Gonzalez: Puerto Rico under siege

Many of us can’t tear our eyes away from the recent popular upheaval in Egypt. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, the images of tens of thousands of people risking their lives for freedom have moved us, and the major news outlets in the United States have done all they can to satisfy our curiosity and thirst for understanding. I am sad to say that they have not done the same for another population that is also risking all it has for a greater chance at a life of dignity and personal freedom — the students of the University of Puerto Rico, and the wider Puerto Rican public supporting them.

As a Puerto Rican born and raised on the island, this is not the first time I’ve noticed the lack of attention in American media toward Puerto Rico. Even though it has been an American territory for over 100 years, I still get asked if I need a visa to work in this country (which, by the way, I don’t). Puerto Rico — an island nation of 4 million people under the direct control of the United States — is not generally a subject of instruction in American schools. I have learned to live with this reality, but as my island implodes amid rampant government abuse, widespread crime, political violence and social disruption, I wonder why we are not on the front page of the New York Times… or even on the back page.

Since early last year, the University of Puerto Rico has played host to widespread student protests against substantial tuition hikes and increased political control over the curriculum and administration. Students have peacefully demanded increased participation and transparency in the administrative and financial proceedings of the nation’s only public university, and they have rallied against the government’s attempts to privatize it. The University of Puerto Rico, because of its public nature, is the only instrument of social mobility and opportunity that is available to all Puerto Ricans, regardless of socioeconomic status. The current government, however, intends to sell it to the highest private bidder because it conceives of public education as an unnecessary expense rather than an investment in the future of the nation. Governor Luis Fortuño and his cabinet fail to recognize that a society without education is a society of slaves.

In response to the students’ organized strikes and demonstrations, the government has responded with excessive force. SWAT teams and riot squads have permanently occupied the university premises, and they have banned public protests and the distribution of leaflets — a clear violation of freedom of speech. They have attacked students with pepper spray, tasers and clubs. Hundreds have been arrested for exercising their constitutional rights, and many have been physically injured for it. Imagine New Haven Police responding to a peaceful protest in front of Sterling Memorial Library by throwing pepper spray bombs and beating students against the ground, and then arresting the students and barring them from receiving medical attention. This is exactly what is happening at the University of Puerto Rico on a daily basis. Imagine walking to class as a sniper watches your every move from the top of Harkness Tower. Imagine being called a “terrorist” for exercising your right to free speech and affordable public education, and imagine Obama threatening to fire your professors — even the tenured ones — for supporting you. This is happening at the University of Puerto Rico.

The situation is obviously very complicated, and mine is one point of view among many. Yet the current state of affairs is deplorable no matter how one looks at it. The past few years have been very hard for Puerto Rico, with 17 percent unemployment and an unprecedented crime rate. Many are angry and frustrated with a government whose irresponsibility and social disinterest borders on the poetic. The students’ struggle is a sign that the youth is anything but alienated, and that we can and will rally the nation to pressure the powers that be to step up.

I’m writing this because I’m tired of the silence here. It’s time for the United States and its news media to pay attention to what is going on in their own backyard. We, too, as fellow students, need to open our eyes to injustice much closer to home than we are used to. Political and social repression doesn’t only occur in the Middle East or in “socialist” countries. Egypt is important, but so is your own colony.

Laura Gonzalez is a senior in Trumbull College.

Comments

  • River Tam

    I’m sorry. Are you comparing toppling 30 years of authoritarian rule to protesting tuition hikes and curriculum control?

    Someone needs some perspective.

  • omoelegba

    River Tam,
    That was not a comparison, but an observation. You have no idea of what the conditions on the ground are in PR. These “police officers” are using coercion, intimidation & deadly force on these students. What is happening in Puerto is directly the opposite of what is happening in Egypt. Come to think of it, but actually a comparison would be more appropriate; the only difference is that Puerto Rico has been a DEMOCRACY for more than 100 years, not a totalitarian state.

    Someone needs to be better informed about current events.

