Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lowell Fiet: “When State Governments Go Bad”

Governments go bad in different but interestingly similar ways. In Arizona, racist anti-immigrant legislation has been signed into law, and police and citizen vigilantes join in the unwarranted persecution of legal and illegal Latino residents. In the US territorial Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an equally “tea-party” --evangelical statehood advocates in this case-- Republican Governor and Legislature, albeit “Latino,” have turned on State employees, firing between 20 and 25 thousand in the past year, and now proceed to disarticulate and privatize the Island’s most prestigious, functional, and liberal public institution, the 11-campus, 60 thousand-student-strong public university system.

In Arizona, the “brown rats” (a reference intercepted online in an exchange between full and part-time Arizona residents) are illegal Mexican and Central American immigrants but also Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and other legal Latino residents. In Puerto Rico, the “revoltosos” (disruptive rats to the current University administration and State government) are liberal, independence and/or social democratic-leaning students, professors, non-teaching university employees, and the growing number of non-statehood and (increasingly) statehood parents, general citizens, unions, and political organizations that support them.

Perhaps the comparison seems far-fetched, yet the issues involved are not just racism, on the one hand, and the right to and funding of education, on the other hand. In both Arizona and Puerto Rico, one whose current government is openly anti-Latino and the other a government obsessed with muzzling and suppressing all opposition to become the first Spanish-speaking US state, elected and appointed officials willfully bend the law (and abuse protected democratic rights) to their ideological wills, regardless of the consequences, and if existing laws do not serve their purposes, new ones are passed that do. It is the point where white supremacy and the class supremacy of a ruling elite meet eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart.   

A national uproar follows the new law in Arizona that permits ethnic profiling in search and detainment procedures and, by extension, proposes the elimination of courses in bilingual education and ethnic and multicultural studies from public school curricula. In contrast, Puerto Rico remains a well-kept political secret for most US citizens. Political news, except for hurricanes or other phenomena that affect the tourist industry, usually receives attention only in the fringe media. On this island of nearly 4 million inhabitants, where the majority lives below the US poverty level (the per capita income is less than half that of Mississippi, the poorest US state) and the government annually receives hundreds of millions of federal dollars to administer food stamp, social services, and, particularly, educational programs, politicians get away with just about anything without raising the eyebrows of oversight committees or gaining the kind of attention now being devoted to Arizona. From the North looking South, it is easy to forget that all Puerto Ricans are US citizens and are supposed to enjoy the same constitutional protections as all other citizens.

In early 2009, the newly elected statehood Governor Luis Fortuño declared a financial crisis, and the Legislature, controlled by his party, passed the controversial Law 7, an emergency bill that suspends existing public employee and union agreements and contracts, permits the radical revision of institutional budgets and funding formulas and the firing of personnel, levies new taxes, and penalizes resistance to its provisions. For that reason, last year over 20 thousand untenured and tenured public employees could be summarily dismissed. In the face of the crisis, the members of the Puerto Rican Senate and House of Representatives have annual salaries and excessive expense accounts that surpass those of the great majority of their homologues in the 50 US states.

As an autonomous educational institution, Law 7 should not apply to the University of Puerto Rico. The University of Puerto Rico, with its main campus in Río Piedras (San Juan), has been a beacon of intellectual and scientific endeavor for decades. This  Casa de Estudios  has been home to the exiled Spanish Nobel Laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez, the gateway to recognition in the US for countless Latin American artists and intellectuals, and the training ground for generations of writers, doctors, teachers, scientists, artists, lawyers, social workers, urban planners, accountants, journalists, and communications, media, computer, and business specialists, etc. --the entire professional infrastructure of Puerto Rican society. It is the one remaining public institution of national and world prestige and, although tarnished by decades of Government interference, is the only unbroken sector of an otherwise dysfunctional bureaucracy mired in party politics and financial corruption.

However, a campaign has been mounted to severely undercut its services and programs. The 2010-2011 budget will be reduced by 100 million dollars. 23 million will be sliced from the flagship campus in Río Piedras. The Governor mandates the composition of the University’s Governing Board ( Junta de Síndicos ), which recently installed a new President in a process directly influenced by the Governor’s staff. Unfortunately, the academic senates of the UPR campuses acquiesced to the politics-as-usual appointment. Then, behind closed doors and without consultation with academic and administrative deans and faculty representatives, the Governing Board began to dictate the terms of the new budget measures through their mouthpiece, José Ramón de la Torre, the new UPR president.

The UPR faculty knew something of what to expect: no academic promotions (with accompanying salary-level changes) were awarded and no cost of living increases were assigned in 2009-2010 (that will no doubt continue in the near future); no sabbatical leaves, heavier teaching loads, less or no funding for travel and research, no new faculty hiring, reduced technical and clerical staff, with no possibility for hiring new non-teaching personnel, no improvement of physical facilities, and cutbacks on academic services, etc. will probably prevail as well. Whether or not non-tenured and tenured faculty will lose their positions in 2010-2011 because of budget cuts is still unknown.

