The Politics of Neo-Colonialism: The Case of the Puerto Rican 15

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer

IN THE PREDAWN hours of August 30, 1985, three hundred heavily armed FBI agents, supported by military units, descended upon the homes of thirty-six Puma Rican independistas.

Though billed as a raid against “terrorists” in the independence organization, Los Macheteros, the FBI’s targeting of intellectuals and artists such as the painter Antonio Martorell and the poet Coqui Stantaliz, as well as the eventual arrest of community organizers like Ivonne Melendez Carrion and Teachers Federation organizer Elias Castro Ramos – none of whom claim membership in Los Macheteros – implies that the raid’s actual motive was to discredit all sectors of the Puma Rican independence movement by associating them with one of its most controversial ones.

Instead, what has to be known as the Hartford Fifteen case has focused renewed attention on the Puerto Rican independence struggle, strengthened the Puerto Rican solidarity movement in the United States, and forced the Bush Administration to initiate the process for yet another fraudulent vote on the status of Perfecto and John Vandermeer of the Ann Arbor Puerto Rican Solidarity Organization examine why it has caused such a furor. -The Editors

ON SEPTEMBER 12, 1983, Victor Gerena, a Puerto Rican working as an armed guard for the Wells Fargo Co., made off with more than $7 million, the second largest heist in the history of the United States. Shortly thereafter, Los Macheteros (“The Machete Wielders”), a clandestine armed revolutionary group, claimed credit for masterminding the robbery, identifying Victor as a member whose assignment had been to infiltrate Wells Fargo for the purpose of this revolutionary action.

It rapidly became apparent that the action had been well planned. This fact was more important than the $7 million in provoking the reaction of the U.S. government and thus explains its willingness to spend more than$25 million so far in prosecuting people whose participation in either the robbery or the Macheteros is questionable by anyone’s standards.

Of the fifteen Puerto Ricans charged, only one has admitted being a member of the Macheteros and none has admitted participation in the Wells Fargo approbation. This is despite the fact that either admission would be a point of pride for all of the fifteen, since they all have proudly admitted to being independistas.

The FBI conducted the largest investigation in its history. Only the most naive would insist that the Puerto Rican/Hartford 15 trial is about the robbery per se. It is a political trial that is ultimately part of the long history of low-intensity warfare the U.S. government has been waging against the Puerto Rican people for over fifty years.

Frustrated in its attempts at infiltration and embarrassed by such a bold stroke as the expropriation of $7 million, the FBI apparently decided on a new strategy. It decided to send a strong me sage to the Puerto Rican independence movement, a message that is being clearly understood by those in the movement, but, we fear, not fully appreciated by our comrades on the left in the United States. The pattern of the arrests and subsequent acts of the FBI are tailored to say, first to activists struggling for the independence of Puerto Rico. Vocalizing support for Puerto Rican independence can put you in jail, and there is nothing your liberal friends can do about it.

Second, they say to the Puerto Rican population in general: The most recent armed Puerto Rican resistance movement is a physically dangerous movement, terrorists of the same ilk as the radical Muslims.

As events unfold in the Puerto Rican/Hartford 15 case, it is well to bear in mind this background. There is a rebellion in the colony and state security wishes to send the subjects two messages, one for the rebellious ones, one for those who might have the tiniest tendency to shift toward that position.

Puerto Rico as a Colony

One fact about Puerto Rico must be understood before anything else makes sense: Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. The many complicating special features of the particular case should not obscure this basic fact. The underlying fact must be taken as the central issue when we speak of specific problems, whether of environmental contamination in Puerto Rico itself or of racism against Puerto Ricans in the United States.

The United Nations, for example, both in 1960 and again in 1972 and 1973, has referred to Puerto Rico as a colony and called for the United States to recognize Puerto Ricans’ right to self-determination.

It is not a right that the U.S. government and U.S. multinationals will surrender willingly. Over one-third of all corporate profits made by the United States in the Western Hemisphere come from Puerto Rico. Though the island receives $4.5 million a day from the U.S. government, U.S. corporations make seven times as much in profits from Puerto Rico.

