2011-06-09 "Recent University of Puerto Rico Protests Raises Critique of Colonization" by Alyssa Figueroa
“They’re kicking and they’re pressing their legs on my head: they’re abusing me,” the student told the cameraman as he was lying on his stomach, hands cuffed behind his back. “This only demonstrates the weakness of the government...It only demonstrates their fear of us. They know the public agrees with us, and that’s why they need to use violence.”
The speaker is a University of Puerto Rico (UPR) student who was speaking to Carlos A. Pérez Figueroa, a photojournalist for CP Media, an independent media network in Puerto Rico, about the repression he faced while protesting against a $800 tuition hike. The hike has sparked students to rise again after a yearlong struggle to ward off attempts to increase fees.
Several months prior, the UPR announced tuition hikes, and tens of thousands of students began to strike and ultimately shut down 10 out of the 11 UPR campuses for a two-month period. Almost immediately after an agreement was made between the administration and the students on June 21, 2010, the government began looking for another way to impose the fee. Puerto Rico’s state legislature, controlled by the far right of the Pro-Statehood party, decided to expand UPR’s board of trustees, filling the seats with four appointees. This new board then voted in December 2010 for the second attempt to impose the $800 fee.
Immediately, students began protesting again, and were met with extreme violence. In the U.S., the administration gave this conflict no attention and the U.S. media rarely covered the issue. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to clandestinely oppress the Puerto Rican masses and take advantage of the island. Despite this attempted cover-up, Puerto Ricans know that colonization is a tactic used by the U.S. around the world to increase U.S. profit and power. Puerto Ricans have thus maintained an independence movement for over a hundred years, for independence would allow the island to cultivate its own institutions based on its culture. Thus, the recent violent retaliation on student protesters in Puerto Rico sparks an opportunity to reevaluate the U.S.’s continued exploitation of its colony.
Peaceful Protests Met with Violence -
Mary Anne Grady Flores from the Catholic Workers movement in Ithaca, NY, was on the ground in Puerto Rico during these intense times of protest. Grady traveled to the country for vacation, heard about the student struggle, and ended up on January 19, 2011, sitting in front of the entrance of UPR linking arms with them. She said that shortly after the approximately 50 students joined arms, the police surrounded them so the press could not obtain images of the students in protest. The police then began to approach students, and roughly tried to break them apart, though students clenched their arms tightly. The police then resorted to gouging the students’ eyes and applying pressure-point techniques to their necks, which blocks the flow of blood to the brain. When they finally came to arrest Grady, she warned them “don’t put the handcuffs on tight”—a tactic she saw the police officers purposely enforce to cause pain.
Since December 2010, students (joined by professors) have been partaking in various types of protests, including marches, walkouts and work stoppages. Probably the most violent outbreak occurred in early February 2011 when more than 15,000 students and supporters protested on the steps of the capitol building. The American Civil Liberties Union reported students being “mercilessly beaten.” Police used tear gas, pepper spray and shot rubber bullets. The police also sexually assaulted several female students. Not only did this violence impede students’ right to protest—certain rulings did as well. In December 2010, UPR’s local Supreme Court, also dominated by conservative pro-statehood supporters, outlawed student strikes and campus protests. UPR Chancellor Ana Guadalupe officially prohibited group activities of any kind on campus as well as designated areas off campus.
The police also violently assaulted journalists in order to block them from getting news coverage. When Pérez filmed the arrested UPR student as he was being assaulted, he was hiding with his camera under a car, because previously he had been kicked in the ribs while trying to capture the protests. Several others were attacked including a student correspondent for Radio Huelga, who was arrested despite wearing his press credentials.
The Public Relations Spin on the Violence in Puerto Rico -
Not only did the government and administration attempt to silence protesters and press coverage, but they also tried to misrepresent the facts and alter the way the administration was being portrayed. The most common argument the UPR administration used was that previous $2,000 per year tuition fee was very affordable, and an $800 increase would not be much of a burden. They also claimed these fees were necessary to deal with the UPR's $336 million budget cut which were installed due to the country’s current $3.2 billion debt. However, the administration fails to recognize that this is nearly a 50 percent increase bestowed on a population whose average yearly income is $9,000—half the average in Mississippi, the U.S.'s poorest state. In fact, 48 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty under U.S. federal standards. As a result of the tuition hike, 10,000 students could not afford to re-enroll at UPR. Furthermore, the administration ignored demands from students to see the budget as well as alternative proposals that would scrap the $800 fee.
