“They are stealing our present. The UPR is not for sale,” read a large banner at the gates of the oldest and largest of the 11 campuses that make up the University of Puerto Rico system. Early in the morning on Monday, October 18, students gathered to join the protests in front of Puerto Rico’s Capitol in San Juan, holding colorful signs: “They violated our past”; “They are stealing our present”; “They are mortgaging our future.”
On the other side of the island in the western town of Mayagüez, where the STEM flagship campus of the system is located, students were starting a one-day strike. Some had planned to join their peers in San Juan, but those who were unable to do the two-and-a-half-hour drive would attend local protests. The campus in Aguadilla organized a local march in support. Students from campuses such as Ponce and Cayey came to the Capitol in rented buses. They started with a march from the campus to the town hall and ended with plena music and an open mic. The night before, hundreds of students held a pleno—an informal, grassroots assembly—to make decisions and plan the day’s events, with thousands more joining virtually using social media. The discussion was orderly but emotional, and it went beyond the logistics of the protests and into a deeper conversation about the importance of resistance and showing up to the events of the day.
The pleno included comments like the following: “They are destroying our university. They keep hiking tuition costs. They want to force us to pay a debt that is illegal, a debt that is not ours.” “We are paying more for fewer services, but this is not just about us. It is also about the elderly, about the teachers, about everybody…. I don’t want my children to have to leave Puerto Rico like so many in my family have done…. What we are doing here is also about our children, our grandchildren, about the generations to come.”
The trigger of these protests was a bill now before Puerto Rico’s legislature, PC1003, designed to implement the “debt adjustment plan” presented by the Financial Oversight and Management Board, an unelected body imposed on Puerto Rico as part of the PROMESA Law passed by the US Congress in 2016. Called simply “La Junta” by most Puerto Ricans, and charged with “helping” Puerto Rico structure its debt, this group has spent the past five years pushing austerity measures and consistently prioritizing the interests of bondholders over the pensions and essential services needed by the island’s people. Since January 2017, the FOMB—under the cover of two hurricanes, a series of earthquakes, and the Covid pandemic—has been implementing “adjustment” measures that include slashing the public university’s budget in half, increasing tuition threefold, closing a third of the island’s public K-12 schools, and privatizing part of the public electric utility. The FOMB has done this with the complicity and support of three different governors, as well as many local politicians and administrators, The Puerto Rican population has been rapidly dwindling, while wealthy investors, mostly from the United States, buy luxury properties and coastal land on the cheap and move to the island to take advantage of generous tax exemptions.
While the FOMB describes its debt adjustment plan as a sure way to usher in a “new era of stability and prosperity,” activists, experts, and legislators from opposition parties have pointed out its negative impact on retiree pensions, municipal services, and the UPR. This plan and the bill fix the latter’s yearly budget at $500 million–about half the budget that the institution would have under the formula defined in Puerto Rican law since 1966. If PC1003 becomes law, many argue, it will result in a decrease in the quality of education provided, further tuition increases, and the unavoidable closure of some of the smaller campuses, which serve some of the poorest students on the island. Many experts believe that all of this damage from the plan and PC1003, supposedly for the sake of progress, will sink Puerto Rico further into debt and lead to another default. Moreover, some, or even most, of the debt that Puerto Rico is being forced to pay could very well be illegal, but the FOMB and Puerto Rico’s government have consistently avoided a comprehensive audit.
Rolando Emmanuelli, a lawyer that specializes in bankruptcy and one of the experts that testified in the project’s public hearings, told me that, “simply put, the plan is not even viable. In a legitimate bankruptcy process, the debtor does not pay for an uninsured or illegal debt. In this case, the FOMB never carried a proper audit to identify potentially illegal debt and did not even try to eliminate uninsured debt. Puerto Rico’s legislature has the responsibility, the duty, to push back against the FOMB’s plan.” Pushback, however, seems unlikely: On Sunday, after meeting behind closed doors, governor Pedro Pierluisi, House speaker Rafael Hernández, and FOMB president David Skeel announced that they had reached an agreement. And on Thursday, October 21, in somewhat opaque declarations, the interim UPR system president, Mayra Olavarría, told the press she endorses the bill because, in her view, it puts a stop to the FOMB’s cuts, but at the same time she recognized that the budget would still be “insufficient.”
Economists in Puerto Rico and elsewhere have opposed the FOMB’s cuts to the UPR since the start and agree that the contributions the UPR makes to Puerto Rico’s economy far outweigh the public’s investment in its operation. But in spite of its important, even essential contributions, the UPR and its students have been one of the main targets of the FOMB’s austerity measures since 2016. The university’s budget has already been slashed by over 400 million; tuition has increased threefold; and accreditations for some programs have been lost. Administrative positions are increasingly being filled by party loyalists, and shared governance structures are being ignored. Students participating or simply being seen at protests have been victims of online surveillance, physical violence, and, in some cases, years-long legal persecution. While the UPR has been subject to such drastic cuts, the opposite seems is true for the cops. A new report by Kilómetro Cero, an organization that advocates for police accountability in Puerto Rico, has revealed that the police budget increased by 26 percent between 2017 and 2021.
But students were not the only people present. Hundreds of UPR faculty and staff, school teachers, union members, and more showed up to denounce PC1003, the presence of the colonial FOMB on the island, and the complicity of Puerto Rico’s politicians. Members of the Colectiva Feminista, a vibrant grassroots organization that played a crucial role in the massive 2019 protests that culminated in the ousting of then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló, were there, and so were human rights groups—including Brigada Legal Solidaria, whose members were providing students with legal advice and keeping track of potentially illegal police behavior, such as pushing or photographing protesters.
These events came after the massive protests on Friday, October 15, when thousands of Puerto Ricans marched against the constant blackouts and price hikes that have become the norm after the energy distribution side of the public electric utility was privatized and taken over by LUMA, a Canadian/American company. Students have said that if PC1003 is approved, these protests will be just the beginning. Campus and system-wide student assemblies are being planned for late October and early November.
At the time of publication, students in at least six other campuses have joined Mayagüez in declaring short-term strikes (paros), and protesters are still standing, marching, and chanting in front of San Juan’s Capitol, awaiting the bill’s final vote in the Senate. In a display of the kind of creativity that has long characterized protests in Puerto Rico, the paros include poetry, bomba and plena dancing, art workshops, teach-ins, street theater, and performances by campus choirs, bands and dancers.
And as they wait for tonight’s pleno, where the decision to extend the strike will be debated, a student protesting in Mayagüez tells me how they feel about the bill, and about the situation: “We are closing down this campus because the PC1003 is catastrophic. It places the burden of the debt on the shoulders of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable sectors, on precisely the people that have already been most affected by austerity and neoliberalism, people who had nothing to do with the debt’s creation to begin with. The Junta [FOMB] only has the bondholders’ interests in mind. The bill and its language do not guarantee the university’s survival–on the contrary, it guarantees its destruction.”