The cost for the Puerto Rican people has been unemployment that has reached as much as fifty percent, leading to the migration of 2.5 million of the island’s 5.8 million people. Sixty percent of Puerto Rican families qualify for food stamps.

Moreover, Puerto Rico is a centerpiece of U.S. hemispheric strategy. Thirteen percent of the island’s best lands are part of U.S. military bases. Puerto Rico is where the United States trained the contras, where the United States links its command and communication structures for nuclear weapons and where the United States practiced the invasion of Grenada.

Freedom for Puerto Rico could be more significant for Central American liberation struggles than the combined effects of all the North American solidarity movement’s anti-contra protests. Eliminating the forward military thrust into this hemisphere would have devastating consequences for the structure of the empire.

The Puerto Rican people’s long and distinguished history of fighting this domination has met with an equally long history of repression. In 1937, in what has come to be known as the Ponce Massacre, a National Party march to protest the incarceration of party leader Pedro Albizu Campos was disrupted when the police opened fire against the demonstrators, killing twenty and wounding 150.

In 1950, the Jayuya uprising declared Jayuya a liberated zone and quickly spread throughout many towns in Puerto Rico. But the rebellion was squashed when the U.S. Air Force bombed Jayuya and used the U.S.-trained and U.S.-financed Puerto Rican National Guard to occupy the liberated zones.

In 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists attacked the U.S. House of Representatives while in session to attract international attention to the colonial status of Puerto Rico. Five congressmen were wounded, and the four were captured and sentenced to fifty/seventy-five years in prison.

More recently, in 1980 eleven Puerto Rican independence activists were arrested in Evanston, IL, and were accused of being members of the Armed Forces of the Puerto Rican National Liberation (FALN). Armed at the time of their capture, the eleven independentistas immediately declared themselves prisoners of war, based on the Geneva Convention and the 1970 U.N. Resolution 2621, and demanded recognition as such.

Background of the Trial

While we do not wish to imply that any of the defendants are members of Los Macheteros, the government has made that accusation the centerpiece of the case. It is thus useful to outline who members of this organization are, what they stand for and what actions they have taken.

On the first count all we really know is that the Macheteros are a group of Puerto Rican patriots, but we do not know, nor do we know anyone who knows, anyone clearly identified as a member of the organization.

The Macheteros stand first, for a free and independent Puerto Rico and second, for the idea that independence will not be won without armed struggle. The tactics of the Macheteros have always been designed with both military and political objectives in mind. For example, on Oct. 28, 1986, in conjunction with two other armed groups, bombs were detonated in two U.S. military installations in response to the training of Nicaraguan contras in Puerto Rico and in protest of planned logging operations in El Yunke, the rain forest known and loved by all Puerto Ricans.

In 1982, in response to a military raid on a famous squatter settlement known as Villa Sin Miedo, a Machetero unit attacked the police, killing one and wounding twelve. Earlier they had announced that if the squatters were attacked, they would take action.

Three days before, in response to U.S. Navy target practice on the island of Vieques, part of Puerto Rican territory, a Machetero unit attacked a bus full of U.S. sailors, killing one and wounding three. Their most publicized action was the destruction of nine airplanes of the National Guard, valued at $50 million, in response to the murder of a political prisoner, Angel Rodriguez, in a Tallahassee prison.

Clearly there are several tendencies within the organization. This has been admitted by organization itself over the question of support for electoral parties.

The APB-MACHETEROS (Ejercito Popular Boriquen – The Popular Army of Boriquen*) does not support any of the current political parties of Puerto Rico and indeed asserts:

“Our solemn promise (is) to develop and aid all method of struggle that advance our cause of liberation. To this end we reiterate our determination to develop to the maximum possible, the people’s war against North American imperialism, discarding those methods that legitimate the enemy and/or tend to confuse, trick or detour the people from their proper struggles.”

