Orwell began his meditation on Gandhi by suggesting that “saints should always be judged guilty until proven innocent.” Only the most diehard Catholic independentista would describe Oscar López Rivera as a saint, but reaction to the news of President Obama’s eleventh-hour commutation of López Rivera mirrored that of a falsely condemned man released from prison. “Oscar is free!” went the popular refrain, and even I was brash enough to submit that he should’ve received a pardon instead. To the rest of the world he’s some sort of Puerto Rican freedom fighter, possibly a terrorist, who has been in federal prison for the past 36 years, 12 of them in solitary confinement, under the charge of seditious conspiracy and other crimes. To the people of Puerto Rico he embodies the plight of the island itself, which has been serving time in a kind of federal prison — colonialism — for the past 118 years. I hear the celebrations started early in Santurce and Río Piedras. Friends back in Chicago tell me Division Street was jubilant but subdued. Everyone seems to understand that López Rivera, as with the late Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela, is no saint, and yet he’s still being treated as such. Blame it on the reverential nature of us humans.
López Rivera is far less a saint than he is a symbol. Symbols represent ideas and feelings, as the literary critic Luis Leal explained in his survey of Aztlán, the Aztec Eden which has become more Chicano mythology than actual geography. The Puerto Rican flag is a symbol, not merely in the obvious way that flags represent territories and their governments, but in how some emblems stand for a collection of people or even a movement. It’s in that sense that the flag of Puerto Rico is a symbol of its people, both the three and a half million actually living on the island as well as the over five million living in the diaspora. (It’s a diaspora because, if things hadn’t been so bad in Puerto Rico for so long, more Puerto Ricans would live there today than don’t.) As both man and symbol, López Rivera combines in one “mortal envelope” the Puerto Rican people’s revolutionary struggle for independence over there and better socioeconomic conditions over here — or, put plainly, for equal treatment as citizens and as people in both places.
Cloaked in this symbolism, it’s hard to know much about López Rivera with any certainty. We could refer to the man himself, his words, but he’s hardly impartial to the matter. We can, however, discern a few facts: Born in San Sebastián in 1943 and living in Chicago since the age of 14, Oscar López Rivera was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965 and sent to fight in Vietnam where he earned a Bronze Star. Though born in a colonial possession himself, Oscar had to travel to a former French colony to experience his first conscious encounter with colonialism. And just as serving in Britain’s Imperial Police in Burma had radicalized a young Orwell, Oscar’s service to the American empire’s campaign in Vietnam awoke in him a lifelong antipathy toward the eagle’s green eyes and grasping talons. “It was in Vietnam where I saw people fight against colonialism, where I saw people fight against imperialism, and where I learned how to develop such a struggle,” he told Judge McMillen at his trial in 1981. It was also Vietnam that sparked a burning nationalistic pride:
The first time that i identified with the Puerto Rican flag was in Vietnam. A Boricua fellow soldier had one painted on the camouflage of his helmet. It caught my attention and i also painted one. Afterward i saw other Boricuas who had done the same thing and it became a symbol of Puerto Rican identity. i was over 22 years old when i discovered the Puerto Rican flag. …
i had lived in Puerto Rico for the first 14 years of my life and had gone to school there up through the middle of ninth grade, but i had never identified with the Puerto Rican flag. In fact, i don’t remember ever having seen the Puerto Rican flag waving in the schools where i studied. i knew the United States flag well and unconsciously defended it. This is because i was ignorant and had no consciousness of the Puerto Rican colonial reality. i was even ready to give my life for the nation and the government system responsible for the debacle suffered by my native country.
Oscar came home to another war zone. Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood had experienced an influx of Puerto Rican families fleeing wrecking balls and bulldozers in Lincoln Park and the Near West Side, where blacks and Latinos had lived side by side for decades. The ethnically white longtime residents of Humboldt Park increasingly resented the newcomers, whom they thought mingled with blacks far too much. Eventually those longtime residents began to view Puerto Ricans as being more akin to blacks than to themselves.
