Workers Vanguard No. 963
27 August 2010
For the Right of Independence!
Student Strike Shakes Puerto Rico
(Young Spartacus pages)
On June 21 students at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), one of the largest universities in the Caribbean with eleven campuses and an enrollment of 65,000, concluded their two-month-long strike against budget cuts, tuition hikes and plans to privatize university services. The strike electrified the island and was actively supported by key sectors of the Puerto Rican working class. It intersected seething anger over Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuño’s austerity campaign, including the firing of more than 28,000 public employees since 2009, union-busting attacks on collective bargaining rights and a drive to privatize public services. Comrades from the Spartacist League/U.S. traveled to San Juan during the strike to express our support for the students’ struggle in this oppressed colony of U.S. imperialism and to introduce them to our revolutionary Marxist newspaper.
The student strike successfully beat back the Puerto Rican government’s and UPR administration’s worst attacks: the attempts to privatize sectors of the university and eliminate tuition exemptions for students receiving Pell Grants from the U.S. government and other financial aid. While agreeing not to summarily punish strikers, the Board of Trustees left open the threat of disciplinary action against strike leaders and announced plans to implement a new special fee of at least $800 a year in January, which would increase the cost of tuition by about 50 percent. During the student assembly that ratified the settlement, students voted to strike again if the administration goes through with its plan to implement the new fee.
The Puerto Rican government was furious about the strike and viewed the outcome as a defeat. Shortly after the settlement was signed, Governor Fortuño’s chief of staff dismissed the strike settlement, approved by the university administration and the students, as just “a piece of paper,” in part because the students are reserving their right to strike again. In retaliation for the strike, the U.S. imperialist government—which has the whip hand over this island colony—briefly threatened to cut off some $200 million in federal student aid, most of which goes directly to students to cover their expenses.
The right-wing Fortuño government is working in tandem with the Democratic Party administration of U.S. president Barack Obama. As the chief executive officer of the capitalist class in the U.S., Obama is the overseer of the colonial oppression of Puerto Rico and the class enemy of workers around the world. Since he took office in 2009, Obama has been waging one savage attack after another against the U.S. working class, including the United Auto Workers and the teachers unions.
For its part, the UPR administration is pressing ahead on the lawsuit it filed during the strike against the student leaders. It has also initiated disciplinary actions against five strike leaders, including three members of the reformist socialist organization Unión de Juventudes Socialistas—Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (UJS-MST). Moreover, the administration retaliated against the campus workers who supported the strike, announcing it would charge those who honored the picket line up to $2,000 each for “days not worked.” All these attacks are calculated attempts to discourage students from striking again and head off any acts of working-class solidarity. Drop all charges! No reprisals against the strike leaders and the campus workers and professors who honored the picket lines!
The police brutality, notorious during the strike, has continued since the strike ended. On June 30, Puerto Rican police savagely beat students and their supporters who were protesting at the Capitol in San Juan. The gruesome images of students, particularly young women, with black eyes, cuts on their faces and bruises all over their bodies provoked a massive outcry across the island. Police superintendent José Figueroa Sancha grotesquely defended the violence meted out against the women, saying in a July 1 interview, “the women are the most aggressive ones in the group. This is an old strategy, a strategy of the guerrilla.”
During our trip, one student striker told us that, on May 19, some students occupying the Río Piedras campus were debating whether to demand better wages and working conditions for cops in order to try to win their sympathy. He said this discussion came to an abrupt halt on May 20, when the police viciously attacked students, trade unionists and independentistas at a strike support rally at the Sheraton Hotel (see “Puerto Rico: Hands Off Campus Strikers!” WV No. 960, 4 June).
The police are the armed fist of the capitalist state. Their reason for existence is to defend private property, smash strikes and terrorize and repress workers, immigrants, leftists and all the oppressed, all for the purpose of maintaining the capitalist system of exploitation. They are enemies of the working class. No amount of reforms, appeals to the conscience of the police or reshuffling top-ranking police personnel will ever change that. The nationalist delusion that striking students and the cops have a common interest because “we are all Puerto Ricans” serves only to obscure these divisions and undermine the painful lessons students got during the strike on the nature of the police.