One of the most devious acts to distort information was the administration’s declaration that students were the ones who were violent. Reportedly, the local media continuously aired a video of students breaking security van windows. There were students who also overturned tables, smashed windows and set off smoke bombs on campus. Students were also charged with attacking Chancellor Guadolupe.
However, there were witness reports of National Police intelligence agents, disguised as students, attacking guards during student protests. Several witnesses identified the two undercover agents, which led to skepticism about student-led attacks. In addition, the riots took place a few weeks after it was disclosed that the government held a high-level meeting to discuss how to start an upheaval that could be blamed on students in order to move public favor away from the students. The day Guadolupe was attacked the Committee of Student Representation condemned the violent assault but questioned why university guards initiated the pushing that resulted in the uproar, which many witnesses attested to, although it was reported differently. Once out of the building Guadolupe had a car waiting for her. The National Police also appeared on the scene, observed what was happening and then left. NCM News, an independent news organization, showed the government the witness reports and asked for an official response as to whether undercover National police agents participated in injuring the guards and Guadolupe. NCM never received a response.
For decades those in power in Puerto Rico have been known for riddling the student body with saboteurs in order to make the public perceive students as violent. For example, in 1978 the police covered up the killings of two pro-independent UPR students in the mountain of Cerro Maravilla.
U.S. Keeps Violence Hidden to Remain Powerful -
Back in the U.S., the administration and mainstream media largely ignored the student protests and the violence that followed. When it was reported on, the context was largely distorted or the issue’s complexity was overlooked. Some may argue that in a time when the U.S. is waging a “War on Terror,” there is little time to devote to violence occurring outside one of the 50 states. If this is the case, perhaps the U.S. should reevaluate whether it should be in control of an island it only cares about for certain aspects, while ignoring its violence and growing poverty.
However, inaction is a form of action. Fortuño and the UPR administration’s desires to silence the protests and twist facts in order to keep their power hidden to remain in command mirrors the U.S.’s motives for ignoring the issue—the U.S. wants Fortuño, a politician that favors U.S. policy, to stay in power so the U.S. could maintain the colony.
First a colony of Spain for more than 400 years, Puerto Rico was taken by the U.S. in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Thus, some historians have called Puerto Rico “the oldest colony in the world.” Puerto Rico was conquered because of its strategic positioning, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and near Central and South America. This provides a tactical area for having a military outpost and keeping an eye on Latin America. As a U.S. colony Puerto Rico has also served as a cheap labor force.
Puerto Rico is economically dependent on the U.S. and U.S. corporations take advantage of this. The corporations build many factories on the island in order to pay little and profit much. In the 1950s, corporations began to industrialize Puerto Rico, transforming it from a sugar economy to an industrial one. They then became known for avoiding taxes by building factories in Puerto Rico. Many register their operations on the island as tax-free foreign firms and are thus legally allowed unlimited tax-free profits if they don’t send the money back to the U.S. They therefore generate hundreds of billions of dollars in Puerto Rico and then ship their profits overseas to evade taxes.
Pharmaceutical companies especially take advantage of this opportunity. For example, in 2005 14 of the 20 top-selling drugs in the U.S. were made in Puerto Rico. These companies then used Puerto Rico as an experiment site for their drugs. Most notably, in the 1950s, pharmaceutical companies created the birth control pill and tested high doses on underprivileged women in Puerto Rico. As a result, by the 1970s, around one-third of the female population was sterile.
The U.S. Navy also used one of Puerto Rico’s small islands, Vieques, as a testing ground for their bombs and other weapons for more than sixty years, dislocating people on the island. They would use a thin strip of the island to practice 235 days of the year while 9,000 civilians resided only a few miles away. The environmental and health effects were detrimental. The cancer rate in Vieques was 27 percent higher than on the main island. The bombing and uranium cratered the island, destroyed vegetation and killed numerous animals.
Serious protest were sparked after April 19, 1999, when civilian David Sanes Rodriguez was killed when the Navy dropped two 500-pound bombs on Vieques during a training exercise. The protests were ultimately effective as President George W. Bush ordered the Navy off of the island in 2003. Last year, a lawyer representing more than 7,000 residents asked that President Obama compensate the victims of Vieques, but a U.S. district judge dismissed the lawsuit stating the U.S. Navy’s actions were shielded by the principle of sovereign immunity and were not liable for their actions. However, on April 22, 2011, U.S. Congressman Steve Rothman introduced the Vieques Recovery and Development Act of 2011, which calls for constructing a hospital and toxins research center and setting up a compensation fund.