In June 1966 the city held its first Puerto Rican Day parade downtown after which Division Street, the epicenter of West Town’s growing Puerto Rican enclave, erupted in a festival of violence and destruction after police shot 20-year-old Arcelis Cruz in the leg as he ran down an alley. The uprising lasted two whole days and marked a turning point both in how ethnically white Chicagoans viewed Puerto Ricans and in how Puerto Ricans viewed themselves. “The riots brought to light the conditions that Puerto Ricans were enduring in rapidly declining, neglected neighborhoods,” Professor Lilia Fernández writes in Brown in the Windy City, her political history of Latinos in Chicago. “The standoff between a predominantly white police force and overwhelmingly Puerto Rican participants, moreover, magnified their racial difference.” Oscar’s own mother, Mita, told Claridad in the early eighties that her husband had come to Chicago in 1952 “looking for a better environment and it was not to be found here. We have to work harder, it’s colder, [there is] more humiliation, more racism for us …. We Latinos all suffer … in this country.”
By 1968, the year after López Rivera’s return from war, Puerto Ricans in Chicago were intensely engaged in what Professor Edna Acosta-Belén and Carlos Santiago describe as “political and educational activism.” José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez would transform a Puerto Rican turf gang, the Young Lords, into a left-wing organization allied with the likes of Fred Hampton’s Black Panther Party and a group of young white leftists from Appalachia calling themselves the Young Patriots Organization. Dr. King was gunned down in April, followed by the assassination of the Hyannis Port heir and popular presidential hopeful, Senator Bobby Kennedy, in June. In August Chicago was the site of a brutal police assault on peaceful protesters camped outside the Democratic National Convention, which saw the progressive Senator Eugene McCarthy outmaneuvered by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the establishment’s candidate. Two months later José Feliciano, a native son of Lares, would perform his Latin-infused rendition of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 5 of the World Series, causing a nationwide uproar. The streets were burning.
Back on the island, the year prior had witnessed the first plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s status, with over 60 percent of voters opting for continued colonialism. (The answers to why they voted for the status quo are tangled in Puerto Rico’s long and heartbreaking history.) Frustration within the Republican Party of Puerto Rico led to the founding of the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista in 1967 and the election to La Fortaleza of its conservative leader, Luis Ferré, the following year.
Oscar was 25 and, like many of his fellow vets, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the alleged democracy for which he’d risked his life in a far-off jungle. “I was a good Puerto Rican in 1965,” he later told a jury:
I was a good Puerto Rican because I went to Vietnam to fight against people who had done nothing to me, and I went there to fight against them. I carried an M-16 rifle and grenades. I shot at Vietnamese people. They shot at me. For that I was a good Puerto Rican.
When I came back to this country, as soon as I expressed my opposition to the war in Vietnam, as a veteran — not as someone who had gone to Canada or Europe, but as someone who had served — I became a bad Puerto Rican.
Oscar undoubtedly heard indictments of Puerto Rico’s colonial status from the militants milling around Humboldt Park, and he committed himself to getting involved with the organizing efforts. In 1972 he helped found La Escuelita Puertorriqueña, now known as Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, which offers its students an alternative to the U.S. education system’s Eurocentric curriculum. The following year he co-founded the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center, and would work with a number of community organizations pushing for bilingual education in the schools, equal opportunities for employment and decent housing for Chicago’s marginalized groups.
Sometime in the early seventies he joined the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, a Marxist-Leninist group founded by Filiberto Ojeda Ríos which would wage an armed struggle against the federal government in hopes of securing Puerto Rico’s independence. Ojeda Ríos, it should be noted, had moved to Cuba following the triumph of the revolution there and worked for the Cuban intelligence service. With Havana’s help he returned to his homeland and founded the Movimiento Independentista Revolucionario Armado. Promptly arrested (but released for lack of evidence), Ojeda Ríos moved to New York City in the early seventies, and there he founded another paramilitary troop, the FALN, which would carry out over 100 bombings and incendiary attacks in the United States between 1974 and 1983. After the smoke cleared, six people lost their lives and dozens more were injured.
