Puerto Rico: The Invisible and Recurring Social Struggles in the Oldest Colony in the World

Then, all the men of the land surrounded him;
the sad corpse saw them, excited; stood up slowly,
embraced the first man; and walked…

— César Vallejo (1937)

For more than fifty-six days, students at the University of Puerto Rico system, have peacefully occupied ten of the 11 universities in support of a series of measures that could challenge efforts to privatize this public university. Student struggles in Puerto Rico historically have repercussions in the broader society and are woven with the major economic, political and social issues in this United States’ colonial possession. While some social analysts saw this millennial generation as somewhat less militant and political, these events have surpassed any previous social struggles in creativity, strategy and in its use of participatory democratic processes since the founding of the university 107 years ago. Given Puerto Rico’s peculiar colonial status, in a world where colonies are almost extinct, every social struggle becomes, an anti-colonial process. But in this case, this process also becomes a struggle against the neo-liberal policies which have again resurfaced in the policies of the current colonial government to address the extreme economic precariousness of the United States’ colonial project in Puerto Rico. This student struggle exists within the historical context of an anti-colonial struggle in Puerto Rico. When people thought social movements were dead, they somehow stood up and walked.

Origins of the Oldest Colony

Since the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico has performed a hidden but strategic role in United States’ foreign policy. One of the outcomes of the war that for the first time in U.S. history, lands that were conquered or annexed did not become a territory on its way to incorporation as a state as was suggested by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. Instead, the United States Supreme Court in the early twentieth century, in a series of decisions called the “Insular Cases” “carved” a special legal space which formally transformed Puerto Rico into a colony and the United States into an empire. This contradictory legal space also gave the U.S. total control of Puerto Rico’s economic, political, and social dynamics. In this new political status, an “unincorporated territory” of the United States, Puerto Rico became a testing ground, a laboratory for medical, military and social and economic policies that were later implemented as part of U.S. foreign policy around the world.

The first two years of U.S. control over the island (1898-1900), a military government implemented economic policies which coupled with the natural devastation caused by tropical hurricane San Ciriaco in 1900, led to the collapse of what had been the most dynamic sector of Puerto Rico’s economy, the coffee industry. This industry had well-developed markets in Europe and Cuba, whose populations preferred the high quality coffee produced in Puerto Rico’s highlands. The economic policies of the military government, the incorporation of Puerto Rico into the United States’ tariff structure closed access to European and Cuban markets. In turn, the United States market was already controlled by Brazilian coffee. The devastating effects of the hurricane contributed to the island’s social, economic and political crisis. The thousands of displaced peasants then became entrants into the global labor market when labor brokers from the Hawaii sugar industry began to recruit thousands of Puerto Rican peasants. One of the strategies of Hawaii’s sugar elite was to create an ethnically divided labor force to avoid the consolidation of unions in the sugar fields. Unwillingly, the displaced Puerto Rican peasants, most of whom had no experience in sugar cane agriculture, became pawns in the sugar elite’s drive to control labor.

In the following decades, population planning policies (some led by U.S. groups connected to Eugenics ideology), assembly plant industrial development policies (maquiladora model), militarization of the island, the testing of napalm and Agent Orange in various parts of the island, the use of depleted uranium shells in the island of Vieques all were facilitated because of Puerto Rico’s inability to protect itself. These policies and practices were later promoted in other countries around the world. Colonial governors were appointed by the president of the United States until 1947. Puerto Rico’s only voice in congress, was and still is a sole “resident commissioner” who only has voice but has not been a voting member of congress which has complete control over policies to shape the island’s political, social and economic dynamics.

In addition, congress and its colonial representatives implemented a cultural policy of assimilation, which given the island’s colonial nature, had an imperialistic effect while also furthered a Puerto Rican national identity and culture of resistance. In 1903, the University of Puerto Rico was founded as a school to prepare teachers for the public educational system. The use of English as the medium of instruction was imposed throughout the developing educational system being developed by colonial authorities. The university’s role would be to create the cadres for the process of assimilation that was promoted among the island’s one million inhabitants. Instead, Puerto Rico’s national identity, which under Spain was created in tension with Spain, now began to be centered on the Spanish language and Puerto Rican culture. Ironically, United States policies contributed to the development of a more clearly defined Puerto Rican national identity, this time vis-a-vis the United States. This tension with the United States at times led to a nationalism that romanticized the Spanish past, at the same time, with all its contradictions became the core of a culture of resistance against U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.

