Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Three Articles That Do Justice to the University


For the University of Puerto Rico, it's been a day of vindication.

A response to the full-page column that governor Luis Fortuño published on January 13 in El Nuevo Día, "La UPR que todos queremos" ["The University we all want"], was written in the news magazine Diálogo by a collaborator identified only as a teacher who has worked for decades without tenure. In governor Fortuño's subtle diatribe (for that's really all it is) he warns that he will dramatically restructure the University, altering it beyond recognition.

The author of the riposte to governor Fortuño's column harshly criticizes his vision, management, and plans for the University and compares the governor's words to those of a defendant confessing his crime before a jury. Probably the most interesting thing about his response is how he exquisitely demolishes the fallacies in the governor's arguments by using data published on the webpage of the Oficina de Gerencia y Presupuesto (OGP), the Island's budget management department. While the governor boasts of how his administration has slashed spending since he took over in 2009, he doesn't mention that the budget assigned to the Governor's Office has increased by almost 500% between 2008 and 2010. Yes, you read it right: almost 500%. I highly recommend taking a look at both the article [in spanish] and the numbers on the OGP webpage.

A summary of the past two months of the student protests was also published today in the U.S. newspaper The Huffington Post by UPR professor Maritza Stanchich. Contrary to most of the material regarding the student protests published by the mainstream news sources on the Island, she avoids falling into the trap of superficially reporting events, preferring instead to contextualize the University's crisis within the greater picture of the Island's fiscal woes, one of the few articles to do so. It also has the added advantage of being written in English, thereby making it available to a greater worldwide audience and at the same time helping to offset the flood of disinformation about Puerto Rico that the Fortuño administration has spread in the U.S. media. This is also the reason that this blog is now available in both English and Spanish.

Finally, El Nuevo Día published today an article (that really should have been front page news and not buried in page twenty) revealing that the University president himself, José Ramón De la Torre, and the Board of Trustees admitted in a report given to the Comisón Cameral de Hacienda that the current crisis was caused by the nefarious Law 7 [Ley 7 de Emergencia Fiscal] and not by the last administration. Indeed, the report, which was signed by the now president of the Board of Trustees, Ygrí Rivera when she was second vice-president, goes even further and says that the last administration actually took effective measures to curb spending in anticipation of the current crisis. In light of this evidence, all the arguments that the University administration and the governor have given to convince people that imposing the $800 special fee on students was inevitable come crashing down.

How Puerto Rico's real fiscal situation has been kept from the public has never before been made so glaringly obvious until today. There should be no doubt left in anyone's mind that this administration has in its hands a serious credibility problem, one that I very much doubt it will be able to get rid of.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Impotence, creativity, and bitter medicine


It's been a rough week for the University of Puerto Rico.

To begin with, the Student Center of the Río Piedras campus was vandalized by a group of people whose faces were covered to hide their identities. (I should say that in general, there has been overwhelming disapproval towards the actions of those who unnecessarily damaged the Center.) The next day, several students who were distributing leaflets on campus and who had committed no crime were arrested. That very same day the riot squads returned to the campus, again bringing with them violent confrontations between students and police. The ban on all large activities on campus decreed by the provost of Río Piedras, Ana Guadalupe, was extended for another thirty days, thanks to the Board of Trustees. There are strong rumors that there will be a change in the University's presidency. Governor Luis Fortuño wrote a column in El Nuevo Día saying that he will create a committee that will advise him on how to restructure the University "desde sus cimientos" ["from its foundations"], if necessary. Various programs, among them Hispanic Studies, will be put "on pause" next academic year. And as if all this wasn't enough, the University has started to collect the draconian $800 fiscal stabilization fee and no one knows how or when the special grants that were created to help students pay it will be available.

And this is only the first week of class this year.

All these events help give an idea of the overwhelming sense of impotence that has overcome the University community in the face of the unjustness of its situation. To make matters worse, students are forced to pay the $800 fee with their own money, doing it who knows how, because the promised financial aid won't be available for the moment. If they do not pay at least the minimum payment now, they will not be able to continue studies this semester.

This is a heavy blow to the morale of the student movement because right now, there is no other alternative left to them. However, it is also because of this that I think that this year we will truly see what the students' imagination and persistence are capable of. During this crisis there has been no shortage of brilliant and innovative ideas. I think we can expect more of that, this time around applied to the problem of pressure mechanisms since, evidently, new ways of protesting are needed that can give better results.

