Book Review: War Against All Puerto Ricans- Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony
Like many Americans, I know precious little about Puerto Rico. I traveled to San Juan briefly in 2016, which piqued my interest. When I attended a Letters to Prisoners event a few months later, I wrote to Oscar Lopez Rivera, who I didn’t even know about and was surprised that he was still in prison after 36 years. Last January his sentence was commuted as Barack Obama was leaving office and he has since returned to Puerto Rico to live with his daughter. After writing to him, I purchased one of his books and a book by Nelson Denis about Puerto Rican’s history entitled: War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. Both books sat in my room, quietly collecting dust until Hurricane Maria hit the island in September. The climate and colonial nightmare inspired me to finally make time for War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony something that the U.S. has been making time for since 1898. The following are some things that I learned from the book.
Denis’ (2015) book does not cover much history prior to the Spanish-American war. So, the narrative pretty much begins when Puerto Rico shifts hands between Spain to the United States in 1898. Though, there was an interesting story about Taino resistance to Spanish conquest- as a Taino named Urayoan tricked a Spaniard named Diego Salcedo into believing he was being led to a lake full of virgins. (Why a lake would be full of virgins or the importance of such a lake is another question…). Instead of finding this lake, he was ambushed, killed, and his body was watched as it decomposed to make certain he was human (as there was some doubt due to immunity to smallpox). When it was determined that he decayed like everyone else, riots broke out across the island-only to be squashed by Ponce de Leon, who had 6000 Tainos killed. In any event, other details regarding Spanish rule are not covered in the four pages dedicated to this four hundred year time period. I suppose that information is left to be discovered in other sources.
What is discussed in the book is an overview of the long history of terrors inflicted upon the island by the United States as well as some of the resistance against this. It is hard to even know where to begin, but one of the worst things that the United States did includes a forced sterilization project that began in the early 1900s and continued into the 1970s. For instance, in the town of Barceloneta alone, 20,000 women were sterilized. And by the mid 1960s, one third of the entire female population of the island had been sterilized, the highest incidence of sterilization in the world. Women were not told nor did they consent to sterilization, which was done for purely racist motives at Puerto Ricans were seen as inferior, promiscuous, over populated, etc. Besides literally trying to kill off Puerto Ricans as a people through sterilization, the U.S. sought to kill of their culture and identity through their education system. English became compulsory in schools, but since this drove up drop out rates, this policy was overturned in 1909. Today, fewer than 20% of the population speaks English fluently, which could be seen as an accomplishment in resisting U.S. designs for the colony. However, the biggest theme in the oppression of Puerto Ricans in the deplorable labor conditions.
Labor conditions require special attention because this offers insight to why Puerto Rico is a territory rather than a state. In 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated the island, but instead of providing hurricane relief, the U.S. further impoverished the populace by outlawing the Puerto Rican pesos and announcing that the currency was valued at .60 cents to the dollar. This caused Puerto Ricans to lose 40% of their savings overnight. In 1901, a land tax called the Hollander Bill forced farmers from their land in a classic capitalistic ploy to proletarianize farmers and amass capital in the form of land. The farmers sold their lands to US banks and moved to the cities. At the same time, the first governors of the island were unelected U.S. men with ties to sugar or fruit companies. In 1922 the island was declared a colony rather than a state, as this was a way to avoid U.S. labor laws such as minimum wage and collective bargaining. Thus, by 1930, 45% of all arable land was owned by sugar plantations and 80% of these plantations were US owned. During the 1930s, prices were 15-20% higher on Puerto Rico than in the US and wages were half of what they were under Spanish rule. At the same time, while FDR is often lauded for providing relief to Americans during the Great Depression through the New Deal, his policy in Puerto Rico was to militarize the island, suppress nationalism, and appoint a hard-line governor named General Winship to oversee the island. Winship tried to reinstate the death penalty, constructed a Naval-Air Base, expanded the police, and imported more weapons to the island. Winship also ordered the Ponce Massacre, in which 19 men, one woman, and one girl were killed by police while participating in or viewing a non-violent, unarmed nationalist parade. 200 others were injured when police opened fire on the march, shooting people as they fled. There were 85 strikes in Puerto Rico during 1933, and in a sugar cane strike, workers went on strike because their wage for a 12 hr day was cut from 75 cents to 45 cents. The workers actually won that fight and saw their wages increase to $1.50. However, it is important to note that both Democrat and Republican politicians have historically sought keep the island in colonial status to extract as much profit as can be gained from the beleaguered island. Over the decades, the island has become a tax haven for corporations and currently it produces 25% of the world’s pharmaceuticals. Yet, in 2015 the unemployment rate was 15% and the poverty rate was 45%. 33,000 government jobs were eliminated between 2010-2015 and utility rates in 2015 were 300% higher than in the U.S. Both parties supported PROMESA, which put the island under a bipartisan financial control board in order to control the countries finances (i.e. impose austerity measures to balance the budget). Of course, the book predates PROMESA….which I believe is Spanish for our promise to allow the corporate plunder of the island. The book is not overtly theoretical or anti-capitalist, so there is no specific critique of imperialism, capitalism, or how both parties follow the logic of American exceptionalism.
