This article is the third in a three-part series looking at the attempts made by Pedro Albizu Campos and other local leaders in Puerto Rico to hold a constitutional convention in 1936—the closest the archipelago has come to breaking free of U.S. colonial rule.
At the time of the movement for a constitutional convention in 1936, support for independence was widespread among politicians in Puerto Rico. One big obstacle, according to Pedro Albizu Campos, was the decision made by some leaders to travel to Washington and engage in negotiations with U.S. officials about what this independence might look like.
Don Pedro was very clear in his insistence that, rather than discussing the terms of independence with U.S. officials before exercising their sovereignty, Puerto Rico’s political leaders should exercise their sovereignty through the constitutional convention process first, and then discuss the terms of the relationship between the two nations afterward. He essentially called out what he felt was the reverse nature of the thought process of the day. “They are beginning where they should end, and they want to end where they should begin,” he said.
Even now, of course, here are still Puerto Ricans that choose to spend a great deal of effort concerning the status question on work based in the U.S. capital. What has changed is how the idea of a constitutional convention is viewed and expressed by today’s political actors.
How Things Have Changed—Or Haven’t
Proposals for a constitutional convention today tend to be very different from the one made by Don Pedro. This is not surprising when we take into consideration the current political climate. Despite virtually unanimous agreement that Puerto Rico is a colony, there are still disputes over what decolonization implies. More specifically, there are many who feel independence is not the only decolonial solution, and that both statehood, as well as an enhanced free association status, should also be considered as valid options.
One example is the Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, a political party established in 2019 that currently has two members sitting in both Puerto Rico’s Senate and House of Representatives. This party has holding a “constitutional assembly” as part of its “urgent agenda,” with the purpose of this assembly being to provide space for the three status options to be discussed and voted upon.
Another proposal comes from the U.S. Congress, where the Puerto Rico Status Act was introduced in July 2022 and was passed by the House of Representatives in December. The bill would allow Puerto Ricans to vote in a plebiscite between the three status options and then hold a constitutional convention if either independence or free association receives the majority vote.
A key difference to point out between the conventions outlined by the Citizens’ Victory Movement and the Puerto Rico Status Act is that, in the former, the convention would be an effort originating from within Puerto Rican political society and, in the latter, it would be the result of U.S. legislation.
Don Pedro would have considered Both proposals would have been unacceptable to Don Pedro, for whom independence was the only acceptable status. He would have also pointed out that both proposals require Puerto Ricans, at some point in the process, to decide whether they want to be free or not—a question he deemed disrespectful to any group of people.
Furthermore, about the involvement that the U.S. should have in this decolonial process, Don Pedro was clear on the peripheral role it should play:
“In order to liquidate the present relations between the United States and Puerto Rico and place them on the international level of mutual recognition of sovereignty and independence, the United States itself has to encourage the immediate [holding of the] Constitutional Convention of Puerto Rico, since this is the only means that an intervened nation has to create the legitimate public powers that can represent it and without which it is not possible to deal with them.”
As the leader of a national liberation movement and a proponent of armed struggle, it is important to highlight Don Pedro’s insistence on the role of constitutional conventions as vehicles for nation-building. There is also something to be said about the convention’s ability to engage political actors from among those who seek change through revolution and the boycotting of colonial elections, as well as those who seek to leverage colonial elections for change and do not support revolutionary politics. The constitutional convention acts as a kind of meeting point for a diversity of political perspectives, a convergence where the duty of all is to place national interests above personal or organizational interests and tackle the work of building a nation.
National Liberation Meets Nation-Building
A more contemporary example of a leader of an armed movement for national liberation in Puerto Rico providing a detailed look at the important role and historical use of constitutional conventions —as Don Pedro did while president of the Nationalist Party— can be found in the writings of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos. Commander of the armed and clandestine Ejército Popular Boricua, known as “the Macheteros,” Filiberto wrote a lengthy essay dated January 11, 2004, that gives careful reflection on how the constitutional convention has appeared through history. Highlighting a related effort for a plebiscite by Eugenio María de Hostos and discussions of a constitutional convention by Juan Antonio Corretjer, Juan Mari Brás, and the Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico, among others, Filiberto clarifies that the Macheteros “would be willing to support a Constitutional Assembly that is governed by what was proposed by Don Pedro Albizu Campos.”
Filiberto was killed in Puerto Rico less than two years later on September 23, 2005, by FBI agents in what became a widely denounced operation.
Whereas the political climate in 1936 saw a moment when there was widespread and energetic support in favor of a constitutional convention to establish the Republic of Puerto Rico, such was not present when Filiberto wrote in 2004 that a similar movement was not possible in his time precisely because it lacked such a climate of patriotic unity. There was support, but the conditions were not favorable.
Something similar exists at the international level, where the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization has resolved since 1972 that Puerto Rico is a colony, that the commonwealth government established in 1952 was only a facade placed upon the colonial system, and that Puerto Rico has a right to self-determination and independence under international law. Six years later, in 1978, two armed clandestine organizations —the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional based in Chicago and New York, and the Macheteros based in Puerto Rico— released a joint statement that was read at a meeting of the Decolonization Committee that included a call for a U.N.-supervised constitutional convention in Puerto Rico.
Now, decades later, nothing has changed for Puerto Rico.
As I stated in the first of this series, it is unclear why the 1936 constitutional convention movement has not received more attention from researchers and has not been properly included in discussions of the year 1936 in Puerto Rican history. Considering its scale and broad support, the movement ought to be considered a major event in the history of Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence, perhaps marking a period under U.S. rule when Puerto Rico was arguably the closest to becoming an independent republic.
The movement, which aimed to achieve decolonization through a process of national democracy and international diplomacy, adds significant nuance to the seditious conspiracy trial of Don Pedro that year, bringing into question the way in which he actually aimed to establish Puerto Rico as an independent republic. There were statements made by Don Pedro that sought to point out to readers the non-aggressive nature of the constitutional convention and, as a further argument for the U.S. to encourage its holding, the convenience such a convention would offer U.S. officials, as a process they already had some experience taking part in:
“[The] Constitutional Convention is not an act of hostility to the United States,” he wrote. “The United States itself has already stopped and recognized two Constitutional Conventions under conditions similar to ours: that of Cuba and that of Santo Domingo.”
I will not dare to entertain an answer to the question “What would Don Pedro do?” but I will allow myself the boldness to suggest that it would be worthwhile to consider his emphasis on the role a constitutional convention could serve in ending colonialism in Puerto Rico. If a constitutional convention is the inevitable event Don Pedro said it was, how might the Puerto Rican people prepare themselves educationally and organizationally to meet the work it implies?
More research into this topic would be very timely today, a fact that will remain true for as long as colonialism prevents Puerto Rico from asserting its nationhood and constructing its own future.
You can help raise funds for the author’s next project, a book of translations of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos’ writings, by donating to and sharing his GoFundMe campaign.
Andre Lee Muniz is a Boricua from the projects of South Brooklyn, the creator of Remembering Don Pedro, and the author of ‘Vida y Hacienda: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.’ Instagram: @RememberingDonPedro