the Board of Trustees in February that established a moratorium on new tuition waivers and develop new policies to grant tuition waivers to ensure “uniformity” in the system and save money. Students are protesting the move, arguing it will leave many needy students without the financial benefit.

Ríos said the group was surprised the president “stood them up” and the fact that communication broke down but “we are still open to a dialogue.”

He said the student committee wanted to discuss with De la Torre the policy of non-confrontation and demand a meeting with the Board of Trustees.

“They are the ones really who have the power. De la Torre does not have the decision making power,” he said.

The students said they will oppose any attempts to hike student tuition to resolve the fiscal crisis at the university, which is slated to end the year with a budget deficit estimated at between $200 million to $250 million. UPR obtains most of its funds from a budgetary formula that this fiscal year provided $835 million. However, with Puerto Rico in the midst of a deep economic recession, UPR’s formula is only estimated to provide $729 million during the next fiscal year.