Puerto Rico College Students Rail Against Budget Cuts

Thousands of students at the University of Puerto Rico are on strike for the past two months. They are protesting budget cuts and tuition increases. Almost all the campuses in the University of Puerto Rico system have closed and nearly 62,000 students are out of class. For more, host Michel Martin speaks with Dr. Norma Valle, she hosts her own talk show on the local NPR affiliate in San Juan, and she's also a journalism professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Michel Martin also speaks with Regina Rodriguez, a law student at the University who has been on strike since April.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to another story that's been a little bit below the radar - at least in this country, on the mainland. If you went to college in the 1960s and '70s, then you probably heard about or even participated in a student strike.

Here in the U.S. on the main, though, this has been a rare occurrence in recent years. Not so Puerto Rico, where tens of thousands of students have been on strike for nearly two months. They've been protesting proposed tuition fee increases and budget cuts meant to close an estimated $200 million budget gap.

Strikers have closed 10 out of the 11 campuses in the University of Puerto Rico system, and kept nearly 62,000 students out of class. Now, a mediated deal was reached with the administration last night, and students poured into the streets of San Juan to celebrate. But it's a shaky accord that delays fee increases until this January. And both sides need to vote on it in the coming days.

What's remarkable about this strike is not only the length of time it's gone on, but that it also appears to be drawing widespread public support where normally, such strikes have been condemned.

To help us understand the magnitude of this island-wide standoff, we called Norma Valle. She has a talk show on the NPR affiliate in San Juan. She's a journalist, and she is a journalism professor at the University of Puerto Rico. In a moment, we're going to hear also from one of the student strikers.

But first, to professor Valle. I talked to her just before the deal was announced, and I asked her how this movement to strike got started to begin with.

Professor NORMA VALLE (Journalism, University of Puerto Rico): Well, you have to understand that the new governor that was elected in 2008, he's a right-winged, Republican, neoliberal party. He's in power. And the first law that they approved in 2009 was a law reducing the government employees by 35,000 members. And you know, the situation, the whole situation in Puerto Rico is very - how do you say - uncertain.

The government says now, we have to reduce the government employees. We have to reduce the budget, and private sector has to pick it up. Well, the private sector is also depressed, so it hasn't been able to pick up the e- mployers. So what has happened is that the university students have somehow voiced all the discontent of the people of Puerto Rico against the government. So everybody has been supporting them.

MARTIN: Let's hear now from Regina Rodriguez. She is a law student at the university. And do I have this right, that you've been on strike since April?

Ms. REGINA RODRIGUEZ (Law Student, University of Puerto Rico): Yes. We've been on strike since - well, it was a two-day strike that extended into a permanent strike action starting on the 21st of April.

MARTIN: Now, this isn't the first strike that there has been at the University of Puerto Rico, correct?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, this university, this campus has a long history of protests and student activism. But this is the one this is the first one I've participated in as a student. I was an undergraduate student here starting in 1996. Not much happened at the time, but I'm actually very proud to be a part of this one.

MARTIN: Do you support the strike? I mean, obviously, you don't have a choice now because the campus is closed, and you couldn't go to class even if you wanted to. But you do support it, and tell me why.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, what's interesting about that is I actually voted against it at the first student assembly because I thought there were other mechanisms that we hadn't exhausted yet. But once the strike happened and I saw the absolute stubbornness of the administration, the school administration, I couldn't help but forge ahead 100 percent.

MARTIN: Do you not believe the budget problems are as severe as they are? Or do you just believe that there should be some other alternative? And I do want to mention that by standards of the mainland, the tuition is very low for a university. It's something like - what is it, like $2,000 a year? And a number of students get tuition waivers because they are for a particular talent or a particular academic success.

Prof. VALLE: It is. But I think they should have the tuition waivers for honor students and athletes and chorus students. I mean, they are so dedicated. I wanted to tell you that I've lived through several, several strikes since I've been teaching at the university and been a journalist, and I've lived through, I don't know, maybe four strikes. And I can tell you that this has been the most popular strike among the community of Puerto Ricans. And we, the professors, kind of, you know, have also been there for them. And other unions at the universities have also supported this strike.

MARTIN: A couple of weeks ago, the university president, Ramon de la Torre, was interviewed, and he says that this is a small group stirring up trouble. We're going to play a short clip. The clip is in Spanish, and we will play a little bit in Spanish, then we'll also play the English translation. Here it is.

Mr. RAMON DE LA TORRE (President, University of Puerto Rico): (Through translator) We should ask ourselves why a small group insists on keeping your children, more than 60,000 students, from their right to a university education. Today, they ask for one thing, but tomorrow they change their request. One day they reach accords and then the next, they change them.

Quite simply, there is only one conclusion: This group takes the university education as an excuse to achieve its insatiable interests. Their true motivations lie elsewhere, and respond to the agenda and demands of outside groups that have nothing to do with the University of Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: Professor Valle - and Regina, I'd also like to hear your perspective -what about that? I'm not sure who these outside groups are, but he says this is a small group of people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. VALLE: I don't know what he's talking about. Listen, I...

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: He's talking about himself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. VALLE: I know personally Dr. Jose Ramon de la Torre. He was my professor when I was taking my master's degree and doctoral degree, and he was a wonderful professor. But I don't think he's looking at the picture as he should - looked at. I mean, when you have a strike that is in all 11 of the campuses, and it has been going on for two months, and it has had the support of the community - well, my goodness, you know, it's not only outside people. I think, you know, he should - looked into it more.

MARTIN: And Regina, what is your perspective on this?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, as far as the quantity of students that are supporting this strike, I think it's just interesting to make a comparison to the 2005 strike. It was the last significant strike that we had here on campus. And one of the major reasons that that strike ended was because of - the student body itself became divided. And at a student assembly, they decided to not continue with the strike.

In comparison, we have our last assembly here in Rio Piedras(ph), where it was arranged under their terms. They called when it was going to be, where it was going to be, how it was going to be administered. And despite what they thought was a majority of students that were going to show up and vote against the strike, we actually ended up ratifying the strike. So, I don't know where he's coming with that majority-minority comparison.

MARTIN: Regina, this must be hard for you. I don't know how close you were to getting your degree. I don't know, I'm just wondering what are your feelings about this?

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Well, it's very interesting because I actually wasn't planning on going back to school. I lost my job. I was working in New York, and I came here and in order to make myself more competitive, I thought, well, let me do law school. And so I'm in my first year right now, and I'm facing this situation. And it's a little more complicated than you know because I was actually supposed to be participating in a student-exchange program in Cuba, 10-week program right now. That was probably the most exciting opportunity that I had been looking for all year.

So it's a little disappointing but I've been asked if, you know, I'm resentful of the situation for having closed the offices so that I couldn't pick up my student check. And I'm not at all because I am a product of this university. I went on to do advanced studies in the States. I have two sisters who are also products of this university. Thanks to the opportunities that they've gained here, they went on to study at Harvard and Penn State, which are both number one in their field.

So I know that this university is worth fighting for. It's I have more student pride now, as a striking student, than I did the four years that I was here as an undergrad. So it's actually very interesting.

MARTIN: All right. Regina Rodriguez is a law student at the University of Puerto Rico. She's currently on strike, along with thousands of other students. We were also joined by Norma Valle. She is a professor of journalism at the University of Puerto Rico, and she also hosts a talk show at the NPR member station there in San Juan.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Michel.

Prof. VALLE: Thank you, Michel.

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