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(en) NEA#7: National Struggle and Class Struggle in Puerto Rico - Lessons for Anarchists - by Mike Staudenmaier, BRICK Collective (FRAC-GL)

From Northeastern Anarchist <northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com>
Date Thu, 26 Jun 2003 11:55:59 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

In the past 150 years, assertions of national identity
and class identity have transformed the world in which
we live, changing the self-understanding, motivations,
and actions of billions of human beings. To the extent
that one identity is deemed more important than the
other, various national struggles and class struggles,
sometimes contradictory and sometimes complementary,
have emerged in all parts of the planet. As anarchists
struggling for revolution, we need to comprehend the
contradictions of nation and class in historical

The Puerto Rican experience represents a microcosm of
many of these issues. Like many nations in the
Americas, Puerto Ricans have a history of repression
and resistance that demands an understanding of race,
class, (neo-)colonialism, gender, and other key
concepts. Further, the Puerto Rican diaspora has
largely settled in North America, especially in
industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest of the
United States. For anarchists working in formations
like NEFAC or FRAC-GL, there is much to be learned
from an analysis of Puerto Rican history, and the lens
of national struggle and class struggle highlights
some valuable lessons for anarchists.

Puerto Rican history since the mid-nineteenth century
can be understood to consist of five eras (although
these divisions are somewhat arbitrary). The first,
extending from approximately 1850 to 1898, corresponds
to the decline of Spanish colonial power and the rise
of Puerto Rican national identity. The second, from
1898 to 1920, dovetails with the rise and decline of
the anarchist and syndicalist movements on the island.
The third, from 1920 to 1960, covers the rise of
status issues (independence, statehood, and
commonwealth) as the key political debate among Puerto
Ricans. The fourth period, from 1960 to 1990, includes
the rise of Leninism and armed struggle inside the
nationalist movement on the island and in the
diaspora. Finally, the fifth period, from 1990 to the
present, has seen major upheavals in the political
scene that have important implications for anarchists.

1850-1898: Dead History of the Tainos

The birth of Puerto Rican national identity lies in
the misery of four hundred years of Spanish
colonialism. The "three roots" (to use a common
phrase) of Puerto Rican culture are the indigenous
Taino culture, the forcibly imported culture of West
African slaves, and the Iberian culture of the Spanish
colonizers. Beginning with Taino and slave revolts,
the creation of maroon societies -- free communities,
found throughout the Americas, inhabited by a mix of
escaped slaves, rebellious Europeans, and indigenous
peoples -- in the mountains of Puerto Rico allowed for
the development of a hybrid culture of resistance that
continued even after the total genocide of the
indigenous population. Anti-slavery struggles among
liberal sectors of the Spanish population built upon
this tradition, and upon the influence of South
American liberator Simon Bolivar, who briefly visited
the small island of Vieques early in the nineteenth
century. The nascent national bourgeoisie also
attached itself, at least rhetorically, to this same

The most important leader of these anti-slavery
campaigns was Ramon Emeterio Betances, who is
considered to this day the father of Puerto Rican
nationalism. Betances was a liberal criollo (Spaniard
by descent), a European-educated doctor with a
strongly humanitarian and revolutionary approach to
the world. He advocated a confederation of the
Antilles (the stretch of islands in the Caribbean from
Cuba to Trinidad, all of which were heavily involved
in the slave trade and populated at least partly by
Africans) that reflected the inspiration of Bolivar's

In classic nineteenth century fashion, Betances and
others developed a revolutionary conspiracy designed
to overthrow the Spanish colonial regime and establish
an independent Puerto Rico. This effort, known
afterward as the Grito de Lares (the Cry of Lares,
named for the mountain town in which much of the
fighting took place), was initially intended to be a
multi-faceted attack, involving a naval invasion to be
led by Betances from Santo Domingo (now the Dominican
Republic), which was intended to deliver arms
purchased in the United States to a number of rural
rebellions centered around Lares. The liberal middle
class was approached to support the conspiracy, but
response was mixed because many liberals deemed the
prospects good for a peaceful transition to