Image of the 1937 Ponce Massacre
This history of racism, sexism, and economic exploitation sets the backdrop of nationalist struggle in War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. The book mainly focuses on nationalist struggle from the 1930s to 1950s. The book follows the history of the Nationalist Party and does not discuss other independence parties or socialist/communist history. Because it covers one party and a specific time period, it obviously does not provide a full overview of social struggle in Puerto Rico. Even the labor movement is given passing attention. Still, the events and personalities that are covered are certainly interesting. Albizu Campos is given a lot of attention. He was an impoverished orphan turned American educated lawyer turned nationalist revolutionary. He created the Cadets of the Nationalist Party, a youth organization and formed the Workers Association of Puerto Rico with striking sugar cane workers. He was arrested under the rule of Governor Winship, who made nationalist expression illegal (such as owning a Puerto Rican flag or organizing for independence) and spent seven years imprisoned. After his release, he tried to organize a revolution in 1950. This revolution failed due to heavy FBI infiltration into the Nationalist Party (which comprised plans, members, and weapons stores) and the fact the US actually bombed the city of Jayuya. The US National Guard even shot nationalists after they had surrendered. The saddest part of Albizu’s story was after the failed 1950 revolution, he was arrested and experimented on at La Princessa prison. He was sentenced to life in prison, kept in solitary confinement for months, then given doses of radiation as an experiment/torture. Even though he showed signs of radiation poisoning, U.S. psychologists deemed him insane for thinking that he was being experimented upon. However, the global community was not as convinced of his lunacy and a petition to have him released was brought to the United Nations. Pre-revolution Cuba (an ally of the U.S. still) also passed a resolution to have him moved to Cuba for medical treatment. He had a stroke in 1956 in which he lost the ability to speak and died 10 years later.
An image of Albizu Campos as a prisoner-covered in sores and burns from alleged radiation poisoning.
Another interesting nationalist discussed in the book was Vidal Santiago Diaz. He was a barber who availed himself in the Nationalist Party by stockpiling weapons and commanding the Cadets while Campos was imprisoned. He was arrested and tortured for his role in gathering weapons- but never provided information about the nationalist movement to the police- even when he was electrocuted, beaten, water boarded, starved, and isolated. When he was released from imprisonment, he even managed to tell his allies who among them were actually informants (based on what he learned while imprisoned). His most amazing feat was fighting off 40 members of the US National Guard/Puerto Rican police from his barber shop during the 1950 uprising. The battle was broadcast live on the radio and it was assumed that the shop was full of nationalists as he fired the various weapons he had stored upon them for several hours. He was shot various times, but continued fighting until a stairway collapsed upon him. He was then shot in the head once authorities entered the shop and assumed to be dead, but as he was dragged into the street by the police he regained consciousness. He was imprisoned until 1952 and lived until 1982. His story was the most interesting in the book, since he was an everyday person of astonishing conviction and determination- who alone put up the best resistance in the whole nationalist movement in the 1950 revolt.
There are other interesting stories in the book, such as the extensive surveillance of the Puerto Rican population. The Carpetas program collected files of information on 75,000 people. This information was used to arrest people involved with the Nationalist Party, but also used to blackmail, threaten, and bar employment from dissidents. Another theme of the book was the lack of coverage in the U.S. media of events in Puerto Rico and how the media framed issues in Puerto Rico as internal and inconsequential. Even a nationalist assassination attempt on President Truman was framed as a communist plot (even though the assassins were Puerto Rican National Party supporters). It is no wonder that the movement for independence was not successful, as organizers were challenged by infiltration into their organization, extensive surveillance of the populace, torture, medical experimentation, imprisonment, military occupation, lack of media attention, and other facets of a fully U.S. funded and supported police state. Unfortunately, the book ends after the 1950 uprisings (the October 30, 1950 revolt and failed the assassination attempt on Truman).
In all, War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, was an engaging read that covered some interesting events and characters from history. My main critique of the book is that it does not provide much analysis or critique. Certainly, the book does not provide any solutions. Also, because the book covers history until 1950, it seems incomplete. How does this history connect to today? What about the nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s? How is this connected to other nationalist struggles? What is the nature of social movements in Puerto Rico today? Therefore, the scope of the book tends to be narrow in many ways. The narrative itself is jumpy, moving back and forth between the decades as the first half of the book focuses on events and the second half focuses on people. While the book is short, there are parts of the narrative that seem less necessary. For instance, there is a chapter on an OSS agent who runs a club in Puerto Rico. While it may be useful in creating a U.S. villain to highlight the “terror in Amerca’s colony” aspect of the book, the tone of this chapter is playful and forgiving. After all, the chapter ends that he “never watered down his booze and brought a touch of class to colonial espionage (156).” As a minor detail, the book specifically mentions coqui frogs croaking at least a half dozen times. The scene setting novelty of the endemic amphibian wore off eventually.
One book cannot be everything. After I read it, I did feel that I wanted to learn more. There are facets of the book that could certainly be their own books, such as the history of the sugar cane industry in Puerto Rico, the history of hurricanes, the labor movement, socialists and communists on the island, or the nationalist movement after 1950. And, certainly there are books on at least some of these topics. Thus, I don’t feel that the book is the best introductory reading to the topic of Puerto Rico, as it offers a truncated piece of history. It does provide context, but I think the book would best be read after a survey of history or along with other books. Since I do intend to read other books, I didn’t mind the read- though I was left hoping for more. Nevertheless, the book is very accessible, quick to read, and full of fascinating people and events. It is also a timely read, as Puerto Rico has finally BEEN in the news lately because of Hurricane Maria. Oddly enough, Guam was also in the news this past summer. With the spotlight on our forgotten colonies, it is a great time to learn more about them to contextualize current events and make certain that their struggles stay pertinent to activists.