By: Carlito Rovira
On September 23, 1868, in the city of Lares, Puerto Rico, was the historic site of an uprising against African chattel slavery under Spanish colonial domination. The event is known as “El Grito de Lares”—the outcry of Lares— which affirmed the existence of the Puerto Rican nation and its struggle for national liberation, first against Spanish and then against U.S. colonialism. It is a struggle that continues to this day.
El Grito de Lares took place in a world context of bourgeois democratic revolutions against the remnants of feudalism in the dominant European powers. Feudal states like Spain, basing themselves on the wealth generated by large land holdings and colonial exploitation, were forcefully compelled to give way to the growing power of world capitalism.
The Haitian Revolution of 1802-04, coming in the wake of the French Revolution that began in 1789, marked the first Black republic in history. The victory of African slaves who rebelled and broke away from French colonial domination inspired millions throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and the world. Slave owners everywhere became apprehensive about this event, especially in the United States.
In 1810, Indigenous people in Mexico under the leadership of Miguel Hidalgo launched a drive to force the Spanish out of that country. Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1824.
Throughout the 1810s and 1820s, Simón Bolívar led an army of Indigenous people and former African slaves in an effort to win the independence of South American colonies from Spain. These successful military campaigns shattered the prestige of the Spanish Army. Puerto Rico and Cuba were Spain’s only remaining colonies in Latin America.
In the 1848 revolutionary upheavals that took place in France, Germany and Italy, workers took to the streets against the feudal monarchies. Despite the monarchies’ desperate efforts to hold on to political power, the development of capitalism and the rising of the working classes meant the end of the centuries-long rule of feudal states.
In the United States, the Civil War of 1861-65 led to the overthrow of the slave-owning class in the South. And because slavery in the U.S. was the most lucrative and brutal of all it’s defeat served as a death blow to that system everywhere. Due to the vigorous efforts by the African American masses, especially when they fought in organized, armed detachments of the Union Army, the final destruction of the slave system was certain.
In all these struggles, the political demands of freedom and independence were meant to benefit the growing capitalist class, although it was the most oppressed social layers in society that fought the battles to destroy feudalism and chattel slavery.
The Puerto Rican nation
Under Spanish colonialism, the people of Puerto Rico—like the people in the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America—evolved to have the characteristics of self-identity typical of nationhood. The development of nations in the Americas inspired many to seek their freedom. Colonialism defined the class relationships that the newly formed nations would have to Spanish imperial power.
By 1867, there were close to 650,000 people in Puerto Rico. Slightly over half were of white Spanish background; the others were Black slaves, mulattos and mixed-race mestizos. The economy was largely centered on sugar production and the sugar trade, although there was a native capitalist class that gave rise to the Puerto Rican working class.
Spanish colonial rule in Puerto Rico was harsh and allowed for little political participation by the local elites. All policies relating to politics and economy were dictated by the Spanish monarchy. Taxes were heavy. Any expressions for more autonomy—not to mention independence—were brutally put down.
El Grito de Lares took place in the context of increasing resistance to foreign oppression and the socioeconomic developments in the Western Hemisphere.
The Revolutionary Committees
A central figure in the Grito de Lares uprising was Ramón Emeterio Betances. The son of an African mother and a white father, he was reared in a relatively wealthy and privileged family. However, Betances began to question the causes for the inequalities that existed under a slave-owning colonial system. He was active in the movement to abolish slavery and in the anti-colonial movement. Today, Betances is considered the “father of the Puerto Rican homeland.”
Betances and Segundo Ruiz Belvis founded the Revolutionary Committees of Puerto Rico on Jan. 6, 1868, while they were in exile in the Dominican Republic. Soon, Revolutionary Committees were formed throughout Puerto Rico to organize for an eventual revolt among all sectors of the population. Under the most secretive measures, organizers reached out to Africans who were toiling as slaves. The punishment for slaves caught in seditious activity was harsh.
A significant portion of the Puerto Rican combatants galvanized by the Revolutionary Committees were former African slaves who had escaped and were living in hiding. In some cases African slaves were granted freedom in exchange for partaking in the planned war; Some of these slave owners also desired to break away with Spain, but their class interest was different from most people in Puerto Rico, their aspirations were to develop economically free of hindrance by a foreign power.
Other freedom fighters were Tainos, the original Indigenous people of Puerto Rico who were living in the mountains and working as day laborers in the towns. Haitians, Dominicans and Jamaicans were also among the insurgents who fought in Lares.
Betances sailed on a ship with a cargo of rifles, cannons and other weapons from the Dominican Republic. But the Spanish colonial authorities discovered the plans. On his return from the neighboring island as he entered the harbor of Arecibo, the Spanish Navy surrounded the rebel ship, capturing the cargo and arresting the crew.
News of the ship’s capture reached the revolutionaries in the mountains who were preparing for the rebellion. With Betances in Spanish custody, the leading organizers of the movement decided to call for the rebellion ahead of schedule.
The uprising begins
On the evening of Sept. 23, 1868, about 800 hundred insurgents on foot and horseback stormed the city of Lares. The army of freedom fighters entered the city, and as the sounds of shouts and gunfire were heard, the day laborers of the city stopped working while African slaves staged a revolt that weakened the defenses of the Spanish garrison.