  • doggit

    Here’s some perspective for you River Tam: Puerto Rico has been a colonial territory for the past 500+ years. The Island has never been in control of its own affairs. First, under the rule of Spain and now, the last 100+ years, under the rule of the United States. Puerto Rico has only been able to elect its governor and legislature since 1950. This is hardly a new problem. Furthermore, the increasing militarization of the country, the outright attacks to all its civil liberties, the dismantling of the government by a person who, just last week accepted that he doesn’t “believe in government”, the firing of 30,000+ public employees, the exponential increases in violent crimes from on year to the next, the enlargement of the country’s highest court to rubber stamp all of these decisions are hardly something to ignore.

  • bfa13

    Puerto Rico is an American territory. How about that for some perspective River Tam? Great job on this piece Laura Gonzalez, it’s about time we draw some attention to the region in our own backyard. Latin America has suffered our intervention for the last century, as such our focus on the region should reciprocate such an entangled history but we continue to move away from such a focus.

  • River Tam

    > These “police officers” are using coercion, intimidation & deadly force on these students.

    Sounds like Elevate. Don’t tase me brah.

    Full disclosure: lived in Puerto Rico for several years.

  • octavio1511

    This is an example of misinformation at its finest. First, there has been no use of “deadly” force, as Miss Gonzalez so poignantly describes. There have been no shots fired and nobody has died. “Hundreds” have NOT been arrested. Second, the “support” for the “students” is minimal at best. Gonzalez forgot to mention the fact that over 90% of the students signed up AND PAID the special quota of $400.00, There are no snipers posted and the SWAT teams are kinda busy taking down drug dealers to be bothered with this. And the protests have been far from peaceful, as the protestors have used intimidation and force to remove students from classrooms and to disrupt ongoing classes. The general public is quite fed up with the antics of these clowns, and their supporters outside of campus consists of the communist and socialist parties, and a few of the more radical labor unions. That’s it. And here’s the kicker, even if they pay the special quota, the total cost for the YEAR for the average student(12 credits) is still about $2000.00. This is less than half of what the same student would pay in a private university here in PR. So miss Gonzalez, I would suggest that before sharing your “outrage”, check the facts and spare us the pontification.

    Octavio, from Ponce, PR

  • octavio1511

    “Someone needs to be better informed about current events”

    Today the governor ordered the police to withdraw from campus, and as soon as they were gone, the “students” went in and trashed the place. So much for the “peaceful” expression of “free speech”.

  • mmarie

    Octavio: January 2011, in less than 3 days the police arrested around 140 students for civil disobedience, when there had been more than 100 murders in the island. There were also shots fired in front of the Capitol Hill building when the students were protesting there, it was so bad that a nun had to beg the police to stop because children from a nearby school were mortified. Thank God those were rubber bullets and only left students hit with some bruises. Support is MINIMAL, when there were over 10,000 SUPPORTERS at Saturday’s I Love the UPR March. The special Quota is of $800, NOT $400 and if you read all the reports, it clearly shows that 10,000 have not been able to pay for this semester and will not be able to attend school this semester. Pictures show SWAT Team Members at the University and on Ave. Universidad with their rifles. The pictures are all over Facebook and indymediapr.org, look for them please, before you make another uninformed comment. Octavio, it looks like for being so informed you are in fact not informed at all. Like they would say in Puerto Rico you are repeating everything like a “papagayo”.
    Ms. Gonzalez, I applaud you. This article was amazing. As a UPR Graduate, I have been following this student movement daily. I was part of the May 2010 student strike, were I lived inside my campus for 2 months. I spent many sleepless nights wondering why the government of PR and why the UPR Administration seemed not to care about the future of it’s people, and the only conclusion I came up with was what you wrote on your third paragraph, a country of slaves. Like on the book Animal Farm, were the laws were changed around to benefit only a few, but the animals were not educated enough to know the difference. Thank you for writing this. It made me remember those summer days inside my Alma Mater and the constant support we had from all over the world. Yes, Octavio, the world! They are not the only group of students out there fighting neoliberalistic measures forced upon public education.
    I am proud of what these students stand for and proud of them for fighting for a public education that’s accessible to the children of the working class and of quality, as it has always been.
    Hasta la Victoria Siempre.

