Puerto Rico's Fight for Independence

The Early Years--1898-1954

Revolutionary Worker #966, July 19, 1998

July 25, 1898--thousands of U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico's southern coast from the sea--landing at the small port of Guánica and then in the larger town of Ponce. A force of 16,000 moved onto the island, commanded by U.S. General Nelson A. Miles.

In Puerto Rico, African slaves, Native peoples and Spanish immigrants had already forged a unique people and rich culture during 400 years of Spanish colonial rule. A million people lived on the island, mainly scattered in small villages, fishing and farming to gather the food they needed.

These Puerto Rican people had long fought their oppressors. The Taino Indian people had fought from the beginning--in the face of genocidal policies that drove them into the highlands and left few of them alive. The captive Africans had risen up in repeated uprisings against their enslavement. And, in 1868, the independent Republic of Puerto Rico was first proclaimed in the famous armed uprising against Spain--El Grito de Lares, the Cry of Lares. The U.S. high command had chosen to land their troops on the island's southern coast because the people were known for their resistance to the central colonial authorities.

When the U.S. troops landed, many Puerto Rican people welcomed them. Everyone knew that the U.S. had also once been a colony. And they believed that its armed forces had come to end Spanish oppression. In towns like Ciales, Adjuntas, Yauco, and Mayaguez, Puerto Rican guerillero bands took up arms against the Spanish.

But when a treaty was finally signed on December 10, 1898 in Paris, passing the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to U.S. control, the people of those countries were not consulted or involved. Their local governing bodies were ignored. When the Spanish flag was lowered at San Juan's La Fortaleza palace, it was the Yankee Stars and Stripes that took its place. There was some armed resistance to the new U.S. domination. It was four years before it was finally silenced.

As Maoist revolutionaries say: While the tiger was driven out the front door, the wolf had slipped in the back.

A Prize of War

"Cuba and Puerto Rico are natural appendages of the United States."

John Quincy Adams, 1823, then
Secretary of State to President Monroe

"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 you protection, not only to yourselves but to your property, to promote your prosperity, and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government."

Proclamation by General Nelson A. Miles
to the people of Puerto Rico, 1898

"English spoken here"

Sign posted by U.S. troops
in Ponce 1898

"An island or a small group of islands acquired for naval purposes does not differ greatly from a war vessel or fleet at anchor. It would be as improper to transfer the administration of such an island or island group from the Navy to another department as to turn over war vessels to any other than the Navy Department."

Major General Frank McIntyre,
head of U.S. War Department's Bureau
of Insular Affairs during World War 1

The U.S. ruling class had coveted Puerto Rico from the early days of the North American republic. And despite its claims to oppose colonialism, its troops came as new conquerors. Even before the July 25th invasion, the decision had already been made to take Puerto Rico as "Spanish war indemnity." Senator Perkins described the island as a U.S. "prize of war."

The new U.S. rulers insisted that the Puerto Rican people needed "protection" and "tutoring." In crude racist language, Puerto Ricans were described as a "mongrel people" who needed to be taught "civilization." Someday (it was implied), the islanders would be "ready" to govern themselves. This was classic colonialist self-justification.

In 1900 this colonial rule was formalized. The U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act--which decreed that Puerto Ricans would be ruled by a governor appointed by the U.S. president.

A century has now passed since the U.S. invasion--and Puerto Rico is still not free. And the official life of this island continues to be dominated by the decisions made in this foreign and distant U.S. Congress.

In 1917--as World War 1 was raging--the U.S. decided to tighten its legal annexation of Puerto Rico. U.S. citizenship was imposed on the Puerto Rican people by the Jones Act--without their consent and over the unanimous objection of the island's House of Delegates. In other countries, like Cuba and Panama, the U.S. was refining a system of neo-colonial rule, where they controlled countries through phony "independent" governments. But in Puerto Rico, they chose to impose colonial rule--a sign that they intended to directly rule the Puerto Rican people forever.

This same Jones Act created a new toothless legislature for Puerto Rico. This body asked the U.S. Congress five times to take up the question of Puerto Rico's status--Washington didn't even answer the letters. The real control of the island was handed over to the Navy and the U.S. War Department who ruled it until 1934.