Investigators and intelligence agents weren’t exactly clueless as to who was behind the attacks. After a bomb ripped through Manhattan’s historic Fraunces Tavern on January 24, 1975, killing four people and leaving over 50 others hurt, the FALN released a communiqué claiming responsibility for the attack. It was the third such notice in as many months. An attack the previous October — on “Yanki corporations in New York City … responsible for the murderous policies of the Yanki government in Puerto Rico, Latin America, and against workers, peasants and indios throughout the world” — was, as the first communiqué states, “taken in commemoration of the October 30, 1950 uprising in Puerto Rico against Yanki colonial domination.” In the same message the FALN revealed themselves as the perpetrators behind a series of department-store bombings earlier that spring, as well as “dynamite blasts at Newark Police Headquarters and City Hall.” The statement goes on to make the groups intentions and motives crystal clear:
the Puerto Rican people are organizing and arming in order to form a People’s Revolutionary Army which will rid Puerto Rico of Yanki colonialism. We have opened two fronts, one in Puerto Rico, the other in the United States, both nourished by the Puerto Rican people and allies within Northamerica.
We are not pure militarists. Therefore we do not oppose those parties or people who believe in mass organization. However, to be truly revolutionary, a party must educate and organize the masses for the seizure of power by way of an organized and disciplined vehicle, a People’s Revolutionary Army. A party which fails to do this falls into reformism and becomes an agent of the bourgeoisie for the continued exploitation and oppression of the people.
The importance of a People’s Revolutionary Army is that it arms the masses and produces cadres to lead the masses to victory and the development of a Marxist-Leninist Party, tried and tested under fire, which will educate and organize the people for the construction of a socialist society.
A second communiqué dated December 11, 1974, justifies the FALN’s surprise attack on an NYPD officer in “El Barrio” as retribution for the death of Martín “Tito” Pérez, a Puerto Rican teen found beaten and hung at the station earlier that month. The FALN were also avenging the deaths of two black boys by police officers: 10-year-old Clifford Glover, who was shot in Queens in April, and 14-year-old Claude Reese, shot behind the left ear in Brooklyn in September. “By this action,” the message explains, “the FALN wishes to make it known that racist attacks against Puerto Rican, Black and other Third World communities, as well as attacks against Puerto Rican liberation fighters and militants by the vicious animals who occupy our communities, will be met with armed resistance of the people.”
In the third communiqué, in which the FALN — calling themselves “the Armed Forces of the Puerto Rican Nation” — “take full responsibility for the especially-detonated bomb that exploded today at the Fraunces Tavern with reactionary corporate executives inside,” the group accounts for their attacks as retaliation for the U.S. government’s acts of terror against the Puerto Rican people, insisting that the bombings “have avoided any injury to innocent people.”
The next communiqué, dated April 2, 1975, further explained that the attack on the tavern “was not in any way directed against working-class people or innocent North Americans” but against “the bankers, stock brokers, and important corporate executives of monopolies and multi-national corporations” who “are not friends of the working people, but the enemies of humanity everywhere.” A fifth statement, released shortly after the first bombings in Chicago in June 1975, warns that “the mobile guerrilla units of the FALN can hit anywhere in the United States.”
The threads connecting Oscar to the attacks, or at least to the planning or prior knowledge of them, are pretty straightforward. In November 1976, the year Ojeda Ríos founded another group calling themselves the Macheteros, police arrested a man in Chicago looking to sell explosives he said he’d taken from an apartment. The burglar led officers to the mostly unfurnished pad where they discovered bombs and bomb-making implements — a “bomb factory” — plus guns, wigs and other incriminating materials, along with maps of the city and pictures of key buildings. They even found a guerrilla manual, Posición Política, prescribing the life and tactics of a clandestine freedom fighter. Authorities soon linked the safe house to López Rivera, his wife Ida and two other FALN members. A federal grand jury indicted Oscar López Rivera on seditious conspiracy and related weapons charges on September 7, 1977, but by then he’d already gone into hiding.
