A Look at the Movement to Free Puerto Rico:

Ronald Fernandez' Prisoners of Colonialism
-Book Review by Bertha Husband

On Friday, March 12, 1999, José Solís Jordán was found guilty of bombing a military recruiting center in Chicago in 1992, solely on the evidence of FBI informant Rafael Marrero. Marrero had admitted to his own role in the bombing in order to receive immunity from prosecution.

For anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Puerto Rico's 100-year struggle against U.S. colonialism, this bombing has the smell of agent provocateur and the FBI dirty tricks of J. Edgar Hoover's Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the 1960s. In that program, the FBI used informants to disrupt the activities of the Puerto Rican independence movement by exacerbating existing friction to help bring about factional splits.

If we look at the recent trial of José Solís Jordán in the light of this history, we can see it as an attempt to divide the independence movement in Chicago and disrupt the work of the National Committee to Free the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War, and divert that organization from its goal of winning amnesty for the prisoners.

It is this demand for amnesty and its historical context that is Ronald Fernandez' brief in his 1997 book. Prisoners of Colonialism: The Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico is written with the purpose of informing people in the U.S. about the unacceptable colonial status of Puerto Rico and the injustice and violation of human rights evident in the length of sentences and the appalling conditions of the political prisoners' incarceration.

Fernandez has set himself a very difficult task. How can you begin to explain colonialism to an audience for whom the word is merely an irrelevant abstraction - something the British did in Africa? Possibly, it is even more difficult than that. Cynicism and "double think" leads people in the U.S. to hold contradictory opinions that negate each other.

In the early 1980s, I asked someone to sign a petition to support the demands of an Irish political prisoner on hunger strike in a U.S. federal prison. The explanation for his refusal to sign contained this revealing contradiction: that the U.S. was the only free country in the world; but that he wouldn't sign the petition because the FBI might find out and tap his telephone.

This attitude affects us all. If we are ruled by unethical cynics who claim to be acting altruistically and in the best interest of the people they invade and exploit then we, too, become infected with the same arrogance, indifference and contradictory thinking. We can easily be lead to believe that the U.S. has no colonies, while at the same time recognizing that illegal wire tapping and police brutality are common occurrences here. Prisoners of Colonialism presents us with a gripping and very readable account of the last 100 years in which the U.S. government's dealings with Puerto Rico have been consistent in this one respect: what a succession of administrations have publicly said that they are doing is the absolute reverse of what they actually have done.

As Fernandez notes, "On July 25, 1898, General Nelson Miles invaded Puerto Rico....He declared martial law, silenced the press...," and three days later presented his message to the Puerto Rican people: "'We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring protection...to promote your prosperity and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessing of the liberal institution of our government.'" After two years of repressive military rule, the Puerto Rican people asked Congress for an immediate "redress of grievances." Congress responded with the Foraker Act. Now "Puerto Rico was not only a colony, it was the first unincorporated territory in U.S. history." Meaning that there was no promise of future statehood.

This duplicity continued with an enforced "citizenship" in 1917 against the will of the people. This was a special kind of citizenship, since it came without rights or representation. Puerto Ricans could then be drafted into the military by a government they couldn't vote for.

In the name of economic development, Congress later introduced a tax-exempt "incentive for outside investment to establish factories that would put Puerto Rico to work." But since corporations could only bring their tax-free profits home after liquidation, "new businesses only replaced the ones closing shop after a 'let's take the money and run' liquidation." In the name of economic development, Puerto Rico's economy was destroyed, leading to the enforced exile of thousands of Puerto Ricans, who sought work in New York and Chicago.

While Fernandez is very clear and informative on the manipulation and duplicity inherent in the U.S. government's rule in Puerto Rico, it is the history of resistance to this rule, from Pedro Albizu Campos in the 1940s to Oscar López Rivera in the 1980s, that is at the center of his book.

