Puerto Rican activists facing repression

August 19, 2008

Roberto Barreto describes the latest efforts by the U.S. government to persecute pro-independence activists in Puerto Rico--and how activists are fighting back.

THE U.S. government is stepping up its offensive against the Puerto Rican independence movement, both in the mainland and in Puerto Rico. Four Puerto Rican activists have been subpoenaed to testify in front of a federal grand jury, a powerful judicial instrument that has historically been used to criminalize dissent. In Puerto Rico's history, the grand jury has been the colonial authorities' principal weapon for political persecution against the national liberation movement.

Those targeted--Tania Frontera, Christian Torres, Elliot Monteverde and an unidentified activist from Puerto Rico--are defenders of independence for Puerto Rico. They have participated in the campaign for the liberation of the Puerto Rican political prisoners; participated in the successful struggle for the liberation of the island of Vieques from the U.S. Navy's control; and have been part of the demonstrations denouncing the 2005 assassination of pro-independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos by the FBI as a deliberate act of political repression.

Protesters in New York City demonstrate against grand jury repression of Puerto Rican activists
Protesters in New York City demonstrate against grand jury repression of Puerto Rican activists (Hostos)

The activists have not been charged with a single crime, but face the possibility of imprisonment if they refuse to testify in front of a grand jury. They have explained categorically that they will not testify, and the independence movement has vowed not to cooperate with any grand jury investigation.

The ultimate purpose of these investigations is to gather intelligence on the movements by forcing those under subpoena to act as informants, thus creating division and distrust among activists. The information gathered can then be reshuffled to create false criminal accusations to force the advocates of independence on the defensive. Non-cooperation with the grand jury is the best defense against attempts by Washington to disrupt and destroy the political and social movements.

In July, the Hostos Grand Jury Resistance Campaign held a protest in New York City to denounce grand jury repression and FBI harassment. The Mesa de Solidaridad Contra la Represión (Solidarity Table Against Repression)--a coalition of 21 pro-independence, socialist and progressive organizations--held another in front of the Federal Building in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The National Boricua Human Rights Network (NBHRN) and the Comité Pro Derechos Humanos de Puerto Rico (Human Rights Committee of Puerto Rico) have filed motions to quash the grand jury subpoenas.

A statement by the Hostos Campaign reads:

These...young Puerto Ricans are victims of the FBI fishing expedition as it tries to take away attention from its own crimes. We maintain that the subpoenas are part of a larger, systematic campaign to repress the independence movement in Puerto Rico and instill fear and discord among its allies and supporters. It's the latest chapter of a long history of repression waged against Puerto Rican activists.

SINCE THE U.S. Navy was pushed out of Vieques in 2003, the U.S. government has gradually moved to reassert its control over Puerto Rico. First, in 2003 the U.S. District Court in San Juan prosecuted 12 pro-Vieques activists for the taking of Camp García, an event in which thousands of people tore down the fences and the guard post of the Navy´s facilities in Vieques.

The Vieques 12 were arbitrarily selected to make an example of them. One of these accused, José Pérez, spent five years in federal prison for the destruction of property that was scheduled to be demolished or decommissioned!

Then, in 2005, the FBI selected September 23, the celebration of the "Grito de Lares"--the commemoration of a 19th century insurrection against Spanish colonial rule--to launch a commando attack against the house of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a 72-year-old independence leader.

Ojeda was a member of the Boricua People's Army-Machateros (EPB, by its initials in Spanish), an urban guerrilla movement that has been mostly inactive since the 1980's. He became a symbol of resistance after he outsmarted the FBI by removing an electronic monitoring device and remained a fugitive for 15 years.

In 2005, Ojeda was shot through a window by federal agents. Despite blood that was visible under the door of the house, the FBI agents waited over 20 hours before entering--leaving him to bleed to death.

Since then, many independence activists have had their houses and businesses searched, and computers and documents seized. One independence supporter, Avelino González Claudio, has been arrested for his alleged association with the EPB over 20 ago.

Ojeda's assassination was a symbolic message from the U.S. government to the Puerto Rican people, conveying that it would use force to re-establish control over "its" colony, and that another movement, like the one around Vieques, would not be tolerated.

The government of Puerto Rico half-heartedly sued the U.S. government for its obstruction of every independent investigation into Ojeda's death. Last February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the FBI does not have to provide any information to the Justice Department of Puerto Rico, because doing so could expose the identity of their spies and informants. According to the Court's decision, providing such information:

would reveal how the FBI goes about capturing a fugitive who is believed to be dangerous, the number and types of personnel used by the FBI in such operations, the way the FBI collects evidence, the FBI's internal operating procedures in a variety of law enforcement settings, and the way in which law enforcement information is gathered.

Now, in this latest round of grand jury subpoenas, the federal government has requested the judge to keep the proceedings secret and the documents sealed, ostensibly to protect the identity of informants.

AT PRESENT, important changes are being considered in the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. The U.S. Congress is studying various proposals to alter the current political status, and the White House has admitted, after decades of denials, that Puerto Rico is a colony. In the United Nations, the U.S. ambassador has maintained the position that the case of Puerto Rico is a "domestic" issue, but has not blocked (unlike all U.S. ambassadors from 1953 until 2001) resolutions that call for the decolonization of Puerto Rico.

The last time a change in the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States was being discussed, there was a period of political repression. In the years leading to the approval of the Constitution of 1952, the independence movement was criminalized and rendered ineffective.

In 1948, the "Ley de la Mordaza" (gag law) was passed. Fashioned after the Smith Act, it made it a crime to advocate independence. Lives were ruined, sometimes for the simple act of having a Puerto Rican flag.

In 1950, when the Nationalist Party staged an insurrection, massive arrests were ordered against all known sympathizers of independence without regard for their actual participation--or lack of participation--in the failed insurrection. In such a political climate, the proposed constitution, after being amended by the U.S. Congress, was ratified without delay.

A similar period of persecution is being imposed on Puerto Ricans today. As the case of Puerto Rico is in its way to the UN General Assembly, the U.S. government is exerting control over all aspects of Puerto Rican society, from law enforcement to setting the price of milk.

Even the colonialist Popular Democratic Party (PPD), the party of Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the first governor to confront federal corruption charges, has been put against the wall. But without a doubt, the independence movement is the main target of the U.S. government, since the purpose of the present offensive is to neutralize any social force that can effectively oppose Washington's plans for Puerto Rico.

On June 9, Elliot Monteverde, one of those subpoenaed by the grand jury, testified in the UN's Decolonization Committee on behalf of the Hostos Campaign. Accompanied by Frontera and Torres, he said:

We recognize that our possible coercive imprisonment is a threat that is intended, in its individual scope, to frighten us into giving in and, in its collective scope, to instill fear among pro-independence leaders and activists of all stripes so that they would turn away from the just cause of independence, or any other struggle raising claims against the U.S. government.

A protest has been called for August 30 in San Juan. The organizers have adopted the slogan "¡Ni un preso político más!" (Not one more political prisoner!) after one of the most important slogans of the Vieques struggle, "Ni una bomba mas" (Not one more bomb). Activists in U.S. cities also plan new demonstrations.

Support for these activities is crucial, not only for the defense of the right to self-determination of oppressed nations, but also for the civil and political right of all to organize, dissent and resist injustice.

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