“Cerrar para abrir”: Puerto Rican Student Struggles and the Crisis of Colonial-Capitalism

Car­la M. Gar­cía for Diál­o­go UPR

The gates of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico (UPR) are closed. They were bar­ri­cad­ed by stu­dents. The main cam­pus, Río Piedras, was shut on March 28th. At the rest of the cam­pus­es, stu­dents joined in the stop­page after a 10,000-strong assem­bly, an astound­ing exer­cise in direct democ­ra­cy, declared a nation­al stu­dent strike on April 5th. Out­side UPR, oth­er stu­dents have also gone on strike: from high-school­ers to the musi­cians at the Con­ser­va­to­ry, there is a ver­i­ta­ble upheaval among young Puer­to Ricans cur­rent­ly in edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions. Far from hav­ing mate­ri­al­ized out of thin air, this ris­ing move­ment is the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of a long his­to­ry of strug­gle.

In its every­day prac­tice of strug­gle, this stu­dent move­ment active­ly engages with that his­to­ry, with the mem­o­ries embod­ied in the orga­ni­za­tion­al forms it exper­i­ments with and adapts. The result is a col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tion­al prac­tice ground­ed in the imme­di­ate and shift­ing cir­cum­stances of the present, one in which his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge about forms of orga­ni­za­tion has ceased to be a book­ish inter­est and is instead the active­ly orga­nized and re-appro­pri­at­ed archive of a mass move­ment of strug­gle.

As a move­ment, more­over, the stu­dent upheaval is con­nect­ed not only to the past but, most impor­tant­ly, to the present. Stu­dents through­out the islands of Puer­to Rico have insert­ed them­selves into the heart of a con­junc­ture that seemed to be des­per­ate­ly demand­ing an active, direct inter­ven­tion, but that had seen few answers to its call. 

Rather than con­fin­ing their move­ments to the lim­its of the aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting, strik­ing stu­dents have adopt­ed a prac­tice that expands beyond the uni­ver­si­ty walls, both real and metaphor­i­cal, enact­ing a set of demands that pin­point the con­tem­po­rary fail­ings of the colo­nial-cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, and enun­ci­at­ing them in a self-con­scious­ly polit­i­cal lan­guage. Even as they occu­py the University’s build­ings and shut its gates or con­tin­ue to call their move­ment a “stu­dent move­ment,” stu­dents are going beyond any strict or nar­row def­i­n­i­tion of their pos­si­ble polit­i­cal and social prac­tice.

Evi­dent­ly, the stu­dents’ move­ment has found a way of mak­ing the uni­ver­si­ty a site of the cur­rent broad­er polit­i­cal strug­gle against neolib­er­al aus­ter­i­ty and nation­al debt-servi­tude. They have hit upon a form of strug­gle that engages direct­ly with the gen­er­al con­junc­ture, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly includ­ing a tar­get­ed response to the local and imme­di­ate cri­sis of pub­lic edu­ca­tion.

That cri­sis became all but unavoid­able when, with an almost off-hand state­ment, José Car­rión III, Chair­man of Puer­to Rico’s unelect­ed yet pow­er­ful Finan­cial Over­sight and Man­age­ment Board (or “Jun­ta” in Span­ish), con­demned the pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty to extinc­tion:

The Board is sup­port­ive of the Governor’s dif­fi­cult deci­sion to reduce sub­si­dies to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico by $300 mil­lion in FY19. The mag­ni­tude of the Government’s struc­tur­al deficit, how­ev­er, requires that this reduc­tion in annu­al sub­sidy grow to a min­i­mum of $450 mil­lion by FY21.1

Even before these words, stu­dents, fac­ul­ty and work­ers at UPR were already gear­ing up for an intense fight against Gov­er­nor Ricar­do Rossel­ló Nevares’ pro­posed $300 mil­lion cut for 2017–18. The Jun­ta demand­ed even more than Rossel­ló Nevares’ pro­posed aus­ter­i­ty, deep­en­ing the UPR bud­get cut by $150 mil­lion, reject­ing the governor’s fis­cal plan as not aus­tere and dra­con­ian enough. Giv­en the cur­rent uni­ver­si­ty bud­get of $835 mil­lion, fixed at that rate by the pre­vi­ous administration’s aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures in 2014, the Jun­ta and the gov­er­nor have effec­tive­ly announced the destruc­tion of Puer­to Rico’s pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem, which serves more than 60,000 stu­dents. Con­cur­rent­ly, they have called for wide cuts to health-care pro­vi­sions and pen­sions, as well as announced the clos­ing of at least 300 pub­lic schools by August of this year and threat­ened the exis­tence of two pub­lic arts uni­ver­si­ties not part of the UPR sys­tem.

Cut­ting such a large amount of the Uni­ver­si­ty bud­get will most cer­tain­ly go hand in hand with tuition hikes, mak­ing pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion inac­ces­si­ble to thou­sands. It will also mean low­er­ing wages and elim­i­nat­ing what work­ers’ rights remain at the Uni­ver­si­ty, as well as doing away with pro­grams that waived tuition for cer­tain groups of stu­dents. The pos­si­bil­i­ty of sell­ing or clos­ing down cam­pus­es is also loom­ing on the hori­zon.

