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In second month and going strong: Puerto Rico student strike

Jun 2, 2010

<b>photo: Berta Joubert-Ceci</b>

photo: Berta Joubert-Ceci

May 27 — University of Puerto Rico students, labor unions, the Socialist Students Union, the Committee against Homophobia and Discrimination, UPR high school students and others held a big demonstration with a march from Munoz Rivera Park to Fortaleza — the governor’s mansion.

Gov. Luis Fortuño held a news conference at the same time to present his hostile version of the strike to the public. The governor accused the students of being “violent.” He also said that “external elements” - meaning the unions as well as left and pro-independence organizations, all of which have been in solidarity with the strikers — should not “interfere.”

However, he withdrew the greater part of the heavy police presence from the campus. The students have been demanding this since the beginning. Fortuño also nominated Episcopal Bishop David Alvarez to be an “impartial mediator” between the UPR Board of Trustees and the students’ National Negotiating Committee, which represents all 11 campuses of the UPR system. However, the student committee rejected Alvarez as someone foreign to UPR issues.

May 29 — An email was circulated with a recent statement by Alvarez about the economic crisis in Puerto Rico. Revealing his anti-union bias, it said that “labor unions have turned into instruments for the enrichment of a few.”

The Committee of Mothers and Fathers has called for a vigil from 6 p.m. to midnight today in front of the Rio Piedras campus, called “UPR: la huelga vista a través de la crayola y el pincel.” (In English, “UPR: the strike seen through crayon and paintbrush.”)

At 8 p.m., as part of this vigil, there will be a special tribute to Natalia Sánchez López, a 21-year-old student who died several days ago in Mayaguez after getting sick during a campus assembly. The meeting had been called by conservative students from that campus and held in a parking lot under the hot sun, with no bathroom facilities. The organizers would not allow students to bring umbrellas or water. It was a dangerous situation and several students fainted, among them Natalia, who died several hours later.

The internet continues to be a main vehicle for organizing in the country and internationally. Students post updates about the strike. On one site they list materials needed by students occupying the campuses — ice, water, clothes, food items, etc. People check these sites and bring what the students need.

Many famous Puerto Rican singers have gotten together to film a recently composed “Song for the Students.” It is a free download from the net.

May 29 — In pouring rain in front of the Barbosa Avenue gate of the Rio Pedras campus I was able to do an interview today with Angel Santos Rosa, former president of the union representing non-teaching workers at the university. They call him “the chef” here because he makes really good dishes to serve to the students. Santos Rosa was cooking rice with chicken and beans in a huge pot, filling the air with the delicious smell of the herb recao and sweet peppers. It felt like home.

Santos Rosa is one of the many trade unionists staffing the “comfort tent” where strike supporters cook food and receive donations. The volunteers here send plates of hot food to the students inside, helping to establish the wonderful feeling of camaraderie that permeates this struggle. Of course the workers in the tent made me and my comrade Mali eat a dish. How could we say no?

People, particularly elders, go to the tent and sit down, sometimes just in silence, and are offered food and water. It is very moving. Students come by, sit down and eat or take several plates inside for the others. I asked who played a guitar that was sitting on one of the tables. At night, they said, students just relax, read, have discussions, play instruments, sing and recite poems.

Police presence is now minimal. I saw only one officer, but they keep several cars in a parking space nearby and continually cruise.

The tent is staffed 24 hours. The people in charge had a list of items they needed, so Mali and I asked what was most urgent. They answered: “Plates to serve the food.” So we bought a huge bag of Styrofoam plates with lids, two big bags of chicken thighs and six cans of beans.

I left a copy each of the books “Low-Wage Capitalism” and “High Tech, Low Pay” along with several copies of Workers World newspaper for people to read while relaxing. When I told some of the students I would bring a solidarity banner, they immediately said: “We’ll put it on the fence!” People driving by honk their horns in support.

May 30 — Sunday was mainly a rest day for the students. The main event was a concert this evening by famous Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez at the Jose Miguel Agrelot Stadium. He issued a statement in solidarity with the students and dedicated a song to them. Students in the audience chanted slogans and displayed a banner: “Education is public.”

