This essay does not judge or condemn Luis Muñoz Marín.
We all know that President Barack Obama, Governor David Patterson (New York) and Congressman Trey Radel (Florida) used cocaine, Mayors Marion Barry (Washington, D.C.) and Rob Ford (Toronto) smoked crack, and innumerable politicians and CEOs do a little “something something” on the regular. But 70 years ago, a divorce, an abortion, or a drug addiction could end any political career.
It almost happened to Governor Luis Muñoz Marín of Puerto Rico.
In 1934, Pedro Albizu Campos led an island-wide agricultural strike that brought the insular economy to a standstill, and ended only when the sugarcane workers’ wages rose to $1.50 per day—more than double what they’d been receiving. The U.S. reaction was immediate. An Army general named Blanton Winship was sent down as governor, and a Naval Intelligence officer named E. Francis Riggs was installed as Chief of Police. They immediately militarized the Insular Police, shot Nationalists in broad daylight, murdered 17 civilians in the Ponce Massacre and on October 28, 1935, Riggs declared “War to the death against all Puerto Ricans.”
Albizu Campos was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in USP Atlanta Penitentiary. Other Nationalists were imprisoned, harassed, fired from their jobs and followed all over the island by the FBI. Some of them “disappeared.”
But this was not enough. The U.S. needed further control. They had to contain this “Nationalist problem,” or they’d lose the island forever.
That’s when J. Edgar Hoover, the king of the carpetas, rode in with his FBI cavalry. He followed every known Nationalist all over the island. He investigated mayors, teachers and Catholic priests. Barely three weeks after Muñoz Marín was elected to President of the Puerto Rican Senate, Hoover commanded his San Juan office to “obtain all information of a pertinent character concerning Luis Muñoz Marín and his associates.” He later issued a second demand for “a thorough and discreet investigation by the San Juan Office.”
The reports poured in immediately:
Luis “has no profession.” Luis is “absolutely irresponsible financially. He never has any money in his pockets and never thinks of his responsibilities.” He “never accepted the responsibility of marriage or of his family, and for years has not contributed to the support of Muna Lee (his wife) or his children.” During the last six years (1934-1940) he “abandoned his home and is living with his mistress, Inez Maria Mendoza.” He is “utterly unprincipled” with “no ideals whatsoever,” and has been “a member of four different political parties during his political career.”
As President of the Puerto Rican Senate, he is a known “heavy drinker” who “goes on protracted drunks which last from two or three days to two or three weeks,” and whose “bill for whiskey alone runs around $2,000 a year.”
On one occasion Luis “got thoroughly drunk with Vicente Geigel-Polanco, the Majority Leader of the Senate, in the Normandie Hotel.” On another he arrived at the Escambrón Beach Club at 8 p.m. where “he ordered drinks,” then “he ordered more drinks,” then “he swept all the drinks from the table,” then “he swore at his friends” and finally he left at 1 a.m., “so intoxicated that he was hardly able to walk when he left the place.”
When told by the Escambrón that he owed them $650, Luis told them they could get “a $650 tax deduction” for it. He also had a $300 bill at the Condado Hotel and a $200 bill from RCA, neither of which had been paid in five years.
But J. Edgar Hoover was an old hand at discrediting people and destroying their careers. He knew this dirt about “drinking” and “unpaid hotel bills” was small potatoes. He needed something big and demanded something big, for 2½ years…
And finally he struck gold.
On April 1, 1943, Hoover received multiple reports from “reliable informants” that Luis Muñoz Marín was a narcotics addict. Here is the first report:
A second report showed that Muñoz Marín had faced charges of morphine addiction in a public assembly of his own party, in front of hundreds of party members.
A third report showed that Muñoz Marín was known as El Moto de Isla Verde (The Junkie of Isla Verde), who started smoking opium in his Isla Verde home and years later in the governor’s mansion every weekend. That report also showed that he’d been “involved in an important narcotics case, but nothing was done because Muñoz Marín would fire all members of the Insular Government Narcotics Bureau if prosecution were even contemplated.”
Now, Hoover had Muñoz Marín exactly where he wanted him. Muñoz Marín was a narcotics addict who smoked opium every weekend. He’d gotten caught in a narcotics deal—and he’d used his public office to bury the entire matter.
The FBI had everything it needed. They didn’t investigate any further or prosecute Muñoz Marín’s narcotics case—because with these three reports (narcotics addiction, narcotics sale, obstruction of justice) the FBI could end Muñoz Marín’s career at any time. With a one-page report they turned the political leader of Puerto Rico into a U.S. sock puppet.
Evidence of this puppetry came immediately.
In 1943, within weeks of the FBI reports, Muñoz Marín flip-flopped on the issue of independence for Puerto Rico. In both 1943 and 1945, Muñoz Marín not only opposed the Tydings independence bill, he traveled repeatedly to Washington, D.C., to lobby against the bill.
By 1948, the transformation was complete: when Muñoz Marín told reporters that “the only serious defect” in U.S.–Puerto Rico relations was the law that prevented the island from refining its own sugar.
Also in 1948, Muñoz Marín convened an emergency legislative session to pass Public Law 53, also known as La Ley de la Mordaza (the Gag Law). Public Law 53 made it a felony to speak in favor of Puerto Rican independence; to own or display a Puerto Rican flag (even in one’s home); to print, publish, sell or exhibit any material which might undermine the U.S. government; or to organize any society, group or assembly of people with a similar intent.
By 1950, in just two years, Muñoz Marín used Law 53 to arrest over 3,000 people without any evidence or due process, and to imprison many of them for 20 years.
He told the New York Times that these 3,000 people had been arrested for “conspiracy against democracy helped by the Communists,” and denounced their “lunacy, fanaticism and irresponsibility manipulated for the benefit of Communist propaganda.”
He used Law 53 to arrest his political opponents, and to intimidate anyone who didn’t want to vote “Commonwealth” during the 1952 status plebiscite.
When newspapers called Luis a traitor and prominent lawyers called Public Law 53 a Gag Law, which violated free speech and invited policemen to break into people’s homes, Muñoz Marín responded that “this law is precisely to prevent anyone from gagging the Puerto Rican people through fascist threats of force. And I have asked the FBI to enforce it.”
This was the same FBI that had records of Muñoz Marín’s personal narcotics addiction, and his own criminal narcotics activity.
The same FBI that had him (and through him, the entire island) on a dog leash.
El Moto de Isla Verde was turned into a doormat by the FBI. Every U.S. investment banker, sugar cane millionaire and politician wiped their feet on that doormat, whenever they entered the governor’s mansion.
This essay does not judge Luis Muñoz Marín for his drug addiction, or condemn him for smoking opium in La Fortaleza. But the consequences of his drug addiction were shared by every person in Puerto Rico, their children and now their grandchildren.
According to legend, Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
According to fact, Luis Muñoz Marín smoked opium while his country was bartered away.
Editor’s Note: Initially, the third FBI report cited in this piece stated that Muñoz Marín was said to have only smoked opium in the governor’s mansion. That was not accurate. The third FBI report also said that he had started years before in his Isla Verde home around 1943 before he became governor in 1949, where he continued, according to the FBI report. We want to thank @BrayanJSanchez for raising the question with us and the author, who confirmed this chronological oversight. The article has been edited to accurately reflect the third FBI report.