In Honor of Pedro Albizu Campos

Nov 4, 2015
10:05 AM
Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist Party, speaks to striking sugar cane workers in Guyama, Puerto Rico in 1934 (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños/Hunter College/CUNY)

Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Nationalist Party, speaks to striking sugar cane workers in Guayama, Puerto Rico in 1934 (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños/Hunter College/CUNY)

History, it is often said, is written by those who oppress and hang heroes. Such was the case with William Wallace during the fight for independence of Scotland and such was the case of George Washington during the American Revolutionary war. Curiously, both of these historic figures were persecuted and labeled as traitors of England and the royal crown. They both fought for exactly the same purpose: freedom for their respective homelands from the unilateral oppression of England and Great Britain. Wallace was embodied as a hero centuries later in a movie starring Mel Gibson, and Washington continues to be the leading founding father icon of the United States.

In Nelson Denis’s new book War Against All Puerto Ricans, he provides a goosebumps-triggering introduction to another historic figure in both American and Puerto Rican history, a man labeled as a terrorist by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation for the majority of his entire adult life. The passage describes the arrival of American General Nelson Miles to Puerto Rico shortly after the United States invasion and the subsequent occupation of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War:

As Miles marched in and hoisted the American flag, a few reporters and local politicians clustered around him. Some townspeople listened to his speech, but most were uninterested. No one was more curious than a barefooted boy, seven years old and brown as a chestnut. He had never seen so many guns, such tall men, and such a big flag. Nor had he ever heard the strange language flowing from General Miles’s mouth, which sounded like a dog with indigestion. It was all so grand that when General Miles finished, the boy applauded and yelled ‘Que viva Puerto Rico!’ because he assumed it was the right thing to do. Everyone turned with a grave expression. The soldiers eyed the crowd. The boy kept smiling and yelled ‘Que viva Puerto Rico!’ again.

That boy’s name was Pedro Albizu Campos.

Albizu Campos is one of the most important historic figures of Puerto Rico’s history and is commonly referred to as the “Puerto Rican Malcolm X.” He was the first Puerto Rican valedictorian at Harvard Law School, but was never able to give his class’s valedictory speech because he was dark-skinned. (Two of his law professors purposely delayed his graduation so he would not be able to give his speech.) It was one of many encounters with racial discrimination that Pedro Albizu Campos would confront in the United States. Having been born in the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Albizu was extremely intelligent in high school, which eventually led him to a scholarship to study at the University of Vermont where he majored in chemistry before being accepted to Harvard Law School.

He spoke six languages — English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, and ancient Greek — was an avid reader, and actively participated in many social causes throughout his academic formation. Among these was having collaborated in the movement for Irish independence. At 30 years of age, Albizu turned down many lucrative job offers on the mainland United States to return to Puerto Rico and settled into a poor barrio in his home town Ponce, where he began practicing poverty law and pursued his almost obsessive fight for the people of Puerto Rico to be free.

During this era, the United States had taken over most of the island’s lands and Puerto Rico’s sugar fields were under the total control of American corporations, specifically the American Sugar Refining Company. By 1907, it owned or controlled 98 percent of the sugar processing capacity in the entire United States and was known as the Sugar Trust. The company exploited the island for their economic gain, while paying the Puerto Rican sugar workers very low wages and under harsh working conditions. Despite Pedro Albizu Campos’s charismatic personality and his well-attended speeches at public gatherings urging peasants to stand up for themselves and demand respect, he was largely ignored by the company and the U.S. government.

All of that changed when Albizu Campos successfully lead the sugar workers to hold a strike that severely affected the sugar company’s profits. It was then that the FBI commenced its surveillance of Pedro Albizu Campos, and it would continue up to his arrest, incarceration and death.

Albizu Campos was the president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party from 1930 until his death in 1965. Because of his extremely charismatic oratorical skill, he was nicknamed as “El Maestro” (The Teacher). He was assessed as a communist by the FBI, although he never expressed support towards communists. On the contrary, he was very outspoken against the Soviet Union throughout his entire life. His speeches aggressively aimed at motivating his countrymen to demand respect and freedom for Puerto Rico from the United States’ colonial rule. Although Puerto Ricans were American citizens, they could not vote for President of the United States and had no representation in the U.S. Congress. Albizu Campos accused the United States of being tyrants and assassins, stating the FBI lead by J. Edgar Hoover were systematically persecuting and killing innocent Puerto Ricans who dared to denounce the United States’ mistreatment of Puerto Rico. In 1939, he was imprisoned for 26 years after being convicted of the charge of attempting to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico.

