UPR Students Reap the Fruits of Struggle (Gamelyn F. Oduardo Sierra)

Compartimos este ensayo de nuestro querido exalumno y hoy abogado Gamelyn Oduardo Sierra, una de las voces estudiantiles más importantes y con un compromiso genuino y siempre activo en la reivindicación de los derechos de los estudiantes y por una Universidad de Puerto Rico accesible y de calidad. Gamelyn pasa revista de uno de los resultados tangibles de los últimos años de activismo estudiantil y narra su perspectiva del proceso. Gracias Gamelyn por compartirlo. 

¡Que se escuchen sus voces en cada esquina y rincón del mundo!. Salud!.

UPR Students Reap the Fruits of Struggle 
Gamelyn F. Oduardo Sierra

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO- Almost two years after the militant student strikes that swept the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) for months in a row, the $800 tuition fee hike that was one of the immediate causes for controversy was repealed by the Board of Trustees of the UPR in a surprise move last Saturday.   There was an immediate explosion of social media, while students agreed to take the college town of Río Piedras by storm in celebration.

The delayed victory of the student movement of the UPR, along with the recent victory of the students in Quebec, both having repealed the tuition fee hikes imposed by neoliberal governments through militant prolonged student strikes, stand as undisputed testimony of the fact that social movements that strive in militancy, creativity, and respect for diversity of tactics can be victorious, even against the most voracious neoliberal foes. 

For some commentators, the struggle of the UPR is a premonition of things to come in the island.  Antonio Carmona Báez, former professor at Political Sciences Department of the UPR, and current professor at the University of Amsterdam, commented on a picture taken by the former student strikers who, while holding up their left fists, hold a red flag that reads: “VENCIMOS”: 

“These are no longer my students, but they are mine...I identify with them. These are the students of the UPR who struggled, who were willing to give their lives for future generations, who audaciously defended public education confronting tyranny and the neoliberal lie. Victory has been achieved, almost two years later. I am proud of you and forever grateful for your example. Forward compañeros and compañeras! Yesterday the university, it is now time to take the entire country.”

The student movement of the UPR, as we know it today began in 2005, with a student strike that went on for over one month, over tuition fee hikes.  At that time students agreed with the administration to get an extension of the period of payment and a five-payment plan, for students that struggled with economic hardship.     During the years between 2005 and 2009, the students of the UPR, were active in different struggles, including the defense of the Theater of the University from privatization, reclaiming the need for more courses and the expansion of academic offerings, as well as the preservation of the Social Sciences Book Reserve, and the protection of services provided to students.  In addition to that, they exercised constant solidarity with the professor’s, and workers’ claims for better working conditions.  Students were particularly instrumental in supporting the striking Teachers Federation, one of the most militant unions in the island, in their 2008 strike as a part of the bumpy road to a collective bargain with the government. 

In 2009 a “state of financial crisis” was declared in the Island.  This gave way to cuts on government spending and to the lay-off of over 20,000 government workers. Government imposed neoliberal policies crippled all state-owned schools, and public services in general. The student Movement in the UPR originally intended to organize a massive general strike to fight back against the neoliberal government policies of Republican Rising star, Luis Fortuño.

Structures were born to organize students to fight this neoliberal offensive, not only in the University but also with a macro-perspective, organizing for a nation-wide general strike of all organized sectors. The social momentum ended as the 24-hour general strike was one of the most massive mobilizations in the last years.  As the union and civic leadership backed out from the idea of a more prolonged strike, the student movement again turned to itself, to the University and its issues. 

The University’s budget had been reduced by about 300 million dollars in the last 10 years.  This had caused a deficit of about 200 million dollars. The Board of Trustees of the UPR, implemented policies directly affecting students that received tuition waivers as a benefit for their outstanding academic performance, or for their participation in Sports, for example.  There was also talk of imposing raises in tuition fees to students was being discussed at the moment, and also the possibility of privatizing University property through the Public Private Partnership Model. By then, students and their allies were already organized to fight back.

Students formed Action Committees. Similar Committees eventually proliferated in a nation-wide scale, and in the Río Piedras Campus.  They were constructed as a United Front of students from all political backgrounds in Puerto Rico, who were willing to defend public education and workers rights.  Holding radical democracy as a flag, against the dictatorial styles of the Board of Trustees, administration, and the government, organized students took to the bases, through information, and direct action.

Pickets and rallies were held, hand outs were given out, public forums were organized and documentaries were shown, guerilla billboards were put up, murals were painted, letters were sent, and Buildings were occupied in protest. The 2010 student strike was approved on 13th of April 2010 by an Assembly of thousands of students and soon spread through 10 of the 11 campuses through the island.  It went on through mid-summer 2010 and received massive support form labor unions, the community and religious groups, amongst others.  Students demanded and obtained the protection of the existing tuition waiver system, a statement of the University Board of Trustees, in which they agreed to not raise tuition fees or to privatize any of the Campuses in any way, including Public Private Partnerships, and a general amnesty for all striking students and workers. Students were clear that they had won the battle, but not the war.

