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Student Strike at University of Puerto Rico Enters 28th Day

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In Puerto Rico, an ongoing strike by students at the University of Puerto Rico is coming to a head. Riot police have surrounded the main gates of the university’s main campus and are trying to break the strike by denying food and water to students who have occupied the campus inside. The strike began nearly four weeks ago in response to budget cuts at the university of more than $100 million. On Thursday, a mass assembly of more than 3,000 students voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike. The next day, riot police seized control of the main campus gates. We go now to Puerto Rico, inside the occupied campus at the university. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryApr 06, 2016Special Report: Voices from Puerto Rico’s Students Leading an Anti-Austerity Movement
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Puerto Rico, an ongoing strike by students at the University of Puerto Rico is coming to a head. Riot police have surrounded the main gates of the university and are trying to break the strike by denying food and water to students who have occupied the campus inside.

The strike began nearly four weeks ago in response to budget cuts at the university of more than $100 million. Students called on the administration to reconsider the cuts and sought guarantees, such as no fee increases and no privatization of campus services. Students initially called for a forty-eight-hour strike, but more than three weeks later the strike continues and has spread to ten out of eleven campuses. On Thursday, a mass assembly of more than 3,000 students voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike. The next day, riot police seized control of the main campus gates.

The striking students have received widespread support from professors at the university, as well as unions around the country. Crowds have gathered outside the university gates, where police have encircled the striking students inside. Parents, family members, other supporters have tried to throw bottles of water and food over the fence to support the strikers.

We go now to Puerto Rico inside the occupied campus at the university, where we’re joined by Giovanni Roberto, a student at the University of Puerto Rico and a spokesperson for the striking students. We’re also joined by a professor at the university, outside the campus, who’s supporting the students. Christopher Powers is a professor of comparative literature at UPR. He joins us on the phone.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Giovanni, we’ll begin with you. Describe the scene right now and what your demands are.

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Hi, Amy, and hi, people watching.

Our first — our main demand was that we reject certification of the trustees of the university that tried to limit the tuition waivers to students. Especially they tried to make people that have a Pell Grant or other economic help not to be part of the tuition waiver, which in the University of Puerto Rico, which is a public university, most of students have economic aids in order to go to the university and study. So we identify that the administration, what they wanted to do is to attack especially poor students, trying to limit their right to have a tuition waiver.

Right now in the university, we are inside. We remain for more than twenty-seven days on strikes. We are occupying the whole campuses. As you say, ten out of eleven campuses are shut down by students. Inside the university is calm. We are — we have been receiving a lot of people outside the fences helping us to resist the possibility of the police to get in.

Since the first day, the administration demonstrate no will to negotiate with students. Our first demand was that they’re beginning to negotiate. We only want to negotiate with the administration our demands. We have been working for more than one year. And after that, we have no other solution than to go on strike, as we’re doing now, trying to push the administration to negotiate. And they only use the force. They’re trying to get the police in and trying to make us get out. And that’s one of the demands.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring Professor Powers into this, professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Can you talk about the scene there, as well, the students outside, the professors — the students inside, the professors outside?

CHRISTOPHER POWERS: Yes. Well, thank you for having me on the show.

I’m a professor at the Mayagüez campus of the UPR, so I’m not in San Juan right now. But I can report that the strike is being maintained at all of the eleven campuses — that’s a minor correction — because the eleventh campus was closed today by the staff union, which represents about 2,000 maintenance workers in the system. The staff union has also closed the administrative buildings, the central administrative buildings located in the botanical gardens, this morning. They moved in heavy machinery, closing the gates, and have called for a weeklong strike in support of the students. So all of the campuses are closed right now. And the union is calling for the closure, as well, of auxiliary institutions, as well. So the strike has indeed spread to the entire system.

It has also sparked widespread support on the part of professors, for one, but also the broad public. Parents are involved in supporting the students in an unprecedented way compared with the strikes in the past. The use of force to close the main campus has sparked wide sympathy with the students. It should also be noted that the University of Puerto Rico is a university of 64,000 students. It’s the largest university in the Caribbean. And it’s also the premier institution of higher learning in the country. It’s considered part of the cultural patrimony of the island. It has produced the island’s best and brightest. And in the context of the colonial status of the island, in which historically so much of Puerto Rican — Puerto Rico’s resources have been sold out to foreigners, the UPR is widely regarded as the last best resource that the nation has to keep. So attack on the integrity of the institution, the restriction of access for working-class students, and the fears of privatization of the university have sparked very wide public support.

AMY GOODMAN: Who controls the budget exactly, I mean, in relation — for people on the mainland in the United States, given the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico?

CHRISTOPHER POWERS: Right. Well, the budget of the university is controlled by the presidency and the board of trustees. According to a law from 1966, 9.6 percent of the income into the general funds of Puerto Rico are to be used by the university. However, the current conservative, pro-statehood New Progressive Party government issued a law called “Law No. 7,” which is widely unpopular on the island, which gave them emergency powers to effect fiscal measures. And this law has been implemented in the, oh, year-and-a-half or so of the Fortuño administration to lay off public workers, and now it’s been applied to deny funds that have been historically available to the university. This has caused a deficit which could be $100 million or more, although those are based on estimates at this point.

