Fellow U.S. citizens are currently protesting for their education rights. Thousands of students at Puerto Rico’s largest public university, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), have gone on an indefinite strike to protest multimillion-dollar cuts prompted by an economic crisis.
A federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances is demanding that the university cut $450 million from its budget to help pay the island’s debt to bondholders.
Due to Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States, with 3.6 million inhabitants and no voting power in Congress, its economy is by and large subject to the whims of U.S. interests. The economy is dominated by U.S. corporations that have the power to fix high prices for everyday goods.
A recent Fox News article reported that the striking students are demanding reforms including an end to budget cuts, no tuition increases, and an independent audit of Puerto Rico’s debt. According to Democracy Now, the university has 11 campuses and serves more than 50,000 students.
While on strike, these students are not able to continue their studies because all campuses have been locked down by protesters.
El Nuevo Día
José Feliciano, an Electrical Engineering major at the Mayaguez campus, has been tremendously affected by the protest.
“An indefinite strike can cause for this current semester to become invalid, my working-class parents have already paid for my tuition and I do not receive financial aid, unlike many others” Feliciano said.
Furthermore, Feliciano is on the verge of losing his first big opportunity in the mainland.
“I might even lose an offer to intern at Texas Instruments in Dallas because, when the strike ends, I will have to complete the semester. Even my graduation will be delayed now. This entails more impromptu expenses” Feliciano said.
But for the majority, the strike is a form of resistance.
“It is hopeful to see so many students united, debating long hours about the situation in the country” Cynthia López, a reporter for El Nuevo Día, said.
With 4,522 votes in favor and 1,154 against, many UPR students support the manifestations. Those who protest are the ones willing to risk administrative or criminal sanctions, as well as injury at the hands of others, especially the Puerto Rico Police Department.
“I have mixed feelings. I am not in favor because I think [the strike] hasn’t accomplish anything and it’s just an interruption of our studies. Nevertheless, going on strike it’s basically the only way students can express their feelings towards the government and fight back” Natalia Figueroa, a Biology student at the Río Piedras campus, said.
According to Figueroa, the students have the right to protest because it’s time for the government to stop picking on the island’s education system and stand their grounds so the future of Puerto Rico doesn’t suffer.
“Most students want to have their voice heard but they don’t want the strike to be prolonged any further because they’re scared to lose the university’s accreditation” Figueroa said.
The UPR strike just represents an aspect of a bigger problem: Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Recently, a U.S. oversight board appointed by the US Congress rejected Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello’s initial plan for pulling the island out of its debt crisis, saying the proposal relies on overly optimistic projections and fails to cut spending deeply enough to erase the government’s chronic budget deficits.
According to Bloomberg, the debt crisis erupted after years of borrowing to cover expenses as the island’s economy contracted and residents left for the mainland U.S. for work.
Eduardo Rivera, a Puerto Rican Communications major at Manhattan College, looks at the UPR crisis from afar.
“Each case is unique but most of us leave because of the idolized American diploma and the employment opportunities that this can offer you in the long term.
“The important thing is to return home and contribute in the island, not to turn your back and think of your individual success solely” Rivera said.
Rivera is just one of 61,000 Puerto Ricans that move from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland yearly. He might not be directly affected by the education crisis but many of his friends back home are.
As El Nuevo Día reported, to restart work in the 11 precincts, UPR students ask for five requirements to be met: no sanctions be imposed on the students that participated in the strike, that a university reform plan drawn up by the university community be presented, that the public debt be audited and that it be returned to the members of the audit committee public and its predecessor.
Even when against striking, Feliciano recognizes that cutting $450 million from UPR’s budget is absurd because 8 out of the 11 campuses do not add to that amount of funds so this will mean closing those campuses and leaving thousands without accessible education.
“Economically speaking, closing the gates of the university will lead to auto-destruction,” Feliciano said.
The political and economical climate in Puerto Rico doesn’t seem to prosper anytime soon. At times like these, the local media is offering bias views on the strikes and attitudes of the students so many have decided to appeal to social media to express their opinions and shed light to what’s really being going on at the heart of these protests. Most recently, two student protesters were allegedly kidnapped illegally by unidentified police officers and without following proper arrest procedure.
UPR students Adriana Quiles and Josué Román remained detained while fellow UPR students sang support chants in front of police headquarters.