This post was written by Ed Morales and published in the Noted section of the June 14, 2010 issue of The Nation.
Singing and chanting "Education is a right, not a privilege" to a rousing plena beat, hundreds of striking University of Puerto Rico (UPR) students swarmed San Juan's Plaza Las Américas, a huge shopping mall emblematic of the island's proto-NAFTA economy, on May 22. The strike began on April 21, shortly after the UPR administration announced tuition hikes, the end of tuition benefits to university workers and the elimination of some merit-based financial aid—all in an attempt to cut $100 million from the budget.
The mall protest capped a tumultuous week during which police beat, Tasered and arrested students at another off-campus protest; negotiations floundered; and the student negotiating committee was sued for blocking access to the university grounds. The campus strikers, who have been under a carnivalesque state of siege, ran their own pirate radio station—Radio Huelga, which sandwiches antigovernment rants in between Bob Dylan and salsa music—and engaged in street theater even as police accosted parents trying to pass food through the gates.
The strike has become emblematic of Puerto Rico's deep economic and political crisis. Governor Luis Fortuño's slashing of the public sector is an attempt to stem increasing deficits and increase the island's chances of becoming the fifty-first state. But Fortuño's massive government job cuts and the UPR strike have created a labor-student coalition with broad-based popular support that has staged two national strikes in six months. By invoking Republican strategies, Fortuño has raised a new kind of class awareness. Refusing to back down on May 23, students and labor leaders vowed to bring the fight "to the spaces where the rich and powerful do not expect us to go."