The Puerto Rican independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos used to say in the 1930s that these invaders were "interested in the cage, not the bird." The U.S. strategic planners intended to hold Puerto Rico's territory and make it a key military base for dominating the surrounding region.

Satisfying the
Empire's Sweet Tooth

"There is today more widespread misery and destitution and far more unemployment in Puerto Rico than at any previous time in its history."

Harold Ickes,
Secretary of the Interior
for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1935

U.S. capitalists quickly followed their troops into Puerto Rico, eyeing their new possession for ways to make money. Step by step, U.S. corporations snatched up the best land. The homegrown owning classes of Puerto Rico were bought out and shoved aside. Many working people lost their small farms and growing numbers were forced to work on huge Yankee-owned plantations as wage workers or sharecroppers. They often made as little as $1 a day, and lived with bitter poverty and hunger.

Meanwhile, the U.S. colonialists sent missionaries and enforcers to undermine the language and culture of the people. Puerto Rican teachers were ordered to teach children in English.

The economy of the island was twisted to serve U.S. interests in the world market. And the rich land no longer produced the food that people ate. Production went for export, and the people were forced to buy U.S. products for their basic needs. Then in 1929 the Great Depression brought a sharp decline in the sugar economy--and the people were left with almost nothing. The suffering was intense.

Oppression gave rise to resistance. A radical new Puerto Rican independence movement was born. Pedro Albizu Campos rose to the leadership of the island's Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PNP) in 1930. Inspired by the anti-British struggle of Ireland, he led his followers onto a daring path of militant and uncompromising resistance.

The Nationalists were a revolutionary movement most firmly rooted among the middle classes of Puerto Rico. It did not have a clear perspective of how to win independence from the Yankees, and did not have a clear sense of the kind of society it would build after independence was won. But the PNP did make several far-sighted and path-breaking contributions to the politics of the Puerto Rican people.

The Nationalist Party promoted the principle of retraimiento--rejection of official politics and colonial elections. They boldly proclaimed that U.S. domination of Puerto Rico was illegal and illegitimate--and refused to recognize the colonial authorities, their courts or laws. They pointedly accused the U.S. of causing the ruin and poverty of Puerto Rico's people. And they sought international recognition for Puerto Rico's right to independence. Most daring of all, they taught that Puerto Rican people had a right to wage armed struggle against the U.S. invaders. Albizu Campos declared he was working to form a revolutionary army to drive out the North Americans.

Knowing that they were challenging a ruthless and powerful military power, the movement trained its members in an intense sense of moral righteousness and fearless self-sacrifice. The poet-revolutionary Juan Antonio Corretjer talks of the movement's "mixture of nationalism, mysticism and revolutionary fervor."

The Revolt of the Jíbaros

In 1934 a major turning point arrived. In early January, thousands of jíbaros, the landless peasants of the island, walked out of the sugar cane fields of the Armstrong-owned plantation in Fajard. Their furious wildcat strike spread. The farmworkers were disgusted with their sellout leadership--and they sought out the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, asking Albizu Campos to lead them. The Nationalists wholeheartedly threw themselves into the strike--and the combined movement shook the island.

The colonial rulers were terrified at the specter of a mass revolutionary movement. Agents of U.S. corporations formed the "Citizens Committee of One Thousand for the Preservation of Peace and Order" who cabled the U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to report, "A state of actual anarchy exists. Towns in state of siege, police impotent, businesses paralyzed." General Blanton Winship was appointed governor to suppress the people. His top aide, the soon-notorious Colonel Francis Riggs, became the island's police chief.

The authorities moved to calm the movement with a series of concessions, while they prepared to break up its most organized forces using brutal means. The island's police were quickly militarized. Teams of FBI agents secretly arrived on the island to target the independence movement.

Wherever the new independence movement raised its head, these forces responded with harassment and killings. Several attempts were made on Albizu Campos's life. After repeated police murders of Nationalists, Albizu Campos announced that his movement would respond by targeting representatives of the U.S. imperialists.

