As of December of last year, students of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) have protested against an increase in tuition and faced brutality from the local government. Initially, the students demanded to know the reasons for what they saw as an arbitrary tuition hike, but they are still waiting for those reasons, according to several eyewitness accounts. All they received was a declaration capping the increase at $800. Consequently, the highest tribunal of the island issued an order that prohibits demonstrations on the UPR campus. Law enforcement officials got a green light to enter the campus in order to disband the protests, but their effort degenerated into indiscriminate violence against students exercising their rights to free speech and assembly, as well as against thousands of civilians who joined them in support. It has been months since the situation reached a boiling point caused by the police’s violent crackdown. The fundamental freedoms of American citizens, specifically Puerto Ricans of course, are being ignored.
This is old history, however. In the 1970s, after the police entered the UPR’s campus, they killed a female student when suppressing protests. After great public outrage, the government enacted a Non-Confrontation Policy that barred police entry into the campus, designed to prevent future violence from the cops against the civilian population they are supposed to serve and protect.
The student protests of December 2010 are framed by an uproarious context. In the past two years, Puerto Ricans have faced increased unemployment, budget cuts from the government, and protests from public sector workers as well as teacher’s unions demanding better wages and working conditions. UPR protests are not uncommon, since the threat of privatization looms on the horizon, on top of rising tuition.
However, in midst of the recent protests at UPR, the current Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, abandoned the Non-Confrontation Policy. The UPR’s administration shut down the campus in December of 2010 and held its own students captive inside: protesters and non-protesters alike, without food or water, according to one UPR alumn source.
The use of force against one’s own citizens is a classic human rights violation under international law. See the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. For a current example, Libya serves our purposes. What is equally surprising to me is the absence of media coverage about these events, happening inside this country! I suspect that if similar happenings were noticed in the Continental USA, the authorities would have been put in their place long ago. Imagine police violence of this type in the Midwest (Wisconsin sound familiar, anyone? ), where teachers’ unions have protested for wage cuts in the public school system. I wonder of anyone can visualize that happening in 21st Century mainland USA. It appears that Puerto Ricans are treated as second class citizens, akin to our African-American brethren during the 1960s. They similarly faced oppression from governmental authorities (good old boys in the police, judiciary) until the nation took notice of their struggle, and the nation evolved. Through that suffering, this country emerged into a better one.
On March 2, 2011, Congressman Luis Gutierrez declared his indignation at the rampant human rights abuses taking place in Puerto Rico. Mr. Gutierrez described police brutality, racial profiling, silencing protestors, violating the First Amendment’s freedom of expression, and even efforts by the judiciary to silence the local bar association (which was striving to educate its members about the impropriety of covering for the government’s abuses and how to denounce corrupt practitioners) to name a few. The ACLU of Puerto Rico has also taken notice: “Human Rights Crisis in Puerto Rico: First Amendment Under Siege.”
In essence, I am surprised that this information has not been given proper coverage and importance. I believe the media and the government to be cooperating in dominating (or selecting?) content on the airwaves, the internet, and news networks. What is broadcasted as “news” and is on everyone’s lips is not the ongoing atrocity in Puerto Rico, but distractions like Charlie Sheen’s most recent ramble, or the merits of allowing homosexuals to fight for their country (as if sexual inclination mattered when the enemy is shooting to kill).
At present, classes are ongoing at UPR, but the student protests continue, along with the police oppression. (See more photos here.) I await a peaceful outcome to this mess, and hope that the Federal Government puts Puerto Rico’s caudillos (strongmen) in line. Peace to all. Fight the good fight.