Unfortunately, the Spanish authorities uncovered the
conspiracy a week before its scheduled start, due to
the double cross of a Spanish military officer who
offered to provide weapons to the conspirators, only
to report the revolutionaries immediately. At the same
time, the government of Santo Domingo prohibited
Betances and the other exiles from sailing with the
weapons, which forced the uprising to proceed with
very few guns. The insurrection, short of fighters and
weapons, was put down almost immediately. Many of the
conspirators were killed; others died while imprisoned
or survived and were later pardoned. Betances
subsequently participated in other, even less
successful conspiracies, but eventually went to live
in exile in France, where he apparently participated
in a conspiracy with turn-of-the-century Spanish
anarchists to assassinate Spanish royalty. Despite the
negative outcome, the Grito de Lares is considered the
founding moment in the Puerto Rican national struggle.

This history offers certain parallels with the
revolutions elsewhere in Latin America, but it also
provides some intriguing divergences. For instance,
most of the Latin American revolutions against the
Spanish were animated by debates among the local
bourgeoisie over the status of indigenous populations.
Should they be physically exterminated via exclusion
from the nation and dispossession from land (the
conservative position, which corresponded nicely with
the approach then being developed by the United
States), or culturally exterminated through forced
inclusion, christianized education, and cultural
assimilation (the liberal position)? Both these
approaches embraced white supremacy as an essential
component in the development of national identity, be
it in Mexico, Colombia, or Argentina.

An important historical fact ensured that the Puerto
Rican experience would differ from this model: the
indigenous Tainos had in fact been physically
exterminated centuries before anyone thought of her-
or himself as Puerto Rican. The dead history of the
Tainos formed a convenient basis for the creation of a
Puerto Rican national identity that included
indigenous cultural elements (in music, food, language
and other areas) without having to struggle with the
messy issue of what to do with an actual human
population. The result was the irrelevance of the
conservative position, and the consolidation of the
liberal position with the anti-slavery sentiments of
Betances and others.

At the same time, grassroots struggles from below, the
legacy of the maroon societies from the previous
centuries, provided a substantial counter to the
liberal position. There are historical parallels here
as well to the wars of liberation in other parts of
Latin America. The pro-indigenous class struggle led
by Morelos and Hidalgo in Mexico, for instance,
constituted the core of the independence movement
there before the bourgeoisie was able to consolidate
its control over the direction of the revolt against
Spain. In Puerto Rico, Betances and his
co-conspirators placed an anti-slavery plank front and
center in the struggle for independence from Spain.
The whole situation exemplified the contradictions of
an anti-white supremacist nationalism being built on
the legacy of white supremacy.

Thus, white supremacy was hardly absent from the
development of the Puerto Rican nation. As long as
there have been Puerto Ricans, they have struggled
with the contradictions of slavery and genocide, and
with the cultural inclusion and physical exclusion of
African and indigenous societies. As has been the case
with every national identity forged in the Western
hemisphere, white supremacy played an essential role
in the development of the Puerto Rican nation, but not
in the simple one-sided ways one might expect.

1898-1920: My Enemy's Enemy

In 1898, shortly after Betances' death, the brief and
relatively bloodless Spanish-American War dramatically
changed the course of Puerto Rican history. The long,
slow decline of Spanish colonialism in the Americas
was finally concluded, and US imperial domination was
expanded into the Caribbean and the Pacific,
especially in the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
The turmoil created by the transition from Spanish to
North American colonialism created an opening for the
then-developing labor movement in Puerto Rico, which
was heavily anarchist.

The classic image of anarchism's rise to prominence in
the Puerto Rican labor movement concerns the tobacco
workers' union, whose internationalist members rolled
cigars in factories across the Caribbean, from Florida
to Cuba to Puerto Rico, often fleeing repression or
lack of work in one location only to take a comparable
job in another. The unions, comprising these
precursors of the globalized economy, routinely spent
money to hire "readers" for each factory, whose job
was simply to read aloud to the workers. Frequently
included on the proudly radical but non-sectarian
reading lists were writers like Bakunin, Kropotkin,
Proudhon, and Malatesta. As the mostly illiterate, but
highly mobile, tobaqueros heard more about anarchism,
its profile grew.

