September in Puerto Rico: Radical Perspectives

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Mural in Buschwick, Brooklyn. Photo: Xavi Burgos Peña

Mural in Buschwick, Brooklyn. Photo: Xavi Burgos Peña

By: Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera

Last month Puerto Rico celebrated one of its most cherished yet most denied historical events – the Grito de Lares independence uprising of 1868 – while at the same time commemorating one of the most controversial acts of U.S. political repression – the 2005 targeted assassination of patriot Filiberto Ojeda Rios, leader of the Ejército Popular Boricua-Macheteros.

As part of the commemorations this year, island progressives held a series of groundbreaking conferences analyzing the history and role of independence activists and revolutionaries.

The first of these was held on September 17th at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus, and featured a majority of the island’s veteran freedom fighters – all of them former political prisoners. A surreal experience for island and Diaspora activists alike, the conference, titled “Struggles from the Past, Present, and….Always? The Puerto Rican political prisoners and their legacy among newer generations” featured several panels regarding colonialism and the role of women, art, and community organizations in The Struggle.

These former prisoners formed a cross section of the radical political struggles of the island from the 1960s through today, including combatants from the 1950 Nationalist Insurrection, veteran activists linked to the armed revolutionary groups Los Macheteros and the FALN, activists coming from the Vieques freedom campaign and the Young Lords; and other community struggles in the Puerto Rican and Latina/o communities in the U.S.

Elma Beatriz Rosado, widow of Ojeda Ríos, offered brief words at the outset alerting that there is “a need for national salvation” while Nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda’s videotaped message opened the panel on colonialism with his insistence that “independence is necessary” as Puerto Rico continues to be “a militarily occupied country.”  Other former prisoners such as Avelino González Claudio, Heriberto Marín, Edwin Cortés, Luis Rosa, Rita Zengotita, Nilda Medina, and Alicia Rodríguez were joined by younger, island-based local activists who offered their particular perspectives on struggle and community organizing as well as feminist-based work within an anti-colonial context.

An interesting aspect of the ‘Women’s panel’ was former political prisoner Lucy Rodríguez’s choice to focus on the issue of “Mother Earth”, leading to a powerful plea to respect the power of nature and the environment as a natural expression of maternity and continuity, and of the power, importance, and centrality of women in society and in the struggle for survival and freedom.

‘The Arts in The Struggle’ panel featured a previously recorded video message from former political prisoner Carlos Alberto Torres, who was released in 2010. His message explaining the spiritual freedom obtained via his artistic work while in prison and how this liberty propelled even more artistic expression was particularly poignant.

The final panel, on ‘Community Organizing,’ featured Ricardo Jimenez, Luis Rosa, Edwin Cortés, and Alberto Rodríguez, all convicted for seditious conspiracy and other activities linked to the FALN; and Federico Cintrón Fiallo, a veteran radical activist in Puerto Rico; and Juan Segarra, imprisoned for his activities with Los Macheteros. Cortés stated that “we should return to the basics” with young people, which could be the offering of services to the community via medical and educational centers, music, arts, etc. As he stated, such programs should be created because “we want to redefine the role of the Puerto Rican community in the States”.

Furthermore, Cortés stated that young people could play a decisive role in the liberation of Oscar López through the use of civil disobedience. Alberto Rodríguez discussed issues relating to colonial mentality and the necessity to break dependency in order to lead to self-determination. He closed by discussing the experience with discrimination many in the States endure and says that “we are witnessing the end of the achievements of the political work of previous Puerto Rican generations” and that we now need a new generation dedicated to undertaking that work.

Less than a week later, the island commemorated the 147th anniversary of El Grito de Lares. Speakers that day referred to the need to support the ecological movements on the island and urged unity among organizations, but reiterated a common claim among independence supporters: that the current crisis Puerto Rico is experiencing is based on the unresolved status issue. Los Macheteros sent a communiqué to the event stating that the “empire attempted to terminate the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence, silencing the voice of the Commander of the Ejercito Popular Boricua-Macheteros, Filiberto Ojeda Rios” and that during these trying times of exploitation, they are with the people and their respective struggles, and once again says that they will do what needs to be done at the appropriate time.

Later that evening, the house where Ojeda Ríos and Rosado were attacked by the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team was opened to the public for first time since that day. This year, however, a much more solemn observation took place with no structured program of events. In its place, a steady stream of silent visitors, who quietly toured the house, observing the bullet holes and shredded glass windows.

Finally, on September 24th one final conference was offered regarding the future of the struggle for the island’s independence. Organized by University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Professor and author Michael González, it featured UPR Economics professor Ricardo Fuentes, Professor Jose Atiles, and former Puerto Rican Socialist Party leader Angel Agosto. Mr. Atiles discussed the criminalization of the independence movement and stated that the future of the movement rests with a process that needs to delineate decisions regarding the politics of the movement and the issue of legality of the means of struggle.

Professor Fuentes presented an aspect not often tied to Ojeda Ríos, which was that he was an economic theorist because he predicted in 2005 the crises of the capitalist economy. In terms of next steps, Fuentes stated that past ineffective efforts should not be repeated, and that short term objectives should be outlined such as unity among workers and workers groups, or feminist groups, and other groups historically victimized by the system, with a particular aim to intensify class struggle.

Mr. Agosto spoke about the formation of Los Macheteros in 1978 and about how folks wanted to create a party of the working class, and stated that if the Puerto Rican Socialist Party had not been so effectively organized, they would not have been able to offer their trained cadres as founding members of Los Macheteros at that time. As far as next steps, Agosto urged the movement to learn from the experiences of other revolutionary movements as well as assuring multiple levels of organizing efforts.

In conclusion, September has truly become synonymous with Puerto Rican history and, in particular, its progressive and radical aspects. The commemorations this year, however, bring with them a special kind of energy and unique sense of outrage.

The events of 147-years-ago and 10-years-ago continue to remain relevant as the island struggles to determine how to deal with its crushing debt and paralyzing colonial system. As during the events of El Grito and as predicted by Ojeda Rios, the severe economic depression is having political repercussions as more and more activists align themselves with the slogan posted at Lares this year: “La Deuda es del Imperio” (The Debt Belongs To The Empire). Notwithstanding the dire predictions and troubling statistics that have deteriorated into an odd form of terrorizing the island’s residents, once again identification of pockets of hope and determination are evident.

Beyond reformist policies, activists all across the island – from agro-ecological groups to feminist organizations to student movements as well as the underground revolutionary stalwarts, one can indeed observe that Puerto Rico is experiencing a slow but progressive rebirth, towards justice, self-determination, and freedom.

Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera is a social worker, professor, activist, and writer currently based in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. He has done activist work with various organizations in New York and Puerto Rico and has contributed articles to online media such as CounterPunch, NY Latino Journal, Socialism & Democracy, and NACLA.

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