Partisan Politics, Neo-Liberalism, and Struggle for Democracy and Public Education in Puerto Rico

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 City1

Puerto Rico has historically been a laboratory for social, economic, political and scientific experiments. After the 1898 Spanish American War, the U.S. extended to Puerto Rico a newly crafted colonial system which had never been implemented in the mainland, eugenic programs were tested in the island, sterilization of women and the use of the contraceptive pill also used the island as a laboratory. Later, an export-based developmental model was crafted, euphemistically called “Manos A la Obra” translated as “Operation Bootstrap” (in Mexico called Maquiladora Program), which was later touted as a developmental model for the “Third World.” The use of emigration as an escape valve led 500,000 to migrate to the United States and other parts of the Americas.

After the Spanish-American War, the United States was confronted with a dilemma: what to do with the newly acquired territories, especially, Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Territories that were annexed earlier, whether the Louisiana Purchase, Alaska, Hawaii, or the incorporation of the Southwest after the Mexican American War, had relatively small populations which did not have a fully developed national identity. The colonization process consisted of moving white settlers into these regions and placing them into the path toward statehood. The United States was not building a classic empire; it saw itself as engaging in nation-building. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 basely guided a process to transform these territories into full fledged members of the union.

In Puerto Rico’s case, the experience was quite dissimilar. Puerto Rico had a clearly developed national identity, close to a million inhabitants, in U.S. racial terms mostly non-white, a literature, and a history of anti-colonial struggle. The white settler model would not work in the island. Elihu Root used the knowledge engendered by British anthropologists who had provided the ethnography used to structure the British colonial system. This was adapted to Puerto Rico and a series of cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, the “Insular Cases,” carved a legal space for legitimating something that was anathema to the U.S. experience: having colonies. The United States became an empire in the classical sense. Puerto Ricans are today second class U.S. citizens, who can be drafted into the military in case of war (like they were in World War II, the Korean intervention, and the war on Vietnam). However, they are unable vote for the president of the United States, the Commander in General of the U.S. armed forces. They have a delegate which sits in congress with voice but does not vote. Every federal law applies in Puerto Rico even when it might contradict the island’s constitution.

This is in an abbreviated form the historical context for the collapse of the U.S. colonial project in Puerto Rico. The most evident symptom today is the social movement to preserve public higher education which has, still hidden from the U.S. public, shaken the foundations of the colony. Today, the crisis is not only political, but it is also social and economic. It’s most recent reiteration is that for the first time since 1898, the population of the island has declined, according to the latest Census 2010 data. One of the causes of this collapse is another experiment that has used the colonial subjects of Puerto Rico as guinea pigs. The radical implementation of a program of neo-liberal measures that surpasses anything attempted before in Puerto Rico. While previous administrations tried a patchwork of privatizations and budget reduction measures, this is the first time a systematic effort to apply neo-liberal measures to “starve the beast” is being attempted on the island. The most obvious victim is the system of public education which had, until very recently, been a fairly good model of access to higher education and of its contribution to the development of the most educated labor force in Latin America. That all has changed.

Crisis in Public Higher Education in Puerto Rico

While some universities across the nation have increased tuition fees to address budget deficits, few universities have faced the persistent social and political turmoil that has gripped the University of Puerto Rico. With the exception of the 2010 student protests at the University of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, most in the academic community have not organized a broad social movement to challenge the underlying ideology that appears to be leading this restructuring of the financing of public higher education. In some sense, as Laurel Weldon argues, a social movement for public education in Puerto Rico has provided a voice to a segment of society which felt powerless as an ideologically led government dismantles public higher education and creates the basis for the continuation of a seemingly permanent crisis.2

Since the founding of the University of Puerto Rico in 1903, the university, which has grown into eleven campuses, has had to face the political intervention of the state. The university was organized during a period after the United States military government ended; it was burdened with a centralized administration and a colonizing objective.3 The model for its structure came from the educational system created in the United States for the education of African Americans and Native Americans. This was a period when social Darwinism permeated American culture and some of the political and educational leaders felt that the natives of the newly acquired territories where inferior. This produced a system of higher education that had a paternalistic relationship with the colonial government. Unfortunately, the legacy of the past is still woven through the institutional norms and practice of the university.