Before the concert, the Committee in Solidarity with Cuba held a solidarity picket line in front of the stadium, as antirevolutionary Cubans had threatened to show up. Milagros Rivera, head of the committee and a member of the Broad Front of Solidarity and Struggle that encompasses militant unions and non-labor organizations, was one of several people handing out cards with information about Puerto Rican and Cuban political prisoners in the U.S.

Socialist Cuba and its popular organizations have been supportive of the student strike from day one. Even the National Assembly issued a powerful statement in solidarity. The Cubadebate webpage has daily updates on the strike. This has helped get support from other Latin American countries. Washington has always tried to separate Puerto Rico from the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America. One of the efforts of the independence movement here is to expose the fallacy that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. and to assert our place as Puerto Ricans within Latin America and the Caribbean.

May 31 — I went to the early shift (5 to 8 a.m.) at the Sociales Gate. Each gate around the UPR is named for the school closest to it — in this case, the School of Social Studies. All are barricaded from the inside by students to protect themselves from a possible invasion by the police. Supporters from different organizations staff them around the clock and give information to passersby. The FSyL and the Committee in Solidarity with Cuba took responsibility for this gate. Juan Camacho from the FSyL spoke of the importance of this strike to the general movement in PR. He stated that it started as a student strike but has extended to other sectors.

A gate staffer communicated with students inside and I was let in through a fence that was missing two bars. The students have tight security. A student making rounds on a bike stopped us because he had not gotten the message that we were going in. After establishing who we were and calling the student who initially gave permission, he let us go.

The students have done incredible work. They built a rudimentary shower in the middle of one of the parking lots. The campus grounds are relatively clean, considering that a major storm a few days ago broke several trees. Tied bags of garbage and recyclables were awaiting collection.

There are groups of tents all over the campus. It was early and most students were still sleeping, but several were starting to clean the grounds.

They refer to one another as from Fine Arts or Education or Law, etc., depending on the different schools nearby. Most students have put their tents close to the school they attend.

They hold very democratic assemblies to discuss and plan strategies. They also show films and documentaries, hold meetings, play, have political discussions. In short, they have established a very lively city inside the campus.

I saw a very well-kept vegetable garden with cooking herbs, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and even a sugarcane plant. Zchi Zchi Aslesha, the student who initiated the garden, said they wanted to show the people of PR that we can be self sufficient in growing food. U.S. corporations have destroyed PR agriculture by making the island produce for export. Now most of the vegetables that in the past were produced on the island are imported. The encampment even has a compost pile.

Gustavo Vega, a student from Fine Arts, showed us the only door that remains open. The students keep it under lock and key and open it only for people working in the Science building and on other research programs. Vega stated the students never interrupted the research programs because they know how they are based on time and cost millions of dollars. It was the UPR administration itself, following an order from provost Ana Guadalupe to the Board of Trustees, that locked down the university until July 31 as a threatening tactic against the students.

In general, all the students interviewed were very cooperative and eager to expose the situation in the UPR. Each added a piece to the puzzle. Myselis Santiago, a student from the Sciences encampment, said how happy she was that science students, for the first time in the history of the UPR, got involved in the strike. Usually they refuse to be in what they consider “political actions.” This time, however, sentiment is strong in all the departments, and even those not directly involved in the strike give their consent by not disrupting.

In order to counteract the hostile campaign of the government and the UPR administration, the students went on the offensive and called a press conference inside the university administrative building, in La Torre (the tower). It was well attended by the media. Two representatives of the negotiating committee showed a PowerPoint presentation that documented how promises made by the UPR administration and the Board of Trustees in 2005 and 2007 not to raise tuition until they conducted a study in 2012 have been broken.

In 2009, then BoT Vice President Ygrí Rivera stated in a letter seeking funds from the American Coordinator for Education that she opposed an increase in tuition because it would not solve the fiscal situation. Now the administration is planning to impose a “special quota” from the students that could cost them up to $1,300 a year.

As a satire — but also to help three organizations that offer social services, like the Julia de Burgos House that helps women survivors of domestic abuse and provides them shelter — the UPR students held a “fun racing” (a tweak from “fundraiser”) where they collected donations at traffic lights around the university. They did this in response to a $1,000 a plate fundraiser that Gov. Fortuño held in the Sheraton Hotel. The students called attention to the neglect by the government toward these important agencies, which serve those most in need.


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UPDATED Jun 3, 2010 10:22 PM
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