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Latino Politics in the U.S.

Latino Politics in the U.S.
Kendall-Hunt, 2012 (2005)

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cuba and South Africa: Cuito Cuanavale

Cuito Cuanavale (thanks to an article in Granma by Oscar Gomez Serra)

VMR 6/17/2010

During a trip to Cuba in 2004, I engaged in conversation with a Cuban (Dionisio?) who worked as an engineer in the mining sector. He had been a combatant in the Cuban expeditionary forces in Angola 1987-88. While I followed the news about the role of Cuba in Africa, to hear from a witness-participant the stories he shared were moving. Not all stories of heroism but given the Cuban humor stories about actions that were not heroic but sometimes funny and sad. Now, as I watch the World Cup, Gomez Serra’s article reminds us that there would be no cup if the Cubans had not supported African anti colonial struggle. In Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, after the South African army came to the aid of the CIA supported UNITA, the Cubans came to the aid of the Angolan forces against the South Africans. They defeated the South African forces and in many ways undermined the Apartheid regime. An African and Diaspora Army defeated the powerful army of Apartheid. Cubans shed their blood together for Angola asking nothing in return except solidarity.

The African leader of Guinea-Bissau Amílcar Cabral: The Cuban combatants are willing to sacrifice their lives for the liberation of our countries, in exchange, the only thing that they will take with them are the bodies of their fallen comrades who fell fighting for liberty.”'

There might not be a Cuban team playing, but the stadiums are full with the spirits of the fallen combatants . . .

Friday, June 18, 2010

Restoring Political Economy to "Post-Modern" Discourse

Comparto esta intervención por Delia Aguilar porque articula una crítica de algunas perspectivas postmodernas que desconectan el análisis de lo "cotidiano" de los marcos amplios que le dan sentido a la misma. El concepto de las "multitudes" frente a las masas conscientes me recuerda la descripción de Luis Muñoz de Puerto Rico, no como una nación, sino como un "reguerete" de personas. Este "reguerete" derrotó a la función opresiva del Servicio Selectivo en Puerto Rico (colapsando el SMO en la isla) en los 60s, derrotó a la armada naval norteamericana en Vieques y fue capaz de mantener la cultura que los Boricuas creamos a traves de la resistencia a la asimilacion. Los estudiantes en la Universidad de Puerto Rico incorporaron la diversidad y ampliaron la democracia en sus procesos, pero también fueron capaces de aglutinar, debido a su identidad como Boricuas, a todo un pais que los apoyo. Los estudiantes tenían una visión para construir su Universidad Nacional Pública. Las referencias a "La UPR es un pais", la música que cantaron, los poemas que leyeron, fueron afirmando su identidad nacional. Hablaron sobre una Universidad que no era EN Puerto Rico pero de una Universidad DE Puerto Rico. También entendieron bien los marcos amplios para entender como las políticas neoliberales crearon el contexto para el ataque a la Universidad. Los estudiantes fueron colocados por los ataques del estado en una clases social, contra la clase dominante en Puerto Rico, que es una posición de clase. La clase trabajadora no ha podido extraer estas concesiones por el bajo grado de organización (gracias a la función y leyes del Gobierno federal y colonial), el papel de las uniones internacionales y el poder del Estado (creacion de la fuerza de choque y otras unidades militarizadas) y el creciente papel de las autoridades federales como el FBI en la isla. Durante la protestas cantaban “Preciosa” con las referencias al “tirano” (no al destino). Esta mañana, DJ Fabio uno de los locutores de Radio Huelga en Rio Piedras dice adiós a su audiencia (va a Barcelona) con una canción de Roy Brown, un poema de Juan Antonio Corretjer sobre ser Boricua hasta en la luna. Esta generación no se desconecta el pasado, sólo está construyendo un futuro.

I am sharing this speech by Delia Aguilar because it articulates a critique of some post-modern work which disconnects the analysis of the "cotidiano" from the frameworks that give sense to it. The "multitudes" versus conscious masses reminds me of Luis Muñoz's description of Puerto Rico, not as a nation but as a "reguerete" of people. This “reguerete” defeated the Selective Service in Puerto Rico, defeated the U.S. Navy in Vieques, and was able to maintain the culture it fashioned in struggle. The students at the university of Puerto Rico incorporated the diversity and expanded democracy, but also were able to coalesce because of their identity as Boricuas, as students who had a vision to construct their public national university. The references to “Puerto Rico es un pais,” the music they sang, the poems they read, were affirming their national identity. They talked about not a University IN Puerto Rico but of a university OF Puerto Rico. They also spoke about the larger frames of neo-liberal policies that created the context for the attack on the university. The students were clearly socially positioned against the ruling class in Puerto Rico, that is a class position. The only reason why the working class has been unable to extract these concessions is because of the low degree of organization (thanks to the role of the federal and colonial government), the role of international unions, and the power of the state (creation decades ago of riot squad, and other militarized units)and increasing role of federal authorities like the FBI in the island. DJ Fabio on Radio Huelga says good bye to its audience (going to Barcelona) with a song by Roy Brown, a poem of Juan Antonio Corretjer. This generation is not disconnected from the past, it is just building a future. 6/18/2010

“But one wonders how much more talk of bordercrossers negotiating multiple, fluctuating, heterogenous identities navigating an interstitial third space a person can stomach amidst realities that speak an altogether different story.”

1. Class Considerations in a Globalized Economic Order
by Delia D. Aguilar

The following is the text of Delia D. Aguilar's keynote address at the 22-23 March 2007 Pacific Northwest Regional Conference of the National Association for Chicana/o Studies, University of Washington: "Class Dismissed? Reintegrating Critical Studies of Class into Chicana and Chicano Studies." -- Ed.

I cannot begin to tell you how delighted I am at the opportunity to address this conference. When I first received Professor Devon Pena's kind invitation, I immediately thought that he had mistaken me for a Chicana, and felt compelled to clarify my identity as a Filipina. When he explained that he was aware of my national origin, I was moved by this gesture of solidarity. And when I read the conference call for papers, I simply had to answer in the affirmative. I have not seen such an explicit call to break away from the linguistic turn and to openly exhort a reinstatement of class in order to adequately address the subaltern condition.