After years of regional and trade-based organizing
under Spanish rule, the Free Labor Federation (FLT)
was formed in 1899, uniting most trade-unions on the
island. The dominant and competing ideologies in the
FLT from the beginning were anarchism, mostly imported
from Spain and popular with the rank and file, and a
reformist socialism reminiscent of Daniel De Leon's
North American socialism. While never an explicitly
anarchist organization, the Federation represents the
high-water mark in the history of anarchism in Puerto

With the transfer to US rule, the leadership of the
FLT took an interesting approach to labor organizing:
it actively courted the support of US labor
organizations, especially the American Federation of
Labor (AFL). History might have been different had the
IWW existed when the FLT was formed in 1899, since the
Free Federation's early revolutionary syndicalism was
a near-perfect match for the Wobblies. In contrast to
the IWW, however, the FLT never expelled the
"politicals" who believed in legislating social
democracy; these forces were bolstered by the support
of the AF of L for the bread-and-butter organizing of
the FLT. Over time, the leadership of the Free
Federation adopted an increasingly Americanized (and
liberal) approach to labor struggle.

Among the anarchists, pragmatic grassroots organizing
went hand in hand with ideological proselytizing.
Luisa Capetillo, the most famous anarchist in Puerto
Rican history, spent years organizing workers in all
industries and all locales, advocating a mixture of
mystical socialism, free-love feminism, and
class-struggle anarchism. Sometimes referred to as the
Emma Goldman of Puerto Rico, she was expelled from
Cuba for wearing pants in public, although her
agitational activities might also have had something
to do with it. Anarchists like Capetillo utilized the
FLT as a resource and an organizing platform, while
disdaining the increasingly liberal attitudes adopted
by the bureaucrats at the top.

This pro-US liberalism led to an important and
instructive dispute in the second decade of the
twentieth century. In 1917, the Jones Act made Puerto
Ricans citizens of the United States. The debate in
Puerto Rico over the value of citizenship pitted the
newly developing independentista movement, which
opposed citizenship, against the leadership of the
FLT, which supported citizenship. To make matters more
interesting, the Unionist Party (bastion of the
independentista movement under the leadership of Jose
de Diego) controlled the House of Delegates, the only
island-wide elected governmental body in Puerto Rico,
while the Free Federation represented (in theory, at
least) an entire class of the population largely
excluded from the electoral process for economic and
literacy reasons. The House of Delegates voted
overwhelmingly to oppose the Jones Bill, while the
Executive Council of the FLT sent a declaration to the
US Congress outlining its support for the same

The Free Federation viewed the drive for independence
with suspicion, fearing the Unionists were positioning
themselves as a domestic bourgeoisie, which, once free
of the yoke of US imperialism, would act swiftly to
eliminate any radical organizations that challenged
the class basis of the newly independent Puerto Rico.
This suspicion was only reinforced by the strong ties
between independentistas like de Diego and the local
capitalists and land-owners who frequently doubled as
members of the House of Delegates.

While the Free Federation was certainly correct in
this assessment of the Unionists, as far as it went,
there was more to the story. The independentistas, for
instance, were eventually proven right in their fear
that citizenship would make future independence from
the US far more difficult. Similarly, the general
independentista arguments against US colonialism have
had far more historical resonance in the ensuing
century than have the pro-labor arguments for
integration. In addition, the interests of the Free
Federation's leadership were not entirely pure: the
growing relationship between the FLT and the AF of L
would have been challenged by a move toward
independence. On a certain level, the Unionists were
right for the wrong reasons, while the FLT had
(mostly) laudable motivations, but drew the wrong

In the end, the FLT proved the old adage, my enemy's
enemy is not my friend. Finding itself in a triangular
struggle with the local bourgeoisie and the imperial
power of the US, the Free Federation's leadership
attempted to play the latter off against the former,
only to get more than it bargained for. Puerto Rico's
labor movement was largely spared the extreme
repression that decimated the IWW in the United States
after World War One, but it was still unable to adapt
to changing circumstances. When the newly imposed US
citizenship led more quickly to death (in the form of
the draft during the War) than to equality or economic
justice, the Free Federation was doomed. While
subsequent labor organizations retained significant
power, none was as radical at its base, or as
thorough-going in its anti-capitalism. And with the
death of the FLT, the anarchist presence in Puerto
Rico ceased almost completely.