  • alexazandra

    There has been no democracy in Puerto Rico since US invaded the island and overthrew the government that was elected by the puerto ricans in 1898 and the status which had given Puerto Rico autonomy under the spanish crown, instead Puerto Ricans got a brutal colonial and military regime, a foreign language and culture was imposed and rejected by the people, a racist regime that told puerto ricans that their language and culture was third class or barbaric, brainwashed the people and put in their minds that they did not deserve to be free, that their patriots were criminals and that the nationalist movement that began in 1864 under the spanish rule was an evil communist movement and that colonialism was freedom with prosperity and progress. that colonial regime lasted until 1952 but it has created a huge trauma in the puerto rican spirit that still exists today and keeps puerto ricans divided, very similar to what happened to Ireland with the difference that Puerto Ricans fought hard to keep their language and national identity, Ireland lost the language.

  • Gloria

    Where does Octavio live? In the same fantasy island that our governor lives? The governor’s recent
    state message to the legislature was full of lies. Just as Octavio’s commentaries. Laura your article
    was excellent and we certainly need your support!!! Shame to the United States media; hiding what
    is happening to their colony in the Caribbean. While Mr. Obama is motivating Americans to study, his counterpart in Puerto Rico is doing the opposite. Beware Americans!!! Governor Fortuño is hiding to his Tea Party friends that his main objective is to turn Puerto Rico into the 51st. State.
    Three million Puertoricans from the island (plus one million living already in the States) with their own
    language (Spanish), rich culture (mixture of Indian, African and Spanish traditions) and a national sense of patriotism fighting to stay together as a nation. When asked why he did not mentioned the status of Puerto Rico (Statehood) as the main goal of his political party when he talked at last week´s Tea Party et. al. Convention his answer was ¨ for the same reason I did not mentioned the University of Puerto Rico in my state message. That cinism is used to provoke and intimidate the students at the University of Puerto Rico, towards whom he shows no sensibility. Those students deserve our respect for fighting for their rights and that´s why thousands marched with them last Saturday. Octavio where were you? Probably trying to destroy anything that represents the dignity and respect of our nation. I studied at the University of Puerto Rico, my husband and three children also, and we will defend our Alma Mater and civil liberties in spite of local opressor and cinics and a silent American media.

  • octavio1511

    ‘January 2011, in less than 3 days the police arrested around 140 students for civil disobedience’ there were 12 arrests, not 140.

    ‘Support is MINIMAL, when there were over 10,000 SUPPORTERS at Saturday’s I Love the UPR March’
    wrong again. most of the marchers were union members, Independence party supporters, socialist party members and other people that are NOT students.

    ‘The special Quota is of $800, NOT $400 and if you read all the reports, it clearly shows that 10,000 have not been able to pay for this semester and will not be able to attend school this semester’
    strike three… the quota is $800 FOR THE YEAR, hence $400 per semester, the total cost of a full time YEAR of studies @ UPR is still about $2000, less than HALF the cost of a private education.
    the university lost about 2000 students who were fed up with the interruptions and bailed. Most of the student body enrolled and paid the quota. Wrong again. As for the ‘10,000 students” figure, well that’s either a figment of you imagination or you are correlating the number of people that attended the march with ACTUAL number of students that did not enroll.

    Hasta la Victoria Siempre. LOL

  • octavio1511

    ‘Where does Octavio live?’ Ponce PR…

    ‘The governor’s recent state message to the legislature was full of lies. Just as Octavio’s commentaries.’
    Calling me a liar does not change the facts.