During the 1930s and until the 1950s, the pro-independence movement was the second largest political force in the island. But its influence was also strong within the dominant political party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), who later on went to win the elections and created in 1952 the Estado Libre Asociado (Commonwealth). This is the present political system that defines the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Not much of the colonial relationship was changed by the new political facade, and Congress still holds control over all aspects of the island. But the dominant party, most of whom were former pro-independence politicians, used the symbols of Puerto Rican nationalism to get the consensus of the Puerto Rican population for their political project. The flag of the new political entity, became the nationalist flag, the Commonwealth’s national hymn had also been the nationalist hymn and the rhetoric used by the Popular Democratic leaders continued to, in contradictory ways, echo the nationalist discourse.

Because of student and faculty struggles, Spanish was reintroduced as the medium of instruction in the public educational system in the 1940s and the University of Puerto Rico, instead of becoming the uncontested site for the assimilation of the emerging professional class became the battle ground for a national culture of resistance. In 1948, pro-independence students led a strike at the University of Puerto Rico which led to the closure of the university and to the expulsion of many of the student leaders. Many of these leaders would finish their higher education elsewhere and later become political leaders in island pro-independence politics. With this strike, the University of Puerto Rico became, not only an ideological battleground between hegemonic forces and anti-colonial forces, it also became a launching ground for national resistance to imperial policies. The colonial government efforts, under the control of the Popular Democratic Party, to steer the university after the defeated student strike toward the formation of a technocratic apolitical professional class for the emerging program of industrialization failed. While the pro-independence forces lost its influence on the electoral arena, they maintained their influence in the island’s social struggles and the university. The anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World and the Cuban revolution (1959) became catalysts for another stage of anti-imperialist struggles.

Student Struggles at the University of Puerto Rico

During the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the presence of the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) at the University of Puerto became the issues that sparked social movements, not only on the campuses but also throughout the island. The University of Puerto Rico, especially the main campus in Rio Piedras, was the site of much conflict including violent confrontations between anti-colonial and pro-establishment forces. Political repression, emigration and economic transformation led to the decline of the electoral strength of pro-independence forces. The university then became a major site of struggle for those who contested colonial policies in Puerto Rico. In some way, struggles at the university of Puerto Rico served as the spark for Puerto Rican national struggles.

While in the United States “draft-dodging” was the principal means of challenging the Vietnam era draft, in Puerto Rico resistance to induction became the main tactic. In fact, the refusal of thousands of Puerto Rican youth to be drafted, especially of university youth, led to the collapse of the Selective Service System in Puerto Rico. While some early resisters were arrested and a few served time in prison, the majority did not. The massive nature of the protest made the incarceration of thousands a political impossibility for United States’ colonial authorities.

Also, the University of Puerto Rico, following the Latin American autonomous university model begun at the University of Cordoba, Argentina in 1918, has a veneer of autonomy. In 1966, the University Reform law created a space for an autonomous university and limited co-government of the university. The university would later receive a fixed percent (9.6 per cent) of public funds in order to prevent it from falling prey to the vagaries of island politics. This precarious autonomy did not have its full intended effect, since the dominant parties gave their supporters positions in the university administration as part of the political spoils, however, its ideological effect on students and faculty was quite distinct. Students, particularly, took seriously the autonomy of the university and defended it through their struggles. In the Fall of 1967, after a protracted struggle for the elimination of the ROTC from the University of Puerto Rico campus, Puerto Rico’s police intervened in a struggle between pro-statehood students and pro-independence students. The pro-independence students, who stayed within the confines of the university, tried to impede the entrance of the police into the campus as a way of protecting the autonomy of the university. In the battle between police and students, Adrian Rodriguez Fernandez, a taxi driver who was looking for his daughter, a student at the university, was killed by the police.

