Neoliberalism, Partial Democracy and Resistance in the Colonial Context

Gamelyn F. Oduardo-Sierra

Since 2009, students in Puerto Rico have mounted a series of campaigns against budget cuts and the corporatization of higher education. Their struggle reflects the particular challenges of organizing against American hegemony in the colonial context.

Photo credit: Ricardo Alcaraz Díaz

In March 2009, Puerto Rico’s governor Luis Fortuño Burset announced a “state of financial crisis” and vowed to cut state expenditures by more than $2 billion by the start of the next fiscal year. A mere 60 days after he was sworn into office, the rising star in the Republican party pushed for substantial cuts to government spending and for the layoff of more than 20,000 public sector workers that soon crippled state-owned school and public services. The cuts also sparked a vibrant counter-movement: Adopting anti-capitalist rhetoric, students denounced the agenda of privatization and corporatization, and the assault on public sector unions and public universities.

The University of Puerto Rico (UPR) soon became center stage in the fight over education spending. Founded in 1903, it is the main public university in Puerto Rico, with eleven campuses spread across the island. With 58,000 enrolled students (and over 5,000 faculty members), UPR is also the island’s largest degree-granting institution. In the aftermath of the 2009 budget cut announcement, UPR was hit especially hard: Its annual budget was reduced by around 14%, causing a deficit of around $400 million that put public education in jeopardy.

The burden of the cuts was distributed very unevenly: While administrative personnel were paid six-digit salaries, and deficient administration of finances was commonplace, working conditions worsened in all other sectors. Maintenance workers, clerical workers, and faculty all suffered reductions of marginal benefits and salaries. Some were laid-off, while other services were sub-contracted to outside companies in violation of collective bargaining agreements. Scholarships were cut and significant tuition charges were implemented.

In response to these policies, Puerto Rico witnessed the rise of its most significant student movement since the 1980s. What follows is a chronic of these struggles and an assessment of the victories and defeats. While Puerto Rican spending cuts and the struggles against them reflect broader trends of neoliberalized higher education, they also take on variegated articulations in the colonial context that point to the ongoing assertion of American hegemony in the nation’s university system.

The UPR: A Microcosm of the Colonial Project

Puerto Rico is an archipelago in the Caribbean, a Latin American nation that has been in a relationship of political subordination with the United States since 1898. Under the territorial clause of the United States Constitution, the US Congress “shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory”, despite the inadequate political representation of Puerto Ricans (the island sends one delegate without voting rights to the House of Representatives, and has no representatives in the Senate). In effect, the residents of Puerto Rico are subject to what the legal scholar Rivera Ramos has referred to as “partial democracy”, under which American hegemony holds sway through the interplay of coercive and persuasive mechanisms.[1]

Not only was the public finance crisis that precipitated the cuts a result of the global financial crisis spearheaded by the American financial sector, but the proposed solution also reflects an American managerial approach to higher education

The University of Puerto Rico is itself a living testimony to American hegemonic practice. Nobody would dispute that it was instrumental in the development of the island’s government and economy—but at the same time, UPR was created explicitly to serve as the cornerstone of an assimilationist project and as one of the most important assets for the reproduction of social, political, and economic hegemony over the island. However, students and faculty have always resisted assimilation. They defended the use of Spanish as the official language of university instruction, maintained close ties with the Puerto Rican independence movement, reclaimed autonomy over the governance of the university, opposed the presence of ROTC on campus, and protested against policies that were perceived as detrimental to Puerto Ricans and as instruments of the colonial state.

The 2009 spending cuts were yet another instance of American hegemony in Puerto Rico. Not only was the public finance crisis that precipitated the cuts a result of the global financial crisis spearheaded by the American financial sector, but the proposed solution—marked by privatization and tuition fees—also reflects an American managerial approach to higher education. Thus, an American-made crisis of public education was to be solved through an American model of privatized and anti-democratic restructuring of higher education.

Against this reality, student activists within the UPR have argued that protest and resistance are imperative to overcome neoliberal education policy, especially in the colonial context of partial democracy. In the case of UPR, partial democracy takes the form of limited co-government and ostensible autonomy that is frequently undermined by political and corporate interventions in university affairs. While students, workers, and faculty members have historically called for internal democracy and autonomy in administration, the scheme preferred by the pro-colonial and pro-statehood advocates that have led the island’s government perpetuates external political control over the institution while restricting the participation of the sectors that comprise it.

Phase I: The Emergence of a Radical Student Movement

Early during the 2009/2010 school year, students in Puerto Rico organized against education cuts by drawing on long histories of local and international student activism. Student activists secured participation from pro-independence movements, LGBTQ activists, socialist student groups and many non-affiliated students to form so-called Action Committees. The name was chosen to honor the Student Worker Action Team (SWAT) at UC Berkeley, which was by then active on that campus, and would soon occupuy Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall to protest against tuition hikes. The committees were founded as a united front of students who pledged to defend public education and workers’ rights. While most student activists sympathized with the Puerto Rican independence movement, students from all political backgrounds participated in the committees to resist the neoliberal onslaught.