The PR1P-MACHETEROS (El Partido Revolucionario de las Trabajadores Puertoriquenos – The Revolutionary Workers Party of Puerto Rico) openly supports the electoral efforts of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). Both sectors share the underlying goal of a free Puerto Rico and may in the future engage in coordinated efforts, as they have in the past with other revolutionary groups.

The Trial of the Hartford 15

On April 10 a jury delivered its verdict in a watered-down case against five of the original fifteen defendants in the highly politicized trial. The trial was something of a whimper compared with what the government had apparently hoped for, at least when arrests were first made and charges levied. It also represents something of a midpoint in the e tire affair, and possibly a time to reflect on the case’s significance for the Puerto Rican independence movement.

The case can be conveniently thought of as beginning on Aug. 30, 1985, when hundreds of FBI agents descended on the island nation of Puerto Rico, in what can only be described as a military raid, attacking over thirty different locations, a variety of leftists and independence activists and their organizations. That raid netted eleven prisoners.

Other prisoners were taken in raids in Texas, Mexico and Massachusetts, reaching a total of sixteen persons who were linked together by two common threads, one claimed by the U.S. government, the other the real reason for their capture. The U.S. government claimed that all were involved in the Wells Fargo heist. The real reason was that all were independence activists involved in a variety of progressive causes.

Three Kings’ Day

Integrally related to those causes is an attempt to preserve Puerto Rican culture against U.S. efforts either to assimilate or marginalize its importance. Often forgotten is one of the central events leading to the trial: giving away toys to children – clearly a political gem.

Three Kings’ Day, January 6, is an important Puerto Rican holiday, being the day when the three kings brought presents to the baby Jesus. Children gather herbs and grasses and put them underneath their beds for the kings’ camels to snack on when they arrive, bringing the kings with their gifts.

The kings’ presents are not restricted to gold, frankincense and myrrh, obviously, and traditionally Puerto Rican children look forward to Kings’ Day more than to Christmas. It has become something of a subtle form of protest against the cultural domination of the United States to maintain this tradition.

On Jan. 6, 1985, a van loaded with toys arrived in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of West Hartford, Conn., and children lined up to receive gifts from three people dressed up as the three kings. The organizers photographed the entire event and page one of the local newspaper featured a photo of the giveaway with the explanation from Los Macheteros: “Christmas is the worst time of the year to be poor; that’s why we gave the gifts.”

Giving toys to children and bombing the establishments of colonial power would become dual symbols of cultural preservation and anti-colonialism As the anonymous caller told the Puerto Rican newspaper El Mundo about the three kings’ giveaway: “Remember, even though we have carried out this positive act of love, this does not mean we have abandoned the armed struggle to win in­ dependence for our island.”

It was clear to everyone that the substantial amount of money involved in purchasing so many toys had to have come from the Wells Fargo expropriation. The only question was whether or not the participants knew that the money had been part of the appropriated cache, and indeed most of the charges that have not been dropped have to do with the transport of money known to have been stolen.

 In a plea-bargaining session, Lucy Berrios, one of those arrested, confessed to the crime of transporting stolen money across state lines. She admitted only that she knew the money was hot, but this did not imply she was even a minor participant in the Wells Fargo robbery.

Surprises in Tactics and Strategies

The first surprise for the FBI came when the defendants decided to break with a tradition that U.S. state security had come to expect from Puerto Rican independence activists. In the past, most Puerto Rican revolutionaries have refused to recognize, the authority of the U.S. courts and have refrained from defending themselves within the rules set by their colonial masters.

Under that expectation, apparently, the FBI was not as cautious as they should have been in the treatment of evidence, presuming they never would have to prosecute seriously anyway. But the defendants decided to play the game according to the colonial masters and defend themselves in the courts. This was clearly a tactical maneuver, not a change in political philosophy.

Almost all of the evidence entered by the FBI was challenged legally by the defendants’ lawyers, and much of it was thrown out by U.S. District Judge T. Emmet Clarie. Almost one-third of the tapes made in wiretaps, admittedly the bulk of the government’s case, were thrown out. The prosecution is currently appealing that decision.