In 1950 he organized armed uprisings in several cities in Puerto Rico on behalf of independence and was allegedly behind the failed assassination attempt of President Truman. Afterward he was convicted and imprisoned again. During his incarceration he was a victim of what he described to the media as radiation exposure by the U.S. government. In his cell he would wrap wet towels around his bod  to lessen the pain produced by the radiation exposure. The U.S. government responded to the allegations by stating Pedro Albizu Campos was “clinically diagnosed” to be insane.

He died in 1965 after his pardon and release from federal prison, shortly after suffering a stroke which left him paralyzed.
Years later, in the year 2000, Congressman Jose Serrano from the Bronx, New York, as ranking member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, requested Pedro Albizu Campos’s FBI file be declassified and provided under the Freedom of Information Act, revealing that the San Juan FBI office had coordinated with FBI offices in New York, Chicago and other cities in a decades-long surveillance of Albizu and Puerto Ricans who had contact or communication with him. These documents are viewable online, including some as recent as 1965. What Congressman Serrano discovered in the almost two million-page FBI file was truly horrific.

Pedro Albizu Campos’s constitutional rights were disgustingly violated by the very government that professed them. The file gathered detailed information about every aspect of his life and his movements: his residence was subject to warrantless searches by FBI agents, and the allegations of Pedro Albizu Campos regarding the persecution and killing of Nationalist Party members by the American government was confirmed to be true. Lastly, Albizu’s allegation of mistreatment while in imprisonment was also confirmed to be true. The United States officially admitted during the late 1970s to having used radiation to experiment and torture prisoners during the time Pedro Albizu Campos was in its custody.

Forty-seven years after his death, in 2012, a political status referendum was held on the island of Puerto Rico. I participated actively in the campaign for Puerto Rico to be treated equally by becoming the 51st state, and being granted the rights to equal representation and the right to vote for president. The people of Puerto Rico massively rejected the island’s current colonial political relationship with the United States, and on a separate ballot 61 percent voted for statehood, marking the very first time in history that Puerto Ricans withdrew their consent to be governed under its colonial status.

Months before the referendum took place, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, stated: “When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you.” Mysteriously, the White House began to say the results were in fact unclear”and that there seemed to still be division among Puerto Ricans. To this very day, Puerto Rico’s people continue to live under poverty, and U.S. corporations continue to economically rape the island (much like the American Sugar Refining Company did in the 1930s) by utilizing it as a tax haven to dodge U.S. corporate taxes in order for their CE’s and America’s one percent to become richer while Puerto Ricans remain poor. A recent U.S. Senate investigation revealed that Microsoft had set up a subsidiary plant in Humacao, Puerto Rico specifically to evade federal corporate taxes while only producing 177 jobs on the island. American pharmaceutical companies had done it for more than two decades, some of which continue to do it today.

In recent months, I began to track and research the political donations of these companies to the campaigns of politicians in the United States. Microsoft alone spent millions of dollars in campaign donations to almost all members of Congress and both candidates for President of the United States to effectively protect their tax haven in Puerto Rico. I prepared a video explaining the scheme:

When I watched President Obama’s speech at Selma about the right to vote for all American citizens while remembering those who died at Selma for their rights to be respected, my stomach turned. I felt as if the United States was spitting in my face and in the face of all Puerto Ricans. Here was the president of the United States who had broken his promise to take action on the island’s colonial political situation, talking about the importance of everyone going out to the polls to vote and reiterating how people died for that right.

What about Puerto Rico? What about Don Pedro Albizu Campos, Mr. President? Did he not also die for courageously demanding the respect, dignity and liberty of his people in the so-called “U.S. territory” of Puerto Rico? Did he not use the very same means of armed resistance George Washington and the founding fathers used to win their independence from British colonial rule? As I testified at the United Nations in June 2015, I stressed the United States had lost its credibility internationally by failing to grant the full democratic rights to its own citizens in Puerto Rico, and closed by pointing out that the United States was no longer the beacon of freedom and democracy worldwide, but had become the nation of hypocrisy.