It was wide­ly report­ed that at the Junta’s last meet­ing, on March 16th, the board acknowl­edged that the analy­sis behind the cuts was pure­ly a mat­ter of account­ing – it was not even a “ratio­nal” or eco­nom­ic deci­sion. The Junta’s pur­pose, after all, is to hack and cut, mak­ing sure that the Gov­ern­ment of Puer­to Rico has as its main goal repay­ing its incom­men­su­rably high debt. In order to imple­ment the cuts at UPR and oth­er pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, how­ev­er, the Gov­ern­ment and the Jun­ta will have to first deal with the chal­lenge the uni­ver­si­ty com­mu­ni­ty and specif­i­cal­ly stu­dents are pos­ing.

In response, more than 10,000 stu­dents from thir­teen dif­fer­ent pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties gath­ered in San Juan on April 5th, 2017 to declare the begin­ning of a nation­al stu­dent strike. The strike res­o­lu­tion reads as a decid­ed­ly polit­i­cal state­ment: start­ing from an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Junta’s pur­pose as an enti­ty con­cerned with repay­ing the debt, even at the cost of “essen­tial ser­vices” and the defense of “the wel­fare of the peo­ple,” it goes on to artic­u­late an oppo­si­tion to bud­get cuts to the uni­ver­si­ties, declar­ing the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion “accom­plices” to the Jun­ta. More­over, in light of the very real pos­si­bil­i­ty that a large amount, if not most, of the debt was prob­a­bly issued ille­gal­ly and in vio­la­tion the Puer­to Rican con­sti­tu­tion,2 the res­o­lu­tion pairs the rejec­tion of bud­get cuts with a cen­tral polit­i­cal demand: that the debt be audit­ed and a mora­to­ri­um on debt pay­ments be declared. Stu­dents are demand­ing,

That the Cit­i­zen Com­mis­sion for the Audit of the Debt and its bud­get be imme­di­ate­ly resti­tut­ed, the process of audit­ing begins, and that a mora­to­ri­um on the debt be declared before and dur­ing its audit.3

The stu­dents are refer­ring to the Com­mis­sion for the Inte­gral Audit of the Pub­lic Cred­it, an inde­pen­dent enti­ty cre­at­ed reluc­tant­ly towards the end of the Ale­jan­dro Gar­cía Padil­la admin­is­tra­tion in 2016. It was quick­ly dis­man­tled by Rossel­ló Nevares, who has explic­it­ly dis­avowed his predecessor’s dec­la­ra­tion that the debt was “not payable” and whose admin­is­tra­tion is com­mit­ted to pay­ing it, even if it was ille­gal­ly issued.4 Although there is a debate with­in the stu­dent move­ment over what exact­ly would con­sti­tute a sat­is­fac­to­ry audit and mora­to­ri­um of the debt, in call­ing for the Commission’s rein­state­ment and there­fore set­ting the legit­i­ma­cy and legal­i­ty of the pub­lic debt in its sights, the stu­dent move­ment has tak­en an action that exceeds its char­ac­ter as a nar­row, stu­dent effort cir­cum­scribed to the aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting. As a mass move­ment it inserts itself into the polit­i­cal heart of the con­junc­ture of strug­gle. In order to under­stand how these thou­sands of stu­dents stopped act­ing “like stu­dents” and began delib­er­at­ing, act­ing, and demand­ing in a clear and self-con­scious­ly polit­i­cal field of strug­gle, it is nec­es­sary to look at the his­to­ry of stu­dent strug­gle in Puer­to Rico.

When ten thou­sand peo­ple met to decide what was to be done against the cuts, they arrived at their nation­al stu­dent assem­bly as the bear­ers of a long tra­di­tion of strug­gle and rad­i­cal­ism. For more than twelve hours, thou­sands not only gath­ered to protest, but also engaged in actu­al direct democ­ra­cy: stu­dent assem­blies in Puer­to Rico, far from being sim­ply demon­stra­tions or per­for­mances for the media, are delib­er­a­tive bod­ies. Their exis­tence and his­to­ry is inter­twined with a broad, rich tra­jec­to­ry of forms and prac­tices of orga­ni­za­tion that con­sti­tute an impor­tant ele­ment of Puer­to Rican pol­i­tics in gen­er­al. As else­where in the world, stu­dent move­ments in Puer­to Rico have nev­er been mere­ly stu­dent affairs: they are an instan­ti­a­tion of pol­i­tics and, despite what some old-school dog­ma­tists might hold, class strug­gles.

The April 5th nation­al assem­bly rep­re­sents only the lat­est event in that long his­to­ry. Although it might appear con­tra­dic­to­ry when speak­ing of a youth polit­i­cal move­ment, here tra­di­tion comes to the fore­front. It is not uncom­mon to hear young, rad­i­cal­ized peo­ple being charged with lack of mem­o­ry. How­ev­er, in Puer­to Rico, it has also become com­mon for strik­ing stu­dents to be attacked for too much mem­o­ry. They are called nos­tal­gics, as if their protests were a mere sim­u­lacrum or unthink­ing reit­er­a­tion of the past glo­ries of a move­ment that, how­ev­er appro­pri­ate it might have been before the Wall had fall­en and his­to­ry came to a stand­still, is now a thing so much of the past as to be oth­er­world­ly. If stu­dent protests in Puer­to Rico have done some­thing, how­ev­er, it is to bridge the gap between the pasts and presents of strug­gle not through adu­lat­ing com­mem­o­ra­tion, but through the craft­ing of an engaged, rad­i­cal prac­tice of mem­o­ry.