Over the past several years I have been alternately dismayed and vexed by the persistence in the academy of a perspective that makes radical and progressive claims, yet fails to confront the geopolitics of neoliberalism that is clearly responsible for the ever deepening poverty of nearly half of the world's population. Intellectuals within and outside the academy, including the major mainstream media, hailed the publication in the year 2000 of Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. The book deserves mention because it is quintessentially postmodern, a prime example of what this gathering seeks to pull back from. It argues that imperialism has been replaced by a decentered Empire where power is now diffused, the nation/state has virtually disappeared (it mocks all kinds of nationalism and depicts national liberation movements of the 60s as retrograde), and in which an amorphous category called "multitude" has displaced the Fordist working class. Surely the events that transpired not too long after its printing -- the horror of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by the world's sole superpower, the United States, by no means a defunct nation/state -- refuted its chief premise and highlighted its bankruptcy more than any critical review the book may have received.

Yet publication after publication that scholars produce replicate, if in less ambitious ways, the basic postmodern elements of this highly acclaimed book. To be sure, thinkers like Alex Callinicos, David Harvey, Teresa Ebert, Terry Eagleton, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and Peter MacLaren, among others, have for well over a decade now intervened and countered some of postmodern/postcolonial theories' more pernicious tendencies, but for the most part these remain entrenched in academic thinking. What results is often a jarring disconnect between real lives and the postmodern narratives that purport to shed light on these. I was just hearing over the radio, for example, about the undisguised militarization of the US/Mexico border, the building of a 700-mile wall, the heightened criminalization of immigrants and the attribution of leprosy to so-called illegal Mexicans. All this is in anticipation of the immigration bill to be taken up shortly by the Senate. One expects such a response from confused, frightened, and hateful nativists, particularly after the awe-inspiring massive demonstrations of Latinos, Asians, and other ethnic groups a year ago, the largest in US history. But one wonders how much more talk of bordercrossers negotiating multiple, fluctuating, heterogenous identities navigating an interstitial third space a person can stomach amidst realities that speak an altogether different story.

To repeat, I am deeply honored to be part of a group that has taken the lead in the urgent project of recuperating a class analysis. I initially thought that, given the shared histories of conquest and the immigrant experience of Mexicans and Filipinos, I would elaborate on their similarities and differences. The following readily came to mind: 300 years of outright colonization by Spain; the United States' "manifest destiny," first applied to the annexation of Mexican territory in 1848 to justify and insure Anglo-Saxon supremacy and extended to the conquest of the Philippines 50 years later, along with the conquest of Puerto Rico and Cuba; notions of benevolent assimilation and "the white man's burden"; the derogation of both groups as children who required uplifting and civilizing; and their inferiorization as workers and peasants under the prevailing U.S. capitalist mode of production. In the first half of the twentieth century, Mexican immigrant workers and Filipino "nationals" found themselves together in the agribusiness farms of the West Coast and began to forge solidarity as workers exploited by capital. Here class emerged as primary, ethnic identity, secondary. This was clearly the case in the formation of the United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez in support of the grape strike of 1965 which was initiated by Filipino farm workers in Delano. Subsequent decades witnessed intensifying US domination of Mexico and the Philippines by way of the IMF/WB, wrecking both countries' economies with the debt burden, causing great poverty, and forcing growing numbers to leave in search of employment. The responses of both governments have been remarkably similar, from the creation of special programs for returning migrants (Paisano for Mexico and Balikbayan for the Philippines, the better to extract remittances), to hailing them as "national heroes," to granting of dual citizenship. In effect, US imperialism has made of both countries nations of migrants.

On the one hand it is difficult to imagine anything more ironic than the disparagement and dismissal of class considerations -- that is, of labor/capital relations, and here I include women's assigned duty of social reproduction -- in light of such realities and at the very moment in history when all the nations of the planet have been drawn together into one global capitalist order. On the other, if one assumes a materialist view on the rise and popularity of specific conceptual frameworks and the ruling classes they serve, this intellectual stance should come as no big surprise.

To prepare for this conference I gave myself a crash course in Chicana Studies, an undertaking that I found illuminating in a variety of ways. Above all else, however, I discovered to my chagrin (but admittedly, also relief, probably a perverse reaction on my part) that the reigning approaches in Philippine Studies are the exact same ones deployed in Chicana Studies. In the course of my exploration I came upon one work that I am sure you are all familiar with, but which for me was new and rather eye-opening. As I read chapter after chapter of A Century of Chicano History by Gilbert Gonzalez and Raul Fernandez, I could have sworn they were writing about Filipino scholarship! What the book revealed to me is the existence of an academic template, circulating across various disciplines, where only the particulars need filling in. All I had to do was substitute the Philippines for Mexico. This discovery made me realize the extent to which a type of formulaic thinking has established residence in the academic mind, a condition that in my opinion actually functions to hamper social change. I made a decision at that moment to shift gears and direct my talk to a discussion of Philippine writings, hoping that it would have some relevance for Chicana Studies.

A new book on the US conquest of the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century demonstrates these very trends -- in this example, a revision of history that effectively obscures capital's expansionary imperatives, its search for new markets and raw materials. Titled The Blood of Government, Paul Kramer puts race at the heart of his argument: he maintains that prior accounts demonstrate the ways in which race serves empire, whereas he wants to make the case that it is race itself that constitutes empire. It is not an exaggeration to state that this book is cultural reductionist without apology, which is not to say that it is without virtue. The research the author undertakes is extensive, as is his documentation of the racialization of Filipinos; their characterization as childlike, savage, indolent, and superstitious is, without a doubt, common knowledge for Chicanos and other subordinated groups. But alas, he then proceeds to describe Filipinos as colonizers themselves! He labels them "nationalist colonialists" who would "demonstrate their capacity for independence precisely through their ability to conquer, rule, and uplift the savages [Muslims, animists, and non-Christian Filipinos] in their midst" (p.32). Ultimately the relationship between conqueror and colonized is conveniently wished away with the following statement: "The symmetry between imperial indigenism and nationalist colonialism suggests the ways in which the new racial formation was the product of intense contestation and dialogue, a joint American-Filipino venture situated inside a broader, evolving colonial project" (p.435). Imagine that. "Symmetry," "intense contestation and dialogue," "joint venture" -- do not these suggest a relationship of equality, fraternity, even?