1920-1960: Pan, Tierra y Libertad

While anarchism fell on hard times, nationalism became
the leading radical movement on the island. The
independence movement was dramatically transformed in
the 1920's by the rise of the Nationalist Party,
headed by Pedro Albizu Campos. Albizu is a fascinating
character, without a doubt the most important
independentista of the twentieth century. Born to a
working class black (mulatto) family, Albizu won a
scholarship to attend university in the United States,
where he studied at the University of Vermont and at
Harvard. While at Harvard around 1920, Albizu
solidified his nationalist sentiments through work
with the Irish republican solidarity movement in

Returning to Puerto Rico, Albizu joined the newly
formed Nationalist Party, and quickly became its
leader. The Party was a jumble of elements, including
strongly Catholic and even a few Falangist
(pro-Spanish and pro-fascist) tendencies, alongside
revolutionary internationalists and large numbers of
black Puerto Ricans. Both working class and middle
class communities were well represented, although
middle class cultural elements (including a fondness
for the Spanish aspects of Puerto Rican culture)
predominated. The Party was most notable for its
anti-electoral stance and its militant tactics,
embracing direct action and even armed struggle on
behalf of Puerto Rican independence. As a result of
the passionate speeches of Albizu, and the daring
actions of Party members, the Nationalists became
increasingly popular.

At the same time, the old guard of the independence
movement was regaining some momentum of its own. The
Popular Democratic Party (the Populares), under the
leadership of Luis Munoz Marin, successfully filled
the electoral void left by the demise of older
pro-American parties. Munoz Marin was the son of a key
leader of the turn of the century independence
movement, and he himself advocated a strong degree of
self-government for Puerto Ricans. The rising fortunes
of the Nationalist Party forced the Populares to the
left politically, demanding more from the US in an
effort to pacify the population.

But by the 1940's, Munoz Marin had come to an
agreement with the US government to implement a degree
of autonomy known as the Commonwealth, or Freely
Associated State. This formula, still in practice
today, represents a balance between the demands of
independentistas and of statehooders, who urge full
integration with the US as the 51st state. Like all
such compromises, it satisfied neither side, but Munoz
Marin's personal charisma and the material gains
offered by Commonwealth status quieted the Populares.

These bread and butter gains were reflected as well in
the rhetoric and image of the Populares. The Party
adopted as its slogan the demand "Pan, Tierra y
Libertad" ("Bread, Land and Freedom"), and its logo
was a profile of a "jibaro", the archetypal peasant
farmer who represents to this day the backbone of the
Puerto Rican working class. This effort to position
itself as the party of the working class was largely
successful, and Munoz Marin was repeatedly elected
Governor of Puerto Rico, despite his periodic changes
of political orientation.

The Nationalists, meanwhile, were subject to intense
repression, including the extended imprisonment of
Albizu, along with the surveillance, harassment, and
murder of other Party members. In the face of this
repression, the Nationalists planned a three-pronged
uprising to gain independence, staged (once again,
ahead of schedule due to discovery of the conspiracy
by the police) on October 30, 1950. The plan included
an attack on the Governor's mansion in San Juan, a
rebellion in the mountain town of Jayuya, and, most
stunning, an assassination attempt against President
Harry Truman in Washington DC.

Known as the Grito de Jayuya (the Cry of Jayuya), the
uprising was a spectacular failure. Truman survived
(although largely due to luck), the Governor's mansion
was successfully defended, and the US Air Force
quickly bombed Jayuya into submission. Albizu was
besieged in his home, and only gave himself up after
determining that the Grito had not gained mass
support. He spent all but a few months of the rest of
his life in prison in the US.

Tactical errors and bad luck were key to the demise of
an already improbable uprising against the world's
most powerful country. But the longer-term inability
of the Nationalists to foment a revolution was the
result of bigger problems. First, of course, was the
massive repression the Party faced, from wire-taps to
assassinations. Puerto Rico was the testing ground for
what later became known as COINTELPRO, and only the
strong internal discipline of the Party organization
kept it from collapsing under the combined weight of
legal and extra-legal persecution.

