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Meeting builds support for UPR student struggle

Published Mar 19, 2011 11:05 AM

Boston meeting, March 5.
WW photo

Students and teachers fighting Boston public school closures and privatization, union leaders combating government and corporate attacks on collective bargaining and cuts to health care and pensions, women’s groups battling the defunding of health clinics and social services, anti-war activists, and leaders of the Puerto Rican and Haitian national liberation movements gathered March 5 at Boston’s Action Center to kick off a week of activities in New England planned to bolster solidarity with the courageous students’ strike at the University of Puerto Rico.

The meeting was part of an international campaign called by The Puerto Rican Diaspora Solidarity Coordinating Committee — and co-sponsored in Boston by Workers World Party and the Women’s Fightback Network — that projected a World Day of Solidarity with the University of Puerto Rico in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Manchester, New York, Chicago, Hartford, Philadelphia and Boston centered around March 11.

Alberto Barreto Cardona, Ph.D., a longtime Puerto Rican independence activist, underlined his talk with vivid, front line photos of recent violent police attacks on students at UPR. “If the Puerto Rican police are not removed immediately, completely and permanently from all UPR campuses,” he said, “it will only be a matter of time before another March 11, 1971 — the bloodiest day in the history of the University of Puerto Rico.”

On March 4, 1970, during a student demonstration, police bullets executed student Antonia Martínez Lagares. The response was years of struggle by students, the UPR community and a broad section of Puerto Rican society to ban the police and ROTC from campus. This campaign succeeded following the bloody police assault on students the next year, mentioned above, during which a student and two police officers, including the chief of the notorious Tactical Operations Unit, were killed, the ROTC building was burned, and the colonial government was forced to totally withdraw its forces.

Forty years later, Barreto, who had spent the previous month supporting student civil disobedience actions at the UPR’s main campus in Río Piedras, reported on the current struggle. Puerto Rico’s Tea Party-backed governor has ordered police to once again occupy the public campuses to try to break the resolve and solidarity of the students. The governor’s unilateral imposition of new unaffordable fees is forcing 10,000 students out.

Barreto put the struggle in the context of the worldwide neoliberal and capitalist attacks aimed at privatizing public institutions, laying off workers and lowering wages, and taking away social benefits won through struggle decades ago, from Wisconsin to Greece. In the past year, Puerto Rico’s U.S-sponsored colonial government has laid off more than 26,000 public workers. U.S.-owned corporations there laid off thousands more.

Responding to the demands of U.S. banks, Puerto Rico’s government has moved quickly to sell off public institutions to private capitalists — from health care to utilities to land — and many see the governor’s violent attacks on the UPR students as his opening round to privatize the university.

Barreto lauded the discipline, democratic organization and courage of the UPR students, and in particular the leadership of women students. The women have taken the majority of arrests, and they have faced brutal and sexual violence from the police, as many of his photos showed in graphic detail. Despite mass arrests, injuries from police rubber bullets and tear gas, and pressure-point, torture tactics applied by police to the peaceful protesters, the students’ resolve stays strong.

The students at UPR, Barreto concluded, are like the “fists in action in Egypt, in Wisconsin, in Ohio,” which unequivocally disprove the “post-colonial” worldview of bourgeois academics and political misleaders, and prove that the violence of capitalism can be overcome and finally defeated.

Ricardo Ramos, a recent graduate of the UPR now studying in Boston, told of his participation last year in the first phase of the student strike, when students organized new representative bodies, built unity with professors and other university workers, developed their own media, such as Radio Huelga, and occupied and struck the 11 campuses of the UPR. They won a historic agreement from the administration that rescinded the new fees and provided amnesty for student leaders, among other gains. Now the government and new administration have torn up the agreement with brutal police force.

Robert Lamothe, a Boston public school teacher and producer of the new documentary, “Teach” (www.filmourwayfilms.com), inspired the Boston meeting with an eyewitness video report from the frontlines in Madison, Wis.