Student Resistance to Puerto Rico’s Economic Hassles
On March 2017, protests erupted at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras (UPR-RP) campus. In what became known as the “Great Strike,” students at the institution demonstrated against proposed budget costs spanning from $300-$510 million. Paralyzing university operations, the student movement stood up to what they understood would be the consequences of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, also known as PROMESA.
One of the provisions of PROMESA has been to implement a Fiscal Oversight Board to control Puerto Rico’s finances. The Junta, as Puerto Ricans colloquially refer to the board, has the power to invalidate parts of the island’s constitution if considered necessary for debt payment. The Junta and the local government believe Puerto Rico’s debt is payable in its current form. Countering this perspective, the student movement at the UPR-RP argued that auditing the debt was a crucial first step to improving university and island conditions. An audit would hold administrators and politicians accountable for Puerto Rico’s crisis and reveal the conditions in which the debt accumulated in the first place. For the student activists, striking was a means to educate Puerto Rico’s population about the issue of debt.
Founded just five years after the US invasion in 1898, the UPR’s Río Piedras campus has been host to student protests since the 1920s. Over the last 40 years, most student mobilizations at the UPR-RP have occurred hand in hand with moments of economic hardship on the island at large. In fact, journalists Luis Nieves, Ineke Cunningham, Israel Rivera, Francisco Torres, and Hiram Amundaray have argued that student protests and university crises are “thermometers” that measured the intensity of Puerto Rico’s crises and of its broadest struggles and social conflicts.
For the student activists, striking was a means to educate Puerto Rico’s population about the issue of debt.
Students routinely look back to this history of social movements and reflect and learn from it—a process that Fernando Picó, a well-regarded Puerto Rican historian, called “strike pedagogy.” Student activists connect Puerto Rico’s political status and the socioeconomic conditions of its youth with their own problems when protesting institutional causes. During the 2017 mobilizations, however, strike pedagogy went one step further: rather than learning from something that happened in the past, education and outreach became a core feature of the striking process.
In addition to the Great Strike’s educational efforts made visible by the Puerto Rican media and global social media, the UPR’s student movement also rallied fellow students and the island’s general population for a nationwide protest that occurred on May 1, 2017. A conglomerate of unions and activist organizations intended to turn 2017’s May Day into a national strike protesting both the Junta and the local government’s labor reform, which drastically reduced workers’ benefits in the private sector. The mobilizations ended abruptly when activists were tear gassed and pepper sprayed. Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares condemned the day’s activities, stating that they were criminal acts.
The Great Strike of 2017 was not the first time students battled institutional policies that burdened students—protests in 1981 led to the longest strike in UPR history. A tuition hike of over 100 percent brought together students regardless of their political affiliation to a movement traditionally connected to Left politics and advocacy for Puerto Rican independence. At the time, Puerto Rico was in the midst of an economic crisis that had begun in the mid-1970s; the global energy crisis led to the collapse of Puerto Rico’s petrochemical industries. The UPR’s student movement in 1981 understood the island’s economic hardships and advocated for tuition payments adjusted to income. An example can be seen in a student movement version of the UPR-RP’s Alma Mater from 1981:
Que cara se ha puesto
la entrada al Alma Mater,
no toman en cuenta
el costo de la vida.
La pobre juventud
ya no podrá estudiar,
los ricos quedarán
dueños de la Universidad.
Admission to the Alma Mater
has gotten too expensive,
they do not take into account
the cost of living.
Our poor youth,
will no longer be able to study,
the rich will now be
owners of the University.
A student assembly ended the strike on January 1982 after negotiations failed to avoid a tuition increase. It was then when Picó originally conceptualized strike pedagogy. Journalist Héctor Meléndez analyzed the events and emphasized how the university administration and the Puerto Rican government lost credibility during the process. He considered that it was natural for strikes to weaken with time, but it was more important to reflect and internalize the lessons of the process.[ii] José Rivera Santana, then president of the activist group Federación de Estudiantes Pro-Independencia (FUPI), also encouraged students to embrace lessons learned from striking. In an interview, he claimed that student struggles against tuition hikes helped the Puerto Rican people understand the implications of the politics of Carlos Romero Barceló, the island’s then pro-statehood governor.[iii]
Student activism at the UPR-RP is a barometer to measuring Puerto Rican resistance to political and economic hardships.
If student activism at the UPR-RP is a barometer to measuring Puerto Rican resistance to political and economic hardships, it is telling that no movement has materialized in the aftermath of Hurricane María and continued austerity measures against the university. The upcoming fall semester will be pivotal for Puerto Rico’s public higher education system. The university will welcome a new president, Jorge Haddock Acevedo, with a salary of $240,000 a year and a tenured professorship. His tenure violates the UPR’s rules regarding faculty hiring and sequential promotions. While Haddock’s salary may seem normal when comparing it with his counterparts on the mainland, it is unusually high in the Puerto Rican economic context. Currently, the island territory has a median household income that is over $20,000 less than Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union.
Over the last decade, the university has frozen dozens of tenure-track positions. Part-time professors, whose annual salaries often do not reach $12,000 a year, rallied last year for better working conditions. The university’s retirement system is under attack, threatening pensions for both retired and current faculty and workers. Tuition exemptions were also recently cut in half for student athletes and musicians, non-faculty employees, and children of university workers. After Hurricane María, the university community has been unable to mobilize against tuition hikes, Haddock’s hiring, and other austerity measures the UPR is currently facing. This is likely due to the student movement’s internal divisions, the student body’s exhaustion after the Great Strike, and collective concern for the university’s future in the aftermath of the storm.
Yet as Picó wrote in the aftermath of the 1981 strike, it falls on us to learn from “strike pedagogy” to better understand the status of present-day social mobilizations in Puerto Rico. Perhaps understanding past iterations of student resistance in the UPR can allow us to put into perspective the passive response the university community has had to Hurricane María and the island’s fiscal crisis more broadly.
 Luis Nieves Falcón, Ineke Cunningham, Israel Rivera, Francisco Torrres, and Hiram Amundaray, Huelga y sociedad: Análisis de los sucesos en la UPR, 1981-1982 (Río Piedras: Editorial Edil, 1982), 11.
[ii] Héctor Meléndez. 1982. “Huelga UPR: Una rica experiencia,” Claridad, January 22-28, 1982, 4.
[iii] Héctor Meléndez. 1982. “Habla presidente de la FUPI: ‘El régimen es mucho más débil que el pueblo unido,’” Claridad: En rojo, January 15-21, 1982, 3.
Aura S. Jirau is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Pittsburgh and winner of the 2018 AHA Summer Blog Contest. She holds an MA in history from the same institution and a BA in history of the Americas from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. Her work’s main mission is to use the 20th century and the Cold War to frame Puerto Rico in transnational and global contexts. Her doctoral dissertation traces the mid-20th-century student movement of her undergraduate alma mater, and its relationships with both the island’s political struggles and its broader socioeconomic transformations. Currently, she researches this project full time on the island.
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