Students at a campus of the University of Puerto Rico have been on strike against budget cuts for 23 days. A student assembly called by the administration just voted overwhelmingly to extend the strike indefinitely, the Puerto Rico Daily Sun reports.
[Note: recent communications from colleagues in Puerto Rico raise concerns that the police may be massing before an attack on the striking students. Solidarity statements and other support from around the world is urgently needed.]
UPR students ratify indefinite strike vote
An overwhelming majority of University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras campus students ratified in a general assembly Thursday the indefinite strike vote that has kept the state-run academic institution shut for 23 consecutive days.
The assembly, which had been endorsed by UPR President José R. De la Torre, Río Piedras campus Chancellor Ana R. Guadalupe and Board of Trustees president Ygrí Rivera, was initially questioned by the striking students who considered it a “desperate attempt” by university administrators to coerce the students into lifting the strike without considering their demands.
“They tried to ambush us. Today we went to their assembly, at a place of their choosing, in their own terms, and we won. This clearly demonstrates our strength,” Student Negotiating Committee member Giovanni Roberto said.
“They should negotiate. They should stop being so intransigent,” added the student leader.
The student assembly took place at the Puerto Rico Convention Center, which was leased for the event by the UPR administration, which also provided transportation and security for the event. The efforts of the administration to influence the students went as far as buying advertising space in local newspapers accusing Negotiating Committee members of “breaking their word” by refusing to take the “understandings” they have reached to the consideration of a student assembly.
De la Torre had denied on Wednesday his actions were an attempt to influence or intimidate the students, but an effort to provide the students with all the information needed before they took a decision.
“Attorney Villaronga [Board of Trustees legal counsel] dared us to take the agreements to the students’ assembly. We did and the students were not satisfied with them. Now the ball is in their court [the trustees],” said Student General Council President Gabriel Laborde.
After the ratifying vote, favoring the indefinite strike, De la Torre issued a written statement in which he stated chancellor Guadalupe, the Board of Trustees and he would meet “to ponder the possibilities and take decisions.”
The statement also included a reaction from Guadalupe to the student vote. Both UPR officials concurred in questioning “the democratic principles” underlying the assembly they had not only endorsed the day before but also paid for and called, “an opportunity to end the strike.”
Early morning Thursday, students began to arrive at the Convention Center and line up in front of the tables, identified by academic department, in the parking lot on the west side of the facility. Some had carpooled with friends or with their parents, who were not allowed in the center, using public transportation or in buses provided by the university administration. There was at least one bus from the Toa Alta municipal government transporting students to the assembly.
While waiting to check in, students chanted slogans, sang and danced plenas, or traditional Puerto Rican songs, and greeted each other as they met with friends and fellow classmates, undaunted by a downpour that soaked everything around 8:30 a.m.
Student athletes and the UPR cheerleading team displayed their talents by performing their award winning routines and stunts for the cheering crowd.
At 11:30 a.m., almost two and a half hours after the scheduled time the assembly was opened with 2,886 students present, almost twice the minimum required for quorum.
After some discussions the Student Negotiating Committee presented a detailed report on the negotiations with the Board of Trustees and its recommendations. The committee, including the individual departments’ action committee representatives, unanimously recommended the ratification of the strike vote.
The students’ main demands are the repealing of Certification 98, which limits and in some cases eliminates tuition waivers for students, guarantees that there will be no tuition increases and no privatization of services and / or campuses, and that their alternatives for budget cutbacks will be implemented.
A motion was immediately presented to allow for a period of questions directly to the Negotiating Committee members from the floor. After almost 30 minutes of Q&A a motion for the ratification of the strike vote was introduced.
Student Carlos Collazo argued against the motion questioning whether the strike had already served its purpose. He called for continuing negotiations, but with campus gates open and taking classes.
“The time has come to decide whether the strike has served its purpose already. Let’s study and at the same time continue fighting for our benefits,” said Collazo, who tried to introduce an amendment to the motion, but was declared out of order because the debate had already begun.
Some tension developed when, just before the motion was to be voted on, a new motion requesting a secret ballot was made. The motion was overwhelmingly defeated.
A visible majority of the students voting in favor of continuing the strike was confirmed after approximately 100 hands went up against the strike. Immediately, students started cheering and jumping into each others arms in celebration of the “victory over the university administration.”
Should the fiscal health of the UPR be compromised by an insufficient budget and with an indefinitely continuing strike, Puerto Rico’s only public university could be at risk of losing its licensing as an institution of higher education.
The Daily Sun received a copy of a letter sent by Puerto Rico Higher Education Council president José Aparicio Maldonado to De la Torre where he notes that recent press reports point out that the university, and particularly the Río Piedras campus, has been involved in situations that could have caused a breach in some the regulations governing the institution’s operating license.
Aparicio Maldonado also notes in his letter that the UPR’s financial situation and proposed budget cutbacks could also affect the institution’s ability to continue offering its academic programs and thus its licensing.
The council president further advises De la Torre that recent reductions in the teaching staff and other personnel could also affect the institution’s operations.
“… therefore it is of particular importance for the university to act promptly to resolve this situation,” the document states.