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Opinion: Rio Piedras is Not Cairo

“Do you compare what is happening here at the University of Puerto Rico with what is happening in Cairo?” A reporter for Channel 6 the island’s public television station asked me that as I surveyed the barricaded main gate of the sprawling Rio Piedras campus on the outskirts of San Juan. Standing outside the wall of desks piled high to prevent police access to the school Wednesday, the premise of the reporter’s question was so farfetched it took my brain awhile to translate it from Spanish into English.

Cairo? Where hundreds died to overthrow a dictator? No, I don’t think there is any valid comparison between Cairo and Puerto Rico, which is like many other student uprisings against tuition and fee increases made necessary by budget deficits from England to California. In fact, the students are much more like the public employees demonstrating on the streets in Madison, Wisconsin; they’re trying to conserve privileges their government can no longer afford.

But when I did get the reporter’s comparison straight in my head, it made clearer the motivation of the kids who have boycotted classes and disrupted this 60,000 student, 11 campus system since December. They really do believe that their sometime violent protest against the imposition of a special $800 fee is part of the grand and historic youth movement shaking autocratic governments in the Middle-East.

“This is a battle for the future of Puerto Rico!” exclaimed one of the earnest student leaders of the strike, 26-year old, third year law student Xiomara Caro in an interview we did sitting in the midst of dozens of students who like Xiomara have not attended class in weeks.

Barely recovered from a destructive 62 day spring 2010 shutdown caused by yet another student strike over fees, this new disruption was another challenge to Republican governor Luis Fortuño efforts to bridge the island commonwealth’s yawning budget deficit. And like everything else in Puerto Rico, the imposition of the $800 fee is an issue stoking the island’s bitter partisan divide. The pro-statehood New Progressive (Republican) Party supports the governor. The pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party opposes his every move, and these supposed grownups are egging on a confrontation that has made a mockery of the university’s academic ambitions. The disgraced former PDP governor Acevedo Vila even marched in solidarity with the striking students, many of whom are pro-independence activists or socialists.

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On the day I was there one group of militant students physically prevented a professor from entering his classroom. Another group turned away anti-protest students trying to go to school. No education is happening, some classrooms are trashed, desks and supplies are everywhere, scores of students and cops have been hurt, dozens of kids have been arrested, millions in U.S. taxpayer money is being squandered, and even stateside politicians are piling on this pointless exercise.

Referring to attempts by the riot police to restore order at the university, Chicago-area congressman Luis Gutiérrez, a Democrat, took to the floor of the House Wednesday to urge his fellow members to condemn what he calls the human and civil rights violations in Puerto Rico.

“What faraway land has seen student protests banned, union protestors beaten and free-speech advocates jailed? The U.S. colony of Puerto Rico!” Guitérrez said, also calling Governor Fortuño, who won election in a landslide in 2008, “a dictator.”
And this passion is supposed to be about that $800 annual fee imposed on students who pay a grand total of less than $50 per credit for quality education; far less than any other state university in the United States?

The congressman’s over-heated rhetoric struck a raw nerve with Republican supporters of the governor. The island’s Resident Commissioner in Washington Pedro Pierluisi condemned Guitérrez’ remarks, saying, “To compare Puerto Rico to an authoritarian country is beyond the pale. It demeans not merely my constituents, but also millions of men and women who suffer under real dictatorships who are truly oppressed, and lack the dignity that comes only with genuine freedom.”

As I told that reporter for Channel 6 who asked about the P.R.-Cairo comparison, I was young once, and angry at everything from the Vietnam War to the lack of black and brown university studies. And I participated in many acts of sometimes unruly civil disobedience on and off campus. The young people of the world were in revolt then and we activists felt that we too were at the center of the universe.

This long and sometimes violent protest at the University of Puerto Rico, though, seems especially counter-productive and pointless. I realize that an additional $800 school expense is a lot of money for families with $20,000 annual income, but I also remember with shudders that I had to work and borrow my way through college and law school, graduating deeply in debt.

It is time for the striking students at least to allow non-striking students and teachers to get back to class. If this year follows last year as essentially wasted academically, their university stands on the verge of becoming just another dysfunctional joke in the partisan chaos that characterizes modern-day Puerto Rico.

Geraldo Rivera is a Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.

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