In fact, it was the intense political intervention by the government in the university which led the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools to refuse accreditation to the university in 1937. This colonial origin, the government’s intrusion of partisan politics and centralized power are at the source of most of the recurring social conflicts that have pervaded the history of this institution. In 1942 and 1948, protests from the university community because of political encroachment led to two major strikes that closed down the university. Later throughout the 1960s and 1980s, the university life was punctuated by protests, calls for educational reform and debates about fiscal autonomy as a way to ensure a central role to the academic community in governance. However, while strikes and protests are relatively common throughout the history of the university, this is the first time when the protests have had the real possibility of challenging government policies. The coming together of a number of factors has created a potentially critical situation that could either crush the hope of a progressive educational reform or create the momentum for one in the not too distant future. These factors are first, the worst recession the island has experienced since the 1930s, one that began two years before in the mainland. Second, the reckless political intervention in university affairs by the pro-statehood New Progressive Party administration of Gov. Luis Fortuño. Third, the unrestrained use of force against the protesters.

After a year of instability, 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 was 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.

Presently, Miguel Muñoz, former chancellor of the engineering campus in the western city of Mayaguez is the interim president of the system. While there is a process to name the person who will permanently occupy the position, six of the universities refused to participate in the search. There is a great lack of trust because of decades of partisan intervention in university affairs. The legislature expanded the number of trustees which govern the system so it could have the opportunity of naming people loyal to the governing party. The legislature, under the full control of the New Progressive Party, had also increased the number of judges in the island’s Supreme Court to solidify its control of the institution. They also named a former FBI agent, Jose Figueroa Sancha as superintendent of the island-wide police department. The police force has been militarized and a number of new units, including the Unit for Tactical Operations (UOT), and the Special Arrests Unit (SAU) have been used in response to mostly peaceful student protests. Also surprising is the use of SWAT units with hoods, machine guns, shotguns, and the more widespread use of tazers, pepper spray, rubber bullets, shields by the police. Dr. Jorge Benitez says in his book on citizenship and exclusion that the state does not invest resources unless it feels that the movement challenges the status quo.4 The U.S. Department of Justice, in response to a request by both the United States and Puerto Rico’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is investigating the police of Puerto Rico and it is expected that sometime this year some form of consent decree will be implemented because of the widespread violation of human and civil rights. The state of crisis even brought Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill), of Puerto Rican descent to denounce the violations in a session in congress.

Presently, there is a lull in the protests, this retrenchment occurred after an incident where Ana Guadalupe, chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras campus, the largest university in the system, was attacked with water bottles and pushed by students. This incident occurs after a year of police brutality that exacerbated the tension. But even during the most active period of the protests in spring 2010 when students occupied 10 of the eleven universities, U.S. mainstream media coverage of this social movement is scant. Only Al Jazeera and Tele Sur (Venezuela) began to provide some international coverage. In order to break the silence, just as in Egypt, youth created their own media in order to organize and tell the world what is happening in this territory of the United States. They also created a radio station “Radio Huelga” (Strike Radio) managed and controlled by students, to cover the events and dialogue about the issues.

Hidden from the eyes of the world, and especially from the U.S. public, this island with 3.7 million inhabitants is experiencing the most intense struggle for democracy and public education since the 1960s. The leadership of the island-wide movement is provided by the academic community of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. This is a selective research intensive university and the most prestigious institution of higher education in the Caribbean, the system that provides 95% of the research and development in Puerto Rico. It has 20,000 students and 1,000 faculty. The system historically has produced the intellectual leadership of the island, in the sciences, arts and literature. Because of its selectivity, the system has the brightest and also the most creative and persistent defenders of educational reform and the expansion of public education. Unfortunately, ideology is guiding the government’s response to the educational and social crisis at the university.

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 17,000 public workers and reduced investments in social services and education. The unemployment rate in January 2011 was 15.7%, 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 that participates in the work force has declined dramatically. In July 1999, 47.8 per cent 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 the meantime, efforts to privatize segments of public services including education are being made through what the government calls “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 (50%) on the students in order to solve the alleged financial deficit of the system. The Office of Financial Aid at the University of Puerto Rico calculates that the annual cost of attending the university $13,932, and a full-time student spends $1,674, now is spending, $2,474. What this increase will mean is that close to 10,000 students will not be able to attend the university. Given that there might be a further reduction in Pell grants, poorer and middle class students will be priced out of a public college education. What is 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. Contrary to the United States, private institutions of higher education pale in comparison to the quality of the education at the University of Puerto Rico system. According to “Integrated Post Secondary Educational Data System” (IPEDS) of the federal department of education, graduation rates (2007-08) for private universities range between 18.15 and 45.3%. In comparison, graduation rates for the eleven universities of the public system range from 61.0% to 36.4%.

