Dialogando Sobre Independentismos Parte I y II 1890-1980. (First Draft, Please Do Not Quote Without Authorization. Comments, Suggestions? email@example.com)
Directed and edited by Mariel C. Marrero and Freddie Rodriguez. San Juan: Producciones Zaranda, DVD 2010, 3 hours and 48 minutes.
Víctor M. Rodríguez Domínguez, Ph.D.
Department of Chicano and Latino Studies
California State University, Long Beach
Documentary and film making in Puerto Rico is always a tortuous enterprise. In addition to the inherent artistic challenges filmmakers face of presenting a visual narrative of a complex historical era they also lack a supportive infrastructure for documentary or non-commercial creative film productions in Puerto Rico. So to be able to produce, finance and research a voluminous historical and political documentary (four DVD’s) that is countercultural to the main political narratives that are dominant in Puerto Rican society is quite an accomplishment. Dialogando Sobre Independentismos, parte I y II takes us through 90 years of the complex development of the pro-independence movements in Puerto Rico from 1890 through 1980. Its title, suggests there are more than one pro-independence movements in Puerto Rico is appropriate and challenges the monolithic view that some historians and the United States intelligence agencies have had about the independentista movement. This documentary is designed in segments that correspond to the various stages of the development of the independentista movements in the island. This film could be a great resource for courses in Puerto Rican political science and history. One limitation for its use in the U.S. is that the interviews and the films are in Spanish. There are no English sub-titles in this version.
Such a massive project with 17 documentaries organized in four DVDs cannot be summarized in a brief film review. What this review will attempt to do is focus on some of the highlights of the hours of film and interviews and will focus on some aspects of Puerto Rican political history that while known to specialists are not popularly understood.
The documentary is divided in two main segments, Part I covers Puerto Rico’s independentista political history from 1890 through 1959 and Part II from 1960 through 1980. Part one is titled “Between votes, slogan and trenches” it shows in seven documentaries the shift in tactics and ideologies that have influenced independence supporters as social, political and economic conditions changed in Puerto Rico and how United States’ geopolitics shifted in the early years of U.S. domination. Part II which is titled “The New Struggle” captures the period following the Cuban Revolution and the intensification of demands for the decolonization of Puerto Rico, the rise of new tactics, ideologies and organizations which gave a new dynamic to the anti-colonial struggle in the island. This is the most extensive part of the project and the one that reveals the most intriguing information about internecine independentista political struggles and details about the underground armed struggle which had not been revealed publicly before. This is also a period of intensification of federal surveillance and repression of pro-independence organizations and individuals. During this time, 1960-80, important grassroots struggles developed in Puerto Rican communities in the continental United States. The growth of Puerto Rican communities in the Northeast and Midwest of the United States as a result of the large scale emigration of islanders after World War II, provided another fertile soil for the pro-independence movement. The experiences of racism, ghettoization provided concrete experiences of oppression to the immigrants that lent credence to the anti-imperialist discourse of the independentistas. It also provided a space for the expansion of pro-independence organizations which participated in community struggles, anti-war efforts, feminist and labor struggles, and armed activities against corporate and government targets. The diasporic experience will be the focus of another forthcoming project Part III by the producers of Dialogando.
What is unique of this effort and which separates it from others efforts that have attempted to provide a narrower glimpse of chapters and events of the history of the anti-colonial political struggles in Puerto Rico are the impressive array of interviews of leading scholars, activists. More than 100 oral and video interviews are included with some of the main participants of these social movements. We are able to get insights from people who were in the frontlines of many of these crucial political events. In addition, some of the leading scholars whose work has focused on the politics and history of the movement provide insights that provide a framework to the archival materials from the various historical events and the political figures. The quality of the contextualizing provided by the interviews provides more nuanced interpretations of the politics that shaped Puerto Rican society throughout that period. Also, the music chosen as background indicates some familiarity with the way culture, and its expressive forms was intricately related to the social movements and the politics of the various periods.
Since the 19th century, anti-colonial activists used diverse electoral strategies, diplomatic strategies, armed struggle, student and labor union strategies, community organizing strategies and became, much like the Cuban struggle for independence a transnational movement. Since Puerto Ricans and other anti-colonial activists were challenging the United States as a rising empire in the late 19th century and a more aggressive imperial nemesis in the 20th century their struggle straddled Puerto Rican communities abroad, including within the United States.