Nonetheless, there were internal problems as well.
Where the Populares were able to appeal directly to
working class identity, the Nationalists promoted a
national identity as Puerto Ricans, with little
clarification of its class basis. The tension between
class identity and national identity was never clearer
than in the struggles between the Albizu and Munoz
Marin. Albizu was from the working class, while Munoz
Marin was a classic product of the Puerto Rican
bourgeoisie, but with their roles reversed, the
Populares built a mass base of support that the
Nationalists never obtained.

1960-1990: Cada Guaraguao Tiene su Pitirre

In 1959, Fidel Castro emerged as the new leader of a
revolutionary Cuba, advocating Leninism and armed
struggle for national liberation in Latin America. A
few hundred miles east, a number of veterans of the
Nationalist Party recognized in the Cuban revolution a
potential model for their own struggle. Foremost among
these was Juan Antonio Corretjer, who from the sixties
to the eighties doubled as one of the island's
greatest poets and as its most sophisticated theorist
of armed struggle. Just as Albizu represented the move
toward militancy and insurrection, Corretjer
symbolized the shift toward clandestine organization
and Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Corretjer had become Albizu's friend while serving
time in prison with him after the Grito de Jayuya;
Albizu was impressed that Corretjer, in solidarity
with the Nationalists, chose imprisonment rather than
informing prosecutors that he was not involved in the
Grito. Corretjer went on to found the Puerto Rican
Socialist League (LSP), which was a small but
influential cadre group focused on reorienting the
independence movement toward revolutionary Marxism.

With exceptions like Corretjer and his wife (Dona
Consuela Lee Corretjer, a veteran of the Communist
Party of Puerto Rico), the LSP was largely populated
with younger people, products of the Puerto Rican new
left who viewed themselves as internationalists. Ties
were developed with revolutionaries across Latin
America: Abraham Guillen, a sometime anarchist in
Argentina who advocated urban guerilla strategies for
revolution, wrote the introduction to Corretjer's
booklet On Prolonged People's War in Puerto Rico.

The LSP also strove to develop ties with revolutionary
elements in the growing Puerto Rican communities
across North America. The Young Lords in Chicago and
New York in the late 1960's represented a parallel
attempt to develop a youth-oriented revolutionary
organization on socialist lines within the Puerto
Rican diaspora, but internal contradictions and
government repression combined to limit the lifespan
and potential of the Young Lords. The LSP had more
success building ties with the Movimiento de
Liberacion Nacional (MLN), a like-minded cadre
organization formed in Chicago in 1977.

The MLN represented the most radical wing of the
independence movement in the diaspora: it was
comprised of (mostly younger) Leninist
revolutionaries, it combined a sophisticated
theoretical analysis (including a radically pro-queer
plank) with an awareness of the need for mass action
in Puerto Rican communities across North America, and
it openly supported the clandestine armed struggle
then being carried out by groups like the Armed Forces
of National Liberation (FALN) and the Ejercito Popular
Boricua - los Macheteros ("Puerto Rican Popular Army
of the Machete-Wielders").

In the 1970's and early 1980's, these two groups were
responsible for hundreds of bombings, expropriations,
and other armed actions aimed simultaneously at
building popular support for Puerto Rican independence
and at raising the economic costs of US imperialism.
The Macheteros operated primarily on the island
(although they did carry out one of the largest
armored car robberies in US history, in Connecticut,
netting $7 million on Albizu's birthday in 1983),
while the FALN (which filled the role of the IRA to
the MLN's Sinn Fein) operated almost exclusively on
the mainland of North America, especially in New York
and Chicago.

All these groups together represented only a small
tendency within the relatively small independence
movement in Puerto Rico and in North America, but
their importance far outstripped their numbers. They
lent their support to militant labor actions, feminist
projects, student struggles, and ecological efforts,
all of which raised their profile on the left, both on
the island and in the diaspora. They attempted to
integrate the national struggle with a particular
vision of class struggle, along Leninist lines. Most
important, they advanced a particular version of
vanguardist politics, arguing that small cadre
organizations (whether above- or below-ground) could
inspire masses of people while striking fear into the
imperialist power structure.