La Junta: Neoliberal Reaction in a Colonial Context

Last year, the Unit­ed States Con­gress passed the PROMESA bill, cre­at­ing a new struc­ture of gov­er­nance above Puer­to Rico’s elect­ed, yet colo­nial, admin­is­tra­tion. This unelect­ed body, known in Span­ish as “Jun­ta de Con­trol Fis­cal,” is tasked with over­see­ing the con­tin­u­a­tion and deep­en­ing of aggres­sive aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures and struc­tur­al reforms with two aims: guar­an­tee­ing the repay­ment of the Com­mon­wealth of Puer­to Rico’s immense pub­lic debt, and fis­cal dis­ci­pline to re-estab­lish its capac­i­ty to con­tin­ue acquir­ing immense pub­lic debt. In order to accom­plish this, the Jun­ta is empow­ered to take over the Government’s finances, impos­ing pri­or­i­ties and demand­ing cuts, as well as demol­ish­ing labor rights and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions. In a nut­shell, with PROMESA, a Repub­li­can-con­ceived bill that gar­nered Hillary Clinton’s sup­port and Barack Obama’s sig­na­ture, any veneer of auton­o­my in Puer­to Rico has been stripped from the islands’ rela­tion to the Unit­ed States and finan­cial cap­i­tal: Puer­to Rico has revert­ed from the self-man­aged colo­nial­ism inau­gu­rat­ed by the Com­mon­wealth in 1952 to a recon­struct­ed direct colo­nial­ism artic­u­lat­ed in a specif­i­cal­ly neolib­er­al way.

The main mech­a­nism for the Junta’s con­trol over Puer­to Rico is its abil­i­ty to con­trol the Commonwealth’s bud­get by demand­ing fis­cal goals and retain­ing ulti­mate deci­sion­al pow­er over required fis­cal plans. Under the law, the Jun­ta has author­i­ty over any leg­is­la­tion approved by the gov­ern­ment: it even has the pow­er to revert any bill passed, which it deems not in accord with the fis­cal goals it has set.5

The Jun­ta exists in the pre­ferred sphere of neolib­er­al insti­tu­tions: way above any form of demo­c­ra­t­ic or pop­u­lar account­abil­i­ty. The clas­sic ratio­nale for cen­tral bank inde­pen­dence is the same that informs the gen­e­sis of the Jun­ta. By estab­lish­ing insti­tu­tions whose actu­al fis­cal pow­er is inverse­ly pro­por­tion­al to the people’s abil­i­ty to con­trol them through polit­i­cal means, neolib­er­als argue, pop­ulist pres­sure upon gov­ern­ing bod­ies can be elim­i­nat­ed, there­fore allow­ing the imple­men­ta­tion of adjust­ment pro­grams and aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, the famous unpop­u­lar, yet “unavoid­able” dog­ma of neolib­er­al fis­cal pol­i­cy. In Puer­to Rico’s Jun­ta, an addi­tion­al ele­ment must be con­sid­ered: because of the colo­nial rela­tion­ship exist­ing between Puer­to Rico and the Unit­ed States, the Con­trol Board was estab­lished not by a vote of Puer­to Rico’s nom­i­nal­ly lib­er­al-demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, but by an out­side deci­sion of Con­gress, which arro­gates to itself sov­er­eign­ty over Puer­to Rico. There­fore, the Jun­ta exists at a dou­ble remove from demo­c­ra­t­ic legit­i­ma­cy: it is as much a reac­tionary expres­sion of the com­mon­places of neolib­er­al dog­ma as it is an instan­ti­a­tion of what can only be termed colo­nial-cap­i­tal­ism.

It is against this dou­ble removal of pow­er from the peo­ple that the stu­dent move­ment has emerged, denounc­ing it through the enact­ment of a dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed pol­i­tics. In the April 5th assem­bly, what was seen was not only a prepara­to­ry stage, a moment in a wider strug­gle, but the strug­gle itself. The assem­bled stu­dents put into prac­tice the pos­si­ble, if fleet­ing, nega­tion of the lim­its rep­re­sent­ed and embod­ied by the Jun­ta and the Com­mon­wealth. The ensu­ing strikes, in which hun­dreds of stu­dents are occu­py­ing their cam­pus­es until their demands are met, are the con­se­quent exe­cu­tion of the demo­c­ra­t­ic deci­sion­al pow­er put on dis­play at the assem­blies.

The Crisis of Public Higher Education in Colonial-Capitalism

Far from only being an impor­tant com­po­nent of its cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my or a roman­ti­cized means of social mobil­i­ty, the UPR also rep­re­sents a main bat­tle­field of rad­i­cal pol­i­tics in the islands of Puer­to Rico, as not only a locus of rad­i­cal thought, but also and most impor­tant­ly the site of this com­bat­ive stu­dent move­ment, which has been at the fore­front of resis­tance to neolib­er­al­ism and colo­nial­ism for decades.

