On September 23, 1868, a gutsy band of Puerto Rican nationalists launched a revolt against their Spanish rulers. The uprising failed within 24 hours. On September 23, 2005, FBI agents shot and killed a fugitive Puerto Rican independence leader. Now New York’s independista community is hoping that anger over that death ends Puerto Rico’s 100-plus years as a U.S. possession.
It’s not just the killing of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos that has outraged many Puerto Ricans. On February 10, heavily armed FBI agents with search warrants raided six locations on Puerto Rico, citing a terrorist threat from an independence group; at one site, the feds pepper-sprayed reporters. The commonwealth’s elected government got no advance warning of what the feds were planning. It’s hard to imagine that happening in, say, Montana with so little hubbub.
Washington dubs Puerto Rico, seized by the U.S. during the Spanish-American War in 1898, a “commonwealth,” but some activists call it a colony. Puerto Ricans pay no federal taxes, cannot vote for president, and have no voting representative in Congress. For years, a minority of Puerto Ricans has argued the case for independence but found few takers.
But the furor over the FBI’s moves seems to have spread beyond New York’s small, dogged band of independence activists. Now, says assemblyman and Bronx Democratic chairman Jose Rivera, speaking at a meeting last week about the events in the Caribbean, “because of what happened on February 10, everyone on Puerto Rico is angry.” At his side at the Burgos Center in East Harlem is Congressman Charles Rangel, who calls the FBI crackdown “the only thing in recent history to unite the people of this island.”
“This could be for all of us a very historic moment,” Rangel adds. Cheers of “Yes!” answer him. Indeed, Congress is considering proposals for a new vote on the future of the island. Rangel has called for a congressional investigation into the FBI actions, and at the very least he promises unofficial hearings run by Democrats. Rivera, who planned to join a march on the island on February 26, has called for the FBI to get off the island ahora.
Ojeda Ríos, a fugitive since 1990, had been sentenced in absentia to 55 years in prison for his role in an armed robbery in Connecticut. Last September the feds finally tracked him down to a safe house in Hormigueros. The FBI says that when its agents first approached Ojeda Ríos, he opened fire first, hitting three of them. The feds fired back and surrounded the house. The next day, the FBI went in and found Ojeda Ríos dead. The feds insist they waited to go in because they feared a bomb, but critics suggest they were obligated to provide medical attention to a man they shot. The FBI’s inspector general is reviewing the shooting.
The FBI claims the February 10 raids were part of a “domestic terrorism investigation” related to Ejército Popular Boricua (Puerto Rican Popular Army), a/k/a Los Macheteros (“the Machete Wielders”), an active pro-independence militia. The supposed plot involved bombs “directed at privately owned interests in Puerto Rico, as well as the general public,” the FBI says. No one has been arrested. The commonwealth government wasn’t informed about the raids until the morning they were occurring, says local FBI spokesman Harry Rodriguez, who adds that the inspector general hasn’t decided yet whether to investigate the February 10 raids.
Whether the IG weighs in or not, the raids pump new blood into the movement to change Puerto Rico’s status. “It serves those who want to organize and mobilize and say, ‘This is the type of abuse that we suffer as a colony,'” says El Diario columnist Gerson Borrero.
Local independence activists have already formed a coalition to try to rally locals around the events back home. The activists say there’s a buzz. “We’re no longer talking to ourselves,” says Miguel Melendez, a co-founder of the Young Lords and veteran activist. “Other people are actually coming to events.” Even mainstream pols like Rangel are on board. New York City councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito, who organized last week’s meeting in El Barrio, calls the terrorism story a “ruse.”
New York’s neighborhoods echo with foreign struggles: old Village haunts of radical John Reed, the docks from where volunteers left to fight for Israel, the Staten Island hangout of exiled Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, the East Side site where Irish nationalist Eamon de Valera was born.
Landmarks of the movement to free Puerto Rico are here, too, if you know where to look. At 336 East 110th Street, a construction company now occupies the site where on December 11, 1974, a New York cop opened a door and was blinded by a booby-trap bomb apparently set by the FALN, a Puerto Rican radical group.
That wasn’t New York’s only link to either the peaceful or violent side of the independence struggle. The city was a base for the pioneering revolutionary Eugenio María de Hostos, as well as for the gunmen who tried to kill Harry Truman in 1950. In the ’70s and ’80s there were bombings here; in 2000 there was a peaceful occupation of the Statue of Liberty to protest U.S. target practice on Vieques.
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.”