At 5:20 p.m. on July 12, 1978, an explosion rocked an apartment building in Queens where Willie Morales had been attempting to assemble a pipe bomb. The blast blew off his lips, an eye and nine of his fingers. Quickly regaining consciousness, Willie turned on the stove’s gas in hopes of causing a second explosion that would kill as many responding officers and destroy as much evidence as possible. Firefighters detected the gas and properly ventilated the charred apartment, allowing police to enter. They found the disfigured Morales along with 66 sticks of dynamite and 200 pounds of explosives — the largest cache ever uncovered in New York City at the time. Materials in the apartment were linked to Oscar and other FALN members in Chicago. (A second guerrilla handbook recovered at the scene advises “start[ing] out with an operational army of no less than 50 strictly clandestine guerrilla fighters.”) Willie would increase his notoriety in May 1979 when, aided by members of the FALN, the Black Liberation Army and former members of the Weather Underground, he escaped from Bellevue Hospital where he was being fitted with prosthetic hands. He fled to Mexico and in June 1988 settled in Havana, where he resides to this day, perhaps not far from Assata Shakur, a former leader of the BLA and the first woman added to the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists.
The FALN were relatively quiet after the incident with Willie. They raided the Wisconsin National Guard Armory south of Milwaukee in January 1979 and accepted responsibility for attacks in Chicago, New York and Puerto Rico in October. The following March FALN members stormed the Carter-Mondale campaign headquarters in Chicago and the first Bush’s campaign offices in New York, taking several staffers hostage and stealing files. Eleven members of the FALN would eventually be captured in two separate incidents on April 4, 1980, in Evanston, Illinois. The nine captured in the second incident, including Oscar’s wife, were found in a van which contained more weapons than revolutionaries.
López Rivera was arrested in Glenview, Illinois on May 29, 1981, reportedly after running a stop sign. According to a report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform posted on the Federation of American Scientists website, Oscar presented the officer with a fake Oregon driver’s license, and a second officer “noticed a gun, pliers, wire connectors and field glasses in the car, along with a large bag.” (Police reports impressed me much more a few years ago than they do now.) When agents raided his apartment they found blasting caps and several pounds of dynamite — some say six, others 10. At the trial that summer, one of his fellow FALN members, Freddie Mendez, who’d already been convicted of lesser crimes and sentenced to eight years in state prison, appeared as a surprise witness for the prosecution. Freddie described how he was recruited by José López, Oscar’s younger brother. He also testified that it was Oscar who showed him how to make bombs. Oscar refused to testify in his defense, though he did address the jurors and tried to convince them that he’d exhausted all democratic means to bring about change:
[Lead prosecutor] Mr. Margolis has said that there are democratic ways to struggle and get things done. He forgets to tell you that I have a history of precisely that. That I have marched. That I have taken part in demonstrations. I have begged and pleaded. I have a history that has not been presented here. I have marched alongside black people for their rights. I have marched in support of jobs. I have a history of that. I have marched for access to decent housing. I have a history of that. I have marched against the war in Vietnam. I am a veteran of that war. And I have a history of that. What there is no history of is that your enemy tells you how you should act or how to carry out your struggle. Mr. Margolis intends to do precisely that. He stands there and has the gall to tell me how to wage my struggle. Mr. Margolis does not know how it feels to be a Puerto Rican in this country. Mr. Margolis does not know how it feels to be black in this country. He does not know the indignation one feels when the police, who supposedly represent law and order, call us ‘spic’ or ‘nigger’ and then spit in our face. I have had people spit in my face for being Puerto Rican. And I have been arrested for participating peacefully and legally in public demonstrations.
So that which Mr. Margolis alludes to does not exist. What does exist is a lie and a farce. And he is part of that lie and that farce. The United States Government is part of that lie and that farce. 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.
I want to indicate to you that the evidence presented by the prosecutors will not show our great respect for human life, our appreciation of human life. The evidence will not tell you that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and that colonialism is a crime — and recognized as such by the international community. …
We will see papers and documents depicting us as terrorists, but not see or hear anything about the United States policy of genocide toward my country. …
The government will present evidence showing some weapons. … But the United States government will not show you the arsenal of weapons that the FBI uses in my country to terrorize and intimidate us. They will show you some sticks of dynamite which do not even amount to 150 pounds. But the United States government will not show you a bomb with a payload of 500 pounds, or that hundreds of such bombs are used daily in the U.S. Navy’s bombing practice on the population of Vieques. …
The United States government will not say that international organizations have determined that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and that, according to international law, they are committing a crime against my country. They will not tell you either that according to international law, when an anti-colonial fighter is captured, as we were, he or she has the status of prisoner of war and should be judged by a competent international body.