The student movement was originally rooted at the UPR, but quickly adopted a broader perspective. It organized for a nationwide general strike and held meetings and rallies in coordination with labor unions from within and from outside the university. On October 15, 2009, a one-day general strike constituted the most massive mobilization in recent years and galvanized support against education cuts. The social momentum was electrifying. However, unions and civic leaders soon abandoned the idea of a more prolonged strike, and the student movement gradually turned towards itself and the university. Student activists resorted to a dual strategy of information-sharing and direct action: Pickets and rallies were held, handouts were distributed, public forums were organized, documentaries were shown, guerilla billboards were put up, murals were painted, letters were sent, and buildings were occupied in protest.

In April 2010, an assembly with thousands of students approved plans for a massive strike that soon spread to ten of the eleven campuses across the island. During the strike, students put special emphasis on the creation of alternative media platforms—such as Radio Huelga and the Student Press Collective—to counter the hegemonic discourse put forth by the government and Puerto Rican mainstream media outlets. The first phase of the student strike lasted for more than sixty days and received massive support form labor unions and religious groups.

Many students saw their participation in the movement through a uniquely postcolonial lens: They attempted to enact a prefigurative politics within the university, and thus outside the constraints and practices of Puerto Rican partial democracy. The student movement practiced radical democracy internally and in its interactions with the rest of the student body, for example through general assemblies where collective actions were discussed and decided upon. As professor James Seale Collazo, who stood in solidarity with the student movement during the whole of the strike, points out: “Students developed and implemented an entire theory of horiziontalidad (horizontality), with issues discussed at Action Committee meetings (usually some twenty to fifty participants) before being brought to campus- wide plenary sessions.”[2] There was an explicit attempt to go beyond the liberal-democratic model of representative democracy, and to practice participative democracy by placing the emphasis on the deliberative process. There was, too, an overall conscience of the importance of this new democratic paradigm for the development of future radical political actions in the island: The practices of the student movement directly challenged the existing “partial democracy” of Puerto Rico.

By the end of this first phase of the strike, students had demanded and obtained the protection of the existing tuition waiver system through a statement from the University Board of Trustees. The Board granted an amnesty for striking students, agreed to not raise tuition fees during the next semester, and promised to abstain from privatizing any of the campuses, including through public-private partnerships.

Phase II: Pushback and Resistance to the “American Management Model”

Yet the victories of 2009 and 2010 were quickly threatened in the 2010/2011 academic year—and students faced much harsher repressions. The Board of Trustees returned to their plan of imposing an $800 tuition fee, which amounted to a 33% increase to the cost of attending university. While tuition costs remain significantly lower than those of the mainland US, they have a much steeper impact in Puerto Rico, where the median family income is only one third as high. In addition, academic programs were put “on hold” especially in the humanities and social sciences. An ad hoc committee created by the government issued a report that voiced preference for the “hard sciences” and argued that most academics in the humanities and social sciences had leftist sympathies and opposed research in science and technology that benefitted the US Defense Department or big pharmaceutical companies who provide funding to the UPR in exchange for access to facilities and brain power. The legislature also enacted laws to impose restrictions on student assemblies, to prohibit strikes at the university, and to amend the Law of the University to create a supermajority of government appointees in the Board of Trustees. When students challenged the new anti-strike legislation in court, the State Supreme Court sided with the government and declared the law constitutional. The justices argued that the constitutional right to strike applied only to private-sector workers and not to students.

Student protesters were ultimately successful in driving the police from the campus. Yet in the end, many were forced to leave the university. The student body of the UPR system declined by around 10,000 as a result of the tuition fees

Student activists quickly organized protests against the new round of attacks and sought to reclaim those rights that had been curtailed by the new legislation. However this time, the actions were met with police repression. This marked another important historical break: After brutal clashes in the 1970s and 1980s between students and police forces (which had resulted in the burning of the ROTC headquarters in Río Piedras and in casualties on both sides), a policy of non-confrontation was put into place in the UPR. It followed the Latin-American tradition of autonomous universities and barred uniformed ROTC cadets and state police from campuses (except in extraordinary circumstances, when the university’s chancellor could ask for state intervention). Internal UPR security personnel was allowed on campus, but unarmed. All this changed in 2010, when police were called onto the Río Piedras campus for the first time in over 30 years. Officers who had been trained in an alliance with the New York Police Department (NYPD) occupied all campuses on which a strike was threatened. Free speech was curtailed. When students staged marches with hundreds of participants in mid-December, they were accompanied by police snipers, special arrest units, mounted police, and riot squads. Teargassing became commonplace, and more than 300 students were arrested. (In 2012, the ACLU sued the Puerto Rico Police Department over its brutal response to the demonstrations, and the Department of Justice launched its own investigation. The DOJ and Puerto Rico struck a deal in 2013 that stipulated the need for sweeping reforms of the island’s police system.)

Student protesters were ultimately successful in driving the police from the campus. Yet in the end, many were forced to leave the university. Some students were able to pay tuition with help of a scholarship fund created by the state legislative branch in order to appease the student movement. But the student body of the UPR system declined by around 10,000 as a result of the tuition fees.

