How will Puerto Rico win its freedom?

November 10, 2015

New York City activist and WBAI radio co-host Sandy Boyer reviews a new book about Pedro Albizu Campos and the Puerto Rican independence struggle.

"There will be war to the death against all Puerto Ricans."
-- E. Francis Riggs, chief of police of Puerto Rico

PUERTO RICO is the oldest, largest and by far the most important U.S. colony. That makes it a litmus test for the U.S. left. We will succeed or fail very largely by our determined and consistent opposition to U.S. imperialism.

Puerto Rico is a political hostage to the U.S. Congress, which unilaterally decreed that it is an "Associated Free State" or commonwealth. Congress can change this status anytime without consulting a single Puerto Rican. Currently, Puerto Rico can't even deal with its $72 billion public debt crisis without congressional permission.

Nelson A. Denis' compelling account The War Against All Puerto Ricans tells Puerto Rico's story largely through the lens of Pedro Albizu Campos, the founder and president of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, and of the 1950 revolt that he led.

Denis documents the systematic discrimination and repression inflicted on the Puerto Rican people:

Pedro Albizu Campos in 1936
Pedro Albizu Campos in 1936 (Associated Press)

In every public school in Puerto Rico, classes were taught in English--a language none of the students could understand. Speaking Spanish was strictly forbidden.

It was a felony to own or display a Puerto Rican flag, to speak in favor of independence, or to print, publish or distribute any pro-independence material.

In Ponce, on Easter Sunday 1937, police opened fire with machine guns on a peaceful Nationalist Party procession, killing 17 unarmed civilians and wounding 200 more.

The Ponce massacre was a reaction to the Nationalist Party's successful leadership of a sugar cane workers' strike that shut down the island's sugar industry for a month. The Nationalists organized the Association de Trabajadores de Puerto Rico (Workers Association of Puerto Rico.)

Albizu spoke to mass rallies and finally negotiated a contract that doubled the workers' wages. During the strike, he turned down a $150,000 bribe and an offer to make him the colonial governor of Puerto Rico.

AFTER THAT, Albizu and the Nationalist Party were marked for extinction. On October 18, 1950, they were forced to launch what was supposed to be a simultaneous revolt in five cities throughout the country. The Nationalists had long believed that Puerto Rico could only be freed by armed struggle. They refused, on principle, to run in colonial elections.

The party had its own armed wing, the Cadets of the Republic, who were trained in marching, filed tactics and survival. Without weapons, they could only train with wooden guns. Young women were enrolled in a nursing corps, the Daughters of Freedom.

A wave of arrests and assassinations forced the Nationalists to start the rising before they were ready. It soon became clear that they had been infiltrated at a very high level. Albizu recognized that, if he delayed further, he would be in prison, together with all the leading Nationalists and many, if not most, of the rank and file. He believed he had to start the revolt before the movement was wiped out.

Unfortunately, the colonial forces were much better prepared than the revolutionaries. As Denis writes, "The plan's only flaw was that the Americans had already heard about it." The police and National Guard were ready and willing to shoot down the rebels.

"The October 30th uprisings in Arcebio, Mayaguez, Ponce and Naranjito were a disorganized mess," Denis continues. "With the hurried order to start the revolution, everything happened too early or too late."

In San Juan, the capital, the revolt descended into a desperate attempt to kidnap or assassinate the colonial governor, Luis Muñoz Marin. The plan was to hold him hostage, call every newspaper and demand Puerto Rican independence. As usual, the National Guard was waiting. The raid quickly became a suicide mission--only one man survived, and he had 19 bullet wounds, with five bullets still inside him when he was finally captured.

As Denis tells it, the Nationalists knew perfectly well that they could never win a war against the U.S. They only hoped to hold out long enough to grab the world's attention and get the UN to pressure the U.S. to free Puerto Rico. This displayed an enormous naiveté about world politics in 1950. Even more than today, the UN was the creature of U.S. foreign policy. There was absolutely no chance that it would stand with Puerto Rico against the U.S. government.

Still the U.S. Army only suppressed the rising by deploying 5.000 troops and bombarding two towns. After it was defeated, thousands of nationalists were arrested, and Albizu was imprisoned for 25 years.

While he was in prison, Albizu was subjected to lethal radiation, which finally killed him. It may seem like a farfetched conspiracy theory to state this, but it has been amply documented through medical reports, the testimony of his fellow prisoners and even government documents. While it may never be conclusively proved, there is more than enough evidence to show that Pedro Albizu Campos was, as Denis says, "atomically lynched."

After the risings' bloody suppression, the Nationalists tried to assassinate President Harry Truman. Later, Lolita Lebrón and two Nationalists opened fire on the House of Representatives, wounding five members of Congress. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans--all competed to denounce the attempted assassinations. Today, they would call the Nationalists terrorists.

As usual, they had nothing to say about the violence against the Puerto Rican people. They were certain that the fate of a few politicians was far more important than all the Puerto Ricans killed, tortured and maimed by U.S. imperialism.

Assassination, like any other tactic, has to be judged by whether it helps to win the revolution's goals. If the Nationalists had succeed in assassinating Truman, his vice president, Alben W. Barkley, a nonentity who has been lost to history, would have taken over. If they had killed some congressmen, other hacks would have replaced them. In either case, Puerto Rico would have been no closer to freedom.

Socialists oppose this strategy precisely because it doesn't bring freedom any closer. Still, we understand that we and the freedom fighters who are driven to these kinds of tactics are on the same side against the oppressors.

THE WAR Against All Puerto Ricans is a fascinating and vital work. Nelson Denis is a great storyteller, and he has a wonderful story to tell. His book is anything but dry-as-dust history. It's as compelling and easy to read as the best popular fiction.

The book is much stronger because Denis doesn't pretend to be impartial between U.S. imperialism and Puerto Rican freedom. Albizu is his hero, and he's not afraid to show it. It should get the very wide readership it richly deserves. At a time when Pedro Albizu Campos and the Puerto Rican revolution have been all but buried by the establishment, this book can make a critical contribution to the cause of Puerto Rico.

Still, its conclusion is disappointing. Instead of a call for freedom, Denis ends with the words from a Joni Mitchell song:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Til it's gone
"They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

These are, of course, beautiful lyrics. But if the rest of the book shows us anything, it's that Puerto Rico must have its independence. Otherwise, it will continue to be a U.S. puppet with no control over its present much less its future.

Independence without socialism would turn out to be a hollow victory. The U.S. multinationals would continue to rule Puerto Rico. They would keep getting richer while the Puerto Rican people kept getting poorer. The Puerto Rican propertied classes, like propertied classes everywhere, long ago made their peace with imperialism. They're perfectly happy to go on being junior partners, enjoying crumbs from the table.

If Puerto Rico is ever going to be free, it will be when the working classes lead the fight. They have nothing to gain from imperialism but continued misery. They alone have the power and the numbers to make all the difference.

But all these are decisions for the Puerto Rican people themselves. Our part, here in the U.S., is to support their struggle and do our best to combat U.S. imperialism.

Perhaps the best place for socialists in the U.S. to start is with the movement to free Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican political prisoner who has served 34 years of a 75-year sentence for "seditious conspiracy," including 12 years in solitary confinement.

While we fight for his freedom, we can take inspiration from what López Rivera said before he was sentenced: "If I am standing here today, it is not because I lack the courage to fight, but rather because I have the courage to fight. I am certain, and will reaffirm, that Puerto Rico will be a free and sovereign nation."

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