Social­ly, the pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem has been his­tor­i­cal­ly cen­tral to Puer­to Rico’s cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment. Spain, it is often remem­bered, nev­er built an edu­ca­tion sys­tem there; that “achieve­ment” would be left to the new colo­nial rulers after their “arrival” in 1898.

Although by the late-19th cen­tu­ry there was already an emer­gent cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my in Puer­to Rico, it was not until the aggres­sive eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment under U.S. rule that a mod­ern indus­tri­al econ­o­my appeared, hand-in-hand with an edu­ca­tion sys­tem that catered to it. With­in that econ­o­my, pub­lic edu­ca­tion in gen­er­al and UPR in par­tic­u­lar played an impor­tant role in train­ing cadre for indus­try, as well as lead­ing indus­tri­al research. By con­tribut­ing to efforts such as the cre­ation of a mod­ern rum indus­try or the elim­i­na­tion of trop­i­cal dis­ease, UPR was insert­ed into Puer­to Rico’s devel­op­men­tal project. Fur­ther­more, it pro­vid­ed the space for the Puer­to Rican elite to cement its ide­o­log­i­cal hege­mo­ny, as the rem­nants of the old rul­ing class, those that had nev­er for­giv­en the Span­ish for not allow­ing them a uni­ver­si­ty, found with­in its halls a priv­i­leged space to repro­duce them­selves as social clique and to exert undue influ­ence over nation­al devel­op­ment. How­ev­er, the pop­ulist aspect of the devel­op­ment project also meant that high­er edu­ca­tion acquired a mass char­ac­ter: by the 1960s this was a require­ment of the cho­sen devel­op­ment path, which by pri­or­i­tiz­ing cap­i­tal inten­sive indus­try required a high­ly edu­cat­ed work­ing class, rather than the une­d­u­cat­ed mass­es nec­es­sary for a most­ly agri­cul­tur­al econ­o­my dom­i­nant until the 1950s.

Since the mid-1990s, how­ev­er, the thor­ough neolib­er­al­iza­tion of Puer­to Rico’s econ­o­my has immersed the coun­try in a pro­found cri­sis, whose basis was set by the bank­rupt­cy of the devel­op­ment project pur­sued since the 1970s: indus­tri­al devel­op­ment through cor­po­rate tax incen­tives. As the Uni­ver­si­ty is not a bub­ble, but an insti­tu­tion direct­ly relat­ed to the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my, we can say that the cri­sis in high­er edu­ca­tion is not a cri­sis of high­er edu­ca­tion, nor just an instance of the fis­cal cri­sis of the state. On the con­trary, what has been hap­pen­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty is a reper­cus­sion of the colo­nial-cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion cri­sis.

Nev­er­the­less, if what is hap­pen­ing to colo­nial-cap­i­tal­ism in Puer­to Rico could be called a cri­sis when the econ­o­my entered “reces­sion” in 2006, after more than a decade with­out eco­nom­ic growth it is hard to see it as any­thing else than the ago­nic death-ten­den­cy of its pre-cri­sis form, even if we must make the usu­al caveat that it is, as all ten­den­cies, asymp­tot­i­cal. What sense does it make to speak of “cri­sis” when the present con­di­tion has been the dai­ly expe­ri­ence of the Puer­to Rican peo­ple for more than a decade? A “cri­sis” implies a tem­po­rary, if recur­rent, event, yet what is hap­pen­ing in Puer­to Rico is the new nor­mal­i­ty of colo­nial-cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion there. 

Cer­tain­ly, as Argeo Quiñones and Ian Seda point out, even if the decom­po­si­tion of colo­nial cap­i­tal­ism has had its win­ners and losers, with cap­i­tal­ists reap­ing ben­e­fit even in the con­text of a depres­sion, it can­not be denied that even in cap­i­tal­ist terms Puer­to Rico’s econ­o­my is a dis­as­ter.6 Even the Jun­ta acknowl­edges the bleak sit­u­a­tion cap­i­tal­ism finds itself in Puer­to Rico, as it does not believe any nom­i­nal eco­nom­ic growth will hap­pen until 2022 while it assumes that the demand­ed aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures will result in an imme­di­ate and mas­sive con­trac­tion of the econ­o­my of 16.2% in 2018 (in real terms).7

As a state appa­ra­tus embed­ded in this colo­nial-cap­i­tal­ist con­text, the University’s ide­o­log­i­cal func­tion is clear. Its pres­tige as a space for per­ceived social advance­ment has allowed sub­se­quent gov­ern­ments to use access to the UPR as a coop­ta­tion mech­a­nism, open­ing its doors when wide swaths of work­ing-class youth would oth­er­wise be faced with unem­ploy­ment. How­ev­er, this hege­mon­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty has been most­ly erod­ed by aus­ter­i­ty and neolib­er­al­ism. Fur­ther­more, even if the ide­o­log­i­cal func­tion of the Uni­ver­si­ty has not changed fun­da­men­tal­ly, the way in which it plays an eco­nom­ic role has and will: the Jun­ta has demand­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty be fur­ther cor­po­ra­tized, by effec­tive­ly trans­form­ing it into a rev­enue-pro­duc­ing gov­ern­ment owned cor­po­ra­tion able to pro­vide ser­vices and prof­it off of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty.

