A Movement’s Loss

Against the Current, No. 121, March/April 2006

K.R. Avilés-Vázquez

PUERTO RICO IS neither a state of the union, nor an independent nation-state. Its residents are U.S. citizens, go to war, have one representative in Congress who cannot vote or even present a motion, pay no taxes and do not vote for president, have no influence or say in federal law, yet are held to all federal standards. Thanks to this legal limbo, for years the island and its people have been used as testing ground for chemicals (e.g. the pill), war agents (e.g. Agent Orange), and even Monsanto is reaping profits now from transgenic crops (Puerto Rico has the highest proportion of Genetic Modification experiments per land area in the world).

For a decreasing majority, the current Puerto Rican status is satisfactory. For others, it is a step towards a future statehood. For the rest, like the independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, it is an unacceptable purgatory. His understanding of the Puerto Rican status and political history led him to a lifetime of fighting, organizing and critical analysis.

The History

Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was born in Naguabo, Puerto Rico on the 26th of April, 1933. He was a very bright young man and musician who moved to Cuba with his family in 1961. A year later, after being recruited by the General Intelligence Directorate of Cuba, he returned to Puerto Rico and in 1967 founded MIRA (Armed Revolutionary Independence Movement). MIRA was disbanded and he left for New York where he founded FALN (Armed Front of National Liberation) in the 1970s. In 1976 FALN was renamed with the acronym we now all recognize, Ejército Popular Boricua (EPB, Boricua Popular Army) also known as “Los Macheteros.”

Like so many other revolutionary movements throughout history, “Los Macheteros” used the tools common to the workers of the country. The machete symbolized the sugarcane cutting period of “la zafra,” drawing on the power of the workers’ struggle. They lived up to their name by creating a history of fighting against the empire. They made a critical analysis of the Puerto Rican situation and decided that given the juncture at that historical moment, violence was a valid option; all other paths to freedom were blocked.

Though not all of the acts by Los Macheteros were violent, all their violent acts were organized and in direct response to murder and violence by the Federal government in direct violation or abuse of our sovereign rights. There were various bombings targeting U.S. structures of power in the colony (e.g. Base Muñiz), but their better known feat was the 1983 robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in West Harford Connecticut where they appropriated $7.2 million to fund the Puerto Rican independence movement.

When brought to trial in 1985 Filiberto Ojeda Ríos was released on bail and under electronic surveillance, but after some time he removed the electronic monitoring device, escaped and went underground. At this time the Macheteros had made the conscious and difficult decision between jail and clandestine living, which robbed the Puerto Rican movement of great minds and human capital for about 15 years.

From underground, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos would generally communicate with the Puerto Rican people on the day of “El Grito de Lares,” a celebration on the 23 of September for the past 100 years where all kinds of left or independence leaning Puerto Ricans, independent of organizational affiliation, commemorate the insurrection of 1868. The 1868 cry of Lares created the Republic of Puerto Rico, and though it was trumped after less than 23 hours, it helped inspire “El Grito de Yara” that started the Cuban independence movement three weeks later.

It should come as no surprise that the FBI should pick such a date to end the life of 72 year old Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, and send a clear message of direct action against those that dare take up arms against the empire.

The Death and the Reaction

In Lares, hundreds of Puerto Ricans were listening to Filiberto’s message calling for unity among all independence leaning people. Meanwhile, in the town of Hormigueros his house had been staked out by the FBI around noon, and around 3 pm Ojeda Ríos and his wife received a call warning of FBI movement in the area. No one, not even the people who lived in the area of the Barrio Plan Bonito, many of whom had to look for alternative shelter, were allowed to enter the perimeter.

Vastly outnumbered, Ojeda Rios offered to voluntarily surrender as long as a journalist was allowed to witness the arrest, a request denied by the FBI. Not even the colonial government’s federal prosecutors knew what was going on or were allowed to see the scene until 24 hours later, in spite of the presence of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos’ lawyer and press representatives in the vicinity who were there to assure his rights.

Thousands of people mobilized and marched demanding news on his condition the night of the 23rd as soon as the news hit that he had been surrounded and shot.  No news was given until 6pm on the 24th when the FBI addressed the island and his murder was announced, 27 hours after the operation started. To add insult to injury, the people of Puerto Rico were informed on the 25th that, though exact time of death cannot be determined, his death was not immediate; he could have lived had he received immediate medical assistance, instead he was left to bleed to death for hours.

After Filiberto Ojeda Ríos’ death was announced, thousands of Puerto Ricans on the island and its diasporas took to the streets to ask for justice. Classes at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus were cancelled. All over the island signs and graffiti, art murals and other forms of free expression began, and continue, to appear with messages such as “Filiberto vive” and “FBI asesinos.”

Some acts of violence erupted uncoordinated, but many, including one of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos’ sons, called for revolutionary sanity at this moment. “This needs to be turned into a process of organization, reflection, and preparation for when it may really be needed to use organized violence.”

Highlighting Filiberto Ojeda Ríos’ death in its abuse of power against the colony was the purposeful exclusion of Puerto Rican authorities. The Puerto Rican government, in unified opinion with all political parties, agreed that the attack was highly irregular, an abuse of federal power, and questioned why they were kept in the dark throughout the process by the feds, requesting an investigation.

Amnesty International has also requested an independent investigation about the death, stating that any investigation by the Justice Department would not be objective.
Ultimately, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos’ death added to the ever-expanding evidence of the island’s current powerless situation as a colony, and the reach of the US empire. By eliminating him, the FBI dealt a heavy blow to the cause of Puerto Rican freedom. Our loss of a great thinker, strategist and activist does not strengthen the movement the way that the death of David Sanez unified Puerto Ricans to rally in demand of the cessation of bombings in Vieques. With the murder of Filiberto, Puerto Rico lost a freedom fighter and the world lost yet another warrior in the fight for equality.

All information in this article is taken from articles in Wikipedia, BBCMundo, The Economist, Indymedia Puerto Rico, Pensamiento Critico, El Nuevo Día, and conversations with Tito Farinacci.

ATC 121, March-April 2006