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Guest Post: A Less Perfect Island by Juan Carlos Reyes

2011 January 3

At the onset of 2011, Puerto Rican authorities have a mess on their hands: an egregious social violation that has gone almost entirely unnoticed by the international media, a constitutional infringement that the Puerto Rican government will have to answer for as the news of it extends beyond the island.

In the days leading up to Christmas, Governor Luis Fortuño issued an order that had not been issued in more than thirty years: the armed occupation of a college campus.

On Monday December 20th, 2010, on day seven of a student strike at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Río Piedras campus, police officers in riot gear stormed a building where students had been protesting. The students had been marching through hallways and up stairwells, picketing and chanting. At least 12 students were arrested. Some reports have as many as three dozen students detained. The official police report, however, recognizes only 17.

It’s fitting that this latest student strike concludes the calendar year. In May and June 2010, a two-month student strike shut down campuses island-wide. Thousands of students protested the government’s economic solutions, aimed at helping to close the island’s $200 million budget shortfall. Among these was a proposed tuition fee increase. For two months, “almost all the campuses in the University of Puerto Rico system” were closed, keeping “nearly 62,000 students out of class.”

What made this last protest remarkable was the official response to it: a police raid. Police officers, for the most part relegated to the campus’s perimeter during the strike, suited up into riot gear and stormed the building where students had been marching. Eye witness and media video footage account for all the visual evidence. And of it, says a faculty member, “the police appear so aggressive it seems they’re invading a known terrorist outpost or, worse, initiating an internment camp.”

Police attacked indiscriminately with batons and tear gas, by the end of the day arresting at least twenty protesters and beating some as they lay on the ground. One of the arrestees, Germaine Ramia, had her left shoulder dislocated by a police blow.”

The University of Puerto Rico is autonomous, as are many universities across Latin America. Therefore, it is illegal for police to set foot onto its property. However, in the week leading into the invasion of the Río Piedras campus, police stormed into and occupied numerous UPR campuses across the island. The culmination, it now seems, was a violent raid at Río Piedras.

Video footage of the raid shows police officers and SWAT teams blocking available exits, forming walls and slowly enclosing open spaces, confining every student, protester or otherwise, to the stairwell and building hallways.

Video footage of the raid shows police officers shouting threats, inciting students to violence by swinging their batons, something like the armed equivalent of primitive chest-thumping.

Video footage of the raid shows police officers cornering students, many whom had actually been pleading to be left alone to leave campus peacefully.

Video footage of the raid shows police officers pushing students into the tiled walls and down onto floors, in one instance sitting on a young woman who had clearly been raising her hands to signal she carried no weapon.

There have been no reports of students carrying weapons of any kind.

According to some accounts, the police, as a preemptive measure to avoid student strikes, took down the university gates. This must have been perceived as something akin to a threat of violence, because it ultimately served as an impetus for the very protest the authorities had been trying to prevent.

The official reason given by the government for the armed occupation was public safety, more specifically student and property safety, reports surfacing that students were throwing gas bombs into classrooms hoping to clear them of students who wished not to participate in demonstrations.

However, University administrators have suggested protestors were goaded into desperation by the authorities. According to an open letter addressed to United States Attorney General Eric Holder, “On December 13, Chancellor Ana R. Guadalupe banned all meetings, festivals, manifestations, and all other so-called large activities on the Río Piedras campus for a period of thirty days. In our view, this represents a clear breach of fundamental constitutional rights.”

“The mere threat of an armed occupation is enough to scare anyone,” says one UPR administrator. “It’s reprehensible to see how the Governor essentially left these young people isolated, frightened, and completely alone.”

There is widespread disapproval not only of the Governor’s decision to permit SWAT teams and riot police to invade the campus, but also of his insistence that the student strike represents a disgruntled few.

“What has happened,” says Professor Norma Valle, “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.”

“The Governor has damaged his credibility,” one UPR law student said, “and he’s greatly decreased his social influence. No one trusts his solutions anymore for the economy. There’s no one on his side.”

“We have to tell the government enough is enough,” said José Antonio Muller, a father of one of the students arrested during the police invasion. “You, Mr. Governor, are a charlatan.”

Calls for the Governor’s impeachment have begun to resonate loudly across the island.

Many officials outside Puerto Rico have dismissed these university strikes as yet another in a long (and perhaps now even cliché) line of student turbulence in Latin America. However, whereas previous demonstrations (historically speaking) did not live up to the grandness of the ideologies they purported to represent, this latest wave of student demonstrations are grounded in something far more pragmatic and far more important in today’s globalized world: a college education.

“If a student cannot afford to go to university,” says one UPR alum, “then what’s left for her?”

If the next generation of students is ill-fit to compete academically and economically with counterparts across the world, then what’s left for Puerto Rico?

There are many, though, who have warned that what happened on December 20th is no longer merely about a budget deficit.

“From my point of view,” writes Pedro Santiago, executive director of Amnesty International in Puerto Rico, “this is not about a dollar amount anymore; it’s about freedom of speech and political transparency. What could possibly drive an administration to sacrifice a university simply to avoid discussing an alternative to their budget crisis? Why are they refusing to make the University’s financial statements public?”

On an island where the median household income was just over $18,000 in 2009, affording a college education becomes an increasingly distant possibility, especially if wages do not rise proportionately.

These statistics bear repercussions.

In one of the most heartbreaking videos posted online, footage of the raid shows one student protester pleading with an officer, crying, “Why are you doing this? We are not the bad people here. Why are you raising your guns against one of your own?”

With the realities of the modern world, permitting riot police and SWAT teams to club students across the face is simply not a viable solution to a budget crisis. Such a violent response to student demonstrations proves how politically small the Puerto Rican governor and his administration have become. In a Latin America that has vowed never again to release violence upon its own citizens, this current Puerto Rican political leadership has proven yet again that it would not be able soundly to govern an independent country (if Puerto Rico were to become one), that it would be the most morally reprehensible of the United States (if it were to achieve statehood), and that it cannot keep up with a continental history that continues to strive, if nothing else, for a fairer and more reasonable democracy.

Juan Carlos Reyes is from Guayaquil, Ecuador.  He received a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2007 and is currently pursuing his MFA at the University of Alabama.  He has presented at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and has published in Steel Toe Review and Black Warrior Review. A version of this post was previously published here.