At the UPR, 28% of stu­dents live in house­holds that earn less than $10,000 a year; 42% less than $25,000. This means that at least a third of UPR’s stu­dents live in pover­ty, although the num­ber could be high­er. At the nation­al lev­el, the pover­ty rate stands at 46% and the medi­an house­hold income at $19,350. Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents, both at UPR and in pri­vate col­leges, are high­ly depen­dent upon fed­er­al sub­si­dies to study: 70% of UPR stu­dents receive Pell Grants, with half of all them receiv­ing the full amount.

Young peo­ple out­side the uni­ver­si­ties do not have it much bet­ter. A recent­ly approved labor reform has elim­i­nat­ed almost all exist­ing labor rights by extend­ing pro­ba­tion peri­ods dur­ing which work­ers are essen­tial­ly out in the cold for two years, as well as tak­ing down oth­er reg­u­la­tions, such as guar­an­teed over­time pay for work­ing Sun­days. And although it has not been imple­ment­ed yet, the PROMESA bill gave the Gov­ern­ment a fur­ther card to play against work­ers by autho­riz­ing it to low­er the min­i­mum wage of any­one under 25 years old to $4.25 per hour.

If $450 mil­lion is cut from the UPR bud­get over the next four years, the tens of thou­sands of stu­dents who will be kicked out of the pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties will be faced with the bleak prospects of an ago­niz­ing cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my. For many, the only option will be emi­gra­tion. Fur­ther­more, if planned tuition hikes go into place, high­er edu­ca­tion will mean, as it already does in the Unit­ed States, the cer­tain­ty of unbear­able per­son­al debt, a con­di­tion that stu­dents in Puer­to Rico are expe­ri­enc­ing already, espe­cial­ly those in pri­vate insti­tu­tions: from 2006 to 2015, Puer­to Rican stu­dents’ debt with Sal­lie Mae grew 43% to $464.7 mil­lion.8 The stag­nant econ­o­my and the dra­con­ian aus­ter­i­ty of the labor reform mean that the destruc­tion of the pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty will have dire effects for Puer­to Rico’s young work­ers.

Puerto Rican Student Movements: Shifting Demands and Forms of Struggle

To add insult to injury, the Government’s plan for cuts to high­er edu­ca­tion includes elim­i­nat­ing $3 mil­lion for the tuition exemp­tion pro­gram. Although a small part of the over­all plan, it is a high­ly sym­bol­ic ele­ment. In April 2010, UPR stu­dents shut down the uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem in a two-month long occu­pa­tion of ten cam­pus­es, demand­ing the tuition exemp­tion pro­gram be kept intact, as well as oppos­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion and reject­ing the elim­i­na­tion of sum­mer cours­es. Their mil­i­tan­cy was met with intran­si­gence and, even­tu­al­ly, vio­lence: by late-2010 the Río Piedras cam­pus was occu­pied again, by police this time, in response to a renew­al of the stu­dent strike now in oppo­si­tion to an $800 increase in tuition. To eyes accus­tomed to the astro­nom­i­cal fig­ures of U.S. col­lege tuition, an extra $800 per year may not seem much, but it rep­re­sent­ed an almost dou­bling of fees and led to some 10,000 stu­dents drop­ping out, unable to pay.

The 2010 con­junc­ture showed that stu­dent strug­gle in Puer­to Rico has nev­er been a mere­ly sec­toral affair. Strikes at UPR are a fea­ture of social strug­gle nation­al­ly; stu­dent move­ments emerge with greater force in the con­text of height­ened upheaval in the wider soci­ety. It was far from a coin­ci­dence that the 1981 stu­dent strike was held con­cur­rent­ly as the elec­tric util­i­ty work­ers engaged in an intense and vio­lent strike. Nor that the 2010 strikes occurred along with con­tem­po­rary strug­gles against aus­ter­i­ty, exem­pli­fied by resis­tance to Gov­er­nor Luis For­tuño Burset’s “eco­nom­ic emer­gency” dec­la­ra­tion, which entrenched the use of a neolib­er­al state of excep­tion as the main form of cri­sis-reac­tion. Today, the fact that the Junta’s demands to reshape Puer­to Rico into a machine geared total­ly towards repay­ing the debt are at the core of what is tak­ing place at UPR only under­scores the inti­mate rela­tion between nation­al politi­co-eco­nom­ic con­di­tions and the stu­dent move­ment.