Another historian writing of that same period, Kristin Hoganson, in Fighting for American Manhood, asserts the notion that it was fear of male degeneracy that impelled US conquest and colonization of the island nation. She concedes, as she would have to, that economic factors can be seen to "partially account" for what she calls "later decisions to fight Filipino nationalists for the control of the islands," owing to their proximity to the China market. But she insists that the more compelling, though not readily discernible motive, was to build and sustain the masculine character of white, middle- and upper-class men who had been softened by the comforts provided by wealth and civilization. She cites several reasons for why combat formed the crucible for maleness. The first was that the "splendid little war" in the Philippines would serve to revive memories of military heroism in the Civil War, perceived as having fostered manliness in youthful soldiers. It would, like the British experience in India, allow manhood to evolve as the chief outcome of learning how to properly rule one's inferiors. Lastly, conquest of the Philippines would be a remedy for the effeminacy ostensibly spawned by soft living.

What I find interesting in these two historical revisions is the way in which political economy, the class character of empire, is summarily dismissed in favor of unabashedly culturalist explanations. And why at this historical conjuncture? For answers it might be useful to turn to a brief sketch of the Philippine situation.

Fifty years of colonial rule and continuing economic control by the United States of the Philippines have imbricated every facet of life and all the institutions in the country -- the media, courts, schools, civic society and, according to Filipino nationalist economist Alejandro Lichauco, even the churches. Various agreements were entered into at the time of the granting of independence in 1946, and new ones proposed and acceded to by every succeeding administration, to insure that this would remain the case. This concession to imperialism has resulted in a lopsided, maldeveloped, principally agrarian economy, one that produces goods for export and is unable to supply its own people's basic needs. On the cultural level it has created an enduring colonial mindset held more firmly captive in this globalized era by a conglomerate-controlled consciousness industry.

While Subic and Clark, the two largest US bases, were shut down in 1991 due to nationalist protest, a Visiting Forces Agreement was signed in its place that gave the US 22 entry points, "lily-pad"-style, throughout the country. Currently US Special Forces scour the South, ostensibly to hunt down the Muslim Abbu Sayyaf bandit group of under two hundred, but whom activists believe to be providing aid to the Philippine Army in wiping out dissenters. In 2005 a Filipina was gang-raped by four US servicemen; one of the soldiers was found guilty in a trial last December, only to be whisked away from a local prison by the US Embassy in the middle of the night. Recently the UN Alston Report confirmed human rights violations of "significant" proportions, consisting of 839 extrajudicial killings of suspected protesters, among them grassroots organizers, religious, journalists, and students. Reports of these killings continue practically on a daily basis. Despite this finding, an anti-terrorism bill, the Human Security Act of 2007, has just been signed by Arroyo, following the moves of her master in the White House. This bill would allow repression that could easily outrank that of the martial law years.

Continued indebtedness to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and faithful compliance with Structural Adjustment Programs have forced presidents after the dictator Marcos, who launched the practice, to resort to sending masses of unemployed abroad to ease tensions at home. With the country in a chronic state of crisis, the deployment of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) is the largest dollar earner ($12 billion in 2006) and has become a permanent fixture in the socioeconomic landscape. It is estimated that up to 12% of the population of 88 million is overseas, 75% of whom are women mostly destined for domestic and nanny work. President Arroyo has recommended skill-training to transform and package them into even more marketable "supermaids." Three thousand Filipinos -- economists predict this figure could go up to 5,000 -- leave their homes daily for 180 different countries; an average of 3 workers come back in coffins every day. A new development is the re-training of doctors in a special two-year nursing program; in 2006, 6,000 doctors underwent such training, up from 2,000 of the previous year. The Philippines sends more nurses to the US than any other country. Meanwhile, health care services are in a state of decay.

And how have scholars responded to this situation? For an answer, let me turn to a study of Filipino American migration titled Home Bound by Yen Li Espiritu. I chose this because unlike most students of immigration writing today who routinely preface their studies with an obligatory disavowal of class (here they mean poverty) or what they commonly refer to as "the economy," Espiritu recognizes the importance of sociopolitical economic context. She announces at the outset that she will be "attentive to the larger political, economic, and cultural context of migration and to the human agency and subjectivity of the migrants . . . " and that it is ". . . the intersection of macro and micro forces that shapes . . . migration -- and eventual settlement -- of Filipino women and men. . ." (p.24). Throughout the book she uses a vocabulary that suggests a cognizance of what she calls "the big picture": colonialism, imperialism, capital investment, economic and military assistance, pervasive Americanization, etc. to which she repeatedly returns.

Elsewhere Espiritu refers to the "dialectic" relationship between the macro and the micro (p12). Yet simultaneous with the assertion of the link between neoliberal policies and individual decision-making is its rejection, as witness this statement: "Although Filipino migration needs to be situated within the larger history of US (neo)colonialism and capital investment in Asia, these structural forces do not shape actual patterns of migration" (p.24). Why bother to mention US neocolonialism at all then? Further on, the same contradiction appears -- and the book is replete with similar contradictory statements, enough to make the reader dizzy -- when she explains that because Filipinos she has interviewed migrated only after family and social networks were already set up, "the macrostructural context, while important, does not determine or shape specific migration responses" (p.44). She illustrates this by reproducing the narratives of four Filipinos, each one of whom departs the country for different reasons. A. B. Santos ran away to Manila because his grandfather wanted him to enter the seminary; while in Manila, he met some townmates who were bound for the United States, so he joined them. Maria Rafael, who had previous experience in the US as an exchange high-school student, didn't care to return, but her husband was petitioned by his brother. Cecilia Bonus, a nurse, had made plans to return to the Philippines, but a car accident in which she was involved led to a meeting with a man who became her husband; they now reside in San Diego.
All this is to delineate and underscore the intricacies, nuances, and complexities of people's decisions to migrate that are then unhinged from the metanarrative of neocolonialism. All four are migrants by accident; none of the reasons they give has to do with class considerations -- by this she means poverty or the desire for better employment opportunity -- which seems to be what the author is looking for. It appears, then, that either Espiritu fails to understand what neocolonialism means, or she has deliberately limited "contextualization" to an immediate cause-effect relationship -- a rather simplistic view, I'm afraid, that beats the presumed simplemindedness and "determinism" of Marxism to which postmodernism is a response. Still, this is a predilection that Gonzalez and Fernandez know all too well. For them what has occurred in this instance is the detachment of migratory practice from its original cause. Once migration flows begin and migration networks have been established, migrants are seen as self-propelled and self-governing. It is now their "subjectivities" that warrant examination, no longer US immigration policies designed in collaboration with local elites. The latter have been erased from the picture. (History has been erased)