The phrase most commonly used to express this notion
was "Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre" ("Every
guaraguao has its pitirre"). In Puerto Rican Spanish,
a guaraguao is a large hawk, while the pitirre is a
small bird whose young are frequently eyed as
potential food by the guaraguao. Fortunately, the
pitirre is endowed with a sharp beak and claws, and
when the two birds fight, the smaller one is
frequently the victor. This pseudo-Darwinian David and
Goliath story is usually applied to battles between
Puerto Rico and the United States, but the moral was
equally appreciated by the small grouping of
revolutionaries battling against reactionary forces
(both inside and outside the independence movement)
for the hearts and minds of Puerto Ricans both on the
island and in the diaspora.

The armed struggle and its above-ground advocates ran
into hard times in the early 1980's, as dozens of
Puerto Ricans were captured and convicted in US courts
of Seditious Conspiracy and other crimes. Some refused
to participate in their trials on principle, while
others defended themselves in court; it made little
difference, and absurdly long sentences were meted out
to more than a dozen political prisoners and prisoners
of war (most of whom were released by President
Clinton in 1999). The clandestine organizations were
fully dormant by 1990, having failed to motivate a
popular movement for independence and socialism.
Within a few years the LSP, MLN, and other like-minded
groups were also defunct.

While it is easy to see the organizational and
strategic dangers involved in prioritizing clandestine
armed struggle, the real question is, was the move to
armed struggle a productive error? The major problem
of the Puerto Rican Leninists was their increasingly
isolated position on the margins of mass social
struggles in Puerto Rico and the diaspora.
Nonetheless, in the development of the revolutionary
struggle for Puerto Rican independence, armed struggle
provided innumerable lessons to future
revolutionaries, not the least of which concerns the
vulnerability and resilience of the imperialist

It is essential to remember that revolutionaries
cannot hope to defeat capitalism and the state
militarily (the wishful thinking of some black bloc
participants notwithstanding); only a political
strategy can lead to real revolution. But, as the
Puerto Rican revolutionaries of the 1970's knew in
their best moments, insurrection and armed struggle,
if conducted correctly, can be part of a political
strategy, not merely a military one.

1990-the Present: Class and Nation in the New

It has become a cliché to attribute the eclipse of
Leninist models of revolution in the 1990's to the
fall of the Berlin Wall. While the fortunes of Puerto
Rico's Leninist left did indeed decline in the last
decade, the reasons are more homegrown. From the
demise of the armed struggle in the late 1980's and
the election of a Statehood government in 1992, to the
plebiscite and general strike of 1998 and the struggle
over the island of Vieques in 1999 and 2000, history
has gone beyond the outmoded models represented by
Marxism in the Puerto Rican context. The result is a
window of opportunity for anarchists, but the window
can also be seen as a gauntlet of liberalism that
threatens the future of any radical struggle in Puerto
Rico, whether based in class or national identity.

The rise of the Statehood government, under governor
Pedro Roselló, forced the Populares to the left once
more, this time in order to consolidate their standing
as a meaningful alternative to the new status quo. In
the void left by the end of the armed struggle, the
independence movement was unable to build a popular
base outside the Populares. The most intriguing result
of this vacuum was the rise of independent grassroots
action against popular targets ranging from
privatization to militarization. Hand in hand with
this new development went the relative displacement of
status issues as a basis of struggle, with the 1998
plebiscite constituting the exception that proves the

In 1998, Roselló negotiated the sale of the
government-owned Puerto Rico Telephone Company (PRTC)
to the US based telecommunications giant GTE. This
action sparked a massive backlash, including an
indefinite strike of the PRTC workforce and militant
actions like cutting the fiberoptics cables at the
Roosevelt Roads US Naval Base. The resistance
culminated in a quickly planned general strike on July
7-8, which involved upwards of half a million people
across the island. While the strike was nominally
coordinated by the "Broad Committee of Social
Organizations" (with the great Spanish acronym CAOS),
it really amounted to the simultaneous, and often
spontaneous, action of hundreds of smaller
organizations, including unions, student groups,
radical organizations, and so on.

While the independence movement highlighted the slogan
"Puerto Rico is not for sale!", the strike drew
support from across the political spectrum, including
commonwealth advocates and even some statehooders.
Instead of a question of status, the strike is better
viewed as an example of the struggles around
globalization and neo-liberalism, a year and a half
before Seattle brought the issue to mainstream North
American awareness. The usual range of alternatives
was aired, from strengthening governmental powers to
anti-capitalist revolution. Status was part of this
discussion, but had lost the spotlight.

