Struggle for Democracy and Public Education in Puerto Rico

Posted February 16, 2011

Victor M. Rodriguez

“The epicenter of the struggle for the public university in Latin America is Puerto Rico.” — José Carlos Luque Brazán, professor and researcher of political science and urban planning at the Autonomous University, Mexico City

The social conflict taking place at the University of Puerto Rico is polarizing this island to such an extent that this United States’ possession, which used to be heralded as the “Showcase of Democracy” during the Cold War ideological struggles, is now sliding into a system of widespread civil and human rights violations.

The University of Puerto Rico, for the first time in decades, is occupied by police: political demonstrations are banned; summary expulsions of student
leaders are common; and hundreds of students have been arrested, beaten, and at times sexually assaulted or tortured. On February 9, after the riot squad violently intervened with students painting murals, 28 students were arrested, many were hurt and chaos ensued when pepper gas and batons were used to violently arrest students and bystanders. The police violence was of such magnitude that the faculty organization, the Puerto Rican Association of Professors, and the Brotherhood of Non-Faculty Employees called for a 24-hour strike, which was later extended. The university is closed and the president
of the system, Jose Ramon de la Torres, after writing a letter requesting the removal of the police from the campus, announced he was resigning as president.

The coverage of this social movement by U.S. mainstream media is scant, and only Al Jazeera has begun to provide some international coverage. In addition, just as in Egypt, youth have created their own media in order to organize and tell the world what is happening in this territory of the United States. Hidden from the eyes of the world, and especially from the U.S. public, this island with 3.9 million inhabitants is experiencing the most intense struggle for democracy and public education since the 1960s. Since early April 2010, students of the most prestigious institution of higher education in the Caribbean, the University of Puerto Rico, have been involved in a struggle to preserve a system of public higher education. This is the system that provides 95% of the research and development in Puerto Rico.

Neo-Liberalism in Puerto Rico

Since his landslide election in 2008, Governor Luis Fortuño, of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, has implemented a series of neo-liberal measures, which have polarized the island’s population and increased economic inequality. Governor Fortuño is the first Puerto Rican governor who is an avowed member of the National Republican Party, despite the fact that the Republican Party as such does not participate in Puerto Rican elections. Despite his electoral promises, he has fired 30,000 public workers and reduced investments in social services and education.

The unemployment rate in December 2010 was 14.7%, which is lower than it was at the beginning of the fiscal year (16.9% in July 2010), but the reason behind this decline is not an increase in jobs but the discouraged worker effect, that is, workers who are dropping out of the work force and either working in the informal economy or participating in social welfare programs. Puerto Rico moreover has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the world.

The proportion of the able-bodied population who participates in the work force has declined dramatically. In July 1999, 47.8 percent were in the labor force and in December 2010 it was 41.1 %. In contrast, the labor participation rate in the United States in January was 64.2%.

In addition, efforts to privatize segments of public services including education are being made through what the government call “private-public partnerships.” These are ways of providing the private sector with public assets without the risks involved in the private market. Attempts to create these partnerships include the building of a gas pipeline through some of the most environmentally fragile areas of the island which are close to population centers. There is strong citizen opposition to this project, in light of the gas pipeline explosions in California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but the government is committed to its construction.

The privatization of higher education has involved another strategy to achieve the same objective. Funds for the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) since 1997 have been cut by $336 million. The university imposed an $800 fee hike on the students in order to solve the financial deficit of the system. What this increase will mean is that close to 10,000 students will not be able to attend the university. What seems to be behind the financial gutting of the university is the
neo-liberal ideology supported by Governor Fortuño.

From the academic year of 2001-02, to 2006-07, there was a dramatic decline in the proportion of public university students in the total university student population. In 2001-02, only 117,714 attended private universities while 73,838 attended the UPR. In 2006-07, 158,031 went to private universities and only 65,939 the UPR. In an island with a 47% poverty rate and a median family income of $20,425, a third of the United States median family income ($58,526), education is the only avenue toward upward mobility. And yet, the burden of educating the island’s youth has been and will be further shifted to private universities, relying more on federal Pell Grants. So, by expanding the role of private universities the neo-liberals are transferring Puerto Rico’s economic responsibility on United States’ taxpayers.

Poll ratings of Governor Fortuño are extremely low, and yet he is steadfast in implementing draconian measures and supporting the repressive measures used against the university community, even though the Department of Justice sent investigators in response to a request by the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union as well as other interested parties for an investigation of civil rights violation by the Puerto Rican Police Department. One reason behind his obstinate efforts may be that he is being courted by the National Republican Party as a way of attracting the Latino vote. Governor Fortuño attended a Heritage Foundation briefing in Simi Valley, California and a Koch brothers event in Rancho Mirage, California last month. At such venues he has been boasting of how he has established law and order in Puerto Rico. Most recently, on February 11, he was one of the speakers at the CPAC 2011 meeting in Washington, D.C.,
where he touted his neo-liberal policies.

Toeing the Tea Party line, he spoke about reducing government, emphasizing higher bond ratings, but not about the collapse of the social fabric caused by his measures. Puerto Rico last year had 1,000 murders; this year, already in January, the homicide number in Puerto Rico reached more than one hundred. And yet the police are at the campus of the University of Puerto Rico, repressing freedom of expression. In the meantime, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have migrated to the United States, the
highest number since the great migration in the aftermath of World War II.

It seems that the only strategy of neo-liberals in Puerto Rico is to shirk the social and public responsibility to provide for the Puerto Rican population by transferring segments of the population to the United States.