With the second round of trials underway in Washington, D.C., for protesters charged in connection with the J20 demonstrations against Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, another legal battle over the right to dissent is unfolding hundreds of miles away in Puerto Rico, where seven students are facing charges in connection to a protest over tuition hikes at the island’s public university.
In April 2017, leaders of the University of Puerto Rico’s student body demanded a meeting with the school’s governing board to discuss alternatives to a program of sharp disinvestment from the university, one in a slew of public service cuts in Puerto Rico in recent years. When their requests were ignored, a few dozen protesters stormed the building where the university board was meeting. There were no serious injuries or damage, and nobody was arrested.
In the following days, however, several students who had assumed leadership roles in the protest movement received citations ordering them to appear in court. When they did, they were handcuffed and paraded before TV cameras in the middle of the night, then booked and, finally, released on bail.
While students at UPR continue to fight the new measures — the university board ultimately approved the tuition hikes last month, a year after the students stormed the meeting — they are also rallying around students arrested after the 2017 protest. As with the unfolding prosecutions in Washington, officials in Puerto Rico are throwing the book at protesters with unprecedented zeal.
Eleven students were originally charged following the protest, facing up to 18 years in prison before the most severe charges were dropped. Four students were eventually cleared altogether, but seven are still facing charges ranging from intimidation of public authority to violating the right of assembly, restriction of liberty, and rioting.
With preliminary hearings currently underway, the UPR students and their lawyers say that the looming trials are a sign of Puerto Rico’s growing criminalization of dissent — a message that was reinforced by the violent police response to May Day rallies held both last year and this year. “I think it’s a prelude,” Gabriel Díaz Rivera, one of the students facing prosecution, told The Intercept. “It doesn’t matter for them if, at the end of the road, all the charges are dropped. The important thing for them is to create the chilling effect.”
Lawyers for the UPR students are challenging the criteria used to target these particular individuals out of the dozens who stormed the board meeting: Prosecutors used video of the incident and turned to an unidentified source to single out leaders of the student movement, according to Oscar Martinez Borras, one the students’ attorneys. “What was really unusual is the way they got to these students,” he told The Intercept. “There were about 60, 70 protesters in that building, and they just chose these particular students.” Prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment.
“You don’t do warrantless arrests in a democracy. That’s what you would have seen in some Latin American countries in the 1970s.”
The practice to single out protest leaders was also on display earlier this month, following a large May Day rally in the capital, San Juan. In the days after thousands of people took to the streets, police turned up at some protesters’ student dorms and homes and detained them without warrants, according to the Puerto Rico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“You don’t do warrantless arrests in a democracy,” William Ramirez, the chapter’s executive director, told The Intercept. “That’s what you would have seen in some Latin American countries in the 1970s.”
Puerto Rico has a long history of police abuse, corruption, and excessive force — often deployed against peaceful demonstrators — as the ACLU documented in a 2012 report, in which it accused the island’s police of “unrestrained abuse and impunity.” In 2011, the Justice Department launched an investigation into constitutional violations by the Puerto Rico Police Department, the second largest in the United States. At the conclusion of the investigation, the island’s government signed a consent decree with the Justice Department, agreeing to sweeping reforms and the oversight of an independent monitor.
Last month, the University of Puerto Rico’s governing board ratified a steep tuition increase, doubling the cost of attendance from $56 to $115 a credit, and up to $157 by 2023, while cutting operating costs by 10 percent and expanding enrollment by 20 percent. The move was just the latest blow to Puerto Rican public institutions, as the island struggles to balance its budget and meet the requirements of the unelected fiscal control board overseeing its bankrupt government. The announcement followed months of protests, which last year shut down the university for weeks and forced the president to quit. UPR’s interim president, Darrell Hillman, said the plan is “amputating an organ that is vital to the island of Puerto Rico.” On Wednesday, the university’s board approved additional tuition hikes for graduate students.
Tuition hikes and six proposed campus closures threaten to “cut poor and working-class students and future students out of access to a quality education,” Alexa Paola Figueroa, a student facing prosecution over the 2017 protest, wrote to The Intercept in Spanish. “I come from a poor community and beyond being a space for debate and knowledge, for those of us who are poor, this university can be a space of liberation and empowerment.”
“The government is pursuing people with all the power of the law who are trying to keep education affordable.”
“The government is pursuing people with all the power of the law who are trying to keep education affordable,” said Díaz Rivera, “not for privileged people, but for people from the island.”
The cuts at UPR are part of a larger program of austerity imposed on Puerto Ricans by the Financial Oversight and Management Board — “la Junta,” as it is known on the island — a seven-person body appointed by the U.S. president to oversee the island’s finances and maximize debt repayments. The education sector, in particular, has taken a hit, accelerated after Hurricane Maria prompted a mass exodus from the island. Earlier this year, Puerto Rico’s government announced the closure of 280 public schools — in addition to 179 it had already closed last year. While officials have cited low enrollment as a reason for the closures, many say the move is part of an effort to privatize public services and drive more people to leave the island.