The lineup of interviewees is quite impressive, from the radical socialist scholar Rafael Bernabe (University of Puerto Rico) who recently authored with Cesar Ayala Puerto Rico in the American Century (2007) an erudite political and cultural history of Puerto Rico; Wilfredo Mattos Cintrón, physicist, socialist scholar and activist; Fermín Arraiza hijo, attorney and whose father was a prominent political leader of the now defunct Puerto Rican Socialist party; Doris Pizarro, social work professor, one of the few Black women in the leadership of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and an activist in various anti-colonial political organizations; Juan Mari Bras, Attorney and principal leader of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, in what was probably the last interview of one of the leading political leaders of the period called the “Nueva Lucha.” What is helpful of this work is the care in selecting how each interviewee provides a glimpse into aspects of the political struggles that can’t always be captured in an article or a book. The interviews of scholars like Francisco Moscoso, one of the leading social historians in the island; Maria Margarita Flores Collazo a cultural historian; Juan Giusti, also an activist historian; Antonio Fernós Lopez, recently deceased law professor (2011); Attorney Ruben Berrios, a former senator and leader of the Pro-Independence Party and a major protagonist in anti-colonial political struggles since after World War II provide insights by scholars and political activists who shaped and influenced the social movements. In addition, interviewees like Rosa Meneses Albizu, the daughter of Pedro Albizu Campos provide interesting insider perspectives of the life of the leading pro-independence leader of the 20th century. The diverse academic and political perspectives truly provide a comprehensive perspective of a very complex array of movements and organizations.
Given the broad range of events and perspectives this documentary provides, it is necessary to provide some highlights from each section and a final summary of the contributions this work makes to a deeper understanding of Puerto Rico’s political history.
Part 1: 1890-1959
Given the transnational nature of the struggle for the liberation of Puerto Rico the first part of the series reveals the role of some of the leading Puerto Rican political activists who did significant work in exile. Given the interrelationships of Puerto Rican and other Caribbean nations, we are introduced to the ideas of Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Ramon Emeterio Betances and Jose Marti to form a Confederacion Antillana, an alliance of the Hispanic Caribbean nations.
The idea of the alliance as a way to achieve their liberation, was concretized in the many Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who became involved in the liberation struggles of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Juan Rius Rivera, a participant in the first major pro-independence insurrection in Puerto Rico in 1868 the Grito de Lares, was later to become the commanding general of the Cuban Liberation army in the second Cuban War of Independence. Many other Puerto Ricans fought in the Dominican Republic’s revolutionary efforts and the various Cuban wars of independence. Later, Puerto Ricans like Jose Julio Henna, Roberto H. Todd who were members of the Puerto Rican section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party’s struggle for independence, also shared annexationist ideas as some other Cubans leaders did. Henna and Todd perceived the United States as a federation of nations that could accommodate Puerto Rico and Cuba in its midst. However, Puerto Rico and Cuba since the 18th century had already developed a clear national identity that would not fit within the U.S. national project. The territories conquered previously by the United States from the Mexican American War, the Louisiana Purchase and the Alaska purchase were sparsely populated with populations without a clear national identity. This made their integration and settlement by Anglos more practical. Cuba and Puerto Rico, with larger populations and a sense of national identity made that integration project more challenging. Since it became clearer the U.S. did not have plans to integrate on an equal level these populations, ironically, some of these proponents of annexation to the United States became disillusioned with the imperial politics of the United States and were founders of the first pro-independence party in Puerto Rico under U.S. colonial control. Rafael Bernabe’s interview provides an interesting framework to make sense of this group of Puerto Ricans who straddled what have been contrasting political aspirations of Puerto Ricans. The complexity and fluidity of Puerto Rican anti-colonial politics are revealed in the helpful analyses provided by the interviews.
The role of U.S. colonial policies shaping Puerto Rico’s political economy serves as the background for the shifting of political alliances among the various newly formed political parties under U.S. colonial control. The archival photos and films give a realistic portrayal of social conditions in the island. While General Nelson A. Miles, who led the invading forces of the United States through Guanica, had promised that the “We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves, but to your property; to promote your prosperity, and bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government” his promise was not realized. On the contrary, the military govern and their devaluation of the peso, the freezing of credit and other measures reaped havoc in the fragile economy of the island. As disillusionment pervades the island’s political elites about U.S. imperial designs over Puerto Rico, parties shift alliances and begin to accommodate to the reality on the ground. The Partido Union de Puerto Rico, the leading political organization of the first decades of U.S. domination at one point favored statehood, independence and then all of them at the same time.
