Puerto Rico: Empire’s Grip and a Glimmer of Hope

Nik Nikandrov

The U.S. Administration explains that the hyperactivity of the FBI and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community in Puerto Rico is a part of the response to the threat posed by terrorist groups, drug cartels, and agents of hostile regimes. The U.S. hit list, it must be noted, includes as legitimate targets the radical separatists who, in fact, are ordinary Puerto Ricans trying to press for the independence of their country. The U.S. started to maintain a grip on Puerto Rico since the 1898 war with Spain. As a result, the former colonialism gave way to a new form of control: as of today, the U.S. government papers describe Puerto Rico as an associate free state and, whatever it may mean, an organized unincorporated territory. The FBI, the CIA, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, DEA, etc. enjoy full freedom of maneuver in the country which, due to its strategic location, conveniently serves as a launch pad for covert operations against its Latin American peers, especially Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, and the rest of the populist camp. In Puerto Rico, the U.S. agencies spy on the embassies and trade missions of Washington’s potential foes, while Puerto Ricans routinely complain about phone tapping and pervasive surveillance.

Puerto Rico is the country were U.S. curators meet with representatives of the Venezuelan opposition. Puerto Rican «friends of Chavez» got a glimpse of one of such encounters in La Concha hotel in January, 2009. It was organized by U.S. diplomatic envoy to Venezuela John Caulfield whose records of jobs in conflict zones leaves little doubt that the gentleman must be on the CIA payroll.

Monitoring the atmosphere across the Puerto Rican society along with the allegedly extremist groups, and spotting the epicenters of brewing discontent are, for the most part, the tasks handled by the FBI. The FBI operatives started working in Puerto Rico in 1935. At the time, they screened the country for Comintern agents and the nationalist group led by Albizu Campos – for radicals, while also helping the regime suppress popular protests. The 1937 Ponce massacre which occurred when the police fired on a completely peaceful march, killing 20 and wounding over 100, is remembered in Puerto Rico as the bloodiest episode in the country’s history.

The FBI archive portraying the U.S. offensives against resistance groups and Puerto Rico in 1930-1970 – a total of over 120,000 pages – was partially published by the Puerto Rican studies Center of Hunter College of the City University of New York. The materials gave scholars an unprecedented insight into the FBI activities. An instruction penned by Edgar Hoover urged the U.S. Government agents to cultivate sources of information about leaders and activists of Puerto Rican resistance groups and about their lifestyles and habits, obviously as a form of preparation for preemptive strikes. Anyhow, resistance to the Empire’s colonial dictate never dried up in Puerto Rico as hundreds of people sacrificed their lives to make it a free country. In 1950s, Puerto Rican patriots launched raids against the governor’s residence in San Juan, Harry Truman’s residence in Washington, and the U.S. House of Representatives. The FBI struck back, arrested leaders of Puerto Rican nationalists and leftist groups, sent its local partners to hunt down their relatives, and organized attacks against the «extremists’» headquarters.

Puerto Ricans managed to bounce considerable concessions out of the U.S.: at the moment, they have self-governance, some kind of constitution, and – in a fairly diluted form – the representative, executive, and judicial authorities. Still, the supreme authority in Puerto Rico is exercised by the U.S. Congress, meaning that «the associate state» is being run from Washington. Public protests forced the U.S. to formally close 13 military bases in Puerto Rico and to stop using the Vieques Island military facilities, though the truth is that the infrastructures are properly maintained and would take virtually no time to revitalize.

The declassification of the above materials prompted debates over the current state of the U.S. intelligence community’s operations against the Puerto Rican proponents of independence. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that nothing in the sphere changed since the Cold War, the epoch when practically any steps could be justified by simply citing the Soviet peril. The detention of Puerto Rican Nationalist Party president Francisco Torres at an airport in Panama, with the police agents saying at the moment of the arrest that they acted on instructions from the FBI representative in the country, highlighted the proportions of the problem. Torres was allowed to continue with his trip when the blunt demonstration of the FBI might was over. Another detention followed upon his return to Puerto Rico. This time, he was frisked and his credit cards and photos of relatives were copied, though no official warrant of any kind was shown. Quite a few leftist and nationalist activists report similar humiliations, but their right-wing opponents should have no illusions – information about them is also being carefully collected for future use.