On July 24, after five hours in deliberation, the jury found Oscar guilty of seditious conspiracy, armed robbery, weapons violations and interstate transportation of stolen property. The judge sentenced him to 55 years in a federal penitentiary on August 11. He was 38 years old. In 1987, guards at Leavenworth prison reportedly discovered an elaborate scheme to free López Rivera and another inmate using explosives and a helicopter, and on February 26, 1988, a judge tacked 15 years onto his sentence. In August 1999 President Clinton offered to commute the sentences of 14 of the imprisoned FALN members — over vocal objections from his wife, Hillary — but López Rivera was one of only two who refused the offer. Some, including Mrs. Clinton herself, say it’s because the president’s offer came with the condition that the 14 men and women renounce violence as a political means, while Oscar insists that he refused because Carlos Alberto Torres, who had owned the Chicago safe house raided by police in 1976, hadn’t been offered clemency.
These are the facts more or less. There’s plenty to dispute here, especially since much of the details originate in police and media reports, the results of a House committee investigation, and the testimony of an imprisoned FALN member turned state’s witness. Plus Oscar, like a good clandestine guerrilla, hasn’t admitted to nine-tenths of what he’s been accused of. Still, if you believe Oscar López Rivera was indeed a member of the FALN, which there’s really no disputing, then you must also believe he agreed with its goals as well as its methods. Furthermore, from the very myth erected by his own supporters, Oscar was no mere foot soldier in the FALN but a key organizer. And while I don’t know him personally, if he’s anything like his younger brother José, whom I studied under and whose speeches I’ve heard on numerous occasions on and around El Paseo, then Oscar is an exceptionally astute and passionate man; if he deserved that Bronze Star, then he was just as brave. So even if he never assembled an explosive, planned a bombing or carried out an attack, there’s no question he at least had it it in him to do so. That’s not enough to condemn a man and bury him for 30-plus years, but it’s enough to doubt the denials of guilt.
Rereading Dr. King’s thoughts on Vietnam recently, I was struck by a bold yet shrewd observation, a quote actually, uttered by President Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” King used Kennedy’s words to underscore the double bind imposed on leftists across Latin America and beyond even to this day: either submit to a U.S.-backed junta which abuses the people and condemns dissent to the dungeon, or defend your rights — either through protest or by taking up arms — and face the “counter-revolutionary” hellfire “of American forces.” Considering the Viet Cong, King suggested that his government had it all wrong when it came to the Vietnamese rebels:
What must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the south? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of ‘aggression from the north’ as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. [emphasis mine]
Surely indeed. Even if Oscar did do everything the government accuses him of doing, we must understand why he did it. Even if he did plant the bomb that killed four people at Fraunces Tavern, or the one that blasted the Mobil Oil Building in Midtown Manhattan during rush hour on August 3, 1977, killing a person, are we to condemn such a man as a vicious terrorist and close the book? King, who in 1967 labeled the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” seemed to think otherwise. And perusing the grisly pages of Puerto Rico’s history, it’s little wonder some like Oscar and his FALN comrades have been convinced that the only way for Puerto Ricans to secure their full rights as human beings must be through acts of war. Whole bookshelves recount some of the heartrending acts of terrorism — whole policies of terrorism in fact — committed against the people of Puerto Rico by the U.S. government and its sycophants on the island, largely in the name of global capital.
