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Gov. Fortuño attacks University of Puerto Rico

Published Feb 3, 2011 8:18 PM

Worker’s World’s stellar reporting has informed readers of the ongoing political and social instability in Puerto Rico resulting from the neoliberal policies of Republican Gov. Luis Fortuño; recent events have gone from bad to worse. Fortuño, who courts major Tea Party big-money donors at Heritage Foundation events, has dismayed the nation with his callous disregard for the role of education in Puerto Rico.

In a society already dramatically divided socioeconomically, his administration has waged a heinous assault to weaken the University of Puerto Rico by undermining its financial stability. Through the much-criticized Law 7, state funds assigned to the University coffers were so severely cut that some campuses of the Commonwealth’s public university system are teetering on the brink of financial collapse.

Despite funds being expressly set aside by the Government Development Bank for stabilization of the University’s financial crisis, the statehood party’s majority voted against freeing the funds to ensure ongoing operations. Instead, the UPR’s President and Board of Trustees invoked a loophole in the since-discarded agreements from the 2010 student strike to impose an $800 yearly quota across the board for all students.

Those most affected, the students, are the University’s weakest economic link, especially the more marginalized sectors of the population who are already at risk by virtue of their social class. In spite of students’ valiant efforts to resist the government’s concerted efforts to weaken the commonwealth’s public university, the community has little recourse against impending havoc: thousands of the nation’s youth being denied an education at a cost within their means.

In the last month, heavy-handed police techniques have been used to rein in protesters intent on claiming their right to affordable education. Decades-old standing agreements that prohibited the use of police on university grounds were violated. The incursion of mounted riot police and armed SWAT teams has dismayed even those politically sympathetic to the governor’s policies.

Nonetheless, the turn of recent events is enough to offend the common decency of even hardened political observers. Over the last several weeks, students have upped the ante in their struggle against the infamous quota and have adopted civil disobedience to pressure the University and the government to identify alternative funding sources to cover the UPR’s deficit.

The government response to protesters has been beyond harsh; it has relied upon police brutality that recalls the most violent events of student strikes in Puerto Rico in the 1970s.

The arrests of students and sympathizers in the defense of public education have crossed acceptable boundaries of law and civil rights. Members of the press, themselves among the victims of police brutality, have described treatment of protesters by police as abusive, even as torture. Frightening images easily available on the Internet leave little doubt that violations of civil rights are rampant.

More troubling is that the police tactics are justified at the highest levels. The argument made by the Puerto Rican Secretary of State, Marcos Rodriguez Emma, is that access to the UPR must be guaranteed and protesters violated the law by obstructing free access to public domain, so all measures to reestablish police control are justified. This position doesn’t stand the test of law: the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Justice Department have already drawn their attention to the island to gather evidence on civil rights violations.

The recent civil disobedience has underscored the police flouting the legal system that supposedly governs them. Protesters are being brutalized. Women are being manhandled. Dozens of students are hauled off to police stations and are held for hours, even overnight, reportedly intimidated while in police custody, without formal charges being filed. Even uninvolved passersby at protest sites have been attacked by pepper spray and rubber bullets and hauled off to jail, all flagrant violations of law.

The Puerto Rican Constitution protects citizens from these violations of rights, as affirmed in legal precedents that uphold the Puerto Rican Constitution, such as People v. Rey Marrero, 109 D.P.R. 739 (1980) that safeguards citizens’ rights against being taken into police custody without adequate justification.

Prior to recent events, civil disobedience has been less widely known in Puerto Rico than on the U.S. mainland. That may soon change, as public outcry over civil rights violations of protesters and observers becomes part of the larger public discourse.

Whether the students’ cause will spread to a broader consciousness, or Governor Fortuño’s administration will continue to trample both public education and the people’s rights with impunity, is one question to which the people will have to themselves provide the answer.