Below is an interview with Puerto Rican student activist Gamelyn Oduardo, a featured speaker at the March 23-25 conference of the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC). The interview was conducted by Socialist Action reporters Lisa Luinenburg and Ana Noli. It has been slightly edited for space reasons.
Socialist Action: Could you give an overview of the student movement in Puerto Rico?
Gamelyn Oduardo: Students in Puerto Rico have a long tradition of fighting back. During the 1970s they threw the ROTC off campus. … During the 1980s there were student strikes against tuition fee hikes. During the ’90s, there was the struggle against privatization of state industries—the telephone company went on strike in ’98—and after that the students were very active and involved in the struggle to throw the U.S. Navy out of Vieques. The Navy used the island as an exercise ground and was bombing the hell out of it.
When I got to the university in 2005 there was … a strike against tuition fee hikes. After that, it was about four or five years before we could get another strong student movement going. At that time, a right-wing governor had been elected, and he laid off about 20,000 workers from the public sector. We decided it was time to organize and to strike. So along with the unions we shut down the island for 24 hours. But of course it’s not enough to shut down the island for 24 hours. You know, these people are in power for years and decades, so 24 hours only tickles them.
We started organizing against the stuff that was going on in the university—budget cuts. There was a huge deficit, so they wanted to, as we say in Spanish, the rope breaks from the—
SA: Can you say it in Spanish?
GO: La laza rompe por lo más fino — the rope breaks from the narrowest point. They’re not going to cut from the administration’s six-digit budgets but from student benefits and services. They wanted to eliminate the tuition fee waivers for honor students and students that were in the choir or athletes. So, we went on strike for that in 2010. For two months we shut down the whole university and occupied 10 campuses throughout the island. And we won the strike. The administration had to negotiate, under court orders.
We got them not to change the tuition waivers policy. And we got them to renounce their power of summarily expelling striking students and workers for “being a threat to the community.” Now they have to put them through due process.
They agreed to not privatize any of the campuses; that was another of our demands. And they agreed not to raise tuition, at least in the subsequent semester. So we had a semester to organize against tuition fee hikes. And when it was imminent that the tuition fee hikes were going to come across, we decided to go on strike again. But this time they occupied the university with the police.
After the 1970s and ’80s a non-confrontation policy had developed in the university campuses. That’s because when they brought in the riot police in the ’80s the students shot down the police commander. So, to prevent these kinds of things from happening they didn’t bring the police inside for over 30 years.
SA: When the police re-entered the campus, did it lead to a confrontation with students?
GO: Yeah, there was confrontation. We are not at the level of shooting it out with police, but still we threw all kinds of things at them. We pepper sprayed their asses. The most important thing is that the government’s not going to fear you or respect you unless you stop fearing the government. …
SA: What was the result of that strike?
GO: They didn’t back down on the tuition fee hikes. But we also sent some students to make a lobbying campaign in the state capitol. They actually got something passed, obviously with the students’ pressure—a scholarship fund. So that the people who couldn’t pay the $800 fee could get some help from the scholarship fund. And we actually expelled the police from campus. So we were victorious, not as we would have wanted to be, but still I think resistance in itself is a very valuable thing.
SA: What organizations were leading the student strike?
GO: You know that socialist organizations are always active while no one else is active. But … we [also] have something that we call the FNO—the Non-Organized Front (Frente No Organizado). I’m a part of that, you know.
Before 2010, we had organized in committees around the different departments of the university. And these committees were like a united front of students. We had socialist students, we had students who were organizing for statehood in Puerto Rico—that’s the right wing—we had all kinds of students who wanted to struggle for students’ rights and worker’s rights.
Because that’s another thing they’ll do, they’ll try to take those two interests against each other. They’ll say, oh, we have to raise your tuition because we need to pay the workers. They’re not paying the workers; they’re paying the bureaucrats. So you need to realize that when you build a movement in the university you have to also defend worker’s rights, not only students’ rights and students’ services.
SA: What issues were these groups working on?
GO: When we began, we were just struggling against Law 7, the one that I told you had laid off 20,000 public sector workers, and froze all collective bargaining rights. And all collective bargained contracts that were in play during that moment were also frozen. The government could do whatever they wanted with the workers. So we were all active organizing for a general strike. Not only in the university, but a nationwide strike was what we were aiming for. … At the beginning we reached out to the union leaders. But they let us down. … You know, these people are affiliated to the AFL-CIA.
GO: CIA! They used to call it the AFL–CIA because the AFL-CIO has been very active in Latin American countries, intervening with Latin American democracies. Such as the case of Venezuela, the AFL-CIO has passed many thousands and millions of dollars to the National Endowment for Democracy to do their job down there in Venezuela. So that’s why I call them the AFL-CIA, because these guys are door knocking for the Democrats also.
SA: What was the response from the actual workers you talked to?
GO: There is a lot of work to be done to get to rank-and-file workers. But I think that people are pretty receptive. You know, in public opinion the students were on top, and I think that we’re still on top. We have to keep on building on the potential that the student resistance brought to the people of Puerto Rico, because since the union leadership and the civic leadership didn’t do anything about it, the students stood up. I think that gives them the legitimacy and the confidence to do it again, or even bigger, and maybe go directly to the people.
SA: What are the next steps then?
GO: We’ve done some community work in some of the needy communities in San Juan and around the island. Communities of immigrants that the government says are squatters. They want to throw them out, so we’re all for being with them and defending them against the police. Also in La Perla. That’s a community in the area of San Juan that was hit by a FBI operative—nothing more than the criminalization of poverty. We were inside La Perla organizing with them and with the children also. We did summer camps in both communities.
In the second week of April there’s going to be a general assembly of students. This time, the university is proposing to eliminate all of the student representatives from the university government, and all of the professors from the university government. They’re also proposing tuition fee hikes that will go into play every year, so every year they’re going to reevaluate the cost of the university and raise it up.
And along with this they’re trying to pass a security plan—a compulsory ID system. They want to hook the campus up with cameras, you know, bring the whole surveillance tape to the university. And students are really opposed to that because they really know that it’s only an excuse to persecute activists and students. So there’s going to be this general assembly the second week of April. I don’t know what’s really going to happen, since I’ve graduated. But I’m still active, and I’m all for telling them to go on strike, but it’s their choice.
And I think that probably we need to be more creative this time. We still need to reach out, no matter if we strike or not. Since some of the student activists who were more active and militant were expelled from the university, and others graduated, we could do the job to go to the streets and tell the people what’s going on and get the idea out of the university. One thing that we have to take into consideration when you occupy is that you’re like locking yourself up in a space. So occupations are not necessarily the best way to do things if you want to get your message out.
SA: Any final words?
GO: Keep on organizing, keep on working for a better society. I think that’s it, you know, you have to never give up.