The troubles began even before the invasion in 1898, when on July 21 of that year the U.S. government publicized its intentions: “Porto Rico will be kept. … Once taken it will never be released. It will pass forever into the hands of the United States. … Our flag, once run up there, will float over the island permanently.” Four days later, that butcher of the Great Plains, General Miles, led U.S. troops ashore at Guánica, searing July 25th into the Puerto Rican psyche as “Occupation Day” — till the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1952, when it morphed into Constitution Day. (See how easily an occupation turns into a constitution.) A military dictatorship was promptly imposed, and Washington sent a commission to study the island’s political and economic capacities. The occupiers concluded, as José Trías Monge writes, “that the people of Puerto Rico were not ready for self-government; a learning period, of unspecified duration, was necessary before self-government could be extended; the eventual status should be neither statehood nor independence, but a self-governing dependency, subject to the plenary powers of Congress.” The Supreme Court, which had patted Jim Crow on the back just two years before the Puerto Rico’s reconquista, upheld the new colonial outlook in a number of decisions beginning in 1901. In Downes v. Bidwell, by a 5-4 decision, the court found that, with respect to the newly acquired colonies, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t necessarily “follow the flag,” thus leaving Puerto Rico, Samoa and the like under the supreme authority of Congress.
Knowledge of these early attitudes toward Puerto Rico is crucial to understanding the terror inflicted on the people of Puerto Rico between then and now. Unaware of the popular view, even among those in the ivory tower, of Puerto Ricans as “ignorant and lawless brigands” unfit for the benefits and duties of the U.S. Constitution, it’s hard to fully grasp why Washington was in such a hurry to Americanize the island as much as possible and commandeer its resources. Without reading the U.S. Senate Committee report which recommends Congress deny civil rights in any lands “inhabited by a people of wholly different character, illiterate, and unacquainted with our institutions, and incapable of exercising the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution of the [United] States,” it’s difficult to fathom why, in 1917, Congress would grant only a second-class citizenship to Puerto Ricans. (Presumably to send them to the slaughter in Europe.) You have to read the unsent letter penned by a young Massachusetts pathologist in November 1931 — “What the island needs is not public health work, but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the entire population” — to understand why a full one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized during mid-century, many of whom were deceptively told the procedure was reversible; why the U.S. Army and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission experimented with radiation on live and unwitting subjects after the second world war; why the same genocidal doctor was hired as a consultant for the Atomic Energy Commission and given a Defense contract to study postirradiation in humans; and why Don Pedro’s claims of being tortured by invisible blasts of radiation in his dank cell at La Princesa went ignored.
Then, of course, there’s the current situation. As colonial powers are wont to do, the U.S government and its monied éminences grises have used the island of Puerto Rico as an ATM, setting up policies and conditions which ensure resources and revenues flow in only one direction — out. In 1900 the first civilian governor, a plump pretender from Massachusetts by the name of Charles Herbert Allen, began the process of turning Puerto Rico into a monocultural economy under the monopoly of a sugar cartel he would later found. On the eve of the stock market crash in 1929, a writer for the American Mercury criticized Washington’s conversion of Puerto Rico into a sugar republic:
The development of large absentee-owned sugar estates makes Porto Rico a land of beggars and millionaires, of flattering statistics and distressed realities. More and more it becomes a factory worked by peons, fought over by lawyers, bossed by absent industrialists, and cleared by politicians. It is now Uncle Sam’s second largest sweatshop.
When the Great Depression hit, brought on by Wall Street speculation, the price of sugar plummeted, virtually capsizing the island of Puerto Rico. (A similar crisis struck America’s banana republic, Honduras.) During the second world war, and in hopes of transforming Puerto Rico from a Caribbean backwater into a model of 20th-century capitalism, Washington launched a program of rapid, urbanized industrialization it dubbed “Operation Bootstrap” — referred to cynically in Spanish as “Manos a la Obra,” as if they hadn’t been already. Rural areas were emptied as the landless and destitute flooded San Juan, Ponce and other cities looking for anything. The factory owners, as ever, needed only a few “manos” to work their machines, forcing the rest on a massive exodus to the mainland where the postwar economy was white hot. “Both Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have functioned as colonial labor in their respective places of origin,” Professor Fernández writes.
Their migrations to the US mainland have also been a result of the economic, social, and political dislocations that such imperialism and colonialism have produced. Indeed, most studies of Puerto Rican migration analyze the phenomenon as part and parcel of the island’s colonial relationship to the United States, interpreting ‘such a large-scale displacement [a]s an essential feature in the total process of colonialism, not only as it has operated in Puerto Rico, but as it manifests itself around the world today.’