In Washington, the hopes of the Puerto Rican nationally oriented forces for a reunion with other Latin American nations are seen as a risk to the U.S. interests in the region. There is no shortage of forecasts that an independent Puerto Rico would drift towards Cuba and Venezuela, the two populist camp champions persistently voicing calls to erase the current colonial status of the country. Moreover, the no longer short-leashed Puerto Rico might actually join ALBA, considering that several Caribbean island countries – Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – are already there. In December, 2011, a cohort of Puerto Rican parties – El Partido Nacionalista, El Frente Socialista, El Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano – asked CELAC for assistance in the region’s efforts to shake off the residues of colonialism and called for stronger backing Puerto Rico in its more than a century-long struggled against the Empire. The U.S. was described in the corresponding joint statement as a colonial power responsible for the present-day situation. On the other hand, Puerto Ricans are fully aware that they and nobody else can bring about serious change.

Expressions of public support for Puerto Rico’s aspirations are a permanent background of the political live throughout Latin America. The XI ALBA forum which convened last February passed a declaration on the independence of Puerto Rico. The document was read by H. Chavez who stressed that Puerto Ricans are a unique Latin American and Caribbean nation with its own history, whose sovereignty was stolen by the U.S. with the help of the colonial system a century ago. The Venezuelan leader said the Puerto Rican push for independence must be upheld by the entire Latin America with all of its collective bodies, the CELAC in the first place. The declaration also carried the demand that the U.S. release all political prisoners jailed over their struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico.

Manifestations broadcasting solidarity with Puerto Rico reached such proportions in Latin America that U.S. President B. Obama paid a visit to San Juan on June 14, 2011 as a countermeasure. Notably, this was the first time a U.S. leader traveled to Puerto Rico over the past 50 years. On the surface, the tour was styled as a part of Obama’s fund-raising campaign, but the agenda centered around Washington’s support for the annexionists dreaming to see Puerto Rico incorporated into the U.S. was thinly veiled. The Puerto Rican governor Luis Fortuno, a neoliberal elected to the post from the New Progressive Party of Puerto Rico, is open about his eagerness to convert the country into 51st U.S. State.

Washington is obviously unprepared to greenlight the plan, the rationale being that appreciable benefits can be ripped given the status quo. At the moment, investments in Puerto Rico yield decent returns, while integrating it as a state would take giant financial infusions with the aim of driving the local socioeconomic standards up to the average U.S. level.

Loud protests accompanied Obama’s stay in Puerto Rica. Altogether, they combined into a kind of a street referendum in which Puerto Ricans made it absolutely clear which avenue towards self-determination – independence or merger into the U.S. – attracts them. The Puerto Rican media, in the meantime, are selling the unraveling crisis as a pretext to convince the audiences that Washington’s help is the only cure and an independent Puerto Rico would in no time sink to the level of Haiti.

Governor Fortuno is simply denying his own country a future. These days, rampant unemployment leaves masses of young people with no option but to join criminal groups and become involved with the drug business. Currently, around 10,000 students have no money to pay tuition fees and are about to drop out of universities. Many of the educated young who see no prospects for employment become political activists. It should also be taken into account that quite a few young Puerto Ricans had served in the U.S. Army. It is common for the young to feel that only independence can open up to them a tolerable range of opportunities, and, by all means, H. Chavez tops the popularity ratings among the population group.

The April, 2012 appointment of Hector Pesquera to the post of Puerto Rican police chief promises a tide of political repression in the country. Fortuno made the decision after consultations of Washington, and Pesquera is known to have been an FBI special agent in Miami who was in touch with Cuban immigrant groups, was involved in the assassination of Los Macheteros popular army commander Filliberto Orjeda Rios and in the plot to kill Danilo Andersen, the Venezuelan persecutor that investigated the April, 2002 coup attempt. Pesquera was instrumental in the arrest of five Cuban spies sent to the U.S. to identify terrorists en route to Cuba. The Puerto Rican patriots suspect that Pesquera’s career jump is a prologue to a new round of repressions against pro-independence movements and suggest immediately forming a maximally inclusive popular front for self-defense.

No matter what, Puerto Ricans are natural optimists. Roberto Torres Collazo wrote in the wake of Obama’s visits to Puerto Rico that the tour was a minor event to the majority of the country’s population: «80% of Puerto Ricans speak Spanish only and most of them prefer their own music and food to the U.S. pop-culture and McDonald’s. From birth, we are spontaneous, simple, and fun people, like most of our Latin American peers. Our customs and traditions place us much closer to the Latin and Central America than to North America».

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