The conflicts at the university intensified and in 1970s, a university student, Antonia Martinez Lagares, was killed while standing on a balcony in the Santa Rita neighborhood where many students lived. She had been denouncing the police as murderers because of their attacks of students protesters in the street facing her apartment. One of the officers proceeded to kill her. Today, the transmission booth of the University of Puerto Rico striking students low watt radio station, “Radio Huelga” is named Antonia Martinez Lagares in her honor. Also, in many of the demonstrations her name is raised in banners.

The continued intensification of the conflict at the university continued and on March 11, 1971, as students attacked the ROTC building, Chancellor Pedro Rivera called for the riot squad to enter the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. The entrance of the riot squad so incensed the students, that at the end of the day, one ROTC cadet Jacinto Gutierrez had died, a police officer and the commander of the riot squad Juan B. Mercado had been killed by snipers.

In recent years, another large student strike occurred in 1981-82, this process precedes the current strike in terms of the issues and the characteristics of the social movement. Issues related to the national question were not as salient as in previous decades. The main issues were of an economic nature. The raising of tuition fees would make the university less accessible to many Puerto Rican students. The role of Christian groups and the visible role of women as leaders was also a characteristic of that process. The student leaders were also broader in ideological terms although the role of pro-independence and socialist was crucial. The repression of the student strikers by the police was intense and was followed by the summary suspension of a significant number of the student leaders. These measures left this process of struggle as an unfinished social conflict. Despite the massive nature of the student movement, the strong external support and the broad basis of the leadership the process ended in a short-term defeat of the movement. But in many ways as a response to the lessons of the 1981-82 period the university adopted a formal policy of “no confrontation” that has helped the university avoid the level of violence experienced during the previous era.

Today: The Political, Economic and Educational Crisis Converge

Today, partially hidden from the mainstream United States media, a long (56 days June 15), and creative process of social struggle to preserve higher education began on April 13, in San Juan Puerto Rico. Echoing in diverse ways the 1968 San Francisco State strike and the National Autonomous University of Mexico strike in 1999, this is a clear and eloquent counter attack on neo-liberal thinking about the role of the public university in a capitalist society. But also, this social struggle has revealed, again, the precarious nature of the colonial model in Puerto Rico and the impeding need for its transcendence.

The University of Puerto Rico system, with its 65,000 students and more than 5,000 faculty members is the largest public system in higher education in this island. More than 33 per cent of Puerto Rico’s 25 years and older population has some post-secondary and/or university education. This is higher than more developed nations like Finland and New Zealand. Puerto Rico, with a population close to four million has developed a philosophy about the need to have an accessible system of public higher education. Ironically, this is also a contradictory outcome of some of the early colonial reformers who were members of the Popular Democratic Party. They developed policies, some reflected in the islands’ constitution that in some respects are more advanced than in the United States. Education, at least from k-12, is established as a right in the constitution. Access to higher education, while not enshrined in the constitution is also considered a right and not a privilege by most Puerto Ricans. The state support and relatively low tuition attest to that philosophy.

This has enabled Puerto Rico to have a higher bachelor degree rate than three states, Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia, despite having a lower high school degree completion rate than any state. At the same time, according to a study by Cruz Rivera (2008) the University of Puerto Rico produces 95 per cent of the research carried out in Puerto Rico and produces 10,000 new professionals every year. Just one of its universities, the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez produces 606 engineers every year which is more than Texas A & M, Florida International University of Texas, Austin and California State University, Pomona combined. With limited resources its six year persistence and graduation rates are higher than the University of Wisconsin, Texas A & M, University of Washington and the University of Minnesota. It also has increased the percentage of its faculty with doctorates from 66.5 per cent in the 1999-00 academic year to 79.4 per cent in 2007.

Unfortunately, part of its success has to do with the changing demographics of its students, from 1998 until 2007, the percentage of students entering the University of Puerto Rico from the public school system has decreased from 50 per cent to 41 per cent. While still 57 per cent of the students still qualify for federal aid, increasingly, the new entrants are from middle and upper-middle class families, while ironically, private universities are the ones who increasingly are providing a university education to lower income families. The persistence and graduation rates of these private institutions are dramatically lower than those for the University of Puerto Rico system.