This fragmentation of thinking is also evident when Espiritu proposes the concept of "differential inclusion" to describe the status of Filipino Americans; that is, to show that they are not totally excluded, but rather marginalized, by mainstream Anglo society. She proceeds: ". . . Filipino American lives have been shaped not only by the historical racialization of Filipinos in the United States but also by the status of the Philippines in the global economy" (p.48). Here the "but also" suggests a somewhat tangential relationship between the situation of Filipino Americans and the subjugated nature of their home country that, one notes, is curiously sidestepped in this statement's neutral phrasing. In contrast, let me return to Gonzalez and Fernandez who object to any such tangentiality. Instead, they vigorously insist that the only way to view Chicanas as a national minority is to acknowledge their centrality to the US colonial empire. Put another way, US socioeconomic cultural machinery could not operate as it does without the labor exploitation of national minority groups and its attendant gender and racial oppression. Moreover, for them Mexican migration, like that of Filipinos, is primarily a labor migration which can be comprehended only when situated squarely in the context of US hegemonic control of Mexico, a view that Espiritu, as we have seen, appears to subscribe to, but barely.

As a result, Espiritu's rendering of migration ends up with all the pitfalls that Gonzalez and Fernandez describe in their book. Without a firm grasp of the totality of capitalist globalization and the ways in which it encroaches into every nook and cranny of human existence -- for this, one needs to have an understanding of the social relations of production -- studies of migration end up, according to Gonzalez and Fernandez, as studies of migrants themselves (p.115). Given this, the choice presented is to project them as either victims or actors, which the two consider to be a fallacious dilemma. To quote Gonzalez and Fernandez, on the ubiquity of "agency": "Rational choices made by migrants to acquire commodities, or to reestablish community, cultural lifestyle and family ties, motivate migrations. International economic relations are relegated to the margins, and . . . economic domination . . . is ignored while the 'independent' decision making of the migrants is centered" (p. 46).
As we have seen earlier, that is exactly what Espiritu does in disclaiming the power of structural forces. Countless examples of the exercise of "agency" -- always individual and mainly discursive -- abound in Espiritu's book. She details the ways in which individual migrants resist by showing "how the 'margins' imagine and construct the 'mainstream' in order to assert superiority over the latter" (p. 158). An example she gives is how Filipinos look down on the morality of white women (in actuality a residue of Spanish Catholicism's repressive sexuality), generally perceived as "loose," as a strategy of resistance. In doing so, according to her they are able to "mark and decenter whiteness and locate themselves above the dominant group, demonizing it in the process" (p.177). It is precisely this tendency that Gonzalez and Fernandez attempt to correct, with good humor, by turning the notion of "agency" on its head while appropriating a bit of postmodern jargon: "Focusing on issues of 'macro' subjectivities or the agency of empire, allows a vision of how the networks of US domination in Mexico are complemented by the direct intervention of state agencies in the US " (p.117).

No current study of migration is complete without its use of that most favored of postmodern devices, bordercrossing. To her credit, Espiritu rejects Appadurai's dismissal of nation/states and maintains that "local spaces, memories, practices" have "enduring importance" (p.12). But, following a well-worn path, she cannot resist depicting Filipino Americans as agile bordercrossers capable of discursively discrupting their subordinate status. To paraphrase Chicano scholar Marcial Gonzalez (questioning Gloria Anzaldua's "mental nepantilism," the foundation that lies at the base of "bordercrossing"), it is hard to imagine how the mere act of freely traversing conflicted discursive spaces can result in any real challenge to the existing order.
I should reiterate that I chose Yen Li Espiritu's work not because it is particularly defective, but rather because it is one of the few that actually attempt to account for the international political economy, to try to project North/South relations of power as the backdrop for immigrant experience. If it fails in this stated goal, it is not the limitations of the author but those of the intellectual framework whose very design, as I've tried to show, is to detach culture from political economy and to debunk class considerations.
In my immersion into Chicana Studies 101, I found enough of a historical materialist grounding to help elucidate the subaltern experience in US society. I might cite Nicholas de Genova's Working the Boundaries as a parallel study to Espiritu's. De Genova probes into the subjectivities of a sample of Mexican immigrants in Chicago, but he never abandons the metanarrative of neocolonialism underpinning Mexico-US relations.

It would not hurt to recall the following statement from Juan Gomez-Quinonez on the inseparability of class and culture written in 1977: "Culture is the context in which struggle takes place; however, conflict or resistance is primarily economic and political and constitutes class resistance." The hundreds of thousands who staged actions in over 200 cities and towns this time last year remind us as much.

Thank you for allowing me to take part in this important undertaking.

De Genova. Michael. 2005. Working the Boundaries: Race, Space, and "Illegality" in Mexican Chicago. Durham: Duke University Press.
Espiritu, Yen Li. 2003. Home Bound: Filipino American Lives Across Cultures, Communities, and Countries. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gomez-Quinonez, Juan. 1977. On Culture. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Center Publications, Popular Series No. 1.
Gonzalez, Gilbert G. & Raul A. Fernandez. 2003. A Century of Chicano History: Empire, Nations, and Migration. New York: Routledge.
Gonzalez, Marcial. 2004. "Postmodernism, Historical Materialism and Chicana/o Cultural Studies." Science and Society, vol. 68, no. 2, 161-186.
Hardt, Michael & Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Hoganson, Kristin. 1998. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Kramer, Paul. 2006. The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines. Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press.