The principal demands of the revolutionaries were the abolition of chattel slavery, an end to the “libreta” (notebook) system and the independence of Puerto Rico. They called for the right to bear arms, the right to determine taxes and freedom of speech and of the press.
After an hour of gun battle, the Spanish military authority was overwhelmed. Government and military officials were forced by the fury of the people to lay down their weapons and surrender. The rebels declared the Republic of Puerto Rico.
The Spanish prisoners were then paraded and displayed for all to view as trophies of war. Colonial officials who were guilty of crimes against the people were dealt with. What was unimaginable at one time—defeating by force an oppressor that projected itself as invincible—was now a reality.
The people rejoiced at the power they now had over their oppressors while celebrating their new freedom. With jubilant emotions the revolutionaries held their weapons in the air as crowds gathered at the town plaza in the center of the city. The Spanish flag, a dreaded symbol of tyranny, was lowered, stepped on and burned. In its place, the flag of the newly proclaimed Puerto Rican republic was raised on a pole at the municipal building.
It was on this occasion that the people heard for the first time the solemn words of the Puerto Rican struggle: “¡QUE VIVA PUERTO RICO LIBRE!”—long live a free Puerto Rico!
The revolutionaries’ plans were to capture Lares, then attack the surrounding cities where other groups of revolutionaries awaited instructions. Lares was chosen for the initial attack because of what was believed to be a strategically advantageous location for a starting point, in the mountainous region.
But because the Spaniards were better equipped and more experienced in the techniques of war, the victory at Lares was short-lived. What followed was the suppression of the independence and abolitionist movement throughout Puerto Rico. Many were imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Madrid issued new decrees and sent troop reinforcements to secure its domination over the Puerto Rican people.
But the uprising did lead to some concessions. For example, amid continued turmoil over the question of slavery — something which politically troubled Madrid did not want — the Spanish National Assembly abolished the hated system on March 22, 1873. In addition, the Spanish government granted a limited form of home rule to Puerto Rico in 1897. But one year later, in the course of the Spanish-American war, U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico which remains a U.S. colony to this day.
Before his death on September 16, 1898—a few months after the U.S. invasion—Betances stated, “I do not want to see Puerto Rico under the colonial domination of Spain nor the United States.”
A symbol of struggle
El Grito de Lares is today a celebrated and respected holiday in the U.S.-colonized Caribbean island. Even the U.S.-installed colonial government recognizes El Grito de Lares as an official holiday, closing schools and government offices — while trying to strip the holiday of its revolutionary content.
Although the martyrs of Lares did not achieve their quest, they provided the movement today with a sense of the necessity to build a people’s movement that can defeat U.S. colonialism. Their fierce attempt to end slavery is a continuing model for anti-racist struggle as well.
Betances and his fellow revolutionaries also provided a living example of the internationalism of oppressed peoples against colonialism. The “Society for the Independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico,” founded in the 1860s by exiled revolutionaries living in New York City is such an example.
Many of the Lares combatants that managed to survive the Spanish onslaught throughout the country chose to continue their efforts by retreating to join the struggle in Cuba, including Juan Rius Rivera who became a commander in the Cuban rebel army. About 2000 Puerto Ricans seized Spanish vessels in order to set sail to join their Cuban comrades in the “Grito de Yara” uprising, three weeks after El Grito de Lares.
It was this act of solidarity that solidified the historic relationship between Cuban and Puerto Rican revolutionaries, known today by Lola Rodriguez De Tio’s famous poetic expression “Two Wings of the Same Bird.”
To many in today’s movement for Puerto Rican independence, the experience of Lares underscored that the national salvation and liberation of the people can be achieved only with complete political independence and absolute freedom from foreign interference. It is having pride in the well rooted self-identity of the Puerto Rican people that the U.S. colonizers tirelessly strive to eradicate.
On September 23, 2005 Machetero leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios was killed in a gun battle with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents. They chose the date to launch a vicious attack on the most revered leader of the struggle for independence in modern times in an attempt to shatter the fighting spirit of the movement. But U.S. colonialism’s efforts of psychological warfare came short of it’s goal. All that Washington officials managed to do was to give the annual El Grito De Lares commemorations added meaning. Boricuas continue to wage the liberation struggle.
Today, Puerto Rico has a developed working class population with a long tradition of fighting the exploitative horrors typical in a colonial setting. And now with the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA)”, a law designed to intensify U.S. colonial domination using the pretense of a $73 billion debt imposed on Puerto Rico, suffering has undoubtedly intensified.
And in a colonial setting of neglect following the massive destruction of Hurricane Maria one can expect a potential for mass rebellion. It came as no surprise when an outpouring occurred when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and succeeded in forcing the resignation of the U.S. puppet and scoundrel Governor Ricardo Rossello.
Puerto Rico is a country that is still under the complete military and political domination of U.S. imperialism. The continued struggle for an independent state — the only way to guarantee the right to self-determination to a people who have endured five centuries of colonial oppression — is today part and parcel of the international struggle against imperialism. The sacrifices made by the martyrs of El Grito De Lares shall one day prove to inspire a decisive battle that will bring about an independent and sovereign Puerto Rico.
¡QUE VIVA PUERTO RICO LIBRE!