The federal government began granting concessions to big business in an effort to attract more investment, eventually turning Puerto Rico into a casino for the rich — and, depending on how you look at it, for the poor as well. As King observed mere weeks before he was shot, noting the difference in economies between the haves and have-nots, “that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor.” It’s one thing to shrug off the condemnations of an avowed Marxist revolutionary like Oscar López Rivera, but when a nonviolent Baptist preacher offers the same condemnation, you figure he must be onto something.
So it is that a combination of economic and political shackles, as well as the phony bumbling from a string of colonial governors and other insular lackeys, has placed a monstrous sack of debt on Puerto Rico’s shoulders, bringing it to its belly. Venture capitalists and bankers have made a killing off Puerto Rico for decades, leaving the people of Puerto Rico to pick up the $70 billion-plus tab, around half of which may be illegitimate. And, as with the case for reparations for black Americans and Puerto Rico’s Haitian cousins, one could argue that it’s the United States who owes Puerto Rico. Now an economic junta looms over Puerto Rico, aiming to empty every pocket and sell every last bit of public property to ensure the creditors (read: extortioners) are paid. At the time of this writing, the Puerto Rican Senate had just approved a labor reform bill to limit workers’ rights, forcing them to work longer hours and more days for less pay and less benefits. Over 130 schools have been closed, and bankers persistently demand that hundreds more be shuttered. Tens of thousands of government workers have been fired in an effort to siphon away whatever money is left in the public coffers. Making matters worse, the federal government’s annual contribution to Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program is capped at a small fraction of what’s afforded to the states — leaving Puerto Rico $260 million in 2014 to put towards the $1.4 billion needed to cover its 1.2 million beneficiaries, while Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union, gets $3.6 billion in federal funds for its 700,000 beneficiaries. The poverty rate in Puerto Rico, it should be noted, is nearly twice as high as in Mississippi.
There’s plenty more to tell, sadly, but there’s little use in listing atrocities that have been listed over 100 times over the past 100 years. What about the Ley de la Mordaza? Or the Carpetas? The aerial bombing of Jayuya and Utuado? Vieques! … The simple fact of the matter is that the United States has been at war with Puerto Rico ever since its little “military picnic” in 1898. Congress has the final say on whether the island and its people will live free or die a slow, agonizing death, and if 118 years of repression, exploitation and political fog aren’t evidence enough that the U.S. government will never willingly grant the people of Puerto Rico what is rightfully theirs, then here’s to another hundred years!
After all the histories and reports, I find myself asking the same miserable question: When is it enough? What does Puerto Rico have to do to merit a true democracy? Do you honestly think that the U.S. government, which has been in a steady tug of war with its own actual citizens since the meeting in Philadelphia, will yield anything to a speck of an island whose inhabitants it has maligned and beaten down since it was lifted from Spain? How many more Puerto Ricans must Washington kill, rob, jail, starve and stupefy to warrant armed resistance?
The U.S. government can do no wrong, it seems, whereas Puerto Ricans can do no good — or, as Dr. Luis Nieves Falcón writes in his introduction to Oscar’s 2013 memoir, “All illegal conduct of the State is sanctioned; all vindicatory actions taken by resisters are criminalized. The absolute power of the former and the total vulnerability of the latter become increasingly apparent.” Oscar López Rivera and the FALN are labeled terrorists for fighting fire with fire, but of course the feds don’t see things that way. They never do. Newspapers and academic journals everywhere describe the activities of the FALN and the Macheteros during the seventies and eighties as a “reign of terror,” pointing to what happened on a day in 1975 or 1977; what, I wonder, do they call a colonial regime that has attacked the Puerto Rican people at all angles — politically, economically, socially, culturally, militarily, historically — for the past 43,283 and counting?