Today, as I look back to the days when I recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States every morning in elementary school in North Carolina, I cannot help but feel betrayed by the very nation I grew up admiring. The United States has abandoned the ideals of which its founding fathers mounted their movement for freedom and democracy. Today we live in a nation that is run by Wall Street, who has the power to buy members of Congress and affect national elections through the power of the buck. Today we live in a nation whose Supreme Court still deems Puerto Ricans as “aliens,” unfit to the American way of life, and has used this century-long jurisprudence to deny Puerto Rico’s right to representation. Today, we live in a nation whose Supreme Court granted unlimited political campaign spending for corporations in national elections. Today we live in a nation that continues to discriminate against African Americans and minorities within the criminal justice system, a discrimination I too have experienced here in Florida, of which I wrote an article about having a Puerto Rican flag in my car. Today, we live in a nation that preaches freedom and democracy to dictatorships abroad, but denies equal rights to its own citizens in Puerto Rico, while exploiting it economically.

According to the Americans for Tax Fairness’s most recent report, between 2009 and 2011, U.S. corporations dodged over $68 billion in federal corporate taxes in offshore tax havens like Puerto Rico. U.S. corporations got richer, and today my homeland of Puerto Rico is in the most catastrophic economic situation ever. And what does the United States say in response? That Puerto Rico cannot file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy and there will be no be federal bailout (as opposed to the Wall Street bailout) to attend the island’s economic downfall even — after so many years of corporate exploitation, U.S. Navy bombings of one of its municipalities, thousands of sacrificed Puerto Rican lives in every major U.S. war, the torturing and murder of Pedro Albizu Campos, and the prohibition of Puerto Ricans’ right to vote or their inalienable right to freedom through independence. Pedro Albizu Campos’s only crime was taking the same actions as the founding fathers of the United States who demanded and fought for their freedom. Therefore, he too should be included in all history books as a patriot who stood up against injustice.

The unfortunate truth about the statehood party in Puerto Rico is that it is no different than the pro-status quo party. It is overrun by corporate attorneys and big-money interests who utilize pro-statehood speeches at political rallies to obtain power and then create tax breaks for American millionaires behind closed doors in Washington, D.C., where they also receive a cut. The power behind the statehood party are corporate law firms. Puerto Rico’s former governor, Luis Fortuño, and the island’s current non-voting member of Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, worked at those firms before getting into office. Those firms’ clients are the same U.S. corporations that continue to evade federal taxes on the island. That is why it should be no surprise that Governor Fortuño dropped the corporate tax rate in Puerto Rico in 2011 from four percent to one percent. Corporate America CEOs and members of the island’s economic elite got rich at the expense of the people of Puerto Rico who are now poorer than ever. The fact of the matter is that nothing has changed since the days of Don Pedro Albizu Campos. Luis Munoz Marin sold out to U.S. corporations in order to become the island’s first governor, and today’s major political parties on the island have done the same. Puerto Rico is still under levels of poverty, politicians on the island from both majority parties are highly influenced by U.S. corporations, and Puerto Rico is still a colony.

It is time for the international community to hold the United States accountable for its century-long colonial rule and economic exploitation of Puerto Rico. The United States should immediately grant equal rights to the citizens of Puerto Rico or grant their inalienable right to freedom through independence. If the United States is swift to request international sanctions against undemocratic and oppressive countries, it is time the United States receive a dose of embarrassment and receive sanctions as well. To my people suffering the effects of poverty and economic depression directly caused by Wall Street and the United States, I urge you to reach deep within your conscious, be courageous, abandon fear and demand the respect we rightfully deserve as human beings. Carefully reflect within yourself about what you know is the truth and, united as Puerto Ricans, we can begin to walk towards the Promised Land.

In honor of Don Pedro Albizu Campos…. Lucharemos por la Patria!


Phillip Arroyo is currently a Juris Doctor student at Florida A&M College of Law in Orlando, Florida. Mr. Arroyo was selected as the only Puerto Rican to serve in the 2012 White House Internship, having worked in the office of the Vice President Joe Biden, where he analyzed domestic and economics issues while at the White House. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillipArroyo.