Interview: Puerto Rican student strike

June 2017 PR studentsBy ERNIE GOTTA

For two months, 50,000 students on campuses across Puerto Rico participated in a strike against the U.S.-imposed Fiscal Control Board, which was proposing $500 million in cuts. Mikael Rosa, a member of the student movement at the University of Puerto Rico, shares his experiences. 

Ernie Gotta: What demands pushed students to go out on strike?

Mikael Rosa: Our demands are related to the general situation of our country, and others are specific about the university. We are asking for an audit of the debt, a process of reforms for the university, no increase in our tuition and no budget cuts to the institution.

EG: What was the atmosphere like on campus during the strike? What type of actions did students take?

MR: The period of the strike gave the opportunity to have deep political discussions that generated different initiatives. The most important part of the process is that we could prepare many young people for the struggle against colonialism and austerity imposed by the Fiscal Control Board. We combined a model of participation, direct activities, and political education, as key facts to organize the indignation that was expressed in more than four student assemblies.

EG: Did the working class support the strike? Organized labor?

MR: Many working-class people were in solidarity with our process. It is very important to point out that as a result of the strike, different groups from professors and workers from the university were organized and had a very important presence, not only at the daily development of the strike, but also as part of the discussions and direct activities that we made.

EG: Former political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera opened his speaking tour in the U.S. on June 8 in the Bronx. What does his freedom mean to Puerto Rican students?

MR: Oscar is an inspiration for all of us. He openly and fearlessly supported the students’ strike, from a solidarity and patriotic love perspective. The fact that he was released during the strike was a direct message for us: There is no victory without sacrifice and effort.

EG: The overwhelming majority of Puerto Rican students voted June 8 to end the strike. What was gained by the strike?

MR: Organization. That is the summary of what we won during the strike. That is the most basic thing that you need to transform a country and to decolonize a nation. In terms of the concrete claims, we were able to start a process of university reforms, move forward on the topic of the audit, and we still have a series of pre-agreements on the table. We hope that they will be signed by the new administration of the nniversity.

EG: What about the Humacao campus? Why have they remained on strike?

MR: What happened with Humacao was that they did not have a date for their assembly. But the most important part of the Humacao campus is the many sectors that they were able to involve during their process. In Humacao it moved from a student strike to become a strike from the different sectors of the campus.

EG: Articles have mentioned that students may not receive Pell Grants and other federal funding because of their strike actions. Have students faced other retaliation? Did the police attack students during the strike? Other threats from the government?

MR: Regarding the Pell Grant, the reality is that the problems with it are related to administrative irresponsibility and inefficiencies. That situation was not created because of the strike, but still it was used as a repressive mechanism. During this strike, what they basically did was to randomly put under arrest different students, and make them face the judicial system.

EG: Does the upcoming vote for statehood play a role in debates on campus? What do students think is the way forward for Puerto Rico?

MR: We all know that the vote for statehood was a fraud. It is a lack of respect to say that the majority of Puerto Ricans want the annexation for our homeland. In terms of the students, the composition of the student’s movement is very diverse and heterogeneous, but we do not recognize statehood or our colonial status as a solution for our political situation. The only winner of this plebiscite was the boycott and the abstention.

EG: What can Puerto Ricans at home and in the diaspora do to fight back against austerity on the island? What will it take to end austerity?

MR: The response is very simple: organization. We must work on our responsibility of organizing as many people as we can to stop austerity and promote a real decolonization process.

Photo: Victor Torres / Democracy Now!