While there are no new revelations in this first segment it provides a good background to the rise of the principal force in liberation politics during the first decades of the 20th century. The role of nationalism in Puerto Rico is illustrated by focusing on the historical figure of Pedro Albizu Campos. The rise of Pedro Albizu Campos as a leader of the Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico (PNPR) after his return from the United States where he received a law degree from Harvard University, helped transform a party that was more about rituals and cultural nationalism into a national liberation movement. Pedro Albizu Campos becomes for many decades the leading force of the pro-independence movement and the principal nemesis of U.S. colonial governments. For a colonized people, habituated to passively obeying and whose liberties were very limited the message of Albizu Campos directly challenging the “Americanos” inspired both fear and admiration. The documentary pieces together historical events that provide a helpful narrative that describes the oppressive conditions that led to the armed struggle that nationalists carried out against the colonial government. It also tells the story of the violent repression carried out by the colonial government against broad sectors of the pro-independence movement. This repression, with different methods would continue into the late 20th century under FBI programs such as COINTELPRO and the local intelligence office of the Puerto Rican police.
This segment highlights the role of political leaders that until recently have not received attention by many students of the pro independence movement. The Partido de la Independencia founded by Rosendo Matienzo Cintron, Llorens Torres and Zeno Gandia, hardly ever a major part of the independentista historical narrative, although short lived had a more progressive political platform than the Nationalist Party. While founded by former annexationists---usually depicted as conservative--- they proposed progressive labor laws, women’s suffrage and the creation of public corporations to lead the economic development of the island. In the meantime the leading political party the Partido Union is able to govern for 20 years while accommodating its policies to the colonial status quo. Jose de Diego, an iconic figure in the pro-independence movement and the Partido Union leads the struggle to preserve the use of Spanish as official language of Puerto Rico while at the same time serving as a lawyer for the sugar trusts who controlled the island’s economy. This contradiction placed De Diego on a number of occasions against the rising labor movement.
Although the United States did not have plans to incorporate Puerto Rico on equal terms, given that its political and legal institutions were much more advanced than the monarchical Spain its rule it provided a space where various groups were able to organize, especially the labor movement. Under the leadership of Santiago Iglesias Pantin, a Spanish citizen who had been involved in labor organizing in Puerto Rico and who had been jailed under the Spanish regime, workers organized in 1915 the Partido Socialista. While some significant members and leaders supported independence the party itself did not favor independence, the relationship Iglesias Pantin developed particularly with U.S. pro-imperialist labor leaders like Samuel Gompers moved the party gradually to a more annexationist position.
While Puerto Rico began to experience the ravages of the 1930s depression workers developed their labor organizations and the Partido Socialista, in the meantime the nationalist party under the leadership of Pedro Albizu Campos experienced a transformation. From 1930 until 1965 the party left its formal aristocratic struggle for sovereignty (what Albizu Campos, according to his daughter called nacionalismo de carton ) and became a movement to directly resist U.S. colonial authorities. This direct contestation of U.S. colonial rule was admired by many although the fear of the power and authority of the U.S regime did not lead many to join forces with the nationalists. However, in 1934, sugar workers all across the island went on a general strike and asked for the leadership of Pedro Albizu Campos. Historian Felix Cordoba Iturregui, explains how Pedro Albizu Campos had gained the respect of the workers. Workers felt he was an honest leader and they had been recently betrayed in their collective bargaining by their union leadership. This bold move by the sugar workers evidenced the respect that Albizu Campos had among some broader sectors of the population. This also, according to historian Felix Cordova Iturregui made the colonial authorities more concerned since the economic and the political struggles could overlap and challenge the status quo. This potential alliance between Nationalists and the laboring classes would give the pro-independence movement a powerful social base.