As the first semester of the 2010-2011 semester came about, the Board of Trustees, insisted on imposing a “fee” of $800 to every student, while reducing worker’s benefits and services to students.  The state legislature had enacted laws to impose restrictions on Student Assemblies, and passed a bill prohibiting strikes at the University.  Action Committees were active organizing protests against the most recent attacks on higher education.

Under pressure from the Middle States Commission for Higher Education, risking the University’s accreditation, and all kinds of pressure from the administration, three General Student Assemblies took place.  One to elect our Committee of Student Negotiation, to begin engaging in talks to prevent the conflict; as another group of students became involved in a lobbying campaign, to get recurrent founds for the University.  Another Assembly approved a referendum to measure the student body’s opinion on the tuition hikes. 98% of students opposed the hikes.

The State Supreme Court declared the constitutionality of the law that prohibited student strikes in the University.  After that, the police was called into the Río Piedras campus for the first time in over 30 years.  Police occupied all of the campuses that dared threaten to go on strike.  Then all kinds of expression and free speech inside Campus grounds were banned by the administration.  The riot police enforced this in full force.  As the Administration did not respond to student’s demands, we went on strike again.  The second strike began the 14th of December 2010. 

Students had everything against them, but still went ahead.  Constant marches in an around campus with hundreds of students were used to implement the strike.  They were followed closely by every kind of police, from sharpshooters to common clothes, to mounted on horseback police, to special arrest divisions.  Sometimes, as marches were forced out of the University, students took the streets. 

Soon the student press read: “from the beginning of the student strike, all kinds of speech has been prohibited inside and outside of the University”, referring to the common practice of police clashing with students and throwing their gasses even at peaceful demonstrations outside university grounds.  Police intervention with students was brutal and ruthless since the beginning.  As the doors closed for the Negotiating committee, it was evident that the administration had substituted dialogue with violence.

While students were chased and arrested for handing out flyers during this second strike, many others were pressured by their professors to take their final exams even in the chaos of what some came to call the “police-campus”.

During January 2011, civil disobedience was practiced to continue implementing the strike, with the numbers of arrested reaching more than 300. Excessive force of police officers was met with active resistance by the support groups in a “new kind of civil disobedience”, that tended to mix the usual non-cooperation with law enforcement, with active resistance to officers in the field. 

By February 2011, the new semester had begun with a huge walkout that ended in a stalemate in which a human chain of university workers and professors standing between riot police and students prevented a bloodbath. On the second day of school, students said enough. This time, the police got pepper sprayed and students made them back down by the hundreds in a spontaneous march in which they screamed “Fuera, fuera, fuera policía”.

The day after that, the police intervened with students during the painting of a street called “conscience street” inside campus grounds. After that, there was absolutely no fear among the remaining student ranks.  Students fought back ferociously. Thousands marched. The police went, and then came back. Until students, after about two years of non-stop struggle, decided to put the strike on hold in another general assembly at the end of February 2011.  As they knew that they were in it for the long haul, they organized a symbolic non-stop reading of Gabriel García Marquez’s Cien Años de Soledad.

It is now a tradition in the UPR, that as the governments hand-picked President gives his address to the graduating class, most of the students in the audience turn around, giving their backs to the him and the administration that has done the same to the student body, during the last years.

As the strike came to an end, almost two years ago, some students were able to pay, with help from a scholarship fund that was approved by the state legislature under student pressure. Many students were expelled for their participation in the student strikes. Now, after two years of less-affordable education, and after the materialization student’s predictions regarding the administration’s plans to reduce the size of the most important public university in the country, the newly elected majority of the state legislature, began this quarter responding to student demands by assigning more recurrent funds to the UPR, as the student movement had proposed since the very beginning. 

  The Board of Trustees has corresponded, in a unanimous vote, eliminating the $800 fee that almost doubled the costs of higher public education in Puerto Rico.    It is the first time in history that a tuition fee hike has been repealed in the island, but students are clear that there is a long way to go.  There will be no rest for the student movement, or for the powers that be, until the expelled students are allowed to study in the UPR.  Students are also grounded in the fact that structural change is needed, and that the change they refer to can only be achieved through a grassroots reform of the University that makes it a truly autonomous and democratic institution.   That being so, students have made it clear that they will not stop, until public higher education is declared a right, and not a privilege; until the University must promotes access to the working class, and other marginalized sectors and social groups to the student body, and until education is freed from the invisible hands of the market economy, to be finally understood as a process of liberation against oppression, and for the achievement social justice.

 Still, through the hallways of my alma mater we can hear the sirens wailing, and a uniform chorus of students that repeats “...no nos pararán, el que no crea que haga la prueba”. “We will not be stopped, if you don’t believe us, just make the try”.

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