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

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jun 21 12:56:43 EDT 2010



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

by Victor M. Rodriguez Domínguez / June 21st, 2010
http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/06/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 Domínguez is a professor of 
sociology of race and ethnicity in the Department 
of Chicano and Latino Studies, California State 
University, Long Beach, his most recent book is 
Latino Politics in the United States: Race, 
Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Mexican 
American and Puerto Rican Experience (Kendall 
Hunt, 2005). 
<http://dissidentvoice.org/author/VictorRodriguezDominguez/>Read 
other articles by Victor.




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