“Puerto Rico is dying,” said Ramirez, noting that the university cuts only compound the problem of the island losing young residents. Officials argue that UPR is still cheaper than public universities in the mainland United States, he added — “which is true, but we are talking about Puerto Rico, where people don’t have jobs or, if they have jobs, they are very, very underpaid. Even the poorest state in the United States — Mississippi — has double the per capita income of Puerto Rico.”
“The measures undertaken by the Fiscal Control Board are targeting young people, leaving them hopeless and depressed,” said Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, a history professor at UPR and author of a book about the university.
But the students’ fight against austerity measures is part of a larger struggle on the island — one of a string of protest movements that authorities have tried to suppress. In 2017, nearly 100,000 Puerto Ricans took to the street on May Day — the second-largest protest in the island’s history, by some estimates. Just days after the one at UPR, the May Day protest also led to a crackdown against activists, with several arrested in the following days. One of them, Nina Droz Franco, was accused of attempting to set fire to a commercial building and faced up to 30 years in prison before pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Droz Franco, who has become a symbol of the government’s crackdown on dissent in Puerto Rico, was held in solitary confinement, moved to a detention center in Florida, and then back to Puerto Rico. Months after her plea agreement, she is still in custody and awaiting sentencing.
Ramirez of the ACLU called the police’s actions that day “an ambush” and said the group is considering legal action on behalf of some of those that he said police had “assaulted,” including a man selling water who was shot with rubber bullets as he attempted to flee. Journalists and legal observers, including several working with the ACLU, were also targeted, Ramirez added. The federal judge overseeing implementation of the consent decree has ordered a judicial review of police actions on that day.
Mariana Nogales Molinelli, a Puerto Rican First Amendment attorney representing the UPR students and other protesters, said escalating responses to peaceful demonstrators are a sign of growing repression. “You can see it in the amount of police agents they deploy every time there’s a small protest,” said Nogales Molinelli, recalling a rally last summer, where 500 armed police confronted less than 200 peaceful protesters. “If there are five people protesting, you will see 20 police agents,” she said. “And undercover agents in each and every protest.”
Students and activists said they have noted a growing number of undercover agents infiltrating protests, including some detaining protesters in unmarked cars. “The Puerto Rican government has always been violent toward student protests,” said Figueroa. “But repression has escalated and evolved. Now they use the courts and the judicial apparatus to go after protesters. Not only do they double down on policing demonstrations, they also investigate and use undercovers to prosecute you.”
Many forces played a role in creating the current crisis at UPR, Álvarez Curbelo, the UPR professor, told The Intercept. “Sensible restructuring measures should had been taken by UPR much, much earlier but — I have to say it — students’ and faculty’s intransigence were matched by the University’s Governing Board tunnel vision that led us to two strikes in the last decade that were devastating.” She added a warning about the “brutality that UPR will experience with the slashing of funds.”
The chaos in the aftermath of Maria, she said, exacerbated the crisis: “Hurricane Maria is the icing on the cake for this perfect institutional storm.”
Critics of police tactics said repression of protests on the island took a turn for the worse after the appointment of Héctor Pesquera to the helm of Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety. A former FBI agent who was once a favorite to lead the Miami Police Department, many see Pesquera as the architect of the crackdown on public expressions of dissent. “They were going after communists and so-called subversives,” Ramirez said of Pesquera’s work in counterintelligence during the Cold War. “He comes here with that mentality. The Cold War is over, and speech is protected.”
In another sign of escalating repression, following this year’s May Day rally, Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice summoned civil rights attorney and activist Alvin Couto de Jesús over social media posts critical of Pesquera. In a statement of support, the National Lawyers Guild called the episode “a thinly-veiled attempt at silencing movement lawyers who support constitutionally-protected speech.” NLG President Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan said, “It is no surprise that Héctor Pesquera, who hails from the FBI — the very agency responsible for the decadeslong persecution of U.S. activists — is now targeting lawyers for their movement work in defending freedom of speech and assembly.” Neither the Department of Public Safety nor the office of Puerto Rico’s governor replied to requests for comment from The Intercept.
“The country’s crisis is at a level that’s well beyond the students’ struggle.”
Meanwhile, the hurricane is proving to be a double-edged sword for Puerto Ricans’ ability to protest. At UPR, for instance, students sometimes work two or three jobs to be able to afford enrollment, leaving little time for activism, said Figueroa. “The country’s crisis is at a level that’s well beyond the students’ struggle,” she added.
Yet exasperation at the perceived absence of the government after Maria’s devastating blow has only compounded growing rage at the harsh austerity measures. “After Maria, not two weeks have passed without a protest from a community, blocking a road because they don’t have access to light, or blocking a road because they’re trying to close down their schools,” said Díaz Rivera. “Since the conditions in the country have worsened, people have actually realized more and more in recent months that sometimes protesting and mobilizing are the only ways to get your voice heard.”
If island authorities are trying to stifle dissent, their plan may be backfiring.
“People who continue to be pushed up against the wall are going to continue to protest, and they are going to protest vehemently,” said Ramirez. “Right now, they are taking away workers’ rights, and that’s going to bring labor unrest; the closing of the universities is going to bring student unrest — so we can expect a lot more protest, and we can expect that the police are going to continue to be violent.”
“With all this frustration, with all this repression, and nowhere to go to express yourself, people are going to take to the streets.”