Grassroots to Ballot Box

In the months after the strike, the student movement went into hibernation. But while the Action Committees faded, some activists sought to develop lasting organizational structures to voice students’ concerns. Before long, the networks of resistance created during the strike became critical at the ballot box. Student activists allied with other organizations against constitutional amendments that would have, among other things, limited the rights to parole for certain crimes. The networks created during the student demonstrations became a critical part of the campaign’s eventual success.

Student activist networks also left their mark on the 2012 elections. The oppositional Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) won the elections on a platform that included most of the issues raised by students, and riding on a wave of popular discontent with the neoliberal politics of the governing PNP. Some former strike leaders were even hired by the new governor’s cabinet, and a student activist became the youngest member in history of the state legislature. When the new legislature convened for the first time, students symbolically “opened the doors” of the Capitol. Ultimately, the $800 tuition fee was repealed.

However, while some of the political gains persist, the victories for higher education have been undermined since 2012. First, budget imbalances contributed to additional top-down reforms and spending cuts. Then, under pressure from investors in the US Municipal Bonds Market, the government once again declared itself in a “state financial crisis”, and put forth a plan to privatize government enterprises such as the Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority, sought to close down hundreds of public schools, and cut retirement funds and benefits for all government workers. Yet at the same time, the island was continuously being promoted to US investors as a “tax free territory” where American companies could expect generous financial gifts in the form of tax breaks. Before long, UPR budget cuts and tuition increases were back on the table, and a newly formed student front named Frente Estudiantil por una Educación Accesible y de Calidad (FEEPAC)—comprised of various student and alumni groups—has been called to action once again.

Perspectives for the Future

In The Book of Embraces, the Uruguayan journalist and writer Eduardo Galeano describes colonialism in the following terms: “Blatant colonialism mutilates you without pretense: it forbids you to talk, it forbids you to exist. Invisible colonialism, however, convinces you that serfdom is your destiny and impotence is your nature: it convinces you that it’s not possible to speak, not possible to act, not possible to exist.”

Puerto Rico has experienced both kinds of colonialism. One of the great achievements of the student movement was its insistence that as a collective, it was not impotent. Student declared that they could speak out and act up, that they could govern themselves, and that they had the capacity to imagine and to create new ways of doing so. This message contains within itself the essence of resistance to colonialism and the power to prefigure an alternative to the managerial model that continues to threaten the UPR.

The events that have shaken the UPR can be seen as the consequences of a democratic deficit in the education system, which in turn corresponds to the regime of partial democracy in Puerto Rico. The student movement responded to this reality by refusing to partake in the reproduction of this deficit, by practicing alternative forms of democracy, and by aligning itself with historical demands for reforms that would establish UPR as an autonomous institution free from the changing tide of politics and administered democratically by those who comprise its population. And while student activists disagreed over the desirability of tuition—some demanded universally free education, while others argued for a sliding scale based on income—they generally emphasized that education is a right that has to be defended against the invisible hands of the market economy.

While students disagreed over the desired political status of the island, their insistence on participatory government was a direct antidote to the core tenet of the colonial scheme: The denial of the right to self-determination

Ultimately, the student movement forms part of Puerto Rico’s larger struggle against colonial legacies and American hegemony. While students disagreed over the desired political status of the island, their insistence on participatory government was a direct antidote to the core tenet of the colonial scheme: The denial of the right to self-determination. According to Rivera Ramos, self determination is “the right to continuously adopt, or participate in the production of the norms that regulate the subject’s own life, whether conceived as an individual or as a collective subject.”[3] For more than a century now, the Puerto Rican society, has been denied this right. Puerto Rican residents are deprived of full participation in the election of officials in the US government and in decisions taken by that government regarding fundamental aspects of Puerto Rican life.

The student struggle was a struggle for the right to self-determination with regards to education. Instead of focusing merely on access to degrees, it sought to reclaim the model of cooperative government for the university. But it also argued a larger point: Any feasible mechanism that aims to break the colonial inertia must include a collective dynamic of discussion, comprehension and respect for difference.

Echoing the voice of Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one has to agree that “education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” The student movement in the UPR was committed to education in the latter sense, and was instrumental, along with other students and youths movements around the world, to the expansion of the imaginaries of social, political and economic change through direct action and resistance.


Gamelyn Oduardo-Sierra is a recent law graduate of the University of Puerto Rico. He was a member of the student movement’s coordinating committee during the 2010 protests and continues to campaign for educational reforms and a democratic university.


References and Footnotes

  1. Efrén Rivera Ramos, American Colonialism in Puerto Rico: the Judicial and Social Legacy. Markus Wiener Publishers (2007). P. 195-199.
  2. James Seale Collazo. “Lessons of a Student Strike-A Pedagogical Perspective”. Sargasso 2011-12, I. P. 14.
  3. Efrén Rivera Ramos, American Colonialism in Puerto Rico: the Judicial and Social Legacy. Markus Wiener Publishers (2007). P. 230.