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By Carlos “Carlito” Rovira
As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico (NPPR), we also honor and salute these revolutionaries who have earned a special place in Puerto Rican history. What comes to mind are the many lessons gained applicable in the ongoing struggle for national liberation.
The fighting spirit of the Nationalist Party was rooted in long existing traditions of resistance. The countless bloody uprisings launched by the indigenous Taínos and enslaved Africans for nearly 400 years is what brought into being the existence and self-identity of the Puerto Rican nation.
When Puerto Rico was militarily invaded and colonized on July 25, 1898, it was a pivotal moment for the United States to become a world imperialist power. Leading capitalist states raced against each other to obtain colonies through conquest. In the setting of the Spanish-American War, Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico were conquered by the United States.
Historical Roots of the Nationalist Party
In February 1902, the Unionist Party was formed by Luis Muñoz Rivera, Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón, Antonio R. Barceló, José de Diego, Juan Vías Ochoteco and others. At first, the Unionist Party called for independence but gradually dwindled politically to a diluted version of “autonomy”
The Unionist Party attempted to appease the occupying-colonizing authorities using opportunist logic that ultimately meant repudiating independence. Washington officials were delighted to have a submissive perspective originating from Puerto Ricans themselves.
However, the reaction to the ruthless avaricious practices of U.S. industrialists caused the ideals of independence to become widely accepted in various circles. Having the right to self-determination became a matter of urgency for all social classes in Puerto Rico.
As the U.S. tightened its grip with the 1917 Jones Act, the Unionist Party became increasingly conciliatory. The Jones Act included imposing U.S. citizenship on Puerto Ricans. Many in Puerto Rico opposed the new decree including Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly, which unanimously voted against this imposition.
Colonial Oppression Breeds Struggle
The political turmoil ignited by new decrees coupled by a revolutionary momentum throughout the world, which included the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, and the 1917 Russian Socialist Revolution, gave context to the militancy that characterized the emergence of a new and powerful nationalist movement.
As the Unionist Party drifted further to the right, radical members chose to break away to form the Independence Association, a predecessor of the Nationalist Party, which was created on September 17, 1922.
Unlike the Unionist Party, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico was firmly entrenched on its belief in independence and the unconditional withdrawal of the U.S. invaders. The NPPR was indisputably a revolutionary political party.
At this time, the Nationalist Party possessed baggage originating from its past connections to the Unionist Party, as well as from lacking experience. On May 11, 1930, the election of Pedro Albizu Campos as president of the NPPR not only changed the organization it ushered in a never-before-seen style of leadership.
Campos’ oratory skills combined with his knowledge of world history and politics generated widespread enthusiasm which earned him the nickname “El Maestro” (The Teacher). He was highly respected by the poorest layers of the population to the extent that they often addressed him as “Don Pedro”, a salutation of respect in Latino culture.
Political Influences of the Irish & Indian Struggles
The NPPR’s internationalist perspective for the most part came about through Campos’ introduction to revolutionary politics while a student at Harvard University. Don Pedro was deeply involved in support work for the Irish Republican and Indian independence movements, which were both waging battles against British colonialism.
The Irish people were at the threshold of winning their independence from the British colonizers. As a result, Campos’ well-established friendship with the Irish socialist revolutionary leader James Connolly and other representatives of Sein Fein, his sense for revolutionary politics flourished.
Campos’ close contact with Irish patriots, along with his military experience as a U.S. Army officer in World War I, allowed him to develop an appreciation for the importance of revolutionary movements having organizational sophistication.
Campos’ Inspiring Militancy is Recognized
Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos came to prominence in 1925 at a public rally held in San Juan. Colonial decree required displaying the American flag. To stay within the bounds of legality, organizers decorated the railing around the stage with small U.S. flags.
As Don Pedro stepped to the podium, he calmly removed the U.S. flags, one by one, and tucked them into his pocket. He began his speech by saying “American flag, I will not salute you, if you symbolize a free and sovereign nation, in Puerto Rico you represent piracy and pillage.”
Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos’ bold act shocked many in Puerto Rico and put into question the lack of militant energy in the Party’s leadership. The courage and charisma Campos demonstrated at this event is likely what propelled his ascendancy to the leadership.
Nationalist Party Transformed
Soon after Campos took his NPPR leadership post, on May 11, 1930, he worked diligently to transform the Party into a disciplined, tight-knitted fighting organization. The Nationalist leader understood that challenging a well-organized foe required developing an equally powerful counter force.
