Student Strike at University of Puerto Rico Rocks Island and Sparks Political Crisis
A student strike at the University of Puerto Rico has forced the resignation of its president and sparked the second political crisis in a year for the island's rulers.
José Ramón de la Torre, head of the 60,000-student system, resigned Friday after a series of violent clashes between students and riot police.
Some 200 people have been arrested and scores of students injured, prompting professors and university workers to walk out for two days last week in sympathy with the students.
On Monday, conservative Gov. Luis Fortuño finally relented and pulled back the hundreds of riot police that had been occupying the system's 11 campuses for weeks.
It was the first police occupation of the university in more than 30 years.
Students began boycotting classes in early December to protest a special $800 annual fee Fortuño imposed this semester to reduce a huge government deficit.
That fee - equal to more than 50% of annual tuition - stunned the university community, given that more than 60% of UPR students have family incomes of less than $20,000 a year.
Student leaders persuaded the trustees to reject similar tuition hikes Fortuño proposed last spring. They did so by conducting massive sit-ins and barricading themselves in buildings on all the campuses for two months, and by running a sophisticated Internet and media campaign that garnered much public support.
Fortuño's pro-statehood New Progressive Party, which controls both houses of the Puerto Rico legislature, responded by packing the board of trustees with new appointees, guaranteeing him complete control this time around.
Local courts cooperated by banning student protests on university grounds.
Most experts expected the students would be too exhausted from last spring to challenge the governor again.
Those experts were wrong.
They presented more than 200 pages of proposals to university officials on ways to trim budget costs without huge tuition increases.
Under Puerto Rico law, the commonwealth government must spend 9.6% of its budget on the university's operation.
The Fortuño administration, which recently pushed through the biggest corporate and individual tax cuts in Puerto Rico's history, has laid off thousands of government workers and wants even greater privatization of public services.
The striking students at UPR know this is not simply a conflict with their trustees. They are up against the forces of the entire Fortuño administration. The way they see it, the future of a great public university, one that has educated generations of low-income citizens in Puerto Rico, is at stake.