Demanding Independence
A look at Puerto Rican "terrorists"

On Friday, September 10, Puerto Rican nationalist Ricardo Jimenez left prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, driving a gold Mercedes. He was one of 11 members of the FALN guerilla organization who had accepted President Clinton's offer of clemency.

See also...
... by Patrick Hughes
... in the Scope section
... from September 14, 1999

The FALN, the Spanish acronym of the Armed Forces of National Liberation -- announced their existence with a series of bombings in New York City on October 24, 1974. In their press releases, the group targeted various "Yanki" institutions like the military, banks, and politicians to draw attention to their complaint: America was continuing to illegally occupy their Caribbean country. The language of their communiqués mimicked the rhetoric of other radical groups operating at the time, like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. But the FALN also drew upon the experiences of less militant Puerto Rican organizations like the Aspira and Young Lords.

In the decade following, FALN claimed responsibility for over 130 different bombings in New York, Chicago and Puerto Rico. Some of the explosions caused injuries, but in one instance in 1975 (as yet unsolved), four people were killed by a bomb at Fraunces Tavern, a famous restaurant in New York City. The FALN probably would have kept at it if not for some luck on the part of the Evanston, Illinois police department. On April 4, 1980, following up on a report of suspicious persons in a van, the police accidentally captured 11 members of the FALN. They are still crowing about it.

A grand jury issued a 13-point indictment, implicating the 11 captured FALN members in 28 bombings in the Chicago area. Ten of them were arraigned on weapons charges and seditious conspiracy. All were convicted and received unusually harsh sentences. The apparent aim of the judge was to punish them for their political beliefs and militancy.

Gun Barrel Diplomacy

Why independence for Puerto Rico? What's all the fuss about? Puerto Rico appears to enjoy some advantages with their Commonwealth status. Although they don't have a vote in presidential elections and they only have a single observer and no representation in Congress, they are granted all the other privileges of U.S. citizenship. More importantly, they don't have to pay the Federal income tax. Understandably, this makes many residents happy.

However, a historical perspective might help us to understand the resentment that sparked the flame that is the FALN and the independence struggle.

The United States claimed the island as a war prize after defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War. From the beginning, the government had no idea of what to do with the country and dithered over the details for several decades. What was Puerto Rico good for? The U.S. attitude toward Puerto Rico can be best summed up by a 1910 statement from Oklahoma representative John Kennedy: "You couldn't expect too much from people with Spanish blood in their veins. Why, the Spanish had added nothing to human knowledge except thumbscrews."

Statehood was contemplated for Puerto Rico, but politicians worried that other U.S. colonies would expect the same. Oddly, Hawaii, after being annexed as a territory in 1893 as a foothold for the American Navy, was granted statehood in 1959, but Puerto Rico remained in a gray zone between state and independent country, serving at the will of the United States Congress.

Enter Alberto Albizu Campos, the Sandino of Puerto Rican nationalism. Back in 1936, the Harvard-educated Campos was the first Puerto Rican to be charged with sedition when he was accused of masterminding the assassination of the American-born San Juan Police Chief, the first shot in the war for Puerto Rican independence. Campos was released from jail in 1943, and finally returned to Puerto Rico in 1947 to lead his Independence Party to defeat in the first direct election for governor in 1948.

By that time, the struggle for Puerto Rico had become a shooting war. Unhappy with the results of the election, five nationalists died in an assassination attempt on the new governor, Muñoz Marin. In 1950, the Campos Crew took the fight to Washington and just missed whacking President Truman. The panicked American authorities immediately came up with a series of reforms, including a new constitution and flag.

But the increase in nationalist activity also prompted the colonial authorities to re-arrest Campos. He was tried again for sedition and received a 54 year sentence. Homegrown Puerto Rican activists claim that while Campos was in jail, he was subjected by the U.S. government to numerous radiation experiments which contributed to his death in 1964.

Lebron's attack on the House of Representatives in 1954 signaled the end of this period of resistance -- until the arrival of seventies radicalism, and its Puerto Rican heir, the FALN.

Bankrolling the Revolution

After the 1974 arrests, with most of its leaders in prison, the FALN lost whatever momentum it had. And while the recently-released members have been forced to renounce violence as a condition of Clinton's clemency deal, other militant groups have picked up the slack.

The best-known group currently active is Los Macheteros. They are notorious for blowing up National Guard airplanes and staging a daring 1983 Wells Fargo robbery where they walked off with $7 million of the bank's money and disappeared into the hills. Eventually, the cops managed to catch Filiberto Ojeda-Ríos, but he escaped before his trial in 1990 and continues to taunt the authorities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico with press releases and recorded nationalist speeches.

Ojeda-Ríos has become a phantom, issuing media statements by radio, tape, and press release; his wanted posters are starting to yellow as his bank robbing days transition into a mature national politics. The last time he grabbed headlines was over the 1998 (non-binding) referendum on statehood vs. independence. Ojeda-Ríos vigorously denounced the vote as illegitimate.

The people agreed. At the ballot box, the clear winner at a staggering 50.3 percent of the vote was "none of the above." (It's too bad the voters of New York State won't be offered the same option.) As eleven of the 14 "terrorists" released return to the home country, it remains to be seen what, if anything, of their revolutionary politics still has a grip on the political imagination.

See also: The Secret of My Secession

Patrick Hughes feels slightly seditious now and then.