Women of the Nationalist Party
Don Pedro was aware of the potential hinderance that backward traditions had on building a strong movement. He observed how the revolutionary leadership potential of women was kept stifled by the chauvinistic male dominance within the NPPR.
In the Puerto Rican Island municipality of Vieques, Campos played a direct role in the creation of the first women’s committee of the Nationalist Party, called “Nurses of the Republic”.
This development inspired many women to join the Nationalist Party. It also compelled the men to question traits of their behavior in the context of certain backward traditions. Moreover, the new role of women in the NPPR revealed the benefits gender equality would have for the independence cause.
Women warriors now had the freedom to exert themselves politically. Powerful women like Blanca Canales, Leonides Diaz, Carmen Maria Perez, Isabel Rosado Morales, Doris Torresola Roura, Olga Isabel Viscal Garriga, Lolita Lebron and so many others joined in this fight. In many instances, Nationalist Party women shattered misogynistic myths while exceeding the actions of their male counterparts, especially under the most severe circumstances.
The Right to Use Armed Force
Fundamental to NPPR’s conviction under Campos’ leadership was having an organized, disciplined structure constituting a people’s army in preparation for battle. Raimundo Díaz Pacheco was entrusted with the task of leading the Cadets of the Republic, modelled after the Irish Citizen’s Army (ICA), organized by James Connolly.
Shortly after Don Pedro became president the Party’s political views on how to achieve independence became sharper. No longer would the NPPR participate in phony elections that were unquestionably controlled by the U.S. colonizers.
The Party’s openness of upholding the right to armed force to achieve independence caught the attention of aggressive and vindictive government officials.
Repression vs National Dignity
Don Pedro and the most committed cadres were frequently targets of persecution by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Being affiliated in any way with the Nationalist Party meant risking arrest, imprisonment, or death.
On October 24, 1935, in what is known as the Rio Piedras Massacre, colonial police opened fire, killing four Nationalist Party students and one bystander at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). The supposed “crime” of these youths was raising the Puerto Rican flag and making pro-independence speeches on campus grounds.
In retaliation for the deaths of the UPR students, on February 23, 1936, two members of the Cadets of the Republic, Hiram Rosado and Elias Beauchamp fired guns at a public gathering to assassinate the colonial governor, U.S. General Blatant Winship. Instead, the bullets struck the police chief, Colonel Francis Riggs. Both Rosado and Beauchamp were beaten and murdered at the police station.
But scrutiny on the Nationalist Party reached new heights during the 1936 Sugar Cane Worker’s strike. It was one of the most significant labor struggles in Puerto Rican history. Thanks to support and political leadership provided by the Nationalist Party labor unions throughout Puerto Rico came out in solidarity for the sugar cane cutters. This powerful labor struggle for higher wages ended in victory. As a result, Puerto Rico’s labor movement felt empowered.
Having their steady flow of profits disrupted and fearing the strength of the workers movement, U.S. capitalist investors became feverishly furious at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos. Colonial officials found themselves compelled to step up their efforts to repress the Nationalist Party.
The Ponce Massacre, March 21, 1937
A few months later, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos and other leading Nationalist figures like Juan Antonio Corretjer were accused of “seditious conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government”. Campos was sentenced to 10 years in prison along with many outspoken NPPR cadres.
On Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937, the NPPR in the municipality of Ponce called for a peaceful procession to commemorate the March 22, 1873, abolition of African chattel slavery in Puerto Rico and to demand the release prison of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.
Colonial authorities made many attempts to pressure the cancelation of the NPPR event, including using intimidating gangster tactics. But the patriots remained firm on the belief that they had every moral right to do as they wished in their homeland.
As the gathering of participants grew larger, the police sealed off the area. Under the direction of U.S.-appointed Governor General Blanton C. Winship, the police prepared for a bloody onslaught.
The demonstration began with the crowd singing the original revolutionary version of the Puerto Rican National Anthem, La Borinqueña. Once the procession began to move the police did the unimaginable – they opened fire using tear-gas bombs, carbine rifles and Thompson sub-machine guns.
When the carnage was over, 19 Nationalists and 2 police officers were killed along with 200 wounded. Nearly all the men, women and children struck by the hail of bullets were shot in the back, indicating that they were attempting to flee the police onslaught.
This tragic event became known as the Ponce Massacre. News of this injustice immediately traveled throughout Puerto Rico, as many stood in disbelief from the shock of U.S. colonialism’s cruelty.