At any rate, the austerity measures that the board of trustees and the presidency are trying to impose have been disproportionately directed at students, professors and staff and have not at all touched the bloated budgets for the central administration and the chancellors’ offices. So there’s a very — you know, a sense of injustice and unfairness in the application of the austerity measures, and the students are not taking it. They have maintained the strike and haven’t budged from the camps that they’ve set up at the gates of the various universities.

It’s a very multi-sectorial movement, the students. It’s not just the traditional activists who are protesting. The tuition waivers that Giovanni was mentioning apply to groups like athletes and musicians, so these students are also involved in the protests. It’s a very exciting movement. And the mood is quite electric. And the students, like I’ve said, have inspired a lot of inspiration and support on the part of the population. There’s a phrase circulating now that this new generation of students is the basta ya generation, the “enough is enough” generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Giovanni Roberto, what are your plans now, with the SWAT teams having moved in? Where do you go from here?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Well, we’re still demanding the administration to negotiate, actually. I think the general strike called for tomorrow is a good step forward in order to push the administration and push the government, as part of that administration, to sit down in the table of negotiation. We’re only demanding that we need to negotiate our demands.

Right now, we’re going to still have — we’re going to continue to strike. We are not going to let us intimidate by the police. We know that if the people remain supporting us, as they have been doing for the last three weeks, we don’t think the police are going to get in or try to get in, because that will be a political — a serious political problem for the government, because we think that all that support, in water and food or in picket lines in front of the university, will transform in mass mobilization in this country. And that’s what we’re hoping, that all of that solidarity that have been expressed in different ways in the last three weeks transform, today and tomorrow and the rest of the weeks, in mass mobilization and mass protest, especially in the strike of tomorrow. So we are going to remain on strike, and we’re going to continue asking negotiation with the administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you had support from students on the mainland United States? And what have been the effect, for example, of the student protests in California? Have you been following them, Giovanni?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah, we received a letter of students and professors of Berkeley and CUNY in New York, from Canada, from Spain, from Venezuela, and from other countries, from República Dominicana. We have received international attention, because, like in California, we are receiving attacks, a budget cuts attack. And we think that the defense of the public university obviously is not only here in Puerto Rico; it’s an international fight against privatization and against things that affect students. So, obviously, what happened in California affects us. Before the strike, we made two occupations of two faculties, in some way inspired by what’s happened in Berkeley and the fight that Berkeley was having there. So I think for them to us and from our fight to them, there’s a relationship between our fight and an inspiration, a mutual inspiration, right now.

AMY GOODMAN: I understand there was a father who was trying to bring food to his son, a student inside, who was attacked. Giovanni Roberto, what happened?

GIOVANNI ROBERTO: Yeah, he was trying to get in bread and water, which is in the morning for breakfast, and the police attacked him and pushed him to the ground and then arrested him in front of all the students. We have a video of that. That same day, in the morning, too, another student was trying to get in, and the police attacked the student, pushed him to the ground, hit him while he was on the ground, and then arrested him. That happened two days, yesterday, happened again with artists that wanted to get food inside the university — actors, singers, famous Puerto Rican singers. They didn’t allow them to get food, and they had to throw it over the fences in order to get the water inside the university. There’s a law that don’t allow any food or water to get in, according to a judge.

So, right now the situation is tense outside. We have more food than ever. That’s important to people to know. We are creating ways to get food and water inside. And the solidarity of the people is so impressed that now we have food like for two weeks. So even there you see the picture. No matter the police, what try the police, we know that we’re going to continue the strike and that we’re going to win this strike. We have the whole country on our side. We have the right to do this. And we are defending only public education, public university. That’s not a crime. One of our slogans is that we are students, not — we’re not making crimes, you know? So —-

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Powers, the support of unions, can you talk about that, like the AFL-CIO?

CHRISTOPHER POWERS: Yes. Well, there’s a general strike called for tomorrow. This strike was called both by the coalition of unions, which includes the Change to Win, the Federation of Workers of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Workers Union representing a broad variety of the union groups and leaders. It’s also being called for by all of Puerto Rico for Puerto Rico. The spokesperson, Juan Vera, the Methodist bishop, called for massive support and all of the members of this coalition of community and religious groups, known for their involvement in the Free Vieques movement, to participate in the strike. And as I mentioned earlier, also the staff union of the university is going on strike for the entire week and closed down the central administration facilities, as well as auxiliary facilities. So the union support for the students is massive.

AMY GOODMAN: This is hardly getting attention on the mainland. Can you talk about that lack of press coverage?

CHRISTOPHER POWERS: Well, I suppose one could relate that to -— again, to the colonial status of Puerto Rico. This is really, I think, in my opinion, a very important struggle, in that the University of Puerto Rico is more important for Puerto Rico than, say, public universities in the States are for their states. And so, what is happening now is that the students are defending the right to a quality public education, that they are staying firm in the face of the attack on the integrity of the institution, the restriction of access for working-class students, and they are really serving as a model, as Eduardo Galeano wrote in a message of support to the students. He says that they are showing the shining path towards the future, while the rest of the world gets used to what is already there.

AMY GOODMAN: Christopher Powers, we’ll have to leave it there, professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Giovanni Roberto, student, one of the student leaders of the strike, speaking to us from inside the campus that they are occupying. Tomorrow, a major strike called across Puerto Rico, and of course we will cover it.

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Special Report: Voices from Puerto Rico’s Students Leading an Anti-Austerity Movement

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