Per­haps in an out­dat­ed man­ner, Puer­to Rico’s stu­dent move­ment has been most­ly famous for being a pil­lar of oppo­si­tion to colo­nial­ism in nation­al­is­tic terms. This image is not false, but it obscures a dras­tic change in the char­ac­ter of stu­dent mobi­liza­tion since the ear­ly 1980s. If from the 1940s to the 1970s stu­dent move­ments were main­ly con­cerned with the nation­al ques­tion, with orga­ni­za­tions such as the Fed­eración de Uni­ver­si­tar­ios Pro Inde­pen­den­cia (FUPI) and the Juven­tud Inde­pen­den­tista Uni­ver­si­taria (JIU)  lead­ing the way,9 the 1981 strike marked a turn­ing point. Led by a broad stu­dent com­mit­tee with­in which social­ists and rad­i­cal Chris­tians influ­enced by Lib­er­a­tion The­ol­o­gy had the most promi­nent voic­es, 1981 finds the stu­dent move­ment becom­ing more and more con­cerned with eco­nom­ic issues: that strike was the first against tuition hikes, in response to which stu­dents demand­ed not free tuition, but a sys­tem of fees adjust­ed to stu­dent incomes, in which poor and work­ing class stu­dents would pay noth­ing or next-to-noth­ing and the well-off oli­garchy that enjoyed sub­si­dies for their chil­dren at the pub­lic uni­ver­si­ty would be charged much more.

Eco­nom­ic, rather than nation­al­is­tic, issues have been the con­cern of stu­dent move­ments ever since. In 1992 and 2005, stu­dents struck against tuition hikes. In 1998, they joined teach­ers in resist­ing an attempt to defund the Uni­ver­si­ty in order to cre­ate a vouch­er pro­gram aimed at destroy­ing K–12 pub­lic edu­ca­tion, a move attempt­ed by then-Gov­er­nor Pedro Rossel­ló González, the father of the cur­rent gov­er­nor (and by some accounts, the one still pulling the strings). In the lead up to 1998, the fic­tion of Uni­ver­si­ty auton­o­my and “non-con­fronta­tion” was bro­ken. After the strug­gle of the ‘60s through the ear­ly ‘80s, uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors insti­tut­ed a pol­i­cy of not direct­ly repress­ing stu­dent protests, the cor­ner­stone of which was the reform and dis­ar­ma­ment of the Uni­ver­si­ty Guard and the com­mit­ment to not allow­ing police with­in the cam­pus. How­ev­er, the strug­gles around ’98 were met with the use of the Fuerza de Choque, the noto­ri­ous anti-riot force. To under­score the point about nation­al-uni­ver­si­ty con­junc­tur­al inter­re­la­tion, it is impor­tant to note that the imme­di­ate con­text of 1998 also saw two epochal strug­gles against neolib­er­al­ism and for nation­al dig­ni­ty: dur­ing the sum­mer, work­ers struck against the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the Puer­to Rico Tele­phone Com­pa­ny and short­ly there­after, in spring 1999, the final push against the pres­ence of the U.S. Navy in Vieques began after the mur­der of David Sanes.

Through­out this his­to­ry, the stu­dent move­ment has not only shift­ed focus in terms of demands, but also exper­i­ment­ed with var­i­ous forms of orga­ni­za­tion.10 Per­haps the most strik­ing is the gen­er­al assem­blies described above. Rep­re­sent­ing all of the stu­dents of a cam­pus, these must gath­er at least ten per­cent of the stu­dent body to be con­sid­ered legit­i­mate. Once they do so, they behave as a sov­er­eign delib­er­a­tive body, autonomous from the insti­tu­tion­al arrange­ment to which they are nom­i­nal­ly wed­ded. Repeat­ed attempts at con­trol­ling gen­er­al assem­blies have failed. Nom­i­nal­ly a body of each university’s offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized stu­dent coun­cil, assem­blies as sites of strug­gle do not hold them­selves to the insti­tu­tion­al lim­i­ta­tions imposed upon them, but rather exceed them. Their prac­tice goes beyond the insti­tu­tion­al con­straints and direct­ly chal­lenges legal­i­ty. Accord­ing to the Puer­to Rico Supreme Court, stu­dents have no legal right to strike; how­ev­er, this has not stopped stu­dents from strik­ing. Accord­ing to the Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly, no deci­sion tak­en at gen­er­al assem­blies car­ries weight unless it is approved in an online elec­tron­ic vote; how­ev­er, no such vote has ever been car­ried out: assem­blies have con­sis­tent­ly ignored the law and remain true to their direct, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry char­ac­ter.

Anoth­er rel­e­vant orga­ni­za­tion­al form is the action or strug­gle com­mit­tee, orga­nized with­in the con­text of a spe­cif­ic school with­in the uni­ver­si­ty. Not exact­ly fronts or polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, these groups are com­posed of stu­dents will­ing to do some­thing. As their name sug­gests, they are ori­ent­ed towards prac­tice. In 2010, most of these took the name of Comité de Acción, harken­ing back to the upheavals in Paris in 1968, when work­er and stu­dent action com­mit­tees were formed in the con­text of the May events. Although many stu­dents may be unaware of this “geneal­o­gy,” com­mit­tees for strug­gle work because they are able to pro­vide a space in which orga­ni­za­tion­al mem­o­ry is not lim­it­ed to the mem­bers of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. These are spaces for the social­iza­tion of prac­tice and the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the­o­ry geared for action. Nev­er­the­less, action com­mit­tees are a rel­a­tive­ly recent inno­va­tion in the Puer­to Rican con­text as stu­dents had tra­di­tion­al­ly orga­nized around issue-based cam­paign com­mit­tees or fronts com­posed of polit­i­cal and stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions. With the cre­ation of open com­mit­tees of gen­er­al strug­gle, also known as com­mit­tees “for strug­gle” or “of the base,” a new type of struc­ture has pro­lif­er­at­ed, in which par­tic­i­pa­tion is not on the basis of belong­ing to a par­tic­u­lar group, but of being an indi­vid­ual com­mit­ted to mil­i­tant action. Recent events have seen action com­mit­tees spring back to life at the UPR, show­ing that this form of orga­ni­za­tion may have sup­plant­ed in prac­tice the much yearned for yet nev­er achieved “stu­dent union.”