    ‘Governor Fortuño is hiding to his Tea Party friends that his main objective is to turn Puerto Rico into the 51st. State.’ Tea Party? Really? LOL

    ‘Octavio where were you?’ I can assure you that I was NOT at the march…

    “Probably trying to destroy anything that represents the dignity and respect of our nation…” Could you please enlighten me as to how I’m doing that? By expressing myself? By having an opinion different from yours? I thought you were all for free speech and “fighting for your rights”.

    ‘I studied at the University of Puerto Rico…’ LOL, it shows… cinism?

    I studied at the Interamerican University’s Ponce campus, and I had to pay my own way through college. Back then (1995) the cost of one semester for me was about $1600. I had student aid and had to work long hours to make ends meet. So please do not preach to me about dignity or “student rights” and please leave your rants for your next therapy session.

  • Jose

    1 of 3

    Looks like nobody really knows what’s going on at UPR. Some people says that the students have the support of the majority of the citizens of Puerto Rico, but the only campus on strike, out of the 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico system, is the Rio Piedras campus. Now i wonder what’s going on with the rest of the 10 other campuses students. They really don’t give a damn about the $400.00 dollars of the special quota. By the way, to inform those who don’t know it, it is a $400.00 special quota by semester. This year was $800.00 because after the last year student’s strike, they were granted a waiver for the August $400.00 quota, but they were clearly informed that they have to pay the whole year special quota on January, that will totalize the $800.00 for the whole year.

    Talking about the quota, almost every student paid for it during this semester’s registration process. The students that decided to go to a private university will have to pay more than double of what they pay at the UPR. That’s something weird!!! I rather pay $400.00 special quota every semester, get the best education I can get and have some Pell grant money to use for my study expenses at the UPR, than pay extra money every semester for buying a degree that probably, and I repeat probably, I could use to get a professional career. But these conflicts are jeopardizing and risking the Middle States Association Certification that allows UPR system students to have all the financial aids that help them study in the best Higher Education Institution of all Carribbean.

    I have to say that I work with the UPR in one of their campuses, and at the same time, I study at Rio Piedras campus my master’s degree. I was once looking around one of the many students’ protests for the last month of November or December of 2010, and out of around 2,000 officially registered students for that semester at the campus, there were only about 50 people in front of the gates of the campus. Out of those 50 people, at least 20 were not students. I asked a student leader, Who are those people that were there?, and he replied, “Not of your business”, “People from other campuses supporting us”. He couldn’t answer me that simple question, because simply those were not students from any of the campuses of the UPR system. That makes me think about external forces or interests working underground and manipulating students, or maybe paying students (nobody will never know), in order to make those protests and destabilize the system for having the result of closing the UPR system.

  • Jose

    2 of 3

    But the real questions here are; Are those interests related to the government? Does the government really have in agenda the closing of the public system higher education one and only institution, for selling it to the highest bidder? Are those interest related to the private higher institution sectors? Are those interests searching for destabilize the UPR system in order to obligate the government to close and sell? Are those interest related to overseas socialist or totalitarians governments, who wants to destabilize the government via the destabilization of the public higher education system? Or, these people on strike are really students who really “love their ALMA MATER” and wants to have an affordable education for them and the next generations to come? Do those students on strike have the constitutional right to use the violence and intimidation to interrupt classes of other students who really want to study and finish their degrees in a normal manner? Why use violence to defend what they “really think” is justice and fairness? Is the police in the need to use excesive force to bring order an to protect the public property against vandalism and the right of other students who just want to study?

    I don’t defend the government’s decision to put the Tactical Operations Division of the Puerto Rico Police inside campus. I know that was a bad decision that everybody knows had the consequences we have seen on the news. The thing has gone far away out of control in some situations.

    From the government side we have:

    1. Police using excessive force against students (as seen on the pictures published at http://pr.indymedia.org/news/2011/02/47390.php).
    2. Police officers sexually harassing female students by using wrongfully methods for arresting and doing sexually oriented gestures to them (A female makes an accusation towards an officer on the video “Policía acosa sexualmente a estudiante en la UPR” on http://pr.indymedia.org/).
    3. The poor training the Tactical Operations Division of the PR Police have for managing this kind of situation.
    4. The financial chaos that the political changing governments have doomed the UPR system during the last 10 to 15 years.
    5. The imposition of this $400 semester special quota to the students who don’t have any responsibility of the improper management of the UPR financial system.
    6. The negative of the UPR management to bring a healthy and sincere dialogue with certified students and other university employee organizations.
    7.An UPR President that really don’t know what’s going on (thank God he resign last week).