Puerto Rico has been the testing ground for many more activities, from testing crops to testing privatization. As one of the last public institutions, UPR is at risk, as reports have stated that Fortuño has begun negotiations to sell off or lease UPR campuses to private colleges—several which have been big contributors to his campaign. The U.S. has clearly used the colony for its means, while the island gains no benefit. Although the U.S. has worked hard to maintain its position through silencing and distortion, a long-brewing Puerto Rican independence movement remains in the souls of the people on the island.
The Long Struggle for Independence -
Despite their best attempts, the U.S. has not been able to eradicate the beliefs of Puerto Rican nationalists. Rebels have been fighting for independence since 1898 when the U.S. took over Puerto Rico. Today, they are still fighting for their own country with their own institutions and culture.
Although the U.S. government creates a façade of choice for Puerto Ricans concerning their independence, in the end, the U.S. holds power over the country under the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. does not allow Puerto Ricans to vote in national elections, however, the U.S. has tried to appear as if they are offering the colony freedom. In 1947, U.S. House bill 3309 granted Puerto Ricans the right to vote for their governor, though Congressmen stressed the “fiscal relationship” would not change. With the 1950 Puerto Rico Relations Act, Puerto Rico got its own constitution—drafted by U.S. Congressmen with a reminder that the colony remains under U.S. jurisdiction. There have also been several bills brought to both the House and Senate that concern holding a referendum to allow Puerto Ricans to decide their own fate, but all have been squashed. On March 16, 2011 the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status issued its third report to President Obama. This task force was created by the Clinton administration in 2000 in order to identify and work to address Puerto Rico’s status options. In the new report, the Task Force focused on seven points of recommendation. A few of the points promise that the people of Puerto Rico should be allowed to express their beliefs on their status and that a plebiscite is recommended and will likely to take place this coming summer. Puerto Ricans would have a status choice among statehood, independence, free association or commonwealth.
The last point, however, asserts that Puerto Ricans can have their freedom, if they want it, under one condition: the U.S. has to determine when the island is “ready” to self-govern based on Congress’ standards. The Task Force thus makes economic recommendations for Puerto Rico as well as other “suggestions.” For instance, one of the seven points states that although the U.S. wants to protect Puerto Rico’s linguistic identity, if it were admitted as a State, “the English language would need to play—as it does today—a central role in the daily life of the island.”
In Congressional hearings on Puerto Rico’s status, Congressional members have made it clear that it is important for Puerto Ricans to master English. This racialization of Puerto Ricans allows the U.S. to suppress and distance itself from the “other,” while using the colony for its benefits. Therefore, it is not in the U.S.’s interest to lose Puerto Rico as a colony. The U.S. will thus continue its pattern of acting in its own interest under the guise of acting democratically. This illusion of working toward Puerto Rico’s possible independence, allows the U.S. ultimately to take no action regarding the colony.
The Need for Decolonization -
The $800 fee inflicted on the University of Puerto Rico students is an attempt to keep the working class oppressed. The colony is economically dependant on the U.S., so if the U.S. incurs a deficit, Puerto Rico does, too. The Puerto Rican working class then has to struggle harder and deal with fierce legislation, like “Ley 7,” a bill similar to Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union bill. The bill laid off thousands of public service workers. Then, a few days after the student riots, Fortuño vetoed a bill to extend labor contracts for two years, claiming the need to make adjustments to the bill. Because of its colonial status, Puerto Rico is unable to foster its own institutions and has increasingly been instituting neoliberal policies that mirror the policies in the U.S. In order to secure his favor and power with the empire, Fortuño acts as a puppet for the U.S. government, and therefore sets up these neoliberal institutions that oppress the working class. The U.S. and Fortuño then work side by side to make sure these neoliberal policies are enacted, no matter what it takes. Simultaneously, they create inaccurate account of the violent methods they used to install these policies—or they work to silence accounts of their methods completely. This effective means of hiding their violence allows them to retain their power. This power allows the U.S. to reap numerous benefits from the colony, while Fortuño enjoys his personal wealth.
Although the U.S. tries to decieve people into believing it is trying to give Puerto Rico freedom, it's not working. Trying to reform colonial ties while still working in a colonial context is counter effective—and the people know it. Thus, Puerto Rico’s structure will mirror the U.S.'s, and Puerto Ricans will never have the ability to advance their own institutions and ideologies, unless they rise up. Puerto Ricans need to start spreading the word on their need for independence. They must realize that the only way to start developing its own policies based on its culture is to cut all ties to the U.S.. They must untangle themselves from the U.S.'s structures and slowly start anew if they ever want to escape the immense exploitation and violence they face. Although it may be a long struggle, we must push for the complete decolonization of Puerto Rico, as well as colonies around the world.