“A riot,” Dr. King told an audience in Detroit, “is the language of the unheard,” and we’ve heard the screams of recent uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City and Portland, and from Mexico to Brazil, Santiago to Hong Kong. But if rioting is to be expected from the voiceless, what type of reaction should we anticipate from a century of colonial deafness? “Is it a revolt?” a doomed despot famously wondered. “No, Sire,” came the steady reply, “it’s a revolution.”
And calls for revolution are what any U.S. citizen finds when they dare peer into the pages of their own history. Revolution was the demand by Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty when they terrorized royal agents, set fire to government buildings, poured scalding tea down tax collectors’ throats, and dumped over $1.5 million’s worth of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor one explosive December night in 1773. The Declaration of Independence describes revolution as the natural right of an oppressed people, and every one of the 56 revolutionaries who added his name to that document in effect signed his own death warrant. It’s said John Hancock signed his name big enough for Georgie to read it without his glasses. Once the deed was done, Dr. Franklin is rumored to have observed, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.”
We know what the people of Boston, Philadelphia and others did when staring down the muskets of a faraway tyranny, but what would you do? What would you do if, for over a century, you were the member of a nation that has been a colony of the richest, most powerful government the world has ever known? What would you do if that government repeatedly denied you your right to determine your own future? What would you do if you couldn’t write your member of Congress because you weren’t allowed one, or couldn’t write your president because you didn’t elect him? What will do when power comes for you and everyone you care about? What are you willing to do when they close your schools, fire you, send your home into foreclosure and crush your dreams under student debt? What are you willing to do when the government says you no longer have ownership of your own body and can no longer marry the person you love? What are you willing to do when your career is threatened for smoking a plant? What are you willing to do when the state starts shooting hungry children at the border and imprisoning raped mothers? What are you willing to do when power set its greedy eyes on your civil rights; on the freedom of speech; on freedom of the press; and on the right to earn a living wage? What will you do when they sick dogs on people defending their sacred lands from extraction? What are you willing to do when state thugs start shooting black and brown boys in the street like rats?
Admittedly I’m not sure I have the courage, physical or otherwise, of a Henry, Paine, Hamilton, Adams, Hale or Lafayette. Nor am I equal to an Agüeybaná, Yanga, Amaru, Satuyé, Louverture, Barbudo, Xatruch, Betances, Hostos, Martí, Maceo, Liborio, Zapata, Sandino, Don Pedro, Lebrón, Bosch, Dalton, Cienfuegos, Dominique, Huerta, Jara, Mujica, Dilma, Menchú, Cáceres or Gualinga. But Oscar López Rivera and the FALN were, or at least were up to the task. Not like the empty theorists and slacktivists of today, whom even I struggle not to be like, the revolutionary history of America contains a host of men and women “of a different sort,” as Che put it, “one who risks his skin to prove his truths.”
In an age of instant information and communication, it’s never been easier to fall under the spell of paper-thin convictions and halfhearted politics. We may read as many books, articles, tweets, Facebook posts as we like, and we can contribute 10 times more, “but when a long trail of abuses and usurpations” threaten to continue indefinitely, even the poet knows it’s time to put down his pen and stand up. Don’t get me wrong: When bullies, fearful of the people they oppress, use every method available to keep the masses bound by ignorance, simply knowing one’s own history is a revolutionary act. Still, to borrow from Marx, you have only gained an understanding of the world; “the point is to change it.”
For Oscar López Rivera and his comrades in the FALN, there was never any decision to take action. Whether they chose to declare war on the U.S. government and global capitalism or not, Washington and Wall Street had long since been waging a war on them, their people and people like their people — on the Great Plains, in Central America, in South America, across the Caribbean, in the deepest parts of Africa and, yes, even along the Mekong River. And not only there, but in the streets of Chicago, New York, Philly and L.A. “We learned to fight and the need became struggle and the struggle became need,” Oscar writes in 1999. Maybe it was the Marxist studies of this “diehard optimist” that convinced him of the power of social consciousness and struggle to effect change and bring about a better world. It’s an exciting thought. But for Oscar himself, the commitment to fight for the liberation of his people was based on a much simpler motive, for as he told the judge who added 15 years to his confinement, “As a Puerto Rican, I have to seek the independence of my homeland. I can do no other.”