More than two months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, much of the population is still without clean drinking water, electricity, phone service, enough food, or medicine. Many in the US are disgusted at Washington’s colonialist response and racist lack of concern for Puerto Rican lives.
Colonialism, however, did not begin with Trump’s negligence after Hurricane Maria. From its inception Puerto Rico has never been sovereign. The Spanish empire colonized the island in the late 15th century. The indigenous Taino people rebelled against their colonial masters. Many were murdered or died of diseases brought by the colonists. After this genocide, the Spanish replaced the Taino people with African slaves, who rebelled as well. Centuries later, still under the Spanish empire, Puerto Ricans claimed Puerto Rica as an independent republic in the 1868 “Grito de Lares” uprising. While suppressed by Spain, they also won more autonomy, and freedom for slaves.
Just after then won gains from Spain, Puerto Rico’s colonial master switched hands. After United States of America seized Puerto Rico in the 1898 Spanish American war, even this slight autonomy was taken away. The U.S. quickly attempted to Americanize Puerto Rico, implementing the English language, making it a federal offense to have a Puerto Rican flag, even making it illegal to sing the Puerto Rican national anthem. Movements of resistance were quickly put down by the Insular Police, created by the U.S. in 1899 under the command of a U.S. Marine officer. The Insular Police staged two massacres, in Rio Piedras 1935 and Ponce in 1937.
Denied the vote, but forced to fight in imperialist wars
Although considered “American citizens” since 1917, Puerto Ricans soon realized that American citizenship was only as deep as the paper it was written on. For example, they could not vote in U.S. elections. Protective U.S. labor laws, hard won through union struggles, did not apply to the “territory.” Easily exploited, Puerto Rican sugar workers would labor from early morning to nighttime in sweltering heat, for a paltry compensation while rich landowners profited off the exploited labor. Attempts at unified rebellion were suppressed by strong-arm tactics.
U.S. imperialism’s seizure of Puerto Rico was part of its plans to colonize the world. To ensure that the U.S. had enough troops they made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens. Puerto Ricans served in the World War I, although they had no interest or say in the war. While in the military, Puerto Ricans were segregated into their own regiments, thought incapable of serving with their white “American” counterparts. The “Borinqueneers” were born at the time. The first all-Hispanic unit in the American military, they served on the front lines in several imperialist wars, and were later converted into the Puerto Rican National Guard.
Nationalist Party uprising in 1950
Puerto Ricans did not respond to their second class citizenship complacently. The Nationalist Party was formed in 1922. It believed in Puerto Rican independence and freedom from the reigns of imperialism. Pedro Albizu Campos, “El Maestro,” became its president in 1930. Enraged at the injustices in Puerto Rican society, he recounted them with oratory fire. Most of his years as president of the Nationalist Party were spent in prison, but that did not stop the wheels of revolution from turning. While Albizu was incarcerated, the Nationalist party rose up and attempted revolution.
On Oct. 28, 1950 there was a prison break at the Oso Blanco prison, followed with a firefight between nationalists and police in Peñuelas. In Jayuya on Oct. 30. Nationalists took over the town and Blanca Canales raised the Puerto Rican flag and announced the free republic of Puerto Rico. In San Juan, an attempt on the governor’s mansion was suppressed with the gunfire. In Washington D.C. on Nov. 1, two nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola attempted to take the life of President Harry Truman. Torresola was killed and Collazo was imprisoned until 1979.
U.S. bombs Puerto Rican towns
The American military dropped bombs on the towns of Jayuya and Utuado, the only time in U.S. history where the U.S. dropped bombs on its own citizens. Resistance and revolution were rife but suppression from the imperialist military superpower was a wall too high to climb.
The Korean War began in 1950, at the same time that Puerto Rican Nationalists were stirring. The U.S. draft applied to Puerto Rico and it snatched thousands of Puerto Ricans from the island to supply its imperialist military. The U.S. justification for entering Korea was to fight communism. but that’s as unjustifiable as killing someone for the way they think. It was really a war for empire. Young Puerto Rican men who would better serve their homeland in the cause of independence were taken thousands of miles away to fight in a war in which they had no interest, and no idea of why they were fighting.