For the Unity of the Working Class!
As the principal remaining colony of U.S. imperialism, Puerto Rico suffers under the weight of national oppression and crushing poverty. The unemployment rate is 17 percent and a staggering 67 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The working people on the island are exploited as a low-wage labor pool by U.S. capitalists seeking to maximize their profit margins. “Citizens” of the U.S. with no right to vote in federal elections and no representation in Congress, Puerto Ricans are politically dispossessed and discriminated against economically, racially and culturally.
As revolutionary internationalists, we oppose all the colonialist machinations of our “own” capitalist rulers, the common enemy of working people in the U.S. and the oppressed Puerto Rican masses. Our aim is to advance the revolutionary unity of the working class across international lines and open the way for socialist revolution throughout the Americas. We would favor independence for Puerto Rico as part of our fight against chauvinism in the United States and to undercut the bourgeois-nationalist leadership of the working class on the island. However, this is a democratic question. The sympathies of the population weigh heavily in determining how best to get the national question off the agenda and clear the road for revolutionary internationalist class struggle.
As Marxist revolutionaries we approach the question of national oppression as laid out by V.I. Lenin, whose Bolsheviks led the revolutionary Russian proletariat to the conquest of power in 1917:
“The proletariat of the oppressor nations
must struggle against the enforced retention of oppressed nations within the bounds of the given state, which means that they must fight for the right to self-determination. The proletariat must demand freedom of political separation for the colonies and nations oppressed by ‘their own’ nation. Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words
“On the other hand, the socialists of the oppressed nations must, in particular, defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organisational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and those of the oppressor nation. Without this it is impossible to defend the independent policy of the proletariat and their class solidarity
. The bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations persistently utilise the slogans of national liberation to deceive the workers.”
—“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,”
Standing in active solidarity with the oppressed colonial masses of Puerto Rico, we give no political support to nationalist bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces.
For Free, Quality Education for All!
In discussions with the students occupying the campus, our comrades emphasized the necessity of linking their struggle in defense of public education to the power of the working class, in Puerto Rico and in the United States. We pointed out that free, quality public education for all cannot be fully achieved under capitalism. By its very nature, capitalism is based on maximizing the profits for the capitalists at the expense of the interests of the workers and all the oppressed. The capitalists’ only interest in providing education and other social services to the working people is to secure their own profits. The only way to create a free, egalitarian society based on material abundance, where education is truly the right of all, is through socialist revolution to sweep away the decaying capitalist system in the belly of the U.S. imperialist beast as well as in the oppressed colonies and neocolonies. Our aim is to win students to the side of the working class by building a vanguard workers party that can provide revolutionary, internationalist leadership for that struggle.
By themselves, students lack social power. Nothing stops moving when the students don’t go to class. In contrast, the proletariat—those who work in the factories, mines, transportation and other industries and produce the wealth in society—has the power to hit the capitalists in the wallet by withholding its labor. One student recognized this fact, noting that after 43 days on strike, the students had not yet won anything. However, he told us, the public buildings workers union threatened to strike when the government announced layoffs, and one day later the government backed down.
Although limited by the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracies’ efforts to maintain class peace, working-class support was instrumental in deterring the government and university administration from breaking the strike. A coalition of Puerto Rican public employees unions carried out a one-day strike on May 18 in support of the students’ demands. When police blockaded the Río Piedras campus to starve out the strikers, workers tossed bags of food and bottles of water over the cops’ heads to the students occupying the campus. Together with parents and other strike supporters, at key points in the strike union members kept watch at the front gates of the campus to deter police provocations. These workers had a direct interest in the success of the strike, which meant the defense of their kids’ chance to get an education and, in the case of the campus workers, defense of their jobs.