Inter­me­di­ate forms of orga­ni­za­tion also exist, such as the “pleno”: a ple­nary meet­ing of all stu­dents will­ing to take action with­in a cam­pus. Plenos have act­ed as coor­di­nat­ing spaces and deci­sion­al bod­ies, but they are nei­ther for­mal net­works nor do they have the scope of gen­er­al assem­blies. Their pur­pose has been to allow activists to come togeth­er, col­lab­o­rate, and decide upon actions that require cam­pus-wide dis­cus­sion. It would be an error to not also men­tion polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, which have con­sis­tent­ly played an impor­tant role in stu­dent strug­gle, espe­cial­ly when it comes to plan­ning and exe­cut­ing the more direct ele­ments of actions. In the present sit­u­a­tion, how­ev­er, the cri­sis of the Puer­to Rican Left out­side of UPR has shown itself inside, with polit­i­cal groups find­ing them­selves in a state of dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion as the move­ment gained force.

Political Character of the Current Student Strike

Per­haps the dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of the most recent mobi­liza­tions by Puer­to Rican stu­dents is their explic­it­ly polit­i­cal char­ac­ter. It is one thing for stu­dent move­ments to be ana­lyzed as polit­i­cal, it is anoth­er for them to think them­selves as such, in their imme­di­ate demands and goals. The first is a con­sti­tu­tive ele­ment of their exis­tence, the sec­ond, an inno­va­tion, at least in the direct­ness of the pol­i­tics of cur­rent demands. Even in the 1960s and ear­ly 1970s, when stu­dents strug­gled against nation­al and inter­na­tion­al polit­i­cal issues, they did so by dis­plac­ing it into the uni­ver­si­ty con­text: thus strug­gle against the Viet­nam War and the draft were enact­ed with­in the uni­ver­si­ty as strug­gle against its rep­re­sen­ta­tives on cam­pus, name­ly the ROTC.

Fur­ther on, stu­dent strug­gles against neolib­er­al­ism occurred via demands with clear and exclu­sive­ly stu­dent char­ac­ter. At no oth­er moment than 2010 was this more evi­dent. The con­texts in which both move­ments devel­oped are dif­fer­ent, as now there is a very low lev­el of protest in Puer­to Rico, con­trary to what was the case in 2010 when labor unions and oth­er groups were very active­ly oppos­ing aus­ter­i­ty. The char­ac­ter and expres­sion of the move­ments are also dis­tinct, even if the tac­tics, meth­ods, and orga­ni­za­tion­al forms rep­re­sent a clear con­ti­nu­ity. The main dif­fer­ence between then and what is hap­pen­ing now is in terms of demands: 2010 was a vic­to­ri­ous fight against neolib­er­al aus­ter­i­ty car­ried out via strict­ly stu­dent demands, such as defend­ing tuition exemp­tions. How­ev­er, now stu­dents’ demands are straight­for­ward­ly polit­i­cal and not cir­cum­scribed to the aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting; address­ing them would force the Gov­ern­ment into a direct con­fronta­tion with the Jun­ta. Thus they bring to light the main politi­co-eco­nom­ic con­tra­dic­tions of the con­junc­ture.

For this rea­son, they have been crit­i­cized: how do stu­dents intend to pres­sure the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion with demands that are beyond the scope of the insti­tu­tion? This cri­tique, com­mon among detrac­tors of the strikes, wide­ly mis­reads what is entailed by the fact that cur­rent demands are polit­i­cal, rather than just “stu­dent demands.” By putting into evi­dence the impos­si­bil­i­ty a con­fronta­tion between the gov­ern­ment and Jun­ta, the stu­dent mobi­liza­tion unmasks the lim­its of Puer­to Rico’s cur­rent polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions. The dire­ness of the con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion, in which the agony of colo­nial-cap­i­tal­ism is unavoid­able, has done away with even the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pre­tense.

In the assem­blies and at the occu­pa­tions, stu­dents have stopped being “stu­dents”: here lies the lim­it of under­stand­ing strug­gle with­in insti­tu­tions of edu­ca­tion through the institution’s own aca­d­e­m­ic lens. Stu­dents may very well occu­py a cer­tain posi­tion with­in the uni­ver­si­ty struc­ture, with­in the edu­ca­tion process. But when they act polit­i­cal­ly, when they occu­py a cam­pus indef­i­nite­ly, demand­ing epochal polit­i­cal changes, stu­dents stop behav­ing “as stu­dents”; their actions exceed the lim­its of that con­di­tion. And even though they always “do” pol­i­tics in some sense, it is now plain to see: in hours like these, we are “at last com­pelled to face with sober sens­es” the naked­ness of our con­di­tions and rela­tions.