Compared with American states, Puerto Ricans were disproportionately drafted to serve in war. Some 61,000 Puerto Ricans served in Korea, many of them unwillingly.
Racist court martial of Borinqueneers
The Puerto Rican regiment, the Borinqueneers became notorious in Korea because the regiment was subjected to the largest mass court-martial of the Korean War. Puerto Ricans in the Korean War were humiliated and degraded. They were forced to shave their mustaches and wear signs saying “I am a coward.” They were forbidden from eating rice and beans. Puerto Ricans were knowingly and purposefully sent into battle conditions that were unfavorable to their survival. Many disobeyed orders that would ensure their death. In total, 162 from the Borinqueneer regiment were arrested, 95 tried, and 91 sentenced to hard labor.
All the while the United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,557 tons of napalm on Korea. An estimated 500,000 Korean soldiers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were killed. When civilian death from both sides are included, the death total is 2.5 million. Bio warfare and nuclear arms were deployed by the U.S.. It was a genocide, a massacre. Some 75 percent of Pyongyang was destroyed.
This is just an example of how the United States of America blatantly uses excessive force to destroy and conquer a sovereign nation. U.S. belligerence today towards North Korea today is a continuation of this effort. Socialist governments which put people before profit has historically been found “unacceptable” by the U.S. plutocracy. The attacks on Puerto Rico are also an example of this suppression.
It is not coincidence that Puerto Ricans were drafted to fight in U.S. wars at higher proportions than any state. The Korean War perfectly coincided with revolutionary fervor in Puerto Rico as thousands of young
men who would otherwise be home fighting for the liberty of their “patria” were shipped thousands of miles away to fight an unknown enemy, in the name of conquest and empire. Puerto Rico is still a colony, with independence movements over the years quickly suppressed. The humiliation and degradation of Puerto Rican soldiers in the Korean War showed how little they were valued by the military. Many sacrificing their lives for a cause that served only the interests of the capitalist ruling class.
Capitalist empire sacrifices Puerto Rican lives
I recently went to a film showing of the documentary “Borinqueneers” in the Newark Library with my father, another former military man. The film honored their service during the Korean War, making them into valiant war heroes, as opposed to exploited second class citizens. The environment was not pro-independence. Most came to pay their respects to the Borinqueneers, some veterans, some “proud” Puerto Ricans.
To me the Borinqueneers were victims of a capitalist dominated empire that sacrifices the lives of the less fortunate in the name of big business interests. I even sat down and spoke with a war veteran who served in the Borinqueneer regiment, Eugencio Quevedo. Now in his late 80s, Quevedo agreed with my sentiments regarding independence and sovereignty, recollecting how “war was hell, you either kill or be killed, there are no questions, no compromises, it all comes down to surviving.” That is capitalism–death,
destruction, obliterating people’s needs while big businesses and banks increase their profits.
This continues today. Laws like the Jones Act forbid other countries from directly assisting Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria, and Puerto Rico’s status as “territory” means it can’t re-negotiate its debt to Wall Street banks as U.S. states can. The Trump administration has shown its true hegemonic white supremacist colors in allowing the people basically to waste away after Hurricane Maria.
Long history of resistance
But the Puerto Rican people are a fighting people, with a history of centuries and centuries of resistance–from the warriors of the Taino and slave uprisings to Pedro Albizu Campos to Lolita Lebron, to Oscar Lopez Rivera to today. Puerto Ricans have maintained a distinct culture despite all the attempts at disintegrating their national identity.
Struggles that have gone before show that under dire circumstances the people’s unity has strengthened. Puerto Ricans will endure another period of resistance after Hurricane Maria. And their thirst for independence still remains to be quenched. Que viva Puerto Rico libre!