It regained center stage later in 1998, but the
results were not entirely promising to the traditional
independence movement. A non-binding plebiscite was
organized by Roselló's government, in an attempt to
demonstrate the supposedly rising tide of statehood
sentiment in Puerto Rico. In an effort to split the
commonwealth vote (the independence vote having been
deemed marginal at best in plebiscites of this sort),
the ballot had four options: Statehood, Commonwealth,
Independence, and None of the Above.

Unfortunately for Roselló, residual anger after the
general strike combined with an increasing popular
disdain for all status options to produce an
unexpected outcome: None of the Above beat all comers.
The Populares claimed victory (the Party had urged its
members to vote NOTA as a protest against the
perceived pro-statehood slant of the language on the
ballot), but the larger lesson has more to do with the
displacement of status as the central issue of Puerto
Rican life. National identity is alive and well in
Puerto Rico, and few people support the full
integration of Puerto Rico into the United States, but
the traditional models of national struggle are
increasingly doubted at the grassroots level.

Hot on the heels of his defeat in the plebiscite,
Roselló suffered another setback in the spring of
1999, when an errant bomb killed a Puerto Rican
civilian during US naval combat training on the small
island of Vieques, off the east coast of the main
island. For decades the Navy had occupied two thirds
of Vieques, using part of the island as a bombing
range for joint training exercises with NATO and other
allied troops. Protests against the military presence
had a long history in Vieques (including significant
on-the-ground work by the LSP during the late 1970's),
but the issue had never resonated with the rest of
Puerto Rican society.

The death of David Sanes changed all that instantly.
While the Navy voluntarily shut down the bombing range
to conduct an investigation, dozens of illegal
squatters' encampments sprung up across the military
property in an attempt to keep the Navy from resuming
operations. These actions, once again coordinated only
in the loosest sense, amounted to one of the largest
and longest lasting land occupations ever on US
government land. It took more than a year for the Navy
to evict all the squatters and begin trainings again.
In the meantime, a grassroots network of community,
student, and radical political groups and individuals
from across Puerto Rico built a massive movement
against the military presence in Vieques.

The movement once again cut across status and class
divisions, involving people from throughout the
political spectrum and class structure in a classic
popular front. The nationalist contribution to the
Vieques struggle was significant, but it represented
only one among several tendencies. And, compared to
the general strike, there was a less clearly
recognizable class basis to the movement; the
population of Vieques has been economically devastated
by the Naval presence, but the protests against the
Navy have included participants from all classes. At
the same time, the most militant actions have
incorporated an anti-capitalist sentiment, tying the
Navy to corporate interests in Puerto Rico. In opening
the door to new conceptions of national struggle and
class struggle, the struggle around Vieques, more than
any other subject in the last decade, has had a
forward- rather than backward-looking approach to
social change.

While this context creates an obvious opening for a
resurgence of Puerto Rican anarchism, no organization
or tendency has emerged to fill the vacuum. Instead,
the siren song of liberalism has drawn in a wide
variety of former radicals. Many have accepted
Commonwealth status as the best option available;
Roselló lost badly in the governor's election of 2000
and has been replaced by Maria Sila Calderón, who
represents the new, progressive face of the Populares.
Others remain tied to old models of nationalism,
whether bourgeois (like the Puerto Rican Independence
Party) or social-democratic (like the Puerto Rican
Socialist Party).

The situation is similar in the diaspora, where an
emergent wing of the Democratic Party has attracted
broad Puerto Rican support by pushing former President
Clinton to release the political prisoners and prepare
the way for the Navy to leave Vieques. Instead of
embracing the new opportunities for revolution, large
sectors of Puerto Rican radicals, both on the island
and in North America, have retreated to the warmer
confines of liberalism.

Despite this somewhat gloomy outlook, there is much
cause for hope. Witness the grassroots upsurges of
radicalism during the general strike and the Vieques
struggle, along with the general dissatisfaction with
all tendencies of the status quo demonstrated by the
NOTA victory in the plebiscite. Popular struggles
based in class and in national identity both have a
future in Puerto Rico, and like all futures this one
has yet to be written.