In October 1935, three Nationalists were killed by police bullets outside the island's main university. On February 23, 1936, Colonel Frances Riggs--head of this counterrevolutionary campaign--was shot dead. The two young Nationalists who killed him, Elias Beauchamp and Hiram Rosado, were then murdered in the police headquarters shortly after their capture.

On March 5, 1936, the Nationalist leadership was charged with seditious conspiracy--conspiring to overthrow the federal government in Puerto Rico. The first trial (in the English-only federal courts) ended when the seven Puerto Ricans on the jury of 12 refused to convict. In a crude act of railroading, the authorities then handpicked a new jury with 10 Anglo-Americans and condemned Albizu Campos to federal prison in late 1936.

The Ponce Massacre

"Viva la República. Down with the assassins."

Written on a wall by a dying
Puerto Rican fighter, Ponce, 1937

The authorities moved to suppress the remaining movement by force.

The Nationalist Party called for a march to commemorate the abolition of slavery on the island. It was planned for Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937, in the southern city of Ponce. The local authorities first granted a permit and then, on orders from General/ Governor Winship, the permits were withdrawn. Hundreds of police were rushed to Ponce to carry out a planned ambush.

On the appointed day, PNP's youth group defied the ban on the march and lined up in ranks along Marina Street. About 80 young men stood proud, dressed as Cadets in black shirts and white pants. Then came a bold contingent of young women dressed all in white. Following them was a five-piece band playing La Borinqueña, the island's anthem. The crowd cheered.

Suddenly, police lines moved into place, both in front and in back. The cops were heavily armed--including a special squad of nine men with Thompson submachine guns. The unarmed youth stood their ground bravely, without panic. The police simply opened fire on the march, and kept shooting. Marchers, supporters, bystanders, even small children went down before the police bullets. Then the cops rushed the survivors, shooting some at point blank range, and clubbing others. Twenty-two were killed and over 100 wounded.

Defying the threat of new police attacks, more than 15,000 attended the funerals at Ponce, and more than 5,000 in Mayaguez. The victims of the massacre were tried for conspiracy to commit murder. Permits were denied to future Nationalist marches. More police killings followed.

President Roosevelt refused to recall Winship. On July 25, 1938, Winship organized a military parade though Ponce to celebrate the U.S. invasion of 1898. It was intended as a show of force.

Rejecting the Blood Tax

Under intense attacks, and with much of their leadership in prison, the remaining Nationalists continued to struggle. World War 2 soon broke out, and thousands of Puerto Rican men were ordered into the military. On President Franklin Roosevelt's orders, steps were taken to create the world's largest naval base on the eastern side of the island.

The Nationalists denounced the military draft as a colonial "blood tax" on their people. They organized the island's youth to resist the draft. This consistent anti-imperialism was considered shocking--even by many leftists of the time--and the Nationalists were even accused of being "pro-fascist" for refusing to join the U.S. imperialist military.

Scores of young Puerto Rican draft resisters were actually condemned to federal prisons. Many suffered extreme punishments. Some were even killed. Their stand inspired future generations--and helped give birth to the powerful movement of draft resistance that grew up in Puerto Rico during the Vietnam War.

Defying the "American Century"

World War 2 brought intense changes to the world--and to colonial countries like Puerto Rico. The U.S. emerged as the world's biggest imperialist power and wanted to establish neo-colonial domination of many countries throughout the world. It was going to be, the U.S. imperialists said, the start of an "American Century."

As they pursued these plans, the U.S. imperialists found their open colonial rule in Puerto Rico to be an embarrassment. So they wanted to work out a new political arrangement with the appearance of local self government--while maintaining the reality of rule from Washington.

Meanwhile the plantation economy of Puerto Rico had forced many people off the land into growing slums like La Perla (the Pearl) and El Fangito (Little Mud). The imperialists were determined to better exploit these propertyless Puerto Ricans. The government launched a major campaign to create sweatshop factories--called "Operation Bootstrap."

