interview — Puerto Rico student strike reflections


Listen to an interview with Maritza Stanchich, a writer in San Juan, Puerto Rico, speaking on the 2010/11 student strike at the Universidad de Puerto Rico. Intro music by Roy Brown, Señor Inversionista, photo from strike protest at University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez.

below is a transcription of the Maritza Stanchich’s voice, including links to relevant online resources on the issues and ideas highlighted in this interview.

The historic student strike that happened in Quebec and in Chile are very similar in magnitude to the one that happened in Puerto Rico in 2010.

It started around tuition waivers, the board of trustees [at the University of Puerto Rico] unilaterally cancelled tuition waivers, that went to athletes, they went to honors students. There was almost an immediate reaction to that [decision] and it bloomed, ending up shutting down the 11 campuses, the whole system for two months and the students occupied the campus in tents.

The immediate response from the administration was to repress, to call in the riot police, who are very notorious here, they are called Fuerza de Choque and they are notorious for [human rights] abuses. At the time I really thought that somebody was going to get killed on our campus, because that has happened historically at other University of Puerto Rico strikes, the last one being in 1981 and previous to that in 1970, those were deadly and massive strikes at the University of Puerto Rico.

Then the strike became a question of free expression, the university administration tried to limit free expression to very small sections of the sidewalk, which civil rights attorneys said was illegal.

In the height of repression, in December 2010, all three sectors, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, the state legislature in Puerto Rico and the chancellor of the university all prohibited in different ways any assembly on a campus. In the case of the chancellor at the University of Puerto Rico’s edict, it was any assembly whatsoever, in the case of the supreme court and the state legislature they both passed these rulings and laws, literally on the same day, they all came down at the same time, making it illegal to protest at any public sector institution, with quite severe punishment.

[So the student strike] started becoming about wider concerns, like was happening all over the world at the time, the student protests in London, and similar to what was happening in Quebec, the privatization of higher education, the basic abandonment of public sector commitment to accessible, quality higher level education. And then on civil rights, a popular response to the state calling out the riot police every time there was a protest, the strike quickly became about these issues as well. And then later when the fee hike was imposed, it became about the fee hike but also about these broader issues.

University of Puerto Rico is the main public university, its large, 11 campuses, at the time 65,000 students, now 55,000 students due to the fee hike. Its also the univerity of excellence, there are private universities that cost a lot more, but the University of Puerto Rico is known to be the most prestigious. It is inexpensive when compared to universities in the U.S., which is what opponents to [the student strike over the fee hike] kept harping. Except of course, Puerto Rico is far poorer [than anywhere in the US], half the average income of Mississippi and about twice the poverty level of Mississippi, the state that has the highest indicators in those areas.

Unlike previous student strikes at the University of Puerto Rico, it didn’t have one key leader, there were several leaders, including women, there were a lot of artistic independent groups doing their own thing at the protests. I think the strike to some extent expressed the general crisis in the country as a whole and managed to gain widespread public support, not an easy thing to do in a country where there is a great deal of repression against protests historically. Although Puerto Rico also does have a strong protest tradition.

It ended in June 2010 with an accord, that was by all measures a success for the student movement, but then the government, a very right wing repressive government at the time, immediately tore up the accords and imposed a fee, at $800 dollars a year, $400 per semester. And then the second phase of the strike, that started in December 2010 and extended into January, February and March 2011 was an attempt to get the fee hike canceled, and that strike was not as massive as the initial strike [to oppose the tuition waivers], for example not all the campuses went on strike, and students were not able to occupy the campuses due to serious police repression.

Puerto Rico is a deeply divided society, as a consequence of its deeply colonial history and the two main parties in control are the pro statehood party and the pro-commonwealth party, I don’t like that term [the party representing the current colonial status relationship to the U.S.], that status is officially calls Puerto Rico a “Free Associated State”. So the first strike clearly had people from all the political sectors on board and the second strike faced a challenge in mobilizing across society given the police repression.

7:06 pm  •  10 October 2013