In response to these developments the colonial authorities began to use more extreme measures to repress the nationalists. All the governors of the island were appointed by the president; many of those named were southerners with significant racial prejudices against Puerto Ricans. In 1934, President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt appointed Gov. Blanton Winship , a Southerner who had served in the U.S. Army who went on to name another former military officer Col. Francis Riggs as chief of the Puerto Rico Police. Col. Riggs, as an intelligence officer had served in Nicaragua where he was responsible for the assassination of Nicaraguan patriot Cesar Sandino. Under Col. Riggs’ leadership the police of Puerto Rico was militarized and went on to carry a more aggressive repression against the nationalists. Rosa Meneses Albizu, says that her father told her that Col. Riggs, in a meeting with her father, offered him some economic benefits if he changed course, which he refused. Col. Riggs responded saying then “there is going to be war” to which Albizu Campos responds, "yes there will be war against the colony."
Historian Ramon Bosque Perez, whose work has focused on the various means used by the U.S. government to repress the independentistas, explains how the fear the U.S. had that it might have a social insurrection in the island led it to take even more repressive measures. At the same time, the Nationalists had gradually been able to directly challenge the colonial authorities in order to educate Puerto Ricans not to fear the U.S. authorities.
The colonial government immediately began the war. In 1935 four nationalists were killed in Rio Piedras in what has been known as the Masacre de Rio Piedras. Juan Mari Bras attributes the orders to teach the nationalists a lesson to Governor Blanton Winship. The nationalists in turn responded to the killings by sending Hiram Rosado and Elias Beauchamp members of the Cadetes de la Republica , a paramilitary organization of the Nationalist Party , to execute Col. Riggs. Both nationalists were captured and later executed by the police in the Rio Piedras police station. These events and those which followed only exacerbated the nationalist sentiment of confronting the authority of the U.S. in Puerto Rico. Juan Mari Bras explains how the figure of Pedro Albizu Campos had influenced some sectors of the population, when in 1936 a number of leading leaders of the Nationalist Party are arrested, including Pedro Albizu Campos, the federal court had to conduct two trials against Albizu since in the first one, the Puerto Rican jury did not vote to indict, it was only after another jury, mostly made up of North Americans that finally the jury was able to indict Albizu.
The repression escalated with the Masacre de Ponce on March 21, 1937. The nationalists had called for a peaceful march to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the southern city of Ponce, although the marchers were unarmed Governor Blanton Winship ordered the Puerto Rican police to attack the marchers. 19 marchers were killed and 200 were wounded. This and other violent events changed the dynamics of the Nationalist Party tactics against the colonial authorities. The combination of the new leadership of Albizu Campos and the intensification of repression confirmed for many that U.S. rule over Puerto Rico would not lead to the expansion of democracy. In fact, Antonio Fernós, professor in constitutional law, also recently deceased (2011), explains that despite the fact that in late 1940s Puerto Rico had elected a majority of the members of the Puerto Rican colonial legislature they were not able to exercise any measure of sovereignty. The legislature had approved a locally managed plebiscite to decide the future relationship with the United States, the U.S. government appointed governor vetoed the law, the legislature overcame the veto with the support of two-thirds of the legislature. President Truman then proceeded to veto the legislature’s legislation. Truman explained that he did not want the people of Puerto Rico to think that the U.S. would grant Puerto Rico’s right to choose its future political destiny.
In 1950, frustration and feelings of powerlessness by the nationalists was intensified as the principal political party, the Popular Democratic Party, led by Luis Munoz Marin---who had at one point been an Independentista and a socialist--- led to the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado (in English translated as the Commonwealth). This political arrangement was seen by independentistas as a farce and a ruse concocted by Munoz Marin to disguise the reality of Puerto Rico’s colonial status. The Nationalist Party had been preparing for an insurrection but had to begin the effort earlier because their plans had been revealed by informants. The insurrection called by the Nationalist party led to a number of skirmishes in a number of towns where Nationalists led the insurrection, more than 25 nationalists were killed and thousands of other non-nationalists who supported independence were jailed. Further, two nationalists carried out an armed attack against Blair House in Washington D.C., the temporary residence of President Truman in 1950, one of the nationalists, Griselio Torresola died in the attack and another Oscar Collazo survived and was jailed. Later in 1954, after the Popular Democratic Party had been able to get the United States to convince the United Nations to remove Puerto Rico from the list of colonial territories, a commando of four nationalists entered the gallery of the House of Representatives, unfurled a Puerto Rican flag, fired shot at congress, shouted “Free Puerto Rico Now.” Five congressmen were injured. This was the last major political action occurring under the leadership of the Nationalist Party. Oscar Collazo and the four nationalists, Lolita Lebrón, Irving Flores, Rafael Cancel Miranda and Andres Figueroa Cordero were sentenced to lengthy jail terms in federal prisons. The documentary has film, photos and interviews providing background for this event.
