Book Review: Waging counterinsurgency war in the Puerto Rican Colony

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War Against All Puerto Ricans - revolution and terror in America's colony, Nelson A. Denis, Nation Books, New York, 2015, ISBN 978-1-56858-501-7, $28.99

U.S. media coverage of Puerto Rico focuses these days on unpayable debt. Reports on declining social services, uniquely unfair Medicaid and Medicare rules, and Puerto Rico's almost 50- percent poverty rate appear, but only seldom. Author Nelson A. Denis' new book talks about what's almost never discussed: Puerto Rico as colony. Really, as the book's title indicates, the subject is more specific. Island police chief E. Francis Riggs Words spoke those words by way of explaining what his police were up to in 1935 when they murdered three university students and an elderly bystander in Río Piedras.

Denis' book could well stimulate interest in Puerto Rico's long struggle for independence. It's also good medicine for North Americans who overlook a neighboring colonial possession while professing to be anti-imperialist. Denis communicates urgency through a colorful writing style and an eye-catching way of organizing material.  Describing events, trends, and personalities, he is more storyteller than historian.   His narrative captures the emotional intensity of the independence struggle and its high stakes.

The author is involved. He was eight years old in 1962 when FBI operatives entered at night and absconded with his Cuban-born father, who was deported. Denis and his Puerto Rican - born mother never saw him again. The trauma caused the author to become a lawyer. For 40 years he listened to independence - movement activists to learn more. Enabled by the Freedom of Information Act, he looked at U.S. government's intelligence files. Denis says the immensity of that collection persuaded him to write the book.

The colonialists themselves, arrogant and belittling, supplied verbal backdrop for what they were doing. According to Denis, the New York Times passed off Puerto Ricans in 1899 as "an uneducated, simple-minded and harmless people." Major General Nelson A. Miles in 1898 explained why his troops were in Puerto Rico: "We have not come to make war upon a people, [but] to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government." For President Calvin Coolidge 30 years later, Puerto Ricans were still "poor and distressed, without hope for the future, ignorant, poverty stricken and diseased, not knowing what constitutes a free and democratic government."

In 1950 Puerto Rican nationalists launched armed rebellion; U. S. military mobilization was in high gear. President Harry Truman dismissed the turmoil as "an incident between Puerto Ricans," thus once more trivializing the island's people. 

For Denis, "the story of Albizu Campos is the story of Puerto Rico. It is also the story of empire." This was Nationalist Party president Pedro Albizu Campos, whom he portrays as heroic and tragic. Poor and orphaned at age four, the first Puerto Rican to study at Harvard, valedictorian of his 1921 Harvard Law School class, and master of six languages, Albizu Campos dedicated his life to Puerto Rican independence. He would serve 25 years in prison. The book presents convincing evidence that radiation torture in prison hastened his death in 1965.

Sugar cane production dominated the island's economy.  Four U.S. conglomerates owned half the arable land.  Nationalist agitation provoked surveillance, gathering of intelligence data, harassment at rallies, and attacks. Albizu's leadership of an island - wide sugar - workers strike in 1934 prompted, General Blanton Winship, the appointed governor, to intensify repression; the FBI collaborated.  Massacres, murders, and disappearances ensued.  Convicted in 1937 of conspiracy to overthrow the U. S. government, Albizu spent seven years in the Atlanta Federal prison. He returned to Puerto Rico in late 1947after being paroled.

The situation was changed: U. S. militarization, fear, and economic distress prevailed. Nationalist Party recruitment was down. The island police, FBI, and Army intelligence shared secret police dossiers on 100,000 Puerto Ricans; almost 75,000 were under surveillance.  A "gag law" even criminalized possession of a Puerto Rican flag.

 "For the past fifty years, the United States has been at war with Puerto Rico," Albizu Campos told an audience in June 1948. "They steal our land, sterilize our women, inject us with cancer and tuberculosis, they find traitors to rule over us, parasites who live by robbing their own people."  A month later he proclaimed that, "Our country is past speeches. Puerto Ricans have to fight for their liberty with all arms at their disposal ... [T]he only reality anymore is the one we create for ourselves." 

Paradoxically, Denis gained access to Albizu's speeches courtesy of FBI transcriptions of recordings made by agents.

Looking to promote international awareness of their cause, the Nationalists launched island - wide armed revolt on October 28, 1950. By then informers had infiltrated rebel units at every level. Denis describes thousands of U.S. troops overwhelming cities, air assaults on two of them, and a rebel suicide attack on the governor's residence. Arrested, the Nationalists' leader entered the grim La Princesa prison where, except for a six-month release in 1953, he would spend the rest of his life, subjected to terrible abuse. 

As befits the literature of war, Denis occasionally puts action aside to highlight bizarre goings-on, thus adding entertainment value to the book.  Readers encounter Luis Muñoz Marín, Puerto Rico's first elected governor, in thrall to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who possessed a one-page report on Muñoz' opium addiction. They discover Puerto Rican filmmaker Juan Emilio Viguié, who surreptitiously documented the Nationalists' struggle. There is Vidal Santiago Díaz, the "most famous barber in Puerto Rico," who supplied Nationalists with arms and used his arms cache to hold off 40 security forces for three hours.  Ex- Princeton football player Waller Booth is unforgettable. CIA head Allen Dulles enlisted Booth to watch over the island, and he did so by eavesdropping on talk in his CIA-funded bar. 

The author concludes with a brief survey of "50 years of chaos," mainly economic and social. He leaves no optimistic message as to eventual national independence. Dim prospects for Puerto Rico, if that's the case, invite comparison with Cuba's very different historical course. 

Everyone agrees the two peoples' fates are intertwined.  Cuba and Puerto Rico were "two wings of the same bird," wrote Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez de Tío in 1867. The independence movements in both countries took a hit when the United States in 1898 commandeered remnants of Spain's colonial empire.  But the Cubans had already fielded two armies in two wars for independence. On the second occasion, Cubans schooled by José Martí and friends fought for social justice and actually defeated the Spanish army. Their tolerance for U. S. ownership of Cuba and long-term U.S. military occupation was nil. In Puerto Rico, by contrast, the door remained open. 




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