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Students At Puerto Rico's Largest University Continue Strike Amid Shutdown


Now to Puerto Rico where the financial crisis has meant big trouble at the U.S. territory's largest public university. For nearly two months, students have been on strike, an action that has shut down classes for more than 50,000 students. From San Juan, NPR's Greg Allen filed this report.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At the University of Puerto Rico in a San Juan suburb, the normally bustling campus is now strangely empty. In the center, there's an ornate bell tower with a banner hanging from it. It says revolution, damn it.

MINETTE BONILLA: It's been a really, like, symbolic space for the fight.

ALLEN: Minette Bonilla is an architecture student who was set to graduate in June. Since the end of March, she's been not in classes, but part of a student group that has shut down the university.

BONILLA: I think some things are more important than my graduation. So I would rather keep the university open for the people that come after us and after me.

ALLEN: Students sleep in tents on the university grounds and at the one open gate screen any who want to enter. Students called the strike after the government began negotiations with the financial oversight board established by Congress to help Puerto Rico restructure its $74 billion debt. The oversight board proposed cutting government support for the university's 11 campuses in half by $450 million, an amount critics say would cripple the university.

Bonilla says government officials and oversight board members, many of whom attended blue chip schools on the mainland don't seem to understand the importance of the university to the island's future.

BONILLA: If you've been studying in Ivy League schools and if you've been studying in other institutions, I can understand their perception of not having to need public education. They've never needed it.

ALLEN: In recent weeks, tensions surrounding the strike have risen. Students voted to defy a court order to reopen the university. School officials now face heavy pressure to end the strike. Just this week, the university's interim chancellor resigned. James Seale is an associate professor of education, and he heads a faculty association on campus.

JAMES SEALE: Everybody wants the gates open. The question is what are we willing to do to open those gates? Nobody's - well, actually I was in a meeting Monday afternoon where some people said, yeah, you're going to have to use force. And it's going to have to be the police.

ALLEN: Seale says most faculty members, even those pushing for an end to the strike agree that the proposed cuts are draconian. Ana Quintero is a professor of mathematics who's seen other strikes in her time at the university in 2010 and in 1983.

ANA QUINTERO: I was here in '83.

ALLEN: Do you think those strikes accomplished...

QUINTERO: Oh, nothing, not much.

ALLEN: Quintero thinks talks will be more productive if the campus remained open. The strike is one of the most immediate and visible impacts yet of Puerto Rico's debt crisis, but more budget cuts are coming. The government recently shut down more than 180 public schools and is preparing to unveil big reductions to health care benefits for many on the island. But this week when lawyers converged on a federal courtroom in San Juan for proceedings to restructure the island's crushing debt burden, few in Puerto Rico seemed to pay much attention. Minette Bonilla thinks she knows why.

BONILLA: I think part of it is that we've been in these austerity measures and in this crisis for so long that it's become common. We've already had issues of not being able to have groceries or not being able to pay the electricity bill or things like that. So other people are starting to suffer the crisis now, but this is a new for most of us.

ALLEN: In a now empty student center at the university, strikers have set up shop. A radio plays while a group of students prepare lunch for 200, part of the occupying force on campus. The students say they plan to continue the strike until members of the oversight board agree to a negotiation that will ensure a secure financial future for the university. Their first meeting is set for the coming week. Greg Allen, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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