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.