  • Jose

    3 of 3

    In other hand, the students:

    1. The students bring objects like bats or metal tubes and using whatever they find on the floor to attack the policemen
    2. Students yelling improper and insulting words like “Cabr…” or “Mama Bi….” to police officers bringing them to the limits of what a human being can stand (you can hear it thru the audio of the video called “Policía acosa sexualmente a estudiante en la UPR” on http://pr.indymedia.org/).
    3. Students or apparent students shooting smoke bombs to classrooms with classes in session in order to supposedly persuade the students, who really want to take their classes, to join the strike.
    4. Students or apparent students inside the Rio Piedras campus, damaging public property assigned to the campus of the UPR (As seen on this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9gsHfxhvWQ). That was totally a disaster.
    5. Students creating so called “students representative committees” who at last had bring more miscommunication than other thing.
    6. Students of other campuses not supporting the Rio Piedras Campus students on their so called defense for the love of the “ALMA MATER”.

    This week we have a new President for the UPR. Hope to have things change for good from now on.

    In conclusion to this comment, which I expect to be respected as I respect other comments on this topic entry, we are all PUERTORICANS, and we are fighting against each other because of something that we don’t really know what’s all about. We cannot make a comment about this issue, having a political view. If we do take part on one or other side, we will not resolve any issue here. Students can fight for their cause without violence or intimidation. The Police don’t have to be in campus if order prevails. If vandalism and violence come out, the police have to be there to protect the “so loved by the students” University of Puerto Rico.

    Have a nice day!!

  • Jose

    Police out of the Rio Piedras Campus and started the destruction. Yesterday there was a student’s general assembly where the result was a strike without closing the gates and permitting those students who wanted to take their classes, to do so. Today, 24 hour student strike full of violence and miscommunication among students, taking place at the Rio Piedras Campus. Early in the morning, a student and a professor who wanted to enter the campus, where physically assaulted by students on this illegal strike. Yes, it is illegal because that was not the result of the voting process.

    Again, if closing the campuses and going on strike is the solution why only one campus (Rio Piedras), is the only one, out of all 11 campuses, on strike? It has been almost a year of this conflict started and only one campus had remained on this already lost battle. The special quota will not be eliminated, and the students on strike know about it. They are trying to unstabilize the system in order to have it closed. It should be a real student movement, of those who really want to study, who confront those students who claim to “Love the UPR”. Let’s pray to God because if that happen, something I think should happen faster than we think, we will see those student’s on strike real intentions and violence will be the order of the day. I can tell, by seeing those violent students on strike that Puerto Rico Police Forces will be back in campus before this next weekend.

    Now I ask you personally Mrs. Gonzalez, as you mentioned on the third paragraph of this post, and I quote you, “Students have peacefully demanded increased participation and transparency in the administrative and financial proceedings of the nation’s only public university”; WHO’S DEMANDING PEACEFULLY? ARE THE PR POLICE ON CAMPUS? WHAT ABOUT THOSE STUDENTS WHO REALLY WANT TO STUDY? WHO’S VIOLATING THE RIGHTS OF WHOM? WHERE IS THE SUPPORT OF ALL THE STUDENTS OF ALL OTHER 10 CAMPUSES?

    The truth, ugly but is the truth, is that students on strike are not peaceful, and a quick look to local media and news sites will confirm it; the PR Police is not on campus; students who want to study are not permitted, students on strike are violating the rights of students who don’t; there is no support from students of other campuses.

    I suggest you “Querida amiga”, don’t misinform people by posting information not well funded. You really have to be here to know what the UGLY TRUTH is!!!