Libertad? Maybe

Puerto Rican independence activists rally 'round an FBI crackdown

The successful movement to stop the Vieques bombardment is being held up as a model for what has to happen now. "It was not until we in New York got involved that we were able to foster debate in this nation," says Rivera. But the mass media can't be counted on. Word of mouth may have to do the trick. "We are all linked somehow to Puerto Ricans around the planet," Rivera notes. Indeed, around him at the Burgos Center are pols in suits and scrappy-looking activists, black and white, old and young. There's even a nationalist youth organization, Juventud Nacionalista.

Trouble is, it has about 20 members. The graffiti on 110th Street might shout, "Todos Boricuas Macheteros!" but most Puerto Ricans, far from being militants, aren't independence supporters at all. In three plebiscites on the island, the vote share for independence has never hit double digits.

Congressman José Serrano, who championed an effort to get the FBI to release 1.9 million pages of files on Puerto Rican movements from the 1930s to the 1990s, says the limited appeal of independence is largely because "the FBI criminalized it and gave the impression that it was a violent group of people and never let it grow."

Blame, however, goes beyond the feds. Some see the independistas as intellectual elites to whom most Puerto Ricans can't relate. Others say Puerto Ricans are just as disengaged from politics as most every other U.S. constituency. Harry Rodríguez Reyes, a professor at Hunter College, faults the fragmented independence movement for ignoring issues other than independence and vanishing on the island between elections.

But mostly Rodríguez Reyes blames the effects of colonization itself, which has locked Puerto Rico into dependence on the mainland. The island reports a poverty rate of 45 percent, yet it is the fifth largest market for U.S. exports per capita: People are buying American goods with credit from American banks. Its residents receive $1.5 billion a year in food stamps, which many are afraid of losing if the island becomes an independent state. That federal money, says Rodríguez Reyes, "plays a role in pacifying the people and reinforces the dependency."

It would help if the cause of Puerto Rico's status could be wedded to an issue with broader appeal, and the people who are raising a stink over the FBI raids— including those who don't necessarily support independence—are attempting to do that. They link the FBI operations to U.S. hostility toward radical regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. And activists depict Puerto Rico's treatment as a chip off the same block as the Patriot Act, the Iraq war, and the extrajudicial detention of "enemy combatants" like Jose Padilla.

Independence activists claim to have information that the FBI has 100 or so search warrants—that the six executed on February 10 were just the tip of the iceberg. It's unclear whether the feds' interest is confined to the island. "We are all feeling under new pressure," Vicente "Panama" Alba, who was pictured on an August 1977 Village Voice cover as a suspect in a bombing, for which he was later acquitted, says. "Being targets of operations such as this is definitely a possibility."

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