Instead of looking to the working class as the only class with the objective interest and potential social power to fight the austerity measures, the student leaders have sought allies in the capitalist Puerto Rican colonial government. The purpose of the June 30 demonstration at the Capitol, which the police savagely attacked, was to read a declaration to the legislators demanding “that they promise to watch over the interests of the People” (“‘Retomarán’ el Capitolio,” www.upresunpais.org). But the Puerto Rican capitalists and the imperialist masters they depend on, not the students, are the “people” whose interests Puerto Rico’s bourgeois politicians watch over. This is true not only of Fortuño’s widely despised pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), but also the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) that favors maintaining the current colonial status of Puerto Rico. Although the PPD hypocritically denounced the violent repression of June 30 and claimed to support the students during the strike, the previous PPD government carried out its own attacks against social struggles, among other things decertifying the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation union after its nationwide strike in 2008.
We are for open admissions to the university, no tuition and a state-paid living stipend for all students, including the undocumented immigrants from other Caribbean nations who are largely frozen out of access to an education at UPR. Increased access to education and other social gains will be won only through struggle, not by advising the Puerto Rican capitalist government on ways to curb tax evasion and urging it to institute sliding-scale tuition rates, as the UJS-MST proposes in the leaflet they distributed during the strike (see “La evasión contributiva y la matrícula ajustada a los ingresos,” Al Medio, 16 September 2005).
For the Right of Independence for Puerto Rico!
Although the two largest U.S. military bases, Vieques and Roosevelt Roads, have closed, the Coast Guard, National Guard and other U.S. troops still remain on the island. In addition, 1,192 federal law enforcement agents (including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) rain terror on the population, especially Dominican and other immigrants and poor and working people, as part of the U.S. government’s racist “war on drugs.” Throughout the history of U.S. colonial occupation, federal agents have viciously targeted Puerto Rican independentistas for imprisonment and political assassination, most recently in the FBI’s 2005 assassination of Los Macheteros cofounder Filiberto Ojeda Ríos (see “Protest FBI Killing of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos!” WV No. 856, 14 October 2005). We demand freedom for Puerto Rican independence activists Oscar López Rivera and Avelino González Claudio who are imprisoned in the U.S. All U.S. troops and federal agents out of Puerto Rico now!
Puerto Ricans have deeply contradictory feelings about independence—at this time, a large majority of the population does not call for it—and we do not advocate that independence be forced on them. With colonial “commonwealth” status comes the right to live and work on the mainland. Today half of Puerto Ricans reside there, and the desire to freely travel and work in the U.S. is one factor behind their ambivalence. While the island’s residents are deeply impoverished in comparison with the U.S. mainland, their standard of living is higher than the norm for the Caribbean. So, for example, one striker we spoke to at Río Piedras said that she would like to see an independent Puerto Rico, but doesn’t favor independence at this time for economic reasons. She pointed out that one of the reasons UPR students went on strike was to defend the right of students receiving Pell Grant money to continue paying no tuition. The U.S. federal Pell Grant is a minuscule crumb, but it makes access to higher education possible for thousands of Puerto Ricans.
The Puerto Rican population that lives in the U.S., much of it integrated into strategic sectors of the proletariat, provides a living link between the Puerto Rican masses and the proletariat in the United States. As we wrote in the Programmatic Statement of the Spartacist League/U.S., we do not know whether U.S. colonial oppression would be ended
“through a revolutionary socialist upheaval in the U.S. or through the militant proletariat in Puerto Rico inspiring struggle on the mainland. Our call for a socialist federation(s) of the Caribbean projects our general conception for workers rule in the area; however, we do not know at this point how this will transpire in the concrete. In any case, a victorious workers revolution in the U.S. would immediately free Puerto Rico and all other nations subjugated by U.S. imperialism and establish relations with them on the basis of their freedom to exercise their national self-determination.”
MAS, MST, OSI: Reformist Obstacles to Revolution
For Marxists, opposition to capitalist parties, including the bourgeois Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), is a matter of principle. While it has never controlled the government, the PIP bases its program on the maintenance of capitalism. The cutting edge of our program in Puerto Rico is against nationalist forces that seek to derail proletarian struggle through false “unity” between the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie and working class.