Delia D. Aguilar has written extensively on feminism and nationalism, among them a book titled Toward a Nationalist Feminism published in the Philippines. She recently co-edited a collection of essays, Women and Globalization, with Anne Lacsamana. She was on the faculty of women's studies and ethnic studies at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University and now teaches at the University of Connecticut. URL:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Massive Strike at the University of Puerto Rico: The Invisible and Recurring Social Struggles in The Oldest Colony in the World

Massive Strike at the University of Puerto Rico: The Invisible and Recurring Social Struggles in The Oldest Colony in the World**

Students strike at the university of Puerto Rico and they reveal the fissures in the colonial economic system while connecting with student struggles of the past

Víctor M. Rodríguez Domínguez*

Then, all the men of the land surrounded him;
the sad corpse saw them, excited; stood up slowly,
embraced the first man; and walked...

César Vallejo (1937)

(After more than fifty-six days, students at the University of Puerto Rico system reached an agreement with the Board of Trustees (6/15/2010) on all their demands. Their demands included elimination of a rise in tuition in the form of a $1,200 fee, the elimination of a policy that would limit the students’ ability to receive lower tuition on the basis of merit and economic aid, a commitment by the university not to privatize any campus, no summary sanctions for students and a fair process to address violations of the university policy. The board also agreed that no student would be sanctioned for participating in constitutionally protected activities like the strike, protests, pickets. While the Board agreed there would be no fee this next semester it agreed that if there is a fee increase in the Spring semester it would be no greater than the average increase in the Pell grant many students receive. However, although student leaders signed this agreement they also included language that said they did not agree with any fee increase. This ambiguity leaves a space open for student action next semester. Student assemblies will be celebrated in all the universities of the system to ratify the agreement in the next few days. During the summer 2010 the students ratified the agreement but as predicted, the administration, now with Chancellor Ana Guadalupe as the official chancellor of the UPR-Rio Piedras, a research institution with 18,000 students, has imposed a $800 fee for Spring 2011. Last October 19, students occupied a number of the colleges 10/25/2010) Another version was published in Dissident Voices, the radical newsletter at:

For more than fifty-seven days, students at the University of Puerto Rico system, have peacefully occupied ten of the 11 universities in support of a series of measures that could challenge efforts to further privatize this public university. Student struggles in Puerto Rico historically have repercussions in the broader society and are woven with the major economic, political and social issues in this United States’ colonial possession. While some social analysts saw this millennial generation as somewhat less militant and political, these events have surpassed any previous social struggles in creativity, strategy and in its use of participatory democratic processes since the founding of the university 107 years ago. Given Puerto Rico’s peculiar colonial status, in a world where colonies are almost extinct, every social struggle becomes, an anti-colonial process. But in this case, this process also becomes a struggle against the neo-liberal policies which have again resurfaced in the policies of the current colonial government to address the extreme economic precariousness of the United States’ colonial project in Puerto Rico. This student struggle exists within the historical context of an anti-colonial struggle in Puerto Rico. When people thought social movements were dead, they somehow stood up and walked.

Origins of the Oldest Colony

Since the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico has performed a hidden but strategic role in United States’ foreign policy. One of the outcomes of the war is that for the first time in U.S. history, lands that were conquered or annexed did not become a territory that would be incorporated as a state as was suggested by the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. Instead, the United States Supreme Court in the early twentieth century, in a series of decisions called the “Insular Cases” “carved” a special legal space which formally transformed Puerto Rico into a colony and the United States into an empire. This contradictory legal space also gave the U.S. total control of Puerto Rico’s economic, political and social dynamics. In this new political status, the “unincorporated territory” of the United States, Puerto Rico became a testing ground, a laboratory for medical, military and social and economic policies that were later implemented as part of U.S. foreign policy around the world.

The first two years of U.S. control over the island (1898-1900), a military government implemented economic policies which coupled with the natural devastation caused by tropical hurricane San Ciriaco in 1900, led to the collapse of what had been the most dynamic sector of Puerto Rico’s economy, the coffee industry. This industry had well-developed markets in Europe and Cuba, whose populations preferred the high quality coffee produced in Puerto Rico’s highlands. EEconomic policies of the military government, like the devaluation of the peso and the limiting of credit, led to the collapse of some agricultural sectors while the incorporation of Puerto Rico into the United States’ tariff structure closed access to European and Cuban markets. In turn, the United States market was already controlled by Brazilian coffee. The devastating effects of the hurricane contributed to the island’s social, economic and political crisis. The next decades saw the invasion of United States investors who bought out land to produce sugar which received protection under the new tariffs. These investors and some of the members of the national sugar elite were able to coalesce in a powerful economic class that in the following decades transformed Puerto Rico into a large sugar plantation.

Meanwhile, thousands of displaced peasants became entrants into the global labor market when labor brokers from the Hawaii sugar industry began to recruit thousands of Puerto Rican peasants. One of the strategies of Hawaii’s sugar elite was to create an ethnically divided labor force to avoid the consolidation of unions in the sugar fields. Unwillingly, the displaced Puerto Rican peasants, most of whom had no experience in sugar cane agriculture, became pawns in the sugar elite’s drive to control labor.

In the following decades, population planning policies (some led by U.S. groups connected to Eugenics ideology), assembly plant industrial development policies (maquiladora model), militarization of the island, the testing of napalm and Agent Orange in various parts of the island, the use of depleted uranium shells in the island of Vieques all were facilitated because of Puerto Rico’s inability to protect itself. These policies and practices were later promoted in other countries around the world. Colonial governors were appointed by the president of the United States until 1947. Puerto Rico’s only voice in congress, was and still is a sole “resident commissioner” who only has voice but is not a voting member of congress which has always had complete control over policies to shape the island’s political, social and economic dynamics.

In addition, congress and its colonial representatives implemented a cultural policy of assimilation, which given the island’s colonial nature, had an imperialistic effect while also furthered a Puerto Rican national identity and culture of resistance. In 1903, the University of Puerto Rico was founded as a school to prepare teachers for the public educational system. The use of English as the medium of instruction was imposed throughout the developing educational system being developed by colonial authorities. The university’s role would be to create the cadres for the process of assimilation that was promoted among the island’s one million inhabitants. Instead, Puerto Rico’s national identity, which under Spain was created in tension with Spain, now began to be centered on the Spanish language and Puerto Rican culture. Ironically, United States policies contributed to the development of a more clearly defined Puerto Rican national identity, this time vis a vis the United States. This tension with the United States at times led to a nationalism that romanticized the Spanish past, at the same time, with all its contradictions became the core of a culture of resistance against U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico.