In response to the surprising tactics of the defendants the government revised its strategy. Apparently acknowledging that it had an assortment of independence activists who probably were politically and legally too diverse to be treated as a single unit, the government divided the defendants into four groups:

1) a single individual, Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the only defendant having admitted to being a Machetero;

2) three individuals, Juan Segarra, his wife Lucy Berrios and their friend (and only non-Puerto Rican among the defendants), Paul Weinberg;

3) four individuals, Norman Ramirez, Carlos Ayes, Antonio Camacho and Roberto Maldonado, whose prosecution was thought to be less dependent on the evidence thrown out by Judge Clarie, and who were regarded as less likely to be convincingly paraded as terrorists; and

4) eight individuals, Elias Castro, Ivonne Melendes, Jorge Farinacci, Luis Colon, Hilton Fernandez, Orlando Gonzalez, Issac Comacho, and Angel Diaz, whose prosecution is seriously threatened by Judge Clarie’s decision to throw out most of the evidence against them. The government’s appeal is still pending.

Also indicted, but not yet captured, are Victor Gerena, the man who admittedly expropriated the money from Wells Fargo, and the only one for which there is clear evidence of association with that heist, and two brothers, Avelino and Norberto Gonzalez.

Filiberto Ojeda Rios is the oldest of the defendants and has a long history of pro-independence activism. He is the only one of the defendants who openly admits to being a Machetero, claiming to be a “founding” member. (Thus far, the claim has not been publicly acknowledged in any communique from the clandestine group.) His arrest and rearrest were particularly offensive to any justice-minded person.

Originally arrested in the raids of Aug. 30, 1985, Ojeda was finally released on a $1 million bond after a federal appeals court ruled that his thirty-two months in pretrial detention (a new U.S. record) must end. His release came on July 20, 1988. On Aug. 26, 1988, he was rearrested for his response to the invasion of his house by armed FBI agents.

The history of the FBI’s attacks on the Puerto Rican independence movement is quite violent, even by Latin American standards. It is not out of the ordinary to expect violent action from a group that has a long history of such action –an attitude Filiberto must have had the day armed agents entered his house. Ojeda was armed, and when faced with eight heavily armed soldiers forcibly entering his house, he reacted in self-defense by firing. He fired three shots, wounding one agent, and he has been indicted for eight counts of assault with a deadly weapon.

Following his second arrest Ojeda was held on a U.S. military base in Puerto Rico, an act that openly flaunted Puerto Rican public opinion and helped to verify the claim that Puerto Rico is under military occupation. He was then taken back to the United States, where he remains imprisoned. Ojeda faces an almost certain fate of completing his life in a U.S. jail.

Currently Filiberto’s health condition is precarious and the government refuses to give proper attention to his medical needs. He has a heart condition and prison authorities have refused to comply with the special diet ordered by his doctor.

Juan Segarra and his wife, Lucy Berrios, along with associate Paul Weinberg, form the second group. Weinberg has since tuned state’s evidence, leaving fifteen rather than sixteen defendants. Berrios’ decision to plead guilty was motivated by her determination not to leave her children alone while spending years in prison. She has already been sentenced and is currently serving her time. Segarra has been singled out by the U.S. press as a “mastermind” of the Macheteros and the brains behind the Puerto Rican 15, a characterization he personally denies and for which no substantial evidence exists. As one of the first five defendants to go to trial, he has been judged guilty of eleven of the seventeen counts against him and faces a maximum 150 years in prison.

The outcome for the four defendants adjudicated with Juan Segarra (Camacho, Ramirez, Maldonado and Ayes) was less successful for the government. Ayes was declared innocent of all charges.

Ramirez and Maldonado, after having the charges dramatically reduced from the original, were declared guilty of one charge of the remaining four. Acquitted on the charges of transporting stolen money to Mexico, they were convicted on the ever popular and vague charge of conspiracy and both face five-year prison terms.

Camacho was declared guilty of two out of four charges – conspiracy and transporting stolen money -and faces a possible fifteen years in prison.