International law (e.g., United Nations General Assembly Resolution 33/24 of December 1978) recognizes "the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial domination, particularly armed struggle." If the legitimacy of armed struggle to end colonization is enshrined in international law, then why, asks Fernandez, are there well over a dozen Puerto Ricans serving an average of 70 years in U.S. prisons for simply exercising this right?

One reason lies in the U.S. government's continuing attempt to prevail on friends and allies to ensure that any mention of Puerto Rico is deleted from the U.N. Decolonization Committee Report.

Another reason is the constant emotive use of the word "terrorism." On "terrorism," Fernandez states: "It is hypocritical and inaccurate for U.S. officials to call Puerto Rican political prisoners "terrorists."

If the essential feature of modern terrorism is the severing of the link between the target of violence and the reason for the violence, the origin of modern terrorism is in the military establishments of England, Italy and the United States. It was Western soldiers who argued that the way to win World War Two was to destroy "the enemy's will to resist." In practice, this included "paralyzing the organic industrial, economic and civic systems that maintained the life of the enemy nation itself," and this included "attacking the people themselves, especially those concentrated in the cities." This was openly called "obliteration bombing" because the deliberate idea was to systematically terrorize the civilian population. The thinking is that exposed to bombardment from thousands of planes, people would surrender rather than live under a fiery barrage. "After World War Two, obliteration bombing became an institutionalized part of American life."

Fernandez goes on to point out that "obliteration bombing was an essential part of President Bush's Desert Storm campaign in Iraq. The American public even watched the 'live action' footage on CNN; meanwhile, many of the Baghdad civilians deliberately killed by U.S. bombardment not only had nothing to do with the reason for the war, they were opponents of Saddam Hussein."

Having defined terrorism and pointed out its consistent use as a tactic of the U.S. military since World War Two, Fernandez turns his attention to the bombings of the FALN, the armed clandestine Puerto Rican independence organization. By 1981, the FALN has assumed responsibility for 120 separate bombings in which a total of five people had been killed. "The bombings were generally 'symbolic,' they focused on property," writes Fernandez. All five deaths had occurred in retaliations for assassinations of independentistas, none had occurred accidentally.

Nevertheless, the FALN was labeled a terrorist organization, because to have called it "revolutionary" would have been to confront the unacceptable truth of the illegitimacy of U.S. rule and the legitimacy of an armed struggle to overthrow that rule. As one of the prisoners, Oscar López, stated: "The evidence will show you that we have a deep respect for human life, that we care for human life." To Oscar, the proof was in the result of the bombings: how could the FALN violence be characterized as "indiscriminate" if, in 120 bombings, "very few people have died? Obviously, when it attacked banks, recruiting centers or military installations, the FALN could have slaughtered people if it chose to do so."

Maybe the most revealing aspect of this book is that it shows the exemplary ethics, self-sacrifice and integrity of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Prisoners.

In contrast, the individuals in successive U.S. governments have shown the very opposite traits: in place of exemplary ethics, immorality; in place of self-sacrifice, we see the pursuit of profit and personal gain; and in place of integrity, there is only treachery and lies. The hard fact for us is that so many independentistas remain in jail.

Fernandez ends his book with this statement: "The contradiction is ours. The United States owns the colony. The prisoners did their duty. And the President should immediately free them, not only for the sake of justice, but for the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence."

[Note: April 4, 1999 is the 19th Anniversary of the arrest of eleven of the Puerto Rican prisoners, who were apprehended in Evanston in 1980. Their trial was held in federal court in Chicago in 1981.]

Prisoners of Colonialism:
The Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico
by Ronald Fernandez
ISBN 1-56751-028-0; paperback $15
Common Courage Press
Box 702, Corner Jackson Road & Route 139
Monroe, ME 04951

Dec 97 | Spring 98 | Summer 98 | Fall 98 | Spring 99 | Summer 99 | Fall 99 | Spring 00 | Summer 00

Back hallway (Home)