Puerto Rico explained, briefly
August 23 2014
American progressives and friends from many countries have often asked me about my country, Puerto Rico, and what is going on here. I ask myself, how do I even start? So here is a brief and partial explanation of Puerto Rico, past and present:
Puerto Rican politics can be viewed as the unfinished business of the 1898 Spanish American War. That year, four centuries of Spanish colonialism came to an end in Cuba and Puerto Rico as military forces sent by US president William McKinley routed Spain’s troops in both islands in a rather easy victory, or as a US diplomat called it, “a splendid little war”. Cuba went on to become an independent country a few years later, but US troops remained in Puerto Rico, and over one century later the island nation still remains under US rule. Although subject to US laws, Puerto Rico has no representation in the US Congress and no presidential vote.
Since World War Two, the island has been used as a military bastion to project US power all over the Caribbean. According to journalist and historian Jesús Dávila:
“Starting in the 1940’s, Puerto Rico became a hive of military bases- which came to include Ramey Field air base, with atomic bombers of the Strategic Air Command, and the Roosevelt Roads naval base- as well as facilities for espionage and regional surveillance of radio and telephone communications. In 1954 the Puerto Rico Air National Guard provided the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with P-47 fighter planes to bombard Guatemala… In 1961 it served as escape route for the CIA agents that fled the Dominican Republic after the execution of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo and, also for the CIA, as practice center for the amphibian landing at Bay of Pigs, Cuba.
In the 1960’s, Ramey would be a base for U-2 spy planes, as well as for the transport of thousands of soldiers for the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic. In that war, from Roosevelt Roads, a Blue Eagle 1 was used for the first time for the radio transmission of propaganda- the Jenny program- which would be heavily used in Vietnam.”
During the cold war Puerto Rico was also used as a showcase of democracy and prosperity, paraded around to the rest of Latin America as proof of the benefits of US tutelage. The country’s apparent economic miracle was based on corporate tax breaks for foreign investors and social subsidies for the poor, and was presented as “the best of both worlds” as it allegedly combined local autonomy with the full benefits of US citizenship. This colonial model of dependent capitalism, dubbed “Operation Bootstrap”, was largely the brainchild of technocrat Teodoro Moscoso, a man who would later make his mark advising the US government on Latin America policy.
These twin military and economic roles became much more important with the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959. Cuba is a permanent trauma for US policymakers. It is fair to say that for the last 50+ years all of US policy towards Latin America has centered around isolating Cuba and preventing another Cuba from happening in the hemisphere. To this end, US president John F. Kennedy founded in 1961 the Alliance for Progress, an initiative to enhance US prestige in Latin America and to counter the appeal of the Cuban revolution. To highlight Puerto Rico’s importance in this grand design, Kennedy appointed Teodoro Moscoso to head the Alliance.
Operation Bootstrap eventually started to fall apart at the seams and sinking under the weight of its contradictions. Agriculture had been abandoned in favor of manufacturing, a sector that was never able to make up for the lost jobs in the farming sector. Whereas for some Puerto Ricans the “economic miracle” meant the realization of the suburban dream (a house in the suburbs, a car and upward mobility), for others it meant complete destitution. Enormous shantytowns populated by former campesinos began to appear in the capital city of San Juan’s metro area, overwhelming the welfare state’s ability to keep up. The government explicitly encouraged poor Puerto Ricans to leave for the United States, and they started to fly out by the hundreds of thousands once the Isla Verde international airport was built in the 1950’s. It was the first airborne mass migration in history. Cities like New York, Hartford and Chicago received a massive and sudden influx of poor Puerto Rican migrants, causing considerable social tension in already racially polarized urban communities. Today there are as many Puerto Ricans living in exile as in the island.
Massive food imports from the US flooded the island, driving many local agricultural producers to bankruptcy. Small locally owned grocery stores were almost entirely replaced by giant US retail chains, trains and streetcars were torn up to make way for cars, the countryside was blanketed with sprawling suburbia and shopping malls. Nowadays 85% of all food consumed in Puerto Rico is imported. The remaining farmers struggle to survive in the face of cutthroat competition from US agribusiness and a disloyal and neglectful local government that seems to be obeying an unwritten mandate to destroy Puerto Rican agriculture.