As these events unfolded U.S. and Puerto Rican independentista relations began to be shaped by the politics of the cold war. While the nationalists were still the focus of attention now the focus was on the communists. Another shift was the increasing role that the colonial government now led by the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) had in the political repression of independentistas and communists. A “Muffle Law” was approved by the PPD controlled colonial legislature, similar to the Smith Act in the United States which limited the political and civil rights of the pro-independence forces. The political repression escalated while at a time the main pro-independence electoral political party, the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), had declined from being the main opposition party in 1952 with more than 19 per cent of the vote to its precipitous decline to 12.1 per cent in 1956. Its rise according to the scholars was not necessarily due to a increase in independentistas but to its positioning as the main opposition party while the Republican pro-statehood forces had been weakened by the electoral victories of its main contenders the Popular Democratic Party and the Pro-Independence Party. Internal divisions continued to develop within the PIP and were exacerbated when in 1959 a contending organization, the Movimiento Pro Independencia (MPI) was formed by former PIP members he left the party. The MPI was strongly influenced by the Cuban Revolution. Earlier, in 1956, the Federacion Universitaria Pro-Independencia (FUPI) was formed, also influenced by Nationalist and Marxist ideologies. This organization rose up to become the most important student organization in the next decades. It also provided a number of young activists to the more militant Movimiento Pro Independencia (MPI), which became the leading catalyst for a more active, radical leftist pro-independence movement.
Part II: 1959-1980
In this section we are provided with analysis and documentary film about the factors that shaped pro-independence politics in the island from the 1960s until the late 1970s. This period was a time of increased political activism and particularly because of the expansion of youth activism both at the university level and middle and high school. While this was a period of an almost global surge in youth activism in the Americas and Europe, in Puerto Rico there were some endogenous factors that propelled the social movements. Puerto Rico also had its generation gap after WWII with a new generation who had grown under the colonial system that ironically in the 1950s-60s had experienced some level of economic growth. This generation was not familiar with the depression but was being challenged by the imperial demands to serve the United States as cannon fodder in the wars brought about by the Cold war. For this generation of the 60s and 70s it was not the Korean War that was the defining challenge for Puerto Ricans it was the Vietnam War. While many Puerto Ricans resisted the draft during the Korean War, during the Vietnam War the resistance to the draft was sharper and more extensive than in the United States. It was so effective that the draft in Puerto Rico, because of the thousands of Puerto Rican youth who resisted induction, eventually collapsed and only a small number of people were incarcerated. Also important is that access to an expanded public university education had expanded while new political organizations developed after the electoral collapse in 1960 and 1964 of traditional pro-independence parties like the Pro-Independence Party (PIP). These new political organizations and new actors infused the new stage of the movements with Marxist ideology and tactics, non-violent civil disobedience, and armed struggle. The example of the Cuban Revolution and its more national brand of Marxism made more palatable Marxism among broad sectors of the movements. While Marxism had earlier influenced sectors of the labor movement (giving rise to the Puerto Rican Communist Party in 1934 and to the formation of a major industrial union the CGT) for the first time the ideology also became pervasive among students and among non-industrial workers.
One of the most important political developments during these two decades was the formation of the Movimiento Pro-Independencia (MPI). We hear from some of the leading founders of the MPI, like its former secretary general Juan Mari Bras, Providencia Trabal a long time leading political activist and others who left the more conservative PIP in order to create a more militant organization. Other informants like Felix Ojeda Reyes, Antonio Gaztambide, Florencio Merced, Doris Pizarro, Manuel De J. Gonzalez were part of the youth who gave the organization a youthful character and led it to, in conjunction with the Federacion de Universitario Pro-Independencia (FUPI) at the university level and the Federacion de Estudiantes Pro-Independencia at the middle school and high school level, to a massive pro-independence activism among the island’s youth. We hear from Julio Muriente an MPI activist from Fajardo about the struggle against the military draft, we also hear from Juan Giusti about the repression the MPI endured in the 1970s. In the early 1970s after a violent conflict between pro-statehood activists and independentistas at the University of Puerto Rico many leaders and activists of the MPI had sought refuge in the organization’s headquarters in downtown Rio Piedras. The pro-statehood mob began to attack the building with rocks and Molotov cocktails. We hear from Angel Agosto, who would later become Secretary of Labor Affairs for the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, explaining how police officers surrounding the headquarters at one point, instead of protecting the building and the people under siege provided incendiary devices to them. The events that day were an indication of how political dynamics would change from the labor struggles of the 1930s, and away from the Nationalist’s tactics of armed defense. The next decade, from 1970 through 1980 the influence of socialism became not only prevalent among the MPI activists it also began to infuse the largest independentista organization in the island the PIP.