The Tapes As Evidence

The trial of the other nine hinges on the legality of the FBI’s eavesdropping tapes. A key aspect of the inadmissibility of the tapes was discovered by Lucy Berrios after hours of studying the tapes and transcripts in her prison cell. According to federal law, the FBI can only eavesdrop when conversations concern possible illegal activities and can only “spot check” to see if such things are being discussed. They cannot just turn on the tape recorder and listen to everything said – at least theoretically.

While it would be naive to think that FBI investigators really respect that law, they can be expected to cover their rear ends a bit better than they did. For technical purposes tape recordings of surveillance subjects are made with a second track recording as close as possible the background noise in the conversation being monitored.

So, for example, two people in sufficiently is the entire enterprise of a car may have a particular radio station playing, thus obscuring their conversation. The agent recording their conversation tunes his or her radio to the same station, records it on a second track of the tape. Then, later, the sound from the extra track can be used to erase the sound, which is essentially noise, from the principal track, thus enabling a clearer hearing of the conversation.

In a careful study of the tapes in this case, Berrios discovered that for every single conversation, the FBI had their radio or television turned in to exactly the same station as the subjects under investigation. Had they been just doing spot checks and recording only when the conversation was about a suspected illegal act, there certainly would have been much tape in which the agents were searching for the appropriate radio or TV station

In fact in every case, from the beginning of the conversation, the stations of the subjects and the agent were exactly the same. What appears to have happened is that the FBI simply recorded everything that happened in the house or car under investigation, then spliced taped conversations together afterwards to create whatever image they wanted.

Currently the trial of the remaining nine depends on the government’s appeal of the judge’s ruling making many of the tapes inadmissible. According to several knowledgeable sources, without those tapes the government has no case.

Political Sovereignty

A second point not often emphasized sufficiently is the entire enterprise of wiretapping in Puerto Rico. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s international pressure for decolonization reached a politically unacceptable level for the United States. This pressure culminated in 1953 with the passage of Resolution 748 (VIII) in the United Nations.

This resolution, which was supported by the United States and the governor of Puerto Rico, Munoz Marin, stated that “in the framework of its Constitution and of the compact agreed upon with the United States of America the people of Puerto Rico have been invested with attributes of political sovereignty, which clearly identify the status of self-government attained by the Puerto Rican people as a status of an autonomous political entity.”

The constitution referred to was the constitution of the State of Puerto Rico, the purported legalization of Puerto Rican authority over its own affairs. The U.S. government solemnly agreed to respect the newly approved constitution as implied payment for world acceptance that Puerto Rico’s colonial status had indeed ended. Whenever the question of political status comes up, U.S. apologists are quick to cite resolution 748 and the existence of the Puerto Rican constitution as evidence that Puerto Rico is “not really a colony.”

The Puerto Rican constitution forbids wiretapping. 1he United States vowed to respect the Puerto Rican constitution. The bulk of the FBI’s case against the Puerto Rican 15 consists of wiretaps. Logically the U.S. government either 1) has been lying all along about its vow in 1953, or 2) has no case against the defendants, since the evidence is illegal.

Ultimately the case of the Puerto Rican 15 is a small chapter in a long story. It is the story of the Puerto Rican revolution, begun against Spain and continuing for the last ninety years. Perhaps never in the history of the United States have the coercive powers of the state been more persistent than in their continued attempts to intimidate and eliminate the Puerto Rican independence movement.

The years of repression and intimidation; the scores of assassinations, prisoners of war, political prisoners; the barrage of propaganda; and economic war have not eliminated the independence movement. Even the most optimistic conservatives would have to admit that Puerto Rico has not been pacified and the potential for political “instability” remains.

The years of institutionalizing colonial status have not worked. One of the most visible indications of that failure is the persistence of armed organizations, of which Los Macheteros is but one example, openly engaging in military and political actions against the occupying forces. Puerto Rico will surely one day be free.

*Boriquen is the Taino Indian name for Puerto Rico.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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