Conclusion: Against Egotistical Conceptions

"Those who lived and live off the ignorance of the
working-class community, have they ever told the
truth? No, they lied about the community's actions,
and slandered its apostles! How should we understand
those who oppose the ideas of equality and human
freedom? As traitors and Judases. All those who judge
an idea to be utopian, impossible to put into
practice, are obstacles, and obstacles should be
pushed aside. They delay grand initiatives and good
works. And still, these men call themselves patriots
and fathers of the nation. What conception of the
nation do they have? An egotistical one, that begins
and ends in them. All of them are like this." - Luisa
Capetillo (1911)

Nearly a century ago, Luisa Capetillo exposed a major
danger of all social struggles: that of believing
one's own efforts to be the beginning and ending of
the struggle. While she was speaking of the early
bourgeois independence movement, her criticism can be
appropriately extended to the leadership of the FLT,
or to the Nationalist Party, or later still to the
clandestine armed struggle.

Or, Capetillo's criticism could be applied to the
historic tendency of anarchism (and especially
class-struggle anarchism) to deny the importance of
national identities and struggles. In pairing national
struggle and class struggle in the Puerto Rican
experience, I have been attempting to place both in a
historical context that will help us move forward as
anarchist revolutionaries. This process necessarily
involves de-centering ourselves, rejecting the notion
that NEFAC or FRAC-GL are essential to the future of
revolution in North America and elsewhere. And, while
class struggle will undoubtedly be central to any
revolution we might hope for, it may not have a
uniquely unifying role.

None of which means we should give up our efforts. If
anything, the history of the FLT and of anarchism in
Puerto Rico demonstrates the necessity of explicitly
anarchist organizations in all struggles. The current
void in new radical politics on the island and in the
diaspora only reinforces the danger: loose networks
and spontaneous actions are no match for the power and
inertia of liberal institutions, which can grant
limited demands and defuse the larger threat presented
by diffuse popular discontent. Anarchists can and must
help galvanize and coordinate this discontent, and
groups like NEFAC and FRAC-GL can be invaluable parts
of this effort. Our chances of success are much
greater, however, if we avoid messiah complexes and
rigid dogma.

Earlier this year, when I asked a (non-anarchist)
comrade on the island about the future of social
struggles in Puerto Rico, he responded, "There is
none." This depressing prognosis is the legacy of
failed national and class struggles and of the
apparent consolidation of liberalism. One of the
historic assets of anarchism has been the combination
of hope and determination. If there is hope in Puerto
Rico, it will be found in the determination of a new
generation of militants, a few of whom, at least,
might be anarchists.



Gonzalez, Jose Luis. Puerto Rico: the Four Storeyed
Country. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishing, 1993
(originally 1980).

Capetillo, Luisa. Amor y Anarquia.Rio Piedras, PR:
Ediciones Huracank, 1992.

Quintero Rivera, Angel. Workers' Struggle in Puerto
Rico: A Documentary History. New York: Monthly Review
Press, 1976.

Flores, Juan. Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican
Identity. Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press, 1993.

Fernandez, Ronald. Prisoners of Colonialism: The
Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico. Monroe, ME:
Common Courage Press, 1994.

Fernandez, Ronald, Mendez Mendez, Serafin, and Cueto,
Gail. Puerto Rico Past and Present: An Encyclopedia.
Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Pabon, Carlos. Nacion Postmortem: Ensayos Sobre los
Tiempos de Insoportable Ambiguiedad. San Juan, PR:
Ediciones Callejon, 2002.

Ribes Tovar, Federico. A Chronological History of
Puerto Rico. New York: Plus Ultra, 1973.

Wagenheim, Kal, and Jimenez de Wagenheim, Olga, eds.
The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History. Princeton,
NJ: Markus Wiener Publishing, 1994.


Michael Staudenmaier has worked with the Puerto Rican
community in Chicago for most of the last decade. He
is also a regular contributor to Arsenal Magazine, and
is currently a member of the BRICK Collective


The Northeastern Anarchist is the English-language
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anarchist theory, history, strategy, debate and
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