During the 1930s and until the 1950s, the pro-independence movement was the second largest political force in the island. But its influence was also strong within the dominant political party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD), who later on went to win the elections in the late 1940s and later created, in 1952 the “Estado Libre Asociado” (Commonwealth). This is the present political system that defines the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Not much of the colonial relationship was changed by the new political facade, and Congress still holds control over all aspects of the island. But the dominant party, many of whom were former pro-independence politicians, used the symbols of Puerto Rican nationalism to get the consensus of the Puerto Rican population for their political project. A constitution was drafted, which included very progressive principles including a section 20 with many of the human rights established in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The flag of the new political entity, became the nationalist flag, the Commonwealth’s national hymn had also been the nationalist hymn and the rhetoric used by the Popular Democratic leaders continued to, in contradictory ways, echo the nationalist discourse. Despite the evident colonial character of the new political structure—congress forced Puerto Rico to eliminate section 20—the Popular Democratic Party leaders and the United States diplomats were also able to convince the United Nations that Puerto Rico had exercised self-determination.

Because of student and faculty struggles, Spanish was reintroduced as the medium of instruction in the public educational system in the 1940s and the University of Puerto Rico, instead of becoming the uncontested site for the assimilation of the emerging professional class became the battle ground for a national culture of resistance. In 1948, pro-independence students led a strike at the University of Puerto Rico which led to the closure of the university and to the expulsion of many of the student leaders. Many of these leaders would finish their higher education elsewhere and later become political leaders in island pro-independence politics. With this strike, the University of Puerto Rico became, not only an ideological battleground between hegemonic forces and anti-colonial forces, it also became a launching ground for national resistance to imperial policies. The colonial government efforts, under the control of the Popular Democratic Party, to steer the university after the defeated student strike toward the formation of a technocratic apolitical professional class for the emerging program of industrialization partially failed. While the pro-independence forces lost its influence on the electoral arena, they maintained their influence in the island’s social struggles and the university. The anti-imperialist struggles in the Third World and the Cuban revolution (1959) became catalysts for another stage of anti-imperialist struggles.

Student Struggles at the University of Puerto Rico

During the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the presence of the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) at the University of Puerto became the issues that sparked social movements, not only on the campuses but also throughout the island. The University of Puerto Rico, especially the main campus in Rio Piedras, was the site of much conflict including violent confrontations between anti-colonial and pro-establishment forces. Political repression, emigration and economic transformation led to the decline of the electoral strength of pro-independence forces. The university then became a major site of struggle for those who contested colonial policies in Puerto Rico. In some way, struggles at the university of Puerto Rico served as the spark for Puerto Rican national struggles.

While in the United States “draft-dodging” was the principal means of challenging the Vietnam era draft, in Puerto Rico resistance to induction became the main tactic. In fact, the refusal of thousands of Puerto Rican youth to be drafted, especially of university youth, led to the collapse of the Selective Service System in Puerto Rico. While some early resisters were arrested and a few served time in prison, the majority did not. The massive nature of the protest made the incarceration of thousands a political impossibility for United States’ colonial authorities.

Also, the University of Puerto Rico, following the Latin American autonomous university model which began as a result of student struggles at the University of Cordoba, Argentina, has a veneer of autonomy. In 1966, the University Reform law created a space for an autonomous university and limited co-government of the university. The university would later receive a fixed percent (9.6 per cent) of public funds in order to prevent it from falling prey to the vagaries of island politics. This precarious autonomy did not have its full intended effect, since the dominant parties gave their supporters positions in the university administration as part of the political spoils, however, its ideological effect on students and faculty was quite distinct. Students, particularly, took seriously the autonomy of the university and defended it through their struggles. In the Fall of 1967, after a protracted struggle for the elimination of the ROTC from the University of Puerto Rico campus, Puerto Rico’s police intervened in a struggle between pro-statehood students and pro-independence students. The pro-independence students, who stayed within the confines of the university, tried to impede the entrance of the police into the campus as a way of protecting the autonomy of the university. In the battle between police and students, Adrian Rodriguez Fernandez, a taxi driver who was looking for his daughter, a student at the university, was killed by the police.

The conflicts at the university intensified and in 1970s, a university student, Antonia Martinez Lagares, was killed while standing on a balcony in the Santa Rita neighborhood where many students lived. She had been denouncing the police as murderers because of their attacks of students protesters in the street facing her apartment. One of the officers proceeded to kill her. Today, the transmission booth of the University of Puerto Rico striking students low watt radio station, “Radio Huelga” is named Antonia Martinez Lagares in her honor. Also, in many of the demonstrations her name is raised in banners.

The continued intensification of the conflict at the university continued and on March 11, 1971, as students attacked the ROTC building, Chancellor Pedro Rivera called for the riot squad to enter the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. The entrance of the riot squad so incensed the students, that at the end of the day, one ROTC cadet Jacinto Gutierrez had died, a police officer and the commander of the riot squad Juan B. Mercado had been killed by snipers.

In recent years, another large student strike occurred in 1981-82, this process precedes the current strike in terms of the issues and the new characteristics of the social movement. Issues related to the national question were not as salient as in previous decades. The main issues were of an economic nature. The raising of tuition fees would make the university less accessible to many Puerto Rican students. The role of Christian groups and the visible role of women as leaders was also a characteristic of that process. The student leaders were also broader in ideological terms although the role of pro-independence and socialist activists was crucial. The repression of the student strikers by the police was intense and was followed by the summary suspension of a significant number of the student leaders. These measures left this process of struggle as an unfinished social conflict. Despite the massive nature of the student movement, the strong external support and the broad basis of the student leadership the process ended in a short-term defeat of the movement. But as a response to the lessons of the 1981-82 period the university adopted a formal policy of “no confrontation” that has affirmed autonomy and freedom of expression as basic rights and which have helped the university avoid the extreme levels of violence experienced during the previous era.

