The government’s credibility and strategy were battered by the student’s overwhelming victory which had paralyzed the entire University of Puerto Rico system and surprised everyone with technological and judicial superiority, its willingness to resist the police, and its model of direct democracy which made the national political institution look bad.
After suffering losses that the government itself calculated at $305 million in the frustrated struggle against the students, the university leadership had to accept all of the economic demands made by the strikers and postpone a plan designed in January of 2009 in the Santa Catalina Palace by the then recently inaugurated governor Luis Fortuno so that the government would keep the increase in the subsidy sent by the United States for students.
“Victory, victory, victory for history!”, chanted hundreds of students who arrived just after midnight at the Court Center in San Juan after finding out that 9 of the 13 members of the UPR Board of Trustees had turned against their President, Ygri Rivera, to support the agreement made with the student National Negotiating Committee. The intense negotiations conducted with the help of mediator were imposed by the Court last Friday, after the last attempts by the government to use the fearsome riot police squad in the conflict bordered on the illegal.
However, on Wednesday night – after having lost on all the economic points – the government accepted that it “would not bring charges against students and members of the university community who, in the exercise of their constitutional rights to the liberty of expression and association, participated in the strike, marches, riots, pickets or any other related legal activity conducted anywhere within the University of Puerto Rico.” Actually, even for those cases where there are accusations of property damage and other illegal activities, the government committed itself to not impose summary punishment and follow the strictest legal process in administrative forums.
The mention of “members of the university community” has the particular importance of protecting professors and other employees – especially those without permanent positions – from cancellation of contract, since now they would have possible cause for legal action for violations of civil rights. The issue dates back to the student strike of 1973, when after having had to negotiate with students the government proceeded to fire 70 professors who had supported the movement.
Regarding the crucial economic issue, the strikers were successful in maintaining that students who have tuition waivers continue receiving the grants sent by the US, prohibiting alliances with the private sector designed to privatize university campuses, and, most of all, that in August there will be no new fees imposed which were to increase the cost of tuition. In this last point, the government left it clear in the document that “the Board of Trustees considers it necessary to establish fees beginning in January of 2011”, but the students then included another clause in which they warned that “the aforementioned should not be taken as acceptance” of the planned imposition.
Actually, Governor Fortuno told radio station NotiUno that “that is exactly what will be the solution”, referring to the fact that they will once again attempt to impose the increase. The Governor explained that the plan, so specific that it included the amount of $1,100 in increases announced recently as something new by the University leadership, was proposed personally by him during a meeting “16 or 17 months ago”.
The talking points to promote the plan, with a million dollar spending cost in propaganda, were to spread that the UPR had an alleged deficit of $200 million resulting from previous bad administration. However, a document was released in which the UPR presidency itself expressed having only a $20 million dollar deficit, which left the Fiscal Efficiency Committee to demonstrate that what was happening was the calculated reduction of hundreds of millions of dollars in funds appropriated by the State itself.
But in reality the current finances of the UPR, with a debt of $700 million on the Wall Street market, continues to be a mystery due to the fact the leadership preferred to lose $305 million than to open its books to the strikers, the state licensing agency, or the Court. These presumed losses include $16 million that they hoped to recoup from limiting waivers, $60 million to be collected from the fees, and the $4 million daily they said they were losing during the strike.
Even before the agreement that would victoriously end the 12th student strike in the UPR’s history since its foundation in 1903, the students had begun to clean up inside the campuses and even used tractors to cut grass. But while they prepare the student assemblies for ratification, the government also began its preparations and the incumbent New Progressive Party is already discussing legislative pieces that would prevent future student assemblies from discussing and decreeing any more strikes.
It would seem that there are two camps that will come head to head for the destiny of Puerto Rico. During a symbolic graduation ceremony organized by the students, professors, and even various members of the Board of Trustees, strikers were given the honorary title of “exemplary citizen” and during the ceremony, Distinguished Professor Samuel Silva Gotay congratulated them for following the “centuries old tradition” of relating citizens with notions of mercifulness and encharged them with a commitment to “that citizenry that we should continuously be constructing day to day, that of the future of the world, that of the other world which is possible to construct here”
(Translation by Juan A. Ocasio Rivera)