During our trip to Puerto Rico, one student aptly characterized the various ostensibly socialist groups at UPR as independentistas with a little socialism sprinkled in. One example is the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), a fake-socialist organization formed in 2008 by a fusion of members of Taller de Formación Política, a vaguely Trotskyoid academic collective, the nationalist Partido Revolutionario de los Trabajadores (PRT-Macheteros) and others. At its founding conference on 14 September 2008, MAS voted to support and actively campaign for the PIP in the elections.
A 2008 article by Alma Torres of the social-democratic Organización Socialista Internacional (OSI), which has ties to the International Socialist Organization in the U.S., explained the PIP’s plans to develop capitalism in Puerto Rico. Torres detailed how the PIP seeks to break the islands’s economic dependence on the U.S. by soliciting investments from the World Bank, the IMF and the Interamerican Development Bank—all of which are tools of the U.S. imperialists. The article called for no vote to any of the parties running in the elections; however, this same article gives the OSI’s game away. The OSI offers to support the PIP if only the PIP includes in its platform the demand to raise the minimum wage: “If the PIP would propose an increase to the minimum wage, that would be a powerful reason for rethinking the possibility of campaigning for the PIP” (“Entre votar y quedarse calla’o ¿qué decimos los socialistas?” www.socialismointernacional.org, 2 November 2008).
The students at the June 3 UJS-MST forum we attended debated the question of independence for Puerto Rico. UJS-MST speakers advocated independence as a necessary prerequisite to socialist revolution. In response, one striker argued that independence under capitalism would just mean more of the same. Another striker asked how the UJS-MST is going to tell the nearly 50 percent of Puerto Ricans who desire statehood that they can’t fight for socialism unless they first support independence?
The UJS-MST subordinates the interests of the working class and the struggle for socialism to the goal of making the Puerto Rican capitalists the “independent” rulers of the island. During the 2008 elections, the UJS-MST ran an article calling for a vote to the PIP with a disclaimer that this was not the line of their organization. After the PIP lost the elections, they ran another article bemoaning the PIP’s loss of representation in the Puerto Rican House of Representatives and Senate! (See “El MINH ‘negociará’ su respaldo a los colonialistas,” www.bandera.
org, 15 September 2008 and “Pierden fanquicia electoral y representantes,” www.bandera.org, 16 November 2008.)
Defend the Cuban Deformed Workers State!
In contrast to other Latin American countries where the left typically enthuses uncritically over Fidel Castro, at the University of Puerto Rico both the MST and the OSI oppose the Cuban government from the right—a position that sometimes leads them to support the counterrevolutionary efforts of U.S. imperialism. Though scandalous, this is not illogical. Reformist organizations orient to bourgeois forces, seeking to pressure them to behave better. An anti-Cuba line is, accordingly, convenient for reformist leftists to espouse, since the Puerto Rican capitalist parties—the PNP, PPD and PIP—and the American rulers are hostile to Cuba on a class basis.
The Cuban Revolution drove the U.S. and Cuban capitalists off the island and resulted in enormous social gains, including full literacy, free health care and free higher education. In January 1959, Fidel Castro’s petty-bourgeois guerrillas overthrew the brutal neocolonial dictatorship of the U.S. puppet Fulgencio Batista. Their purely bourgeois-democratic aims—purging the state apparatus of Batista supporters, agrarian reform, greater national independence—brought them into direct conflict with U.S. imperialism and its Cuban lackeys. The U.S. imperialists responded to Castro’s program of land redistribution and the measures taken against Batista’s police torturers with brute economic pressure to bring Castro’s regime to heel.
Facing unrelenting pressure from the U.S. imperialists only 90 miles away, the Castro government sought the military protection of the Soviet Union. The Cuban economy continued to function under the imperialists’ assault only because the USSR came to its aid, taking Cuban sugar in exchange for oil and essential military products. In 1960-61, in response to U.S. economic warfare, the Castro regime expropriated the holdings of the U.S. imperialists—National City Bank, United Fruit, Standard Oil, the sugar barons and the Mafia—as well as the Cuban bourgeoisie. The Cuban capitalists either fled into exile or were imprisoned.
