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Puerto Rico: Violent Clashes at the University of Puerto Rico

This post is part of our special coverage Puerto Rico Student Protests 2010/11.

Police arrest students on strike. Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz of Diálogo and republished under a CC License.*

Students on strike at the main campus of the state-run University of Puerto Rico were beaten and arrested last Monday, December 20, after violent clashes with the Police. Seventeen students were arrested that day, and eight have been charged [es] with committing various felonies or misdemeanors. Students oppose an annual $800 tuition fee that will be imposed in January. This is the second student at the University of Puerto Rico strike in less than a year.

The student strike has practically paralyzed the main and largest campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in Río Piedras, San Juan, and students from other campuses have joined the protest with walkouts and other activities. The UPR has 11 campuses on the Island with approximately 60, 000 students, of which 20,000 students are registered at the main campus. Republican and pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuño ordered the Police to occupy the UPR indefinitely -the Police had not entered the UPR since 1981- and this has led to violent clashes with students. The administration declared an academic recess until January 10, but students can still be seen protesting close to the main campus.

Students and Police. Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz of Diálogo. Republished under a CC License.

Police arrest students. Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz of Diálogo. Republished under a CC License.*

Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz of Diálogo. Republished under a CC License.*

The student strike has already entered into its second week in the middle of the holiday season in Puerto Rico. During these days, there exists a possibility that students meet with the President of the UPR [es], José Ramón de la Torre, and the Board of Directors to reach an agreement.

Bloggers in Puerto Rico have analyzed and commented on this recent strike and the crucial moment the student movement confronts. Law student, activist and blogger Mariana Iriarte frames the analysis [es] within the recent Supreme Court decision in the case UPR v. Laborde that declares the UPR a semi-public space and restricts the time, place and way protests can be held. Iriarte laments that the pro-statehood government dominates all three branches of the government:

No hay duda que la concentración de poder del partido en el gobierno es tal que se entienden facultados para llevar a cabo cualquier acción.  Dominan el ejecutivo, el legislativo y el judicial.  Las leyes son por encargo y llegar al tribunal es un acto más bien simbólico.  La legitimidad de las instituciones está por el piso porque no surgen del consenso sino de la violencia de la imposición.  En tal sentido la ciudadanía en general se siente desprotegida y vulnerable.  Los espacios democráticos en lugar de multiplicarse se reducen, en vez de ensancharse se constriñen.  El control gubernamental es cada vez mayor y los ámbitos de la libertad cada vez más pequeños.  Ante esto debemos estar vigilantes, ocupar los espacios públicos, salir a la calles, debatir, manifestarse, protestar, en fin no permitir que la paz de los sepulcros se vuelva la nueva normalidad y el miedo una nueva forma de vida.

There is no doubt that the concentration of power of the governing party is so large that they feel they can do anything. They dominate the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. Laws reflect their particular interests, and to reach the courts is a purely symbolic act. Institutional legitimacy has been destroyed because it does not stem from consensus but from violence and domination. In this sense, citizens feel unprotected and vulnerable. Democratic spaces are being reduced instead of multiplying, instead of broadening they are narrowing. Governmental control is growing, and the spaces for freedom are getting smaller. We have to vigilant, we have to occupy public spaces, take the streets, debate, protest; the peace that invades the cemeteries cannot become the norm nor fear another form of life.

Students protest at Río Piedras. Photo by Ricardo Alcaraz of Diálogo. Republished under a CC License.*

In Diálogo Libre [es], student and blogger Ángel Carrión harshly condemns the acts of violence against students:

Make no mistake, what has been seen today is an act of government repression designed to silence dissidence, an indispensable ingredient in order for democracy to exist. These acts of barbarism cannot be tolerated in Puerto Rico. Those who have allowed and supported the suspension of civil rights and the essentially cowardly violence towards students –students who were unarmed, without bodily protection, and in number far less than the government's agents dispatched in the University's campuses– do not deserve to be held in the high esteem they continue to enjoy. They have failed in the worse possible way those who they swore to defend, betraying them without a second thought. You, dear reader, and me.

