The crowd of students and professors filled a street in Old San Juan, chanting, “¡Somos estudiantes, no somos criminales!” Puerto Rican police officers and a SWAT team made a barrier between the angry, yet peaceful crowd and the rest of the street leading to la Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion.
Last Wednesday, thousands of students, professors, and their supporters from the University of Puerto Rico–Río Piedras protested Governor Alejandro García Padilla’s proposed budget cuts for the public university system. These cuts aimed to take about $166 million from its annual budget, an amount equivalent to about a fifth of the university system’s funding. According to Ley 66, the 2014 law detailing the proposed cuts, the law will help manage the “consequences of the fiscal and economic crisis, and the degradation of Puerto Rico’s credit.” Puerto Rico, a country whose population continues to dwindle in the face of economic hardship, faces a $79 billion debt, which it hopes to relieve with a total of $1.5 billion in government spending cuts.
By lowering the university system’s budget, the government hopes to reduce its public expenses. While Puerto Rican lawmakers may have seen Ley 66’s implications of the university system as a short-term economic solution, reductions in education would hardly produce long-term benefits. Johanna De la Cruz, a professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University, believes quite the opposite. “The country has an obligation to cut its debt, but there's an obligation to provide services to Puerto Ricans," she said. Education is a service that Puerto Rico can’t do without; more than just students and professors depend on education to raise lower the unemployment rate, which is now 13.7%.
The University system was not the only institution facing budget cuts. In the last five years, more than 150 primary and secondary schools have been closed as a result of budget cuts and declining populations (resulting from emigration). These developments "speak volumes about how we're losing population, about how we're not being efficient in building the island's future, about how we're losing opportunities to create citizens," said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz.
In an attempt to lessen the budget cuts, Governor García Padillo and the legislature agreed to raise the island’s sales tax from 7% to 11.5%, as well as a 4% value added tax for previously tax-exempt goods and services. While this measure would raise revenue, about $500 million in spending cuts remain.
In the meantime, many Puerto Ricans still living on the island, like those protesting in the streets, try to look further in the future than this year’s budget, towards an island of opportunity that depends on education.