But the new and immediate restrictions were directed at the student body -- a reduction in tuition waivers for academic, artistic, or sports excellence; no Pell grants for those who do receive tuition waivers; a severely limited summer school offering and, in general, reduced course offerings in the future; the continued privatization of campus services; the rumor of the sale of regional campuses to a local mass-education community college chain; and of course, no student input in these decisions and no transparency in terms of how and by whom the decisions are being made. In fact, measures such as the elimination of tuition waivers, which the UPR administration insists upon with the bellicosity of a playground bully, would result in only miniscule savings. The greater issue is the patriarchal structure of authority: the Governor, the UPR’s Board and President, and the Interim Chancellor of the Río Piedras Campus are not to be questioned. Good children obey; bad children who do not are severely punished.

The student protests, teach-ins, and requests for dialogue in early April went unanswered. A large general assembly elected a negotiating committee and voted in favor of a two-day class/work stoppage, during which they would occupy the Río Piedras Campus. That stoppage, it was decided, would become an indefinite strike only if the UPR administration refused to begin a serious dialogue with the negotiating committee over student issues. On the morning of April 21 st , the first day, the administration gave its “full-metal-jacket” response: an estimated 250 state police officers, including helmeted and armored tactical operation forces (shock troops) at all campus gates, virtually guaranteeing a full-scale student strike. The situation has only worsened in the past three and a half weeks. The administration has made, at best, only half-hearted attempts to meet with the negotiating committee and broke off dialogue in the one meeting in which some progress seemed to be made. The students held another general assembly --this time off campus to permit full and free participation-- on May 13 th  in the large San Juan Convention Center. Now an overwhelming majority --greater than the initial assembly-- voted to continue the strike.

The following morning the Interim Chancellor, Ana R. Guadalupe gave the directive that no one and nothing would enter the Río Piedras Campus, and the state police beat and arrested a father who tried to deliver food and water to his son. During the rest of the day tension and flurries of violence continued as parents, professors, local artists, and supporters arrived with food and water and defied the police and the chancellor’s directive. Again, the administration responded, this time by officially closing the campus, first for a maximum period of thirty days, but then for a definite period until the July 31st.

The administration has done virtually everything in its power to provoke the students camped inside the UPR Campus to become the “revoltosos” they have tried to characterize them as being. Yet, with the exception of one incident of self-protection with mustard or pepper spray on the first day (April 21), the striking students have committed no incidents of violence, no trashing of facilities, no vandalism. They separate their garbage for recycling and pass it out of the campus where municipal garbage trucks pass to pick it up. They read --in an early act of solidarity, professors handed copies of their own books and those of others to them through the campus fences--, play soccer, listen to music, and have established their own radio station, websites, and blogs that originate from the campus. They paint posters, create and stage plays and acts of performance, and although they sleep in tents, they have all found ways of slipping out and back on the campus virtually unnoticed by campus and state police.

The UPR faculty is united for the first time in years in its support of the student demand for dialogue. The professors’ association (APPU) is particularly active, but non-affiliates also participate freely. Scheduled academic symposia and conferences have also taken place without incident off campus. Students and faculty from the regional campuses of the UPR support the strike. Although late arrivals on the scene, five academic deans from the Río Piedras Campus recently wrote a letter urging a negotiated settlement that includes all sectors of the university community and not just the unilateral decisions of the Interim Chancellor, the President, and the Governing Board. Popular support continues to grow. As well as artists, intellectuals, and opposition politicians, island labor unions are supporting the students by staging a general strike --the second in less than 8 months-- on May 18 th . Is there an end in sight? The main Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico remains officially closed until July 31 st , yet it is active, creative, dynamic, and productive because it is occupied by the best representatives of Puerto Rico’s democratic future, a future the current government in its fanatical authoritarianism wants to negate and silence.

Students ( revoltosos ) in Puerto Rico and legal and illegal Latinos (“brown rats”) in Arizona: both groups represent the future and the promise of a better, more democratic and egalitarian society, not only in their respective states but in all of North America and the Caribbean. Obviously, those who oppose them with such obsessive rigidity and prejudice hold the power and the wealth and are willing to use violence in their attempt to block that future.

 *Lowell Fiet has been a Professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, since 1978 and currently directs the Interdisciplinary Studies Program of the College of Humanities. He was the Director of the English Department on three different occasions, founded the academic journal  Sargasso , co-authored the PhD Program in Caribbean Literature and Linguistics, headed the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Caribbean 2000 Project (1994-99), and has directed National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars and institutes at UPR-Río Piedras. He is also a leading critic of Puerto Rican theater and performance and has been the critic for the weekly newspaper  Claridad  for the past 18 years.

1 comment:

Santos Felipe Ramos said...

Thanks for posting this!