But there always was resistance. In the first half of the 20th century, the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party led the opposition to the US occupation and the call for independence. The government, then headed by American governors appointed by the president of the United States, responded with repression, culminating in the Rio Piedras and Ponce massacres, in 1935 and 1937 respectively. In the latter incident, described by the American Civil Liberties Union as “cold-blooded murder”, a peaceful Nationalist march was fired upon by the police, resulting in 19 deaths and some 100 injuries. The Nationalists upped the ante and turned to armed struggle, assassinating US counterinsurgency specialist Francis Riggs, and attempting to shoot governor Blanton Winship, who had ordered the Ponce massacre.
Attempts to exterminate the independence movement, including the legal and electoral Independence Party (PIP), continued even as Puerto Rico moved towards formal constitutional democracy in the 1940’s and 50’s. The new democracy and constitutionally protected citizen rights were barely more than a formality, since repressive legislation, modeled on the anti-Communist Smith Act of the United States, made it for all practical purposes illegal to engage in any pro-independence advocacy. Even as we Puerto Ricans elected our governor for the first time and voted to approve a constitution, Nationalist leaders were incarcerated merely for their public speaking, as proven by the publicly available transcripts of their court trials.
Cornered, vastly outgunned and confronted with their imminent extermination and erasure from history, the Nationalists preferred to go down in a hail of bullets rather than be collaborators or passive spectators of this democratic farce. In October 1950 there was a nationwide independentista uprising which resulted in gunfights all over the island. The revolt was put down with the help of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard, whose planes bombed and strafed the town of Jayuya, where the Nationalist resistance was particularly strong and a republic had been declared. It was followed by a major crackdown in which hundreds of independentistas were incarcerated, some would remain in prison for two decades. Simultaneously with the uprising, a team of two Nationalists attempted to shoot US president Harry Truman in Washington. After suppressing the uprising, the colonial authorities were pretty confident that they had neutralized the Nationalist threat, but in March 1954 four Nationalists attacked the US Congress, wounding several congressmen. The response from the FBI and local colonial authorities was harsh and vindictive. Even today, the FBI holds a special grudge against independentistas and against Puerto Ricans in general, as evidenced by declassified documents.
And still the resistance continued, even in the middle of Operation Bootstrap’s much celebrated “economic miracle”. In the 1960’s and 70’s, a youthful new independence movement, aligned with the international left and inspired by the Cuban revolution and third world anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movements, made its rowdy appearance in the political scene. The “nueva lucha independentista” explored new and innovative forms of protest- like pickets and sit-ins-, engaged in sporadic armed struggle (by clandestine groups such as MIRA, CAL, FALN and the Macheteros), set a new standard in independent investigative journalism through alternative media- particularly the Claridad weekly newspaper and the Pensamiento Crítico political journal-, joined forces with organized labor and with the fledgling modern environmental movement, which was then engaged in a seemingly hopeless struggle to prevent strip mining in the island’s mountainous interior, and also made common cause with human rights, feminist and peace movements.
And again there was a repressive response from the authorities, a response which included police brutality, mob violence, death squad terror, arson, bombings of homes and businesses of outspoken independentistas, and even assassination. Some political murders from the 1970’s still remain unsolved. FBI documents declassified in that decade showed that the Puerto Rican independentista movement was under massive and thorough government surveillance, mostly through widespread use of paid informers. The documents also evidenced that the US government had spent considerable effort trying to covertly disrupt and divide the movement through the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program. In 1971 the US Congress ordered COINTELPRO shut down due to its flagrant infringement of First Amendment rights. In 2005 Machetero leader Filiberto Ojeda, who had evaded capture for 15 years, was shot dead by the FBI in his home. The autopsy determined that he had died from lack of medical attention. The image of flak-vested FBI agents gloating over Ojeda as he gasped his last breath burns in the heart and consciousness of every patriotic Puerto Rican.