In Puerto Rico itself, many people had a radically different idea of change. The whole world was rumbling with major anti-colonial struggles. In 1949 the Chinese revolution led by Mao Tsetung achieved victory over the forces of imperialism. And many thousands of Puerto Rican soldiers came back from war to a country without jobs--after eye-opening experiences with U.S.-style racism. A new movement for liberation stirred.

In 1947, an unrepentant Pedro Albizu Campos returned to the island from federal prison. He immediately crisscrossed the island speaking passionately against the reorganization plans of the imperialists and against the suffering of the Puerto Rican people.

The authorities permitted moderate political forces on the island to discuss various neo-colonial visions of "independence." But they were determined to keep control of Puerto Rico forever. They responded to Albizu Campos's activities with intense repression.

In 1948, the authorities passed the Ley de la Mordaza, the gag law. La Mordaza made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government in Puerto Rico. It was also known as "the Little Smith Act" because it was patterned after a similar fascist law passed for the mainland.

In practice, such things as pro-independence speeches and poetry and even raising the Puerto Rican flag were treated as illegal. The imperialists simply criminalized the politics of Puerto Rican liberation. And La Mordaza was immediately used to attack the PNP and eliminate its leadership.

Albizu Campos was placed under intense police pressure. Police patrols followed him openly, occasionally in jeeps with mounted machine guns. Every person he talked to, even clerks in stores, would be visited by police and harassed.

In 1948, Nationalists called on the Puerto Rican people to boycott the elections of a colonial governor. Almost half of the people stayed away from the polls.

The U.S. ruling class was finalizing their plans to impose a new colonial arrangement on Puerto Rico. They wanted no militant, organized campaign against this new setup. And so, in April 1950, President Truman ordered his agents to destroy the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. The fascistic campaign that followed foreshadowed in many ways the murderous cointelpro operations unleashed against the Black Panther Party almost 20 years later.

The U.S. Secretary of War, Louis Johnson, went to Puerto Rico and met with U.S. military leaders for three days in April. Like Mafia godfathers, they met with the governor, Muñoz Marín, and gave him the order: either break up the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party or kill their leader, Albizu Campos.

The Nationalists learned about this plot from their informants within the government. And they worked to alert the people of the danger. However, newspapers refused to carry the information--and would not even accept a paid advertisement. So the PNP organized a campaign of public meetings starting in Manati on June 11, 1950.

The Nationalists were determined to resist by any means necessary--and to take arms if they were denied peaceful avenues of resistance.

On October 27, 1950, the police stopped a Nationalist car caravan near Panuelas. Four Nationalists and two police died in the resulting firefight. Albizu Campos called on the people to take up arms.

Taking Up Arms

On October 30, 1950, Puerto Rican fighters attacked police headquarters in Jayuya. They set fire to the building and destroyed the government offices in town. They proclaimed the Second Republic of Puerto Rico and raised their revolutionary flag.

The U.S. air forces bombed from the air, as National Guard troops advanced to take back the village.

Blanca Canales, a woman who helped lead the Jayuya revolt, described how the U.S. forces massacred those who surrendered during the nearby uprising in Utuado. Similar armed revolts broke out in Arecibo, Mayaguez, and Naranjito. In San Juan, independence fighters attacked the governor's palace--La Fortaleza, a symbol of colonial domination.

This was a time when the U.S. imperialists were perhaps at the most powerful and arrogant moment in their history. And in the face of such power, the independence forces of Puerto Rico dared to rise up in a powerful armed manifesto--a Grito de Jayuya. Altogether it was the most powerful uprising in Puerto Rican history, and the largest armed revolt on U.S.-claimed territory since the last wars of the Native Peoples in the 1890s.

At the same time, it was a difficult moment to actually carry a revolutionary struggle through to victory--to the seizure of nationwide power. The armed fighting proved impossible to sustain. The various centers of revolt were put down one by one, as columns of National Guard troops moved across the island.

The colonial police besieged Pedro Albizu Campos in his house for two days before the Nationalist fighters there laid down their arms and surrendered.