The transformation of the PIP from a traditional electoral conservative organization is told by participants in this process like Luis Angel Torres, and Carlos Gallisa. Luis Angel Torres was a leader of the PIP university youth and was later elected with Carlos Gallisa in 1972 to Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives as the first PIP legislators in decades. This occurs at a time when the PIP had chosen the motto of Independence, Socialism and Democracy as their standard bearer. Luis Angel Torres, who today is a leader of the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST), an organization that emerged after some transformations from a group that defected from the PIP, provides interesting insights. As a former legislator for the PIP and a leader of the radical youth within the PIP he provides some nuanced information about the changes that took place within the PIP. He also attests to the strong influence that Marxist theory and practice had achieved among some sectors of the PIP, particularly its youth. We learn of the strong reaction that the leadership of the organization had to the activities of PIP youth, especially during a massive gathering they had before the 1972 elections when a large contingent of young PIP militants paraded with posters of Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara in the Hiram Bithorn stadium in 1972. The documentary provides a background to understand what was happening in the island in the early 1970s, the internecine debates and the unexpected outcomes of the organizing the PIP had in crucial struggles like the efforts to bring to an end the use of the island of Culebra by the U.S. navy. This rejuvenated and more radical organization also was involved in communities of squatters who took over fallow land in order to establish their homes. The use of direct action by the now socialist-influenced PIP led the leadership of the party to engage in civil disobedience. The president of the party, Ruben Berrios Martinez led a group of leaders and activists of the party in trespassing into the Culebra target zone, building structures and stopping the naval bombing they also provided support and political education in the new squatter settlements.
This was a period of some competition between the PIP/MPI for the role of leader of the pro-independence movement. While the PIP’s socialism was social democratic, the MPI was moving to a more Marxist Leninist ideology and practice. The fact that the PIP moved closer to the MPI created a new dynamic that led these organizations into actions to establish a clearer demarcation between them to recruit followers. In terms of the struggle in Culebra, we hear from the interview with Juan Mari Bras, of the Movement Pro-Independence (MPI), that they sought to expand the activism against the navy in Culebra with different tactics. Instead of planning civil disobedience activities on the shore as the PIP they sought two boats that navigated through Flamingo Bay where naval ships practiced their sea to shore bombardment. This risky tactic was effective in getting some publicity as a more radical protest and effectively led to the suspension of the bombing also. In the end, the Ruben Berrios and his followers who had created an encampment in the target zone in Culebra would be arrested and jailed in a local federal prison. This gave the PIP an international projection thanks to the Social Democratic International the PIP had joined earlier. But the efforts of Puerto Rican activists eventually led the Secretary of Defense to close down military activities in Culebra in 1975. Unfortunately, the military use of the larger neighboring island of Vieques increased. This would lead to another movement of resistance which developed in the 1980s until 2003 when the U.S. Navy finally suspended its activities in Vieques.
We also get to hear from Juan Mari Bras about the founding of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Some dissidents of the PIP created the Movimiento Socialista Popular (MSP, today MST) while others joined the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Initially the PSP did not participate in the electoral process and concentrated its efforts in organizing cells in labor unions and working class communities. We hear from Pedro Grant, one of the most important labor leaders during this period talk about how effective the PSP organizing was during this time. Most of the principal labor leaders, particularly in the public sectors were in some relationship with the PSP. Party activists were present in labor struggles around the country providing a public presence of the party among island workers. For example, the Newspaper Guild who organized journalists, truck drivers and printers in the largest newspapers in Puerto Rico had significant number of PSP militants. In the newspaper El Mundo the Guild called for a lengthy strike that garnered massive support from other unions and students and which led to armed actions against helicopters used by the company to transport scabs into the plant. We hear from Angel Agosto, Secretary of Labor Affairs of the PSP providing some insights of how these armed actions were carried out.