In the period following the Ponce Massacre, the entire globe was consumed by the horrific events of World War II. Puerto Rico became a garrison for the U.S. military overlooking Latin America while the Puerto Rican Island of Vieques was turned into a target practice range for U.S. and other Allied naval warships.
The “Gag Law”
In the years following, by the late 1940’s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was mandated to escalate the heinous act of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. The goal of this operation was to destabilize and destroy the Nationalist Party.
In November 1948, Law 53 of 1948, better known as the “Gag Law” was instituted by the U.S. installed colonial government. It was the most draconian decree in Puerto Rico’s history which aimed to wipe out the aspiration for independence.
The Gag Law made the Puerto Rican flag contraband. The mention of independence in literature, musical lyrics and public speech became illegal. Pro-independence meetings and demonstrations were outlawed. The intention was to suppress any hope of independence for the Puerto Rican people.
Nationalist intelligence operatives close to government officials discovered a secret government plan to obliterate the independence movement. The NPPR leadership decided to “strike the first blow” in order to widely expose the real nature of the U.S. presence in Puerto Rico.
1950 Nationalist Revolt – The Jayuya Uprising
On the morning of October 30, 1950, a young woman named Blanca Canales led a Nationalists uprising and seized control of the city of Jayuya. After an ensuing gun battle between colonial police and Nationalists. These freedom fighters were able to seize control of the police station. Blanca Canales then gave the command to burn down the despised building.
Violent clashes between police and nationalists also occurred in Utuado, Ponce, Mayagüez, Arecibo, Naranjito, Ciales, Peñuelas and other municipalities.
In San Juan, the police attacked the Nationalist Party headquarters. Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, Isabel Rosado and others undertook an armed battle until they were overwhelmed by tear gas.
To bring about world attention to the repression unleashed by the U.S. colonizers on November 1, 1950, Nationalists Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola attempted the assassination of President Harry Truman at the Blair House in Washington, DC.
For the same reason, on March 1, 1954, Nationalists Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irvin Flores, and Andres Figueroa Cordero staged an armed attack on the House of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol.
The repression witnessed in Puerto Rico during this period was tantamount to the most murderous regimes in Latin American history. The colonial Police acted with impunity, gunning down individuals deemed suspected “terrorists” or armed Nationalists. It took unimaginable courage and uncompromising love for the homeland to endure the constant threat that came with being a Nationalist.
During this period of repression and vicious persecution of the Nationalist Party, U.S. rulers sought new and deceitful ways to disguise the criminal U.S. presence in Puerto Rico.
In 1949, the first elections for governor were held with U.S. approved Puerto Ricans serving as candidates. However, to this day, the U.S. government reserves the “legal” right to annul the outcome of elections in Puerto Rico.
Due to the rebelliousness demonstrated by Puerto Ricans since the start of the U.S. colonization, in 1957, Law 53 of 1948 (Gag Law) was eliminated and the ban on the Puerto Rican flag was also lifted. In addition, advocating for independence was no longer illegal.
The previous intense years of repression caused a dormant period of political activity within the Nationalist Party, between the mid 1950’s-1960’s. This setting was accompanied with hypocritical overtures by politicians who falsely claimed that Puerto Rico was a “showcase of democracy”.
Nothing was more absurd and further from the truth. Many NPPR members remained incarcerated as Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos was subjected to radiation torture while in captivity.
Lessons drawn from the Nationalist experience
Despite difficulties and horrors, the gallant men and women of the NPPR knew precisely what the reprisals would be at the hands of the colonizers. The sacrifices made by these freedom fighters were not in vain. They fought gallantly as centurions of the oppressed, maintaining the dignity of Puerto Rican revolutionary traditions.
There is an obtainable lesson that we can utilize for the ongoing struggle by understanding key points in Nationalist Party history. Achieving our national liberation will not be possible without the development of political sophistication and organizational structure.
We cannot successfully challenge a well-prepared and highly organized enemy unless we aim to be better skilled than the colonizer in applying the techniques of politics and warfare. Hence, the necessity for the development of a revolutionary political party. By taking this action is when we truly honor the work and legacy of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos.
The evolution of the Puerto Rican national liberation struggle continues today in many forms throughout the homeland and diaspora. The bravery and love for Puerto Rico demonstrated by the Nationalist Party has secured for them a very special place in history, as well as in the archives of all oppressed and exploited people.
QUE VIVA PUERTO RICO LIBRE!