At least since the second half of the 20th century, Puerto Rico has been used by the US for a variety of shady medical, biological, chemical, atomic and military experiments:
* The earliest trials of contraceptive pills were carried out in the 1950’s on Puerto Rican women without their fully informed consent. (1)
* The US Department of Defense tested toxic defoliants for use in the Vietnam War, including agent orange, on several locations in the island. (2)
* The Atomic Energy Commission tested the effects of gamma radiation in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque tropical rainforest in a series of experiments supervised by famed ecologist Howard T. Odum. (3)
* During World War Two, most of the inhabitants of the island town of Vieques were forcibly evicted from their homes by the US Navy in order to set up a firing range for training maneuvers, which included amphibian landing practice and bombardment from sea and air. These war games went on for some sixty years, though not without protest and resistance (4), as we’ll see.
* In the 1980’s, Puerto Rico’s farmlands hosted some of the earliest field experimentation with genetically modified (GM) crops. Nowadays the island has more GM crop field tests per square mile than any US state, with the possible exception of Hawaii (5). These genetic experiments have included GM cassava developed with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (6)
And still, the resistance continues. In this highly urbanized and densely populated Caribbean nation with practically no food security, where agriculture, environmental protection, peace and demilitarization seem like lost causes, there are social movements for change- and sometimes they even score some victories. In 2003 the Navy ended its target practice in Vieques after a massive and unprecedented four year-long civil disobedience campaign that involved church groups, the independence, environmental and peace movements, and top figures from all political parties.
The government’s drive to commence strip mining in the Central Mountain Range (Cordillera Central) was ultimately stopped dead in its tracks by a decades-long grassroots environmental education campaign in which the independence movement played a decisive role. The leading organization in the campaign, Casa Pueblo, went on to make major contributions to the Vieques anti-Navy campaign, supplying the protesters who were camping inside the firing range with solar panels, and carrying out the first peer reviewed in situ scientific studies of military toxic pollution in the island. For its efforts in promoting peace, sustainable development and participatory scientific research, the organization won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002.
Another example of stubborn resistance is the Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Eco-Orgánica, a group of organic farmers and concerned citizens that since its founding in 1989 has been promoting food sovereignty and ecological agriculture through alternative marketing channels for locally grown organic produce, educational activities, work brigades, mutual help, international delegations, and seed exchanges. Boricuá belongs to the Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (CLOC), an international coalition that brings together dozens of organizations of peasants, farm workers, and black and indigenous communities of 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. And the CLOC is in turn part of La Via Campesina, a global federation of small farmers’ organizations which spearheads the worldwide movement for food sovereignty.
Boricuá is also a key part of the growing national movement against GM crops. The national campaign against GM is led by the Nada Santo Sobre Monsanto coalition, which in 2013 carried out a number of educational activities, gave press interviews, and organized protests, including two major rallies. NSSM, together with Boricuá and other organizations such as the National Environmental Law Association (ANDA), the Agricultural Rescue Front (FRA) and the PIP party, have succeeded in getting the local press and civil society to take a serious critical look at the global biotechnology revolution and Puerto Rico’s place in it.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Nowadays Puerto Rico faces a very uncertain future, as successive governments have been shredding the already badly tattered social safety net of the Operation Bootstrap days, by introducing new taxes, privatizing state functions, laying off tens of thousands of public sector workers and tampering with pension funds (7). Prospects for a general strike or uprising are remote at best, given that much of the labor leadership has responded to the situation by circling the wagons to protect their respective unions’ ever shrinking turf. To make matters worse, the corporate-controlled media have brainwashed much of the citizenry into apathy and hostility toward labor unions, workers, the public sector, social spending, and poor people in general.
I hope this account of Puerto Rico’s last 116 years of history has been helpful. Yes, it is incomplete and partial. It is biased, of course it is. So sue me.
Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, investigative journalist and environmental educator. His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz. In the interest of full disclosure: he is active in many of the social and environmental movements and struggles that he writes about in this article.
3) Howard T. Odum with Robert F. Pigeon (eds), A Tropical Rain Forest; a Study of Irradiation and Ecology at El Verde. Puerto Rico, United States Atomic Energy Commission, National Technical information service.
Etiquetas: Carmelo, eng, Puerto Rico