Its tuition, comparatively speaking, is lower than most universities in the United States and the colonial state support is also comparatively higher than for public institutions in the U.S. For example, while only six per cent of the budget of the University of Puerto Rico depends on tuition, at similar public universities in the United States, 31 per cent of their operating budgets are derived from tuition. On the other hand, state appropriations provide 65 per cent of the operating budget for the university of Puerto Rico while for public universities in the United States the corresponding share is 41 per cent. But gradually, after the defeat of the student strike in 1981-82, the share of the operating budget derived from tuition has gradually increased. According to the office of the vice president of academic affairs report, from 1981-2001, the state appropriations were reduced from 45.6 per cent to 35.6 per cent while the share of income from tuition increased from 12.9 per cent to 18.1 per cent.

In a nation with a median family income of $20,425, a third of the United States median family income ($58,526), every tuition increase excludes working and middle class students to the most important social mobility tool the state provides, a university education. The poverty rate in Puerto Rico in 2008 was 45.4 per cent which is three times as high as the rate of the United States overall. Any state policy that limits access to students from lower socioeconomic levels will increase the social and economic inequality in a country that already is extremely unequal.

In 2008, the new colonial government elected was the New Progressive Party, a political party that is neither new nor progressive and which represents the most conservative strata of the island social and economic elite. This party supports statehood for Puerto Rico and through a platform which promised to solve the economic crisis that has been revealing itself in the colonial model since at least the 1970s, was able to get massive support. The previous Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, was indicted on more than 20 counts of fraud by the Federal Court in Puerto Rico during the electoral year. Some have argued that it was punishment for the timid efforts of its government in investigating the FBI assassination of a prominent leader of the Ejercito Popular Boricua-Macheteros, a guerrilla organization that had remained relatively dormant during the previous 15 years. Filiberto Ojeda Rios, was shot by an FBI Hostage Rescue Team sniper. He bled to death because the FBI did not allow medical teams to provide medical assistance. Surprisingly, while most Puerto Ricans do not support independence there was a strong national response to the assassination and his funeral was attended by thousands of mourners. The electoral weakness of the Popular Democratic Party led it to take timid steps to keep the support of those pro-independence voters who in order to stop the electoral advance of the proponents of statehood were voting for the colonial party. Ironically, Acevedo Vila lost the election and Luis Fortuño won the elections in a landslide. Surprisingly, soon after Governor Fortuño took office in 2009 all the federal charges against former Governor Acevedo Vila were dropped.

The new governor was active in Republican Party politics in the United States. Contrary to most of the other recent New Progressive Party governors, like former governors Pedro Rosselló and Carlos Romero Barceló, who were members of the Liberal wing of the Democrat Party, Governor Fortuño is closely linked to the island’s social and economic elite and to the conservative wing of the Republican Party in the United States. While there is no Republican Party in Puerto Rico, there is a political structure that participates in the primaries and sends delegates to represent Puerto Rico’s “Republicans” in the Republican National convention.

The Collapsing Colonial Economy

Puerto Rico has been in a recession for more than four years. The Gross National Product has declined by more than 10 per cent (Lara, 2009). Governor Fortuño surprised many when in response to the grave economic recession and the large budget deficit facing the island he gathered a group of the financial elite to develop a plan to address the economy. Partially in response to the plan, legislation was approved (Law 7, March 2009) which allows the state to eliminate more than 20,000 public sector jobs, privatize public sectors of the state, through a gimmick called “Public-Private Alliances.” Law 7 also allows the state to bypass collective bargaining agreements, create the private public partnerships and enable the state to institute cuts in government operational costs of more than $2 billion. These “partnerships” would allow the private sector to take over the most profitable segments of the public sector and run them as profit-making enterprises. Every previous efforts to privatize public sectors of the state have ended up in disaster. The Telephone company of Puerto Rico, one of the most profitable and modern public enterprises in the island was privatized by the administration of Governor Pedro Rosselló in 1998, this led to a general strike that was unable to stop the process. The phone service today is worse than it was before and the stream of income that was used to finance education was lost and the income from the sale was used to poorly finance a very expensive health care system that has dragged down the economy of the island. The Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (AAA), a public agency with manages water and sewers, also experienced privatization as have many formerly public services. Scandalous frauds and inefficiencies have marked all these privatization efforts.

