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  • Puerto Ricans march in support of becoming an independent nation. The sign reads

    Puerto Ricans march in support of becoming an independent nation. The sign reads 'Neither (Financial Oversight and Management) Board, Nor Colony, Independence Now!' | Photo: Reuters

Published 3 July 2017

Today, when millions of U.S. citizens celebrate Independence Day, it’s important to remember Puerto Rico’s own struggle for independence.

If you’ve ever been to a Fourth of July celebration in the United States, you’re probably familiar with the usual talking points.

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We’re the “land of the free.” We’re the “home of the brave.” We’ve got to “support our troops.”

These talking points, repeated ad nauseum at barbecues and ceremonies across the country, are intended to instill a sense of pride among U.S. citizens. The idea is to make us feel like we’re a part of something greater than ourselves — a free and sovereign society that courageously fought for its independence against tyranny.

Not only are these talking points a gross misrepresentation of both the U.S. independence movement and the reality of the country today. More importantly, they’re also a distraction from the rarely-mentioned history of U.S. global conquest, which has repressed countless independence movements in Global South nations.

One of the most striking examples is Puerto Rico, an island nation which has been under the colonial domination of the United States since 1898, embellished with a “commonwealth” status. 

For over a century, bureaucrats in Washington and wealthy elites on Wall Street have functioned as the sole decision-makers of affairs on the island. Though innumerable pro-independence movements have sprung up in resistance to this hegemony, the United States has maintained the upper hand in subjugating Puerto Rico, maintaining complete control to this day.

Here’s a crash course.

After 400 years of domination under the Spanish Empire, Madrid ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898 in what was known as the Treaty of Paris. The agreement was signed as a resolution of the Spanish-American War, which the burgeoning North American imperial power emerged victorious from. Guam and the Philippines were also ceded to Washington. 

Following the Treaty of Paris, the baton of tyranny in Puerto Rico was handed over from Spain to the United States, paving the way for the latter’s use of the island as its laboratory of imperialism.

Although there were several pro-independence uprisings against Spanish rule prior to the Treaty of Paris, such as the 1868 Grito de Lares revolt and the 1897 Attempted Coup of Yauco, the Puerto Rican independence movement truly began consolidating after 1898. At this juncture, the United States did everything it could to make sure the island nation didn’t flee its grip.

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The U.S. government immediately began imposing its hegemony on three fronts.

Politically, with the Foraker Act of 1900, which established a political system on the island that was designed to be almost entirely subservient to Washington. Militarily, with the occupation of Puerto Rico by U.S. Armed Forces. And economically, with the growth of New York City-based companies that exploited sugar, tobacco and fruit from the island and shipped them to back to the United States to be sold as commodities. 

In 1914, the Puerto Rican House of Delegates, the lower house of the Legislative Assembly, voted unanimously for independence from the United States. U.S. Congress, however, claimed the vote violated the constitution and did not comply with the Foraker Act. After three years of protests demanding independence, the legislative body was forced to pass the Jones–Shafroth Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico on or after 1898.

The act was passed in 1917, just days before the start of the Russian Revolution, which openly rejected U.S.-style capitalism and imperialism. Many see the passage of the Jones–Shafroth Act as an attempt to prevent the ideas of the Russian Revolution from spreading to Puerto Rico, which also became home to growing anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist sentiment.

Recognizing that the act was simply a concession intended to de-radicalize the independence movement, Puerto Rican Nationalist Party leader Pedro Albizu Campos began organizing mass protests in the mid 1930s. The protests, which called for the complete emancipation of Puerto Rico, were met with crackdowns by U.S.-backed local police, resulting in dozens of activist deaths. 

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The deadliest of these protests took place in Ponce in 1937, when 19 civilians peacefully marching for independence were murdered by police. The event became known as the Ponce Massacre. Pro-independence protests ensued, again being met with U.S.-proposed concessions.

In 1947, the U.S. government decided it would grant Puerto Ricans their right to elect their own governor, ushering in Luis Muñoz Marin as the first locally-elected representative. And in 1950, U.S. Congress passed a law allowing Puerto Ricans to decide if they wanted to draft their own constitution. 

These concessions, however, were largely seen as faux extensions of political freedom, given that Washington still had the final say in gubernatorial elections and constitutional referendums. Three years later, Albizu Campos and many other Nationalist Party leaders began leading a series of armed protests in favor of independence, eventually landing them in federal prison.

In 1952, the U.S.-ratified Constitution of Puerto Rico was approved in a March referendum and implemented by Muñoz Marin.

By the 1970s, militant groups like the Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation, FALN, came to the fore, asserting revolutionary armed struggle as the only path toward independence. Puerto Rican and U.S. officials, however, quickly clamped down on groups like the FALN and imprisoned dozens who were fighting for liberty.

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This was exemplified by the 1981 arrest of independence hero Oscar Lopez Rivera, who was charged with “seditious conspiracy.” 

During his trial, Lopez Rivera and other members of the FALN told the U.S. court that their actions were part of an anti-colonial war against the United States, declaring themselves prisoners of war and requesting that their cases be handed over to an international court.

In the decades following Lopez Rivera’s arrest, the United States continued imposing its political, military and economic hegemony on the island. Independence movements were smashed by authorities. The Puerto Rican island of Vieques was continually bombed and occupied by the U.S. Navy. And the U.S.-imposed governance continued to rack up massive amounts of debt, setting the stage for today’s financial crisis. 

The Financial Oversight and Management Board, the institution claiming to “save” Puerto Rico from its imposed debt crisis, has become the modern day symbol of U.S. colonization on the Caribbean island. It was set up last year through the contentious PROMESA law that gained bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

Lopez Rivera, who opposed the creation of the financial junta, was eventually released on May 17, 2017, a month before the most recent referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico. 

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On paper, the referendum was a victory for those who support U.S. statehood, since 97.18 percent of participants voted in favor of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state. In reality, however, the referendum was a victory for the pro-independence movement, given that it led a massive boycott of the referendum, reflected in the referendum’s comically skewed results.

Facing an over US$73 billion U.S.-imposed debt and political control by Washington, Puerto Rico’s independence movement continues to stand up against foreign domination of its land.

Today, when millions of U.S. citizens celebrate Independence Day, it’s more important than ever to remember Puerto Rico’s own struggle for independence from the claws of Washington and Wall Street. 


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