At Puer­to Rico’s uni­ver­si­ties, stu­dents have devel­oped a rich tra­di­tion of strug­gle over many decades. If that her­itage is being mobi­lized with­out nos­tal­gia, it is not because of any mag­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics we might ascribe to “youth” in the abstract, but because sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents have recon­struct­ed this mem­o­ry by way of orga­ni­za­tion and action– in short by not con­strain­ing them­selves to being “stu­dents.” If noth­ing else, those occu­py­ing cam­pus­es and strik­ing in the present, as in the past, are sig­nal­ing to the Puer­to Rican peo­ple and beyond where the lim­its of our con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion reside: they have iden­ti­fied a real ene­my, the Jun­ta, and the sys­tem that makes it pos­si­ble, neolib­er­al­ism and colo­nial­ism. Their actions do not illu­mi­nate or “show the way,” they are the path.


  1. José B. Car­rión III, Let­ter to Gov­er­nor Rossel­ló Nevares, March 9, 2017. 

  2. Accord­ing to the pre­lim­i­nary analy­sis of the main cam­paign for a cit­i­zen­ship audit, Frente Ciu­dadano por la Audi­toría de la Deu­da, most of the debt was issued in dubi­ous cir­cum­stances, a large amount of it is prod­uct of oner­ous inter­est rates of between 614% and 785%, and large swathes of it are rev­enue bonds issued “extra-con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly.” The upshot is that, even with­in the con­fines of bour­geois legal­i­ty, a lot of the debt is bla­tant­ly ille­git­i­mate and prob­a­bly should not be paid, even though the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to pay­ing it in full, with­out audit, and even dis­man­tled the offi­cial Audit Com­mis­sion cre­at­ed by the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion to audit it. 

  3. The res­o­lu­tion approved declar­ing the strike can be found here

  4. After a short-lived rein­state­ment by court order, the Com­mis­sion was final­ly dis­solved on April 19th, 2017. Dur­ing his announce­ment of the Commission’s elim­i­na­tion, the Gov­er­nor was also cit­ed as say­ing that the ille­gal­i­ty of the debt did not pre­clude its repay­ment. See “Rossel­ló Elim­i­na Comisión para la Audi­toría de la Deu­da,” El Nue­vo Día, April 19, 2017. 

  5. As it remind­ed the gov­er­nor recent­ly. See José B. Carrión’s let­ter to the Gov­er­nor on March 27th, 2017. 

  6. Argeo Quiñones-Pérez and Jorge Seda-Irizarry, “Wealth Extrac­tion, Gov­ern­men­tal Servi­tude, and Social Dis­in­te­gra­tion in Colo­nial Puer­to Rico,” New Pol­i­tics, Win­ter 2016. 

  7. See Carrión’s let­ter on March 9th, cit­ed above, as well as the Jan­u­ary 18th let­ter

  8. Puer­to Rico Plan­ning Board, “Apéndice Estadís­ti­co al Informe del Gob­er­nador,” 2016. 

  9. FUPI, found­ed in 1956, was a nation­al­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion that even­tu­al­ly linked itself to the Puer­to Rican Social­ist Par­ty as its effec­tive if unof­fi­cial youth-wing. After PSP’s long agony, cul­mi­nat­ing in dis­band­ment in 1993, FUPI strug­gled to find rel­e­vance. Although there have been attempts at reviv­ing FUPI after­wards, some at odds with each oth­er, splits and expul­sions in the mid-1990s broke all con­ti­nu­ity with the his­tor­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion. JIU was the rad­i­cal­ized youth wing of the Puer­to Rican Inde­pen­dence Par­ty, expelled in 1973 for embrac­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ism, rather than the party’s offi­cial Scan­di­na­vian-style social-democ­ra­cy, it even­tu­al­ly broke up into more rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions such as Unión de Juven­tudes Social­is­tas, then the youth of the Gue­varist Movimien­to Social­ista Pop­u­lar, and JIU-Orga­ni­zación Democráti­ca, linked to the semi-clan­des­tine, Maoist Par­tido Social­ista Rev­olu­cionario (M-L). Most of these orga­ni­za­tions were not exclu­sive­ly com­posed of uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents, but also orga­nized at the high school lev­el, as well as young work­ers. MSP and PSR would even­tu­al­ly fuse into the Movimien­to Social­ista de Tra­ba­jadores (today, Movimien­to Social­ista de Tra­ba­jado­ras y Tra­ba­jadores), an orga­ni­za­tion of which the author is a mem­ber. 

  10. A recent inter­view with a Río Piedras stu­dent orga­niz­er, Gabriel Casal Nazario, pro­vides a brief overview of how these forms of orga­ni­za­tion are being used in the present process, empha­siz­ing his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity and con­junc­tur­al exper­i­men­ta­tion. See Dori­an Bon, “The future of our uni­ver­si­ty is at stake (Inter­view: Gabriel Casal Nazario),” Social­ist Work­er, April 18, 2017. 

Author of the article

is a socialist activist from San Juan, Puerto Rico, currently studying political theory at the CUNY Graduate Center.