Today: The Political, Economic and Educational Crisis Converge

Today, partially hidden from the mainstream United States media, a protracted (57 days June 16), and creative process of social struggle to preserve higher education began on April 13, in San Juan Puerto Rico. Echoing in diverse ways the 1968 San Francisco State strike and the National Autonomous University of Mexico strike in 1999, this is a clear and eloquent counter attack on neo-liberal thinking about the role of the public university in a capitalist society. But also, this social struggle has revealed, again, the precarious nature of the colonial model in Puerto Rico and the impeding need for its transcendence.

The University of Puerto Rico system, with its 65,000 students and more than 5,000 faculty members is the largest public system in higher education in this island. More than 33 per cent of Puerto Rico’s 25 years and older population has some post-secondary and/or university education. This is higher than more developed nations like Finland and New Zealand. Puerto Rico, with a population close to four million has developed a philosophy about the need to have an accessible system of public higher education. Ironically, this is also a contradictory outcome of some of the early colonial reformers who were members of the Popular Democratic Party. They developed policies, some reflected in the islands’ constitution that in some respects are more advanced than in the United States. Education, at least from k-12, is established as a right in the constitution. Access to higher education, while not specifically enshrined in the constitution is also considered a right and not a privilege by most Puerto Ricans. The state support and relatively low tuition attests to that philosophy.

This has enabled Puerto Rico to have a higher bachelor degree rate than three states, Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia, despite having a lower high school degree completion rate than any state. At the same time, according to a study by Cruz Rivera (2008) the University of Puerto Rico produces more than 95 per cent of the research carried out in Puerto Rico and produces 10,000 new professionals every year. Just one of its universities, the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez produces 606 engineers every year which is more than Texas A & M, Florida International University of Texas, Austin and California State University, Pomona combined. With limited resources its six year persistence and graduation rates are higher than the University of Wisconsin, Texas A & M, University of Washington and the University of Minnesota. It also has increased the percentage of its faculty with doctorates from 66.5 per cent in the 1999-00 academic year to 79.4 per cent in 2007 (Cruz, 2008).

Unfortunately, part of its success has to do with the changing demographics of its students, from 1998 until 2007, the percentage of students entering the University of Puerto Rico from the public school system has decreased from 50 per cent to 41 per cent. While still 57 per cent of the students still qualify for federal aid, increasingly, the new entrants are from middle and upper-middle class families, while ironically, private universities are the ones who increasingly are providing a university education to lower income families (Oficina de Planificación Académica, 2008). The persistence and graduation rates of these private institutions are dramatically lower than those for the University of Puerto Rico system.

Its tuition, comparatively speaking, is lower than most universities in the United States and the colonial state support is also comparatively higher than for public institutions in the U.S. For example, while only six per cent of the budget of the University of Puerto Rico depends on tuition, at similar public universities in the United States, 31 per cent of their operating budgets are derived from tuition. On the other hand, state appropriations provide 65 per cent of the operating budget for the university of Puerto Rico while for public universities in the United States the corresponding share is 41 per cent. But gradually, after the defeat of the student strike in 1981-82, the share of the operating budget derived from tuition has gradually increased. According to the office of the vice president of academic affairs report, from 1981-2001, the state appropriations were reduced from 45.6 per cent to 35.6 per cent while the share of income from tuition increased from 12.9 per cent to 18.1 per cent.

In a nation with a median family income of $20,425, a third of the United States median family income ($58,526), every tuition increase excludes working and middle class students to the most important social mobility tool the state provides, a university education. The poverty rate in Puerto Rico in 2008 was 45.4 per cent which is three times as high as the rate of the United States overall. Any state policy that limits access to students from lower socioeconomic levels will increase the social and economic inequality in a country that already is extremely unequal.

In 2008, the new colonial government elected was the New Progressive Party, a political party that is neither new nor progressive and which represents the most conservative strata of the island social and economic elite. This party supports statehood for Puerto Rico and through a platform which promised to solve the economic crisis that has been revealing itself in the colonial model since at least the 1970s, was able to get massive support. The previous Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila, was indicted on more than 20 counts of fraud by the Federal Court in Puerto Rico during the electoral year. Some have argued that it was punishment for the timid efforts of its government in investigating the FBI assassination of a prominent leader of the Ejercito Popular Boricua-Macheteros, a guerrilla organization that had remained relatively dormant during the previous 15 years. Filiberto Ojeda Rios, was shot by an FBI Hostage Rescue Team sniper. He bled to death because the FBI did not allow medical teams to provide medical assistance. Surprisingly, while most Puerto Ricans do not support independence there was a strong national response to the assassination and his funeral was attended by thousands of mourners. The electoral weakness of the Popular Democratic Party led it to take timid steps to keep the support of those pro-independence voters who in order to stop the electoral advance of the proponents of statehood were voting for the colonial party. Ironically, Acevedo Vila lost the election and Luis Fortuño won the elections in a landslide. Surprisingly, soon after Governor Fortuño took office in 2009 all the federal charges against former Governor Acevedo Vila were dropped.

The new governor was active in Republican Party politics in the United States. Contrary to most of the other recent New Progressive Party governors, like former governors Pedro Rosselló and Carlos Romero Barceló, who were members of the Liberal wing of the Democrat Party, Governor Fortuño is closely linked to the island’s social and economic elite and to the conservative wing of the Republican Party in the United States. While there is no Republican Party in Puerto Rico, there is a political structure that participates in the primaries and sends delegates to represent Puerto Rico’s “Republicans” in the Republican National convention.

The Collapsing Colonial Economy

Puerto Rico has been in a recession for more than four years. The Gross National Product has declined by more than 10 per cent (Lara, 2009). Governor Fortuño surprised many when in response to the grave economic recession and the large budget deficit ($3 billion, 30 per cent of the island’s budget) facing the island he gathered a group of the financial elite to develop a plan to address the economy. Partially in response to the plan, legislation was approved (Law 7, March 2009) which allows the state to eliminate more than 20,000 public sector jobs, privatize public sectors of the state, through a gimmick called “Public-Private Alliances.” Law 7 also allows the state to bypass collective bargaining agreements, create the private public partnerships and enable the state to institute cuts in government operational costs of more than $2 billion. These “partnerships” would allow the private sector to take over the most profitable segments of the public sector and run them as profit-making enterprises.