Ironically, if the government’s policy of cutting financial support for public education continues an even more economically stratified system of education will develop. Presently, economically disadvantaged students are more likely to attend private universities than public institutions. So in fact, 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. 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. These policies will further exacerbate the extreme unequal income distribution that already exists.

Poll ratings of Governor Fortuño are extremely low, a recent poll by the daily Nuevo Dia, only 25 per cent of voters would re-elect Gov. Fortuño. Yet he is steadfast in implementing draconian measures and supporting the repressive measures used against the university community. 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 at the beginning of this year. 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 Conservative Political Action Conference (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, and about reducing the structural deficit of the government. While it was true that the structural deficit was reduced from $3,306 billion to $2,143 billion on the other hand, the island had received $6,800 billion in American Recovery and Re-Investment Act (ARRA) which are non-recurrent funds. These funds, together with bond emissions helped fill the gap. However, the public debt of Puerto Rico in the meantime has increased from $52, 947 billion in 2008 to $63,366 billion in February 2011. An increase of $10,419 billion more or a 19 per cent increase! A tax cut for multinational corporations that was effected 10 years earlier, based on the same ideology of neo-liberalism, cut $3,000 billion in general funds revenue from the island’s coffers. This is the sum of the structural deficit.

The colonial developmental model did not begin its slide into a crisis in the last few years; many economists date it back to the 1970s when the glowing statistics began to lose their luster. Economist James Dietz says that the economic convergence between the United States and Puerto Rico only lasted between 1950 through 1970s. While there was some improvement in the 1990s, ironically when less federal intervention was taking place in the form of federal exemptions to multinational corporations operating in the island’s enclave economy.5 One interesting datum provided by economist Francisco Catalá is that profits to foreign companies in Puerto Rico rose from 7.4 per cent of gross national income in 1970 to 56.5 per cent in 2009.6 Obviously, the colonial model had become a hemorrhage of resources away from the island. In 2009, according to the Puerto Rico Planning Board report to the governor, $35, 443 billion dollars were profits transferred out of Puerto Rico. The economy of the island has contracted a bit more than 11 per cent in the last 5 years. Today, 20 per cent of the Puerto Rican population receives 55.3 per cent of all income generated in the island, in the U.S. the top 20 per cent received 50.3. This inequality is higher than that of the United States which has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. But Gov. Luis Fortuño in its messages says that the bond ratings have improved.

Sadly, while the bond ratings have increased somewhat (although still considered risky) Puerto Rico’s social fabric is collapsing. Puerto Rico last year had 1,000 murders; this year, already in February, 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, the population of the island, for the first time in modern history has decreased. It is calculated that more than 400,000 Puerto Ricans have migrated to the United States, the highest number since the great migration in the aftermath of World War II.

They know the risk that they face when they let the imagination run through books, how seditious the fictions become when the reader explores the freedom that makes them possible and that in them is exercised, with the fear and the darkness that lurks in the real world.

– Mario Vargas Llosa, 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature

The University of Puerto Rico was placed on probation last year by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. Two of the main critiques were governance and its finances. The academic senate of the Rio Piedras campus submitted an addendum to the university report to the Middle States including the police brutality that occurred on that campus. Chancellor Ana Guadalupe refused to include it so it had to be sent separately. As to the financial health of the system, the government has failed to restore the funds that were taken. Finally, it seems that the space for critical inquiry and freedom of expression the university has historically provided is too threatening for the ideologues at the helm in Puerto Rico. 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.

  1. Stanchich, Maritza “More Violence in Puerto Rico as University Student Fee Is Imposed,” Huffington Post, January 18, 2011. []
  2. Weldon, S. Laurel. 2011. When Protest Makes Policy: How Social Movements Represent Disadvantaged Groups. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. []
  3. Navarro Rivera, Pablo. 2010. “Democratización y autonomía en la Universidad de Puerto Rico: Mito y realidad.” Manuscript. []
  4. Benitez Nazario, Jorge and Astrid Santiago Orria. 2011. Ciudadanía y exclusión en Puerto Rico. Rio Piedras, P.R.: Centro Para Puerto Rico, Fundación Sila Calderón. []
  5. Dietz, James L. 2003. Puerto Rico: Negotiating Development and Change. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers. []
  6. Catalá, Francisco. “Anosognosia en la colonia.” Conference on April 27, 2010. []

Victor M. Rodriguez is Professor and former Chair of the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University of Long Beach. Among his published works is Latino Politics in the United States: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican Experience in the United States (Kendall-Hunt, 2012). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Victor, or visit Victor's website.