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The U.S. government's last colony
Repression and resistance in Puerto Rico

October 14, 2005 | Page 10

THE FBI killing of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos--the 72-year-old leader of one of the main pro-independence organizations in Puerto Rico--last month has cast a spotlight on the U.S. government's relationship to its oldest colony. HÉCTOR REYES tells the history of U.S. rule in Puerto Rico--and the legacy of the struggle for liberation.

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THE HISTORY of Puerto Rico is a history of colonialism and oppression.

First, Spain held the island under despotic rule for 400 years. Then, in 1898, the U.S. took Puerto Rico as war booty after defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War. For the first time, the U.S. joined the big powers of European imperialism, with a newly established empire reaching as far as the Philippines.

Ever since, the grip of the U.S. over Puerto Rico has showcased the intersection between exploitation, imperialism and racism.

When U.S. Gen. Nelson Miles presided over the invasion of the island, he already had considerable experience in crushing workers and the oppressed. He led the hunt for the great Native American leader Crazy Horse in the 1870s and earned more stripes when he was sent to put down the Pullman strike in Chicago in 1894.

When Miles set foot in Guánica, Puerto Rico, on July 25, 1898, he declared that the U.S. had come to bestow the blessings of democracy on an oppressed people. Immediately, a military government was set up, which during the following two years preserved Spanish laws against union organizing. Democracy indeed.

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THE U.S. proceeded to turn Puerto Rico into a massive sugar plantation during the first three decades of the 20th century. Sugar production came second only to one thing--the island's value as a military outpost for U.S. imperialism.

Workers in Puerto Rico didn't take this sitting down. They formed the Free Federation of Labor (FLT) and founded the Socialist Party (PS) in the 1910s as instruments of struggle against the American sugar corporations, which were supported by a state apparatus in Puerto Rico run by American governors appointed by the U.S. War Department until the late 1940s.

Working hand in hand with local puppets, the U.S. viciously repressed the fledging nationalist movement, resulting in the Ponce Massacre of 1937, in which 21 nationalists were killed in cold blood by the occupation police.

Federal authorities hounded and destroyed the Nationalist Party, and imprisoned its leader Pedro Albizu Campos for many years. Albizu Campos was mistreated. In fact, there is significant evidence that he was used as a guinea pig in Nazi-like experiments exposing him to radiation. When he complained, the U.S. government claimed that he was crazy.

Puerto Rico was very poor--the poorest island of the Caribbean. The desperation of the Great Depression of the 1930s led sugar cane workers to go on strike nationally in 1934--a defeated strike that eventually led to the formation of the Puerto Rican Communist Party (PC). With the PS and the FLT discredited, the PC moved quickly to fill the void and became central in the development of a new militant union federation, the CGT.

By the beginning of the 1940s the U.S. colonial set-up was in trouble. With the Second World War raging, German submarines cruising the Caribbean and militant workers fighting back--and some questioning the right of the U.S. to dominate the island--the U.S. ruling class decided that the sugar companies were expendable, for the sake of keeping the colony. It was time for a new maneuver.

Washington found a new kind of local puppet in Luis Muñoz Marín, who eventually became known as the founder of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952--a new formula to disguise the continuing colonial relationship. Muñoz Marín bribed part of the CGT leadership and squashed those who resisted.

On top of this, the heavy whip of McCarthyism was brought to bear on the PC and any individual or group that was too "radical" in defending the right of Puerto Rico to independence.

This began a new era in Puerto Rico, with massive migrations to the U.S.--U.S. citizenship had been imposed on residents in 1917--a repressive apparatus coordinated between local police and federal authorities, and the introduction of the maquiladora concept that brought dozens of American light manufacturing factories, paying pitiful wages, to Puerto Rico.

As Puerto Ricans moved to the U.S., they became one of the poorest sections of the mainland population--something that remains true to this day. U.S. agribusinesses would come to the island to recruit field workers, whose wages were garnished to pay for the plane fare. Those who left the barracks in which they were forced to live would be picked up as vagrants by local police--in cahoots with the growers--because they didn't speak English.

In the streets of New York City, Puerto Ricans would encounter signs reading: "No dogs or Puerto Ricans allowed."

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BUT IN the 1960s, struggles against racism broke out both on the island and in Puerto Rican communities in the U.S.

Students fought police at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) to protest the Vietnam War, and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in particular. The ROTC building was burned down by students. To this day, ROTC remains off of the main campus at UPR.

The working class went into struggle in the 1970s, and the governor had to use the National Guard against firefighters and power workers' strikes. Reluctantly, the U.S. government made the federal minimum wage applicable in Puerto Rico, and extended federal programs such as food stamps and welfare to the poor--who account for more than half of the population even today.

In the U.S., Puerto Ricans inspired by the African American struggle against racism formed their own organizations--in particular, the Young Lords, which modeled itself on the Black Panthers.

Regardless of their location, Puerto Ricans suffered from repression, this time in the form of the FBI's COINTELPRO program. The Feds carried out a campaign of harassment and infiltration, creating a political climate that led the police to kill two young men on Cerro Maravilla Mountain in 1978--on the day that marked the anniversary of the U.S. invasion. The two victims were led into an ambush by a police provocateur, with the approval of the FBI--and the pro-statehood governor acclaimed the police as heroes.

As the reach of neoliberalism began to extend, first under Ronald Reagan and then under Bill Clinton, the economy of Puerto Rico went into accelerated decay. With tax exemptions offered to U.S. companies for decades due to expire by 2007, the Puerto Rican economy is in crisis.

During the 1990s, the corrupt pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Roselló privatized clinics and other services. When he tried to privatize the telephone company, the island erupted into what is known as the "People's Strike."

Roselló got away with the privatization. But this struggle set the stage for the popular movement that was able to force the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, a tiny island-town off the east coast of Puerto Rico that had been used as a shooting range by the Navy for decades. In 2003, the Navy was forced to retreat by the determined struggle of the people--a tiny country of 4 million against the most formidable power in the history of humanity.

The struggle in Puerto Rico continues. The working class is under intense attack, with the doubling of tolls, and electricity and water rates--while the government has asked public employees to take a 20 percent pay cut. The recent FBI murder of nationalist leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos has added to the resentment.

The stage is set for new and militant struggles that hold the promise of linking opposition to U.S. imperialism with the struggle for basic demands of workers and the poor.

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