Student Uprising in Puerto Rico Reverberates in Congress

Puppet at a protest at the University of Puerto Rico - Photo: Solana Larsen

Puppet at a protest at the University of Puerto Rico. (Photo: Solana Larsen/flickr)

Uprisings are sprouting all over the world, driven by young people clamoring for justice, fairness and democracy.  The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern countries have absorbed the world’s gaze this month, and tens of thousands of union members and their supporters in Madison, Wisconsin are proclaiming the arrival of a new era of popular protest in the U.S.

Overlooked in all of this is a nearly year-long protest by students at the University of Puerto Rico against a rise in tuition fees. Last spring, students successfully shut down the public university’s 11 campuses. Another strike began in December took an ugly turn when confrontations between riot police and students turned violent. Many students claim they’ve been injured and arrested by police and there’s been no shortage of footage on YouTube revealing the crackdown.

The president of the university resigned on February 11, the riot police were withdrawn on Monday and an interim president, Miguel A. Muñoz, stepped in on Tuesday. At issue is a new $800 fee to cover tuition that university administrators say is necessary to address a deficit caused by budget cuts. $800 may not sound like a lot of money, but many students at the university are poor and the fee more than doubles their tuition.  The controversy comes during the administration of Puerto Rico’s first Republican governor since 1969, Luis G. Fortuño, who has cut about 17,000 public employee jobs.

The issue came up in Congress last week. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, who was born in Chicago but grew up in Puerto Rico, took the floor to call attention to what he said are civil rights violations in “The United States of America’s colony of Puerto Rico.” He condemned the decision to send police to the university and denounced U.S. District Court Judge José Fusté for putting the Puerto Rico Bar Association President Osvaldo Toledo in prison on contempt charges.

“Attacking free speech doesn’t work in a democracy,” the Congressman said. “Here is a fact that most of us learned long ago. Here is a lesson the people of Egypt taught the world last week: Brutal laws and secret meetings and armed enforcers don’t extinguish the flame of justice – they are the spark that makes it burn brighter.”

Watch a video of Rep. Gutiérrez‘s remarks:

The following day, Puerto Rico’s official representative in Congress, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, angrily lashed out against Guttierez for overstepping his bounds and “disrespecting” Puerto Ricans.

“His speech was a lack of respect to the people of Puerto Rico and the officials they duly elected. I am the only member of Congress who represents Puerto Rico. He represents a district on the South Side of Chicago,” Pierluisi retorted.

Pierluisi concluded by saying he hopes and expects a comment along the lines of what came from Rep. Gutiérrez would not be heard again in Congress. Meanwhile, the protesters at the University of Puerto Rico show no signs of giving up. On Thursday, protests started up again after a three day lull.

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