Posteado por: tucidides | 21 mayo 2010

UPR strike: Puerto Rico at impasse over university protest

posted by alsy acevedo on May, 20 2010 4:12 PM

A month-long strike that has shut down part of the University of Puerto Rico, known as the UPR, shows no signs of coming to an end as students push against planned budget cuts and the threat of reductions to longstanding student benefits.

Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño called for the parts evolved to negotiate. But yesterday, UPR President José Ramón De La Torre did not show up to a 10 a.m. meeting with the students’ National Negotiation Committee.

De La Torre alleged that a planned demonstration by the UPR Workers Union in solidarity with the students would have disrupted the talks. Although the demonstration was to take place at the entrance of the meeting’s location, protesters said they were not planning to block De La Torre’s access to his office at the Río Piedras Botanical Gardens. They had left the grounds by 11 a.m.

A new meeting was scheduled for today, giving students hope that negotiations would start. However, on Wednesday evening the Pietrantoni Méndez & Álvarez Law Firm, hired by the UPR administration, sued 21 students identified as strike leaders.

Several hundred students have been living inside San Juan’s Río Piedras campus since April 21. Students at ten other campuses of the UPR System have shown their support and closed doors at some point. But students from the Medical Science Campus continue to see patients at their clinics.

“Two months after José Ramón De La Torre was appointed President of the UPR he announced a proposal to cut $100 million from the budget saying that there was a deficit of $139 million, which is now estimated in $200 million,” said Roberto Thomas, one of the student protesters sued by the government, in a telephone interview from inside the UPR with the Orlando Sentinel’s Hispanosphere. “They were proposing a 40 percent cut to the budget to buy books and magazines, at the same time they were increasing the budget of the administration by $25 million.”

This deficit has been building up for years and the students want to see the university’s financial records. They are concerned that the school wastes a lot of money even as it raises tuition and other fees.

UPR students ultimately fear that the fiscal crisis will lead to steps towards the privatization of the university system.

The contention point that has paralyzed negotiations, however, is the so-called “Certification 98,” a Feb. 24 resolution from the university’s Board of Trustees, which seeks to reevaluate tuition waivers that are currently granted to honor students, athletes and artists who represent the institution at national and international levels. Family of UPR employees are also eligible for those waivers that allow thousands of students to receive higher education without paying for course credits, though they have to pay other fees. The “Certification 98”  could eliminate those tuition waivers for students that also qualify for and receive Pell Grants issued by the federal government as a form of student financial aid.

The student protesters want that certification repealed, but are willing to negotiate.

“The tuition waivers are merit-based and the Pell Grants are based in the socioeconomic circumstances of a student,” Thomas said.

According to some estimates the measure would save the UPR $16 million, or less than one percent of the deficit, as cited by various sources.

Opponents of the strike say it has been a premature reaction by a group that has no right to paralyze the system.

“No student assembly can decide whether to close or not the campus. The assembly can vote to continue their manifestation but not to shut down the system,” said Héctor Ríos Maury, professor of management and international commerce.

Ríos Maury, one of the strongest opponents of the strike, said the administration has few options to deal with the strike as it is, but he said it could sue the students and end a policy of no-confrontation in place for decades that does not allow outside police forces to enter the institution to avoid clashes with the students.

He said the students actions are premature because the Certification 98 has not yet been implemented and that the only way to reach an agreement is if university remains open.

“The students have some valid points. We all agree the UPR is probably the worst-run governmental entity in this country. The processes should be improved and made more inclusive. But it has no immediate fix,” Ríos Maury said.

Law student Mariana Muñiz Lara said the strike has forced some changes, such as the Board of Trustees’ decision to move the implementation of the Certification 98 from the fall 2010 to the spring 2011.

A journalism graduate, Muñiz Lara has been reporting on the government legal action and other strike-related topics for the blog “Desde Adentro,” one of several student efforts to document through alternative media what is going on in the 11 UPR campuses.

“What has made this strike different to others in the UPR history is the support of the people outside the campus,” Muñiz Lara said. “The students are organized and are expressing an articulated argument in a peaceful manner. The government does not know how to react. It has make mistakes and people are supporting the students.”

Since the strike started, police officers and SWAT teams have been assigned to the entrances of the Río Piedras campus. Newspapers in Puerto Rico report a spike in murders in the island during that period of time.

Muñiz Lara also made reference to a controversial police order issued last week that banned people from providing water and food to the students inside the campus. A group of parents of the students inside the campus went to court to challenge that approach. This week lawyers of both sides are discussing a protocol to establish the hours and types of food that could be delivered to the students.

The decision to forbid feeding those students “really touched people outside, with no ties to the university, who are now in favor of the students,” Muñiz Lara said.

The image of a father beaten up by the police while trying to pass food to his son inside the campus, traveled quickly around the world.

A rally in support of the students was held Tuesday in front of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration offices in New York — the same day that union leaders called for a general strike in the island. Another one is being planned for Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Arco del Triunfo in Barcelona, Spain.

On May 14, UPR Río Piedras campus Chancellor Ana Guadalupe called for an academic recess until July 31. Last night, Ana Gómez Marrero, chancellor of UPR Arecibo, resigned over the possibility of ending the school system’s non-confrontation policy. The deans of the Arecibo campus resigned today in support of Gómez Marrero, according to news reports.

The UPR is the largest University in the Caribbean. It has 11 campuses, 61,000 students, 14,000 employees and 5,000 professors.




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