Every previous efforts to privatize public sectors of the state since 1989 have ended up in disaster. The Telephone company of Puerto Rico, one of the most profitable and modern public enterprises in the island was privatized by the administration of Governor Pedro Rosselló in 1998, this led to a general strike that was unable to stop the process. The phone service today is worse than it was before and the stream of income that was used to finance education was lost and the income from the sale was used to poorly finance a very expensive health care system that has dragged down the economy of the island. The Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (AAA), a public agency with manages water and sewers, also experienced privatization as have many formerly public services. Scandalous frauds and inefficiencies have marked all these privatization efforts.

Puerto Rico today has one of the highest private and public debts in the world. In the last 12 years the public debt has rise from $19.500 billion to $47,700 billion which creates a very high burden because of the cost of loans to finance this debt. Also, at a time when the island’s infrastructure is in need to a major investment. The social fabric of the island is also a disrepair, the murder rate is one of the highest in the world, domestic violence has increased and the drug trafficking related violence forces working and middle folks to live inside of home with gates and security. Contradictorily, United States corporations operating in the island, from pharmaceuticals to enterprises making medical instruments have benefitted from Puerto Rico’s highly skilled labor force transferred $33,330 billions in profit to their main headquarters in the United States and only paid $27.4 millions in taxes. The island has one of the lowest corporate taxes in the world. Yet, its economy is, relatively speaking, in worst shape than it was in the 1970s.

It is in this context that the administration of the University of Puerto Rico decides to place the burden of a $280 million deficit on the backs of the students by proposing a tuition increase. In his message to the nation April 26, in the midst of the student strike, Governor Fortuño called the students “privileged” because 81 per cent of the costs of the system of higher education are paid by the state. He failed to mention that the university, for every 100 jobs creates 57 jobs in the Puerto Rican economy, which means it has a positive economic impact higher than construction, agriculture and hotels. He also failed to mention that the University of Puerto Rico increased its external funds (grants and investigation) from $106 million to $187 million during the 2001-2008 period a 11 per cent increase.

This deficit is in part due to the effect of Law 7 and the elimination of funding streams that previously had gone to the university and the fact that close to $300 million in debts owed to the system have not been collected. But also in part ot the collapse of the colonial model and its reliance on external investment and low taxes. In Puerto Rico the tax burden has fallen on idnividuals, with 60 per cent of the tax burder borne by individuals and only 40 per cent by corporations. This contrasts with nations like Singapur, who despite a dependence on external investment, have a tax system where corporations pay three times what they pay in Puerto Rico (PIP, 2005).

The students, who already had already been participating in the social movement against the neo-liberal cuts and the firing of thousands of public workers joined the labor movement in a national general strike on October 15, 2009. The university of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras was closed on that day of protest. Given the political and social context it is not surprising that the students decided in one of the largest student assemblies ever gathered at the UPR to strike. Initially for 48 hours and later, if no response was received from the administration, an indefinite strike would begin. The administration, did not take the students seriously and the students began an indefinite strike. Through a careful process of organizing the strike spread through the 11 campus system and a national negotiating committee was selected to represent all the universities in the system. The only campus that did not close was the Medical School although they held a number of limited strikes. The role of medical students in teaching hospitals and clinics led many to limit their role in the strike.

Contrary to the 1960s and building on the strategies used by UPR strikers in the 1981-82 process, a policy of “no confrontation” was strictly adhered to, forms of participatory democracy were utilized. The students created social networks in Facebook, Twitter, My Space and also created a low watt radio station (Radio Huelga) which transmits across the world on US STREAM. This station rapidly became the best source of music and news developing in the course of the strike. The role of culture as a way of promoting the strike and enabling the spirit of struggle to be maintained was also strategic. Performance art, guerrilla theater, musical concerts, and a broad array of international and national support reached levels never experienced in previous struggles. For the first time LGBT organizations were visible participants in the strike and the clear and visible role of women leadership was clear and important. Parents of the students organized, the Bar Association, labor unions, religious organizations organized events supporting the students. The faculty union and the clerical workers union decided to not cross student picket lines. The faculty of all the 11 universities gathered in the campus of the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey and voted to strike if violence was used against the students. While violence was used at various time against the strikers it was not as systematic as it was in previous decades.

In recent days, Governor Fortuño ordered police forces out of the university confines (intense use of the police at the university gates led to increase in crime rates), the governing party, New Progressive Party Resident Commissioner in Washington, D.C. publicly disagreed with university authorities and called for negotiations and no sanctions for the students.

The negotiations between students and the university are advanced, a mediator agreeable to both parties was named and it is expected that one of the longest strikes that has challenged neo-liberalism in Puerto Rico will soon end with a student victory. Neo-liberalism experienced a defeat, but the struggle is not over. Contrary to ivory tower social analysts who had argued that the national identity of Puerto Ricans had diminished in its strategic role in Puerto Rico or that students should be pragmatic and bend to the necessity of the present times, students during a symbolic graduation sand the national anthem, with the revolutionary lyrics of Puerto Rican poetess Lola Rodriguez de Tió. This strike showed that what seemed dead was just resting and dreaming that another nation was possible in a new day .

*Dr. Rodriguez is a professor in the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University, Long Beach. He received a bachelor in arts in history at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, and his master and doctorate in Comparative Culture (Sociology) was received at the University of California, Irvine. He is a national speaker and activist on Puerto Rican and Latino issues, was student and labor activist at the University of Puerto Rico, and as an anti racist trainer organizer has worked with social service agencies, police departments, universities and religious organizations across the United States. His research focus is race and Latino identity and its impact on political behavior and education. He is also an activist in the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico. his most recent book on racialization is Latino Politics in the U.S.: Race, Ethnicity Class and Gender in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican Experience. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Press, 2005 was the recipient of an honorable mention in the Gustavus Myer Center Outstanding Books Awards process in 2005.

**Oldest Colony refers to the title of a book by Jose Trias Monge "The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World." Monge was one of the architects of the present colonial status of Puerto Rico called "Estado Libre Asociado."

References Cited

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