Ivan Chaar-López, blogger and graduate student at the UPR, objects to some of the student's strategies [es], such as covering their faces, shouting at students and professors who were attending and offering classes during the strike, and throwing smoke balls in the classrooms. He also believes that the student movement has lost the diversity that characterized it during the 60-day strike that paralyzed the UPR in April 2010:

…le propongo a mis compañer@s que consideremos seriamente declarar una especie de “cese al fuego” hasta el año que viene y re-iniciar un proceso de diálogo “interno” sincero. Necesitamos entrar en una re-evaluación profunda de las tácticas y discutir con mayor amplitud la estrategia a seguir. Aprovechemos ese período para descansar y llevar a cabo reuniones semanales sobre cómo atender y trabajar la acción directa en el nuevo año. Propiciemos la creación de nuevos grupos autónomos de autogestión que diversifiquen los espacios de agencia. Un movimiento se constituye, necesariamente, de múltiples ricos y complejos grupos de participación, así como de individuos no-afiliados. No se puede pretender presentar una imagen de unidad absoluta al país porque hacerlo constituye una invisibilización de la diferencia entre nosotr@s.

…I propose to my compañeros to seriously consider declaring a “ceasefire” until next year and restart a sincere “internal” dialogue. We need a profound reassessment of the tactics, and discuss more broadly the strategy. Let's seize this period of time to relax and conduct weekly meetings on how to work on direct actions for the new year. Let's promote the creation of new autonomous self-managed groups to diversify the spaces of agency. A movement is necessarily constituted by complex and rich multi-participation groups and non-affiliated individuals. You cannot pretend to present an image of absolute unity to the country because it would invisibilize the differences among us.

Novelist and Literature professor Mayra Santos-Febres criticizes [es] the “cold war” discourse of left vs. right that has permeated the public discourse in Puerto Rico and has been used by government officials and students alike. She calls for new forms of thinking and acting:

Izquierda, derecha. Buenos, malos. Discursos diferentes, objetivos similares- una sociedad cerrada, sin lugar para la diferencia, para la autocrítica, para la justicia, para la paz.

Venezuela, Puerto Rico. Socialismo del Siglo XXI. Neo-liberalismo colonial. A ambos lados de la valla, aniquilación de toda disidencia.

Tal parece que me equivoco y que, en lo fundamental, los tiempos no han cambiado. Y al igual que en antaño, la derecha y la izquierda suenan diferente, pero actúan muy parecido, demasiado igual.

Left, right. Good, bad. Different discourses, similar goals, a closed society without room for dispute, for self-criticism, for justice, for peace.

Venezuela [where there have also been student protests], Puerto Rico. XXI Century Socialism. Neo-colonial liberalism. On both sides of the fence, the obliteration of all dissent.

It seems that I'm wrong and that, fundamentally, times have not changed. And just as in the old days, right and left sound different, but they act very similar, too similar.

In the following video [es], student Ángel Santiago talks about his experiences at the UPR. This is the first video of a series called “UPR, a common cause.”

*All photos by Ricardo Alcaraz from the weekly Diálogo [es] and republished under CC License NC-ND 3.0.

* Please see Global Voice's special coverage of the student strike.

This post is part of our special coverage Puerto Rico Student Protests 2010/11.

  • http://www.thecaribbeanamphibian.com Ben (the Caribbean Amphibian)

    I will be the first to stand up for the right to protest; it is a fundamental right to express yourself in the United States (Puerto Rico included). The key is to be protest peacefully, for as much as there is a right to protest, there is a right to ignore the protest.

    When the protest crosses over to violence against/toward innocent folks (shouting at students and professors who were attending and offering classes during the strike, and throwing smoke balls in the classrooms), then this borders on terrorizing those who wish to continue with their education, and it does nothing to further the cause.

    Sure, the police probably over reacted, but we would all do better to realize that as much as you have a right to the freedom of experssion, so does your neighbor.

    I hope both sides can come to an amicable agreement soon.

    Ben (@carib_amphib)

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  • Steven Greenia Hathaway

    Your article on events at the Rio Piedras campus of 20 Dec. does not provide the identity of those reporting the alleged violence of police against the students, while the Daily Sun of 21 Dec suggests that its staff was there, witnessing, \Some demonstrators threw smoke bombs,\ and \While some protestors threw rocks, bottles, desks and other objects at the police, some students asked them to stop\ (page 3).
    You’ve had about 6 days to research the facts of those events, yet you only attest to the identities of those who appear in your posting who object to the co-opting of all perspectives by a highly motivated group of students, or agitators. One of your references, Ivan Chaar-Lopéz, specifically calls attention to people, in-house students, outside agents-provocateurs, who deliberately conceal their faces in preparation for physical aggression against the police.
    Thus, in spite of your intentions to be as objective as possible, you contribute to a one-sided view that offers no attestation for what is an observable, unjustified, foul in something like a game of basketball or soccer or hockey that is in fact a retaliation for a previous discourtesy, offense. Your retelling of the real-time events lacks definition or limitation, and seem flawless, truthful, while the corrective accounts seem limited and self-interested, and flawed.

    • Alanis

      At last! Steven, you have my respects.

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