Ed Morales on students striking in Puerto Rico, Greg Kaufmann on the right to rent, John Nichols on the real cost of war


PR STUDENTS STRIKE: 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."   ED MORALES

RIGHT TO RENT: The Obama administration’s attempt to bribe, cajole or beg the banks to modify mortgages isn’t working. There were 367,056 foreclosure filings in March, a monthly record. In the first three months of the year, the safest borrowers accounted for nearly 37 percent of new foreclosures. That’s why the Right to Rent Act, introduced by Democratic Representatives Raúl Grijalva and Marcy Kaptur, is so timely. It would allow a family that receives a foreclosure notice to remain in their home as renters under a five-year lease, paying a fair-market monthly rent. The proposal was first suggested by progressive economist Dean Baker and has been endorsed by experts across the political spectrum.

"We have asked time and again for banks to work with the American people to do loan workouts," Kaptur says. "With nearly 6 million people delinquent on their mortgages and at risk of foreclosure, we can no longer afford for banks to continue turning their backs on the American people."

"The administration’s approach is simply an insufficient response to this historic crisis," says Grijalva. "Right to Rent is a fair and sensible solution. Banks will get reliable rental income, and families will be able to stay in their homes and significantly lower their monthly housing costs."   GREG KAUFMANN

PEACE DIVIDEND: As Congress votes on the Obama administration’s request for another $33.5 billion in emergency supplemental spending to escalate the war in Afghanistan—where the thousandth US soldier was recently killed and thousands of Afghan civilians have been slain—foes of the occupation moved on a number of fronts to challenge the White House’s plan. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raúl Grijalva worked with Progressive Democrats of America to spread the word that "opposition to the supplemental has to intensify"—even in the face of moves by Democratic leaders to sweeten the supplemental by attaching new education funding. Senator Russ Feingold offered an amendment requiring the president to develop a flexible timetable to draw down US troops from Afghanistan.

But the most creative move, as usual, was a proposal from Congressman Alan Grayson. The rabble-rouser introduced The War Is Making You Poor Act, which he crafted "to show people in a real and concrete way the cost of these endless wars." Explains Grayson, "Next year’s budget allocates $159,000,000,000 to perpetuate the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s enough money to eliminate federal income taxes for the first $35,000 of every American’s income. Beyond that, [it] leaves over $15 billion to cut the deficit. And that’s what this bill does. It eliminates separate funding for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and eliminates federal income taxes for everyone’s first $35,000 of income ($70,000 for couples). Plus it pays down the national debt." That sounded like a smart notion to more than 25,000 Americans, who added their names to Grayson’s online antiwar petition at    JOHN NICHOLS

SUING KBR: For a company described by the Oregonian as "synonymous with poor performance: serving spoiled food, using contaminated water and burning trash in pits," KBR is remarkably adept at avoiding legal culpability. David Sugerman, a Portland trial lawyer, has learned that suing the largest American military contractor in Iraq is necessarily an exercise in frustration—and a labor of love. Sugerman co-represents twenty-one Oregon Army National Guard veterans who contend that in 2003 they were knowingly exposed to hexavalent chromium, the same carcinogen made infamous in the Erin Brockovich story, while guarding KBR contractors at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in Basra. For his services so far, Sugerman—who, along with Houston lawyer Michael Patrick Doyle, took the case on contingency—has been paid all the veterans can afford: one Iraqi dinar.

The Oregon case is but one of hundreds of Iraq-related personal-injury lawsuits that have been filed against KBR, and with the military’s "help"—it took the Army thirteen months to acquiesce to Sugerman’s FOIA requests, and then only after Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley interceded—the company’s legal team has been emptying its quiver in efforts to make the case go away. So far, Sugerman and Doyle have had to contend with two motions to dismiss the case and two more to prevent discovery. The veterans scored a small victory on May 20 when a federal magistrate refused to toss the case out. KBR has filed a second motion to dismiss, and Judge Paul Papak will hear those arguments in July; with any luck, Sugerman and Doyle will be able to stretch that dinar for another couple of months.   SIMON MAXWELL APTER

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