Cuba became a bureaucratically deformed workers state in which capitalism had been overthrown, but political power was held by a parasitic bureaucratic caste that fundamentally shares the nationalist political program of “socialism in one country” of the former Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. In Cuba, this anti-revolutionary dogma is expressed in the fantasy that socialism can be built on one island. The Castro regime has always been hostile to the program and perspective of international proletarian revolution. Instead, it has promoted “progressive” bourgeois formations from the Allende popular-front government in Chile in the early 1970s, which paved the way to a reactionary coup and a bloodbath of the workers, to the national-populist regime of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez today.
Because the working class lacked the leadership of a sizable revolutionary Marxist political party and did not act as a contender for political power, the creation of a healthy workers state in Cuba was not possible. Instead of a regime based on workers democracy, the Cuban workers state was deformed from its beginnings by the total lack of workers’ and peasants’ control over the apparatus that administers the state and the economy. As Trotskyists, we stand for the unconditional military defense of the Cuban deformed workers state against internal capitalist counterrevolution and U.S. imperialist attack. At the same time, we fight for workers political revolution to oust the corrupt, anti-Marxist and anti-working-class Castro bureaucracy in Cuba and to establish workers democracy under the Leninist-Trotskyist banner of international socialist revolution. We take the same approach toward the bureaucratically deformed workers states of China, North Korea and Vietnam.
For its part, the OSI states in its declaration “¿Por qué lucha la OSI?” (“What Does the OSI Fight For?”): “The so-called ‘socialist’ countries like China, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union have nothing to do with socialism. They are state capitalist regimes in which the state bureaucracy exploits its working class just like the private and state bosses do here in Puerto Rico.” It is obscene for the OSI to equate Puerto Rico—a capitalist colony of U.S. imperialism—with Cuba and China, countries where the imperialists and the native bourgeoisies were driven out and the means of production remain largely collectivized even today, however bureaucratically mismanaged they are by the parasitic Stalinist regimes. The same anti-revolutionary theory of state capitalism is what led the OSI’s international co-thinkers to hail the Soviet Union’s destruction (see “The Bankruptcy of ‘New Class’ Theories,” Spartacist [English-language edition], No. 55, Autumn 1999).
The UJS-MST uses a picture of Che Guevara on the masthead of its Web site. It claims to oppose the U.S. blockade against Cuba and to uphold Cuba’s right to defend itself against U.S. attack. But, in addition to military threats and economic strangulation, the imperialists also seek to foment counterrevolution in Cuba and the other deformed workers states by encouraging the growth of forces within those countries that promote the restoration of capitalism.
The Varela project, funded and supported by the U.S. State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Catholic church, is an example. Named after a 19th-century Cuban priest, it was launched around the time of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba and later promoted by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter—both of whom Castro treacherously welcomed to the island. Our opposition to the Varela project petition centered on its demands for “‘free elections and the right to private enterprise’—demands that amount to a call for ‘democratic’ counterrevolution, the ‘electoral’ rise to power of capitalist-restorationist forces financed by American imperialist largesse, which would be accompanied by a bloodbath of workers and Communists” (“Defend the Cuban Revolution!” WV No. 805, 6 June 2003).
The MST supported the U.S.-backed Varela petition. MST leader Luis Ángel Torres Torres described the Varela campaign as offering “democratizing possibilities,” adding that it “can serve as an example to other sectors and multiply the resistance actions against the state” (“El Proyecto Varela y la crisis Cubana,” www.bandera.org, 14 October 2002). This is exactly what the imperialists are hoping for.
In contrast to the narrow nationalism and the anti-communist, reformist politics of these organizations, we seek to win youth over to our internationalist, proletarian revolutionary program. Key to this is exposing illusions in bourgeois democracy, which is based on the exploitation of the working class and, in the United States, on racial oppression of black people and imperialist depredation around the world. For the multiracial proletariat in the U.S., the fight to defend Puerto Rico’s right to independence is integrally linked to its struggle against the American bourgeoisie. It is necessary as well to mobilize the working class in the U.S. and Puerto Rico in defense of the Cuban Revolution. Only world socialist revolution, laying the basis for international socialist planning, can open the road to qualitative economic development for the countries which are today under the imperialist boot.