While some have criticized the PSP for overestimating its popular support, the party decided to register as a political party and participate in the 1976 elections. We hear various perspectives, including Florencio Merced, former leader of the Federacion de Estudiantes Universitarios Independentistas (FUPI) who had joined the PSP talking about the decision of the new organization to participate in the electoral process of 1976. This electoral process provided the largest number of pro-independence votes for the pro-independence movement since the 1952 elections when 19 per cent of the voters chose the PIP. In these elections, while the PSP only received 10,000 and the PIP 83,000 together they achieved a very impressive showing. According to Merced, for a Marxist Leninist organization to receive 10,000 votes in Puerto Rico under surveillance and in very oppressive circumstances this was an important effort. This evaluation is shared by former PIP leader Noel Colon Martinez and other interviewees who agreed it was an important achievement.
While some of the interviews provide reaffirmation of what is known about some historical chapters of Puerto Rico’s political history, there is intriguing new information about how divisions impacted political organizations in myriad ways. We hear from Samuel Aponte, a leader with the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and the director of its newspaper La Hora who later abandoned the party because of what they considered the authoritarian leadership of Attorney Ruben Berrios. We are also able to hear Attorney Ruben Berrios provide his own perspective about these political and historical events. We hear from Carlos Gallisá, who represented the PIP in the Puerto Rican senate and later resigned from the party and became a representative in the House of Representatives for the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, a Marxist Leninist organization.
Also this is the first time that a public document like this documentary reveals information from participants in the clandestine groups engaged in armed struggle in Puerto Rico. Especially after the mid-1970s, there was an increase in the number of organizations which participated in underground military actions against military and other symbols of U.S. power in Puerto Rico. At one point in time at least 20 groups had organized themselves to engage in clandestine military actions. Groups like the Movimiento Independentista Revolucionario Armado (MIRA), Comandos Armados de Liberacion (CAL), Organizacion de Voluntarios Para la Revolucion Puertorriqueña (OVRP) and the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Puertorriqueños- Ejercito Popular Boricua (PRTP-EPB) and others carried out bank robberies, expropriation of explosives, weapons, ambushes of military units, bombings. We hear from a leading organizer about how these organizations coalesced, how they organized, what blunders were committed, in fact revelations that were only privy to very few activists in the island.
These revelations indicate the extent and depth of the underground military resistance that Puerto Rican organizations were able to develop under the pressure of naval, military, and other intelligence gathering agencies and units of the United States’ government. Also, it is interesting how this development occurred at times as a self sustaining movement with a significant network of underground supporters. It challenges the idea that these organizations operated in a vacuum or only with external support. The Macheteros (PRTP-EPB) was probably the largest and most effective organization who achieved an almost legendary image among many in Puerto Rico. Most of its actions as one of the interviewees explains were not merely military actions in a vacuum but political agitation. When Angel Rodriguez Cristobal was killed in a federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida, the federal government alleged he committed suicide. Photographic evidence surfaced showing that his body had traumas from beatings or torture which led many to believe he was murdered by federal officials. In response the PRTP-EPB sent a squad of armed militants to the Naval Base in Sábana Seca and machine gunned a bus carrying naval personnel killing two sailors. They alleged this was a political attack to challenge the sense of disempowerment Puerto Ricans felt when repressive events took place against independentistas.
The challenge of a project like this is that it is such a rich history that it is a challenge to be inclusive of everything that has shaped the independentista movement for almost a century. But in all fairness, this work covers the highlights and neuralgic moments and leaders and movements in a way that very few books have been able to achieve. What this project reveals is that despite the perception that the pro-independence movement has been a rigid, inflexible political effort, this documentary evidences that the movement has been able to transform itself at different times and survive despite facing surveillance and repression from the most powerful empire in human history. It also highlights the intense surveillance and disruptive efforts carried out by U.S. intelligence and police agencies to derail and eradicate the efforts of Puerto Rican activists to gain sovereignty for one of the “Oldest Colony” in the modern world. This retrospective also provides a new perspective that can allow us to make sense of the future developments in Puerto Rico’s journey to find its rightful place in the 21st century.
Hopefully the producer will be able to conclude the third part of this series.
Sponsored by Fundación Puertorriqueña de la Humanidades; Fundación Manrique Cabrera; National Endowment of the Humanities, Carlos Delgado.