Nevertheless, 2011 promises to bring more of the bitter medicine that has been shoved down the University's throat in massive overdoses. Thus, I conclude this depressing blogpost with the following suggestion: if the students must pay the fee, they should pay with coins or with bills of really low denominations as a sign of protest. If the University administration is that eager to collect the fee, then they shouldn't mind counting pennies or dollar bills.

If more of that bitter medicine has to be taken, then at least it shouldn't be taken lying down. As the song says: "For a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down..."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why give away toys on Three Kings Day?


By now, the reader probably knows of the riot that formed in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum on Three Kings Day during the governor's now-traditional toy giveaway. I won't go into how the activity should have been organized, or what should or should not have been done (enough has been said about that, anyway). Instead, I would like to invite the reader to rethink how this activity might be celebrated.

I should start by saying that I have never been to one of these activities. Nor have I any intention of going in the future. In fact, I am actually very grateful that I was never taken to one when I was a child. There is a very simple reason for this: going to one of these activities seems to me the worst possible way that I can think of to celebrate Three Kings Day. Who wants to spend a hot day in line waiting for a toy that may or may not be given to you by the governor? There are even people who camp out on the street or a parking lot the night before just so they can get a good turn when the activity finally starts. It is also worth mentioning the several people who fainted in this year's activity and the case of the girl who died several years ago on a previous occasion because of the heat. Quite frankly, it isn't worth it and I cannot begin to comprehend why they insist on doing this type of activity year after year.

Equally unpleasant is the image that is perpetuated of the benevolent leader who gives goods to the neediest among his people while he celebrates the traditions of yesteryear with his family. Besides being tacky and paternalistic (and I might add third-world-like), this image couldn't be farther from the truth. The reality is that the whole thing ends up being a public relations and photo opportunity for whatever governor happens to be in power. I don't think I exaggerate when I say this. This is why this year's celebration was deemed a success, when it obviously wasn't. How else could one explain the fact that this year they decided to give away notebook computers besides toys? (By the way, this year the government spent $780,000 on toys, while on other occasions private companies donated them. Whether or not the notebook computers were also bought with the government's money, I don't know.)

There are those who have said that it is important that this sort of activity continue because it fulfills an important social function. Well, yes. But I also believe that there are better ways to celebrate Three Kings Day than this one. Why not have a real people's celebration? Why not take advantage of the occasion to teach and perpetuate the best of Puerto Rico's traditions? Why give away toys on Three Kings Day and not, instead, a day that is genuinely pleasant and that anybody who wants to can enjoy?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Empty City: New Year's Eve 2010


This post is merely an observation. I believe it is an observation worth making because at the moment it seemed very odd to me. But I really don't have the necessary knowledge to reach any conclusions.

Last night, during New Year's Eve, I went with my Mom to take a stroll in Condado to pass the time watching the lights and the people who went there to party. On the way a light drizzle started to fall, so I decided to take a brief detour to Old San Juan to look at the Christmas lights over there while we waited for the rain to stop. To my surprise, there was no traffic jam going into Old San Juan. Indeed, there was very little traffic on the way. San Juan was practically empty.

By then, the drizzle had stopped and we headed over to Condado to walk for a bit. We left our car at the Parque de la Laguna and walked towards Dos Hermanos bridge, at which point we entered Condado. It was the same story as in Old San Juan: streets with very few pedestrians, many closed restaurants, and very little activity, in spite of the fact that this New Year's Eve was on a Friday.

Of course, this is the first time I go to Old San Juan and Condado on a New Year's Eve, so I wouldn't know what would be normal for this occasion. But of all places that came to mind to pass a New Year's Eve, I thought that in Condado there would be a lot of activity and people in the streets. The fact that there weren't seemed very strange to me. Even the large hotels that usually host a New Year's Eve party seemed half-empty. Some of the restaurants that were open seemed to have a lot of people in them, but I didn't see enough of them to be able to say if this was the norm.

Is this an indication of the state of Puerto Rico's economy? I really don't know. But I think it worth finding out why we, who don't need many reasons to party, didn't party more on a New Year's Eve. We'll have to wait and see what the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián have to tell us.