Even then, the fighting was not over. November 1, 1950, the world was stunned to hear that the independentistas had taken the armed struggle to the U.S. mainland. Two Nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, attacked the temporary residence of President Truman in Washington's Blair House. Torresola was killed at the scene and Collazo was wounded. Though the imperialist media had worked to suppress news of the uprisings on Puerto Rico itself, they could not ignore this armed act in their capital.

At least 21 independentistas gave their lives in the uprising. And the whole world was made aware of the independence struggle of Puerto Rico.

The U.S. imperialists unleashed an intense reign of terror on the people of Puerto Rico. Three thousand people were arrested--including virtually all known members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and even many members of the reformist Puerto Rican Independence Party, which had always rejected armed struggle. Police were issued blank arrest warrants to seize anyone they chose. An internationalist Anglo-American, Ruth Reynolds, was seized by the authorities after the historic uprising of Jayuya.

Trials lasted for three years. The hundreds of people on trial were almost all convicted and condemned to prison. In some cases, people were reportedly imprisoned simply because some government spy testified that they had shouted "Viva Puerto Rico Libre!"

One example: The independentista Carlos Feliciano and twelve other people were convicted of killing four cops in Arecibo. Feliciano was sentenced to 465 years in prison. (He later joked, "They thought I was Methuselah.") A state witness later testified that Feliciano had been in his home town, Mayagüez, when the cops died. And the conviction had to be overthrown. The government refused to release him, but instead set up new charges of "advocating the overthrow of the government" and sentenced him to prison for his views. Membership in the PNP was itself a felony.

The colonialist police, working with the FBI, developed a huge blacklist of independence supporters who were pursued over the coming years. Independentistas, their families and employers were harassed. In 1988, when this blacklist was challenged in court, it contained more than 100,000 files.

The Lie Did Not Go Unopposed

"The Popular Democratic Party desires to have a banana republic with United States air conditioning."

J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI

The colonial Popular Democratic Party rose to power in the new elections and on July 25, 1952 (again the anniversary of the notorious U.S. invasion!), they and the U.S. proclaimed the so-called Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) or Commonwealth. This put in place the political arrangement the U.S. has used to exploit and dominate the Puerto Rican people for the last 46 years.

Historian Afredo López describes it as "a sophisticated colonial enterprise where everything--laws, administrative organization, even popularly accepted ideology--works toward the efficient exploitation of the land's natural resources and labor."

This new arrangement set up a phony political system in Puerto Rico that was modeled on electoral politics within the U.S. And based on this set-up, the U.S. pushed through a UN resolution in 1954 that removed Puerto Rico from the official list of "non-self-governing territories." In other words, the U.S. (and the United Nations) were trying to claim that Puerto Rico was no longer a colony.

Puerto Rico independence fighters again took up arms to answer this lie. On March 1, 1954, four Nationalists--Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores and Andrés Figueroa Cordero--walked into the gallery of the U.S. Congress and opened fire on the congressmen below. They were in the middle of a debate about immigration, and one politicians had just referred to Mexicans as "wetbacks." Five congressmen were wounded. The four independentistas were captured.

The attack marked a third proclamation of the free and sovereign Republic of Puerto Rico.

In prison, Albizu Campos faced intense mistreatment. He accused the authorities of bombarding him with radiation--causing painful illness. Afraid to have him die in prison, the authorities released him, a few months before his death in April 1965.

The movement he had built suffered heavily from the ruthless repression of U.S. imperialism. But just as he died, the 1960s were heating up. And a whole new generation all around the world was rising in struggle against U.S. imperialism. Deeply inspired by Albizu Campos and his fighters, many people, both on the island and on the U.S. mainland, stepped forward to advance the cause of Puerto Rican liberation.


  • Doña Licha's Island--Modern Colonialism in Puerto Rico, Alfredo López, South End Press, 1987
  • Prisoners of Colonialism-the Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico, Ronald Fernandez, Common Courage Press, 1994 li>Puerto Rican Nationalism: A Reader, edited by Jose E. Lopez, Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Chicago, 1977
  • Puerto Rico--A Political and Cultural History, Arturo Morales Carrión, Norton, 1983

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