Puerto Rico today has one of the highest private and public debts in the world and an infrastructure that is in need to a major investment. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world and the drug trafficking related violence forces working and middle folks to live inside of home with gates and security. Contradictorily, United States corporations operating in the island, from pharmaceuticals to enterprises making medical instruments have benefitted from Puerto Rico’s highly skilled labor force transferred $33,330 billions in profit to their main headquarters in the United States and only paid $27.4 millions in taxes. The island has one of the lowest corporate taxes in the world.

It is in this context that the administration of the University of Puerto Rico decides to place the burden of a $280 million deficit on the backs of the students by proposing a tuition increase. This deficit is in part due to the effect of Law 7 and the elimination of funding streams that previously had gone to the university and the fact that close to $300 million in debts owed to the system have not been collected. The students, who already had been participating in the social movement against the neo-liberal cuts and the firing of thousands of public workers joined the labor movement in a national general strike on October 15, 2009. The university of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras was closed on that day of protest. Given the political and social context it is not surprising that the students decided in one of the largest student assemblies ever gathered at the UPR to strike. Initially for 48 hours and later, if no response was received from the administration, an indefinite strike would begin. The administration, did not take the students seriously and the students began an indefinite strike. Through a careful process of organizing the strike spread through the 11 campus system and a national negotiating committee was selected to represent all the universities in the system. The only campus that did not close was the Medical School although they held a number of limited strikes. The role of medical students in teaching hospitals and clinics led many to limit their role in the strike.

Contrary to the 1960s and building on the strategies used by UPR strikers in the 1981-82 process, a policy of “no confrontation” was strictly adhered to, forms of participatory democracy were utilized. The students created social networks in Facebook, Twitter, My Space and also created a low watt radio station (Radio Huelga) which transmits across the world on US STREAM. This station rapidly became the best source of music and news developing in the course of the strike. The role of culture as a way of promoting the strike and enabling the spirit of struggle to be maintained was also strategic. Performance art, guerrilla theater, musical concerts, and a broad array of international and national support reached levels never experienced in previous struggles. For the first time LGBT organizations were visible participants in the strike and the clear and visible role of women leadership was clear and important. Parents of the students organized, the Bar Association, labor unions, religious organizations organized events supporting the students. The faculty union and the clerical workers union decided to not cross student picket lines. The faculty of all the 11 universities gathered in the campus of the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey and voted to strike if violence was used against the students. While violence was used at various time against the strikers it was not as systematic as it was in previous decades.

In recent days, Governor Fortuño ordered police forces out of the university confines (intense use of the police at the university gates led to increase in crime rates), the governing party, New Progressive Party Resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C. publicly disagreed with university authorities and called for negotiations and no sanctions for the students.

The negotiations between students and the university are advanced, a mediator agreeable to both parties was named and it is expected that one of the longest strikes that has challenged neo-liberalism in Puerto Rico will soon end with a student victory. Neo-liberalism experienced a defeat, but the struggle is not over. Contrary to ivory tower social analysts who had argued that the national identity of Puerto Ricans had diminished in its strategic role in Puerto Rico or that students should be pragmatic and bend to the necessity of the present times, this strike showed that what seemed dead was resting for a new day.

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: vodrig5@csulb.edu. Read other articles by Victor, or visit Victor's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. David Silver said on June 22nd, 2010 at 7:51pm #

    Viva Puerto Rico Libre para Independencia

  2. alberto llaurador said on June 24th, 2010 at 1:35pm #

    Long live the pro-Statehood movement in Puerto Rico in its strugle for ending the eternal colonial status,enlivened by the corrupted politicians,of yesterdays and today.Dave Silver would have to move down and vote for Independence,if he truly believes,such status is what will end over 500 years of shameful and harmful colonialism.