Segment from After Hurricane Maria

No More Annexation: Assassination!

Producer Nina Earnest recounts the extremes to which Puerto Rican national Pedro Albizu Campos and his followers fought for independence.


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Ed Ayers: In the late 1940s, Puerto Rico was at a crossroads. For almost 50 years, it had been a colony of the United States, but with colonial subjects in Asia and Africa throwing off their European rulers, many Puerto Ricans were looking forward to a new status for their island as well. Some wanted statehood, others more autonomy. Some demanded outright independence.

Brian Balogh: Throughout the 1930s, the radical wing of the Independence faction, known as the Nationalist Party, violently clashed with the colonial regime in Puerto Rico. In 1936, that party’s leader, a man named Pedro Albizu Campos was imprisoned by American authorities for sedition. Our next story picks up 10 years later when Albizu Campos was released, and his followers saw one last chance to shape Puerto Rico’s future through a devastating act of political violence. Here is producer Nina Earnest with that story.

Nina Earnest: When Pedro Albizu Campos was released from prison in 1947, he picked up right where he had left off, giving fiery speeches in support of independence.

Pedro A. Campos: [foreign language 00:33:57].

Nina Earnest: Puerto Rico had changed in his 10-year absence. When he first rose to prominence in the ’20s and ’30s, support for independence was at an all-time high. Now many political leaders were turning toward a new model, one that meant more autonomy for Puerto Rico with continued oversight by the United States. It was a path favored by a savvy politician named Luis Munoz Marin, who recognized that Puerto Rico’s contributions to the Allied war effort had given it leverage to negotiating more favorable status with the U.S. He was at that very moment on the verge of becoming the island’s first democratically elected governor. In the summer of 1950, the U.S. Congress did pass a law allowing Puerto Ricans to vote on a new constitution, one that would eventually cement the new commonwealth status.

Harry F.-R.: There’s no way Puerto Rico [inaudible 00:34:54] ratifying the constitution that is going to be presented to Congress.

Nina Earnest: This is Harry Franqui-Rivera, a historian at Hunter College New York. He says Albizu Campos regarded the constitution as another form of colonialism, but also realized that the political winds had turned against him.

Harry F.-R.: He realized that he wasn’t a relevant figure anymore politically, so he had to, if he wanted to determine the future of Puerto Rico, which is something that he wanted, he wanted to determine the future of Puerto Rico, he had to do something drastic.

Nina Earnest: His desperation was fueled by a repressive gag law that had gone into effect months after he had returned from prison. Many scholars believe it was created to keep the nationalists in line. It prohibited writing, discussing, even singing about an independent Puerto Rico or from displaying a Puerto Rican flag. Albizu Campos decided that the only way to win Puerto Rico’s independence was to fight for it. He and the nationalists planned to revolt. Nelson Denis is the author of a forthcoming book about this rebellion.

Nelson Denis: What they planned to do was to have an island-wide set of actions where they assaulted the police precincts, to hopefully get some weapons, which they didn’t have many of, and then they would retreat to the central town of Utuado, which was nestled in a ring of mountains pretty much in the center of Puerto Rico. They were hoping to hold out for about two weeks.

Nina Earnest: Now the hope here wasn’t to win a military victory. The nationalists were a small force and they knew it.

Nelson Denis: It’s important to emphasize that Albizu Campos and the nationalists knew that militarily it was ridiculous to attempt to confront the United States, the most powerful country in the world. What they needed to do, and they needed to do it with some urgency, was to get world attention, and specifically the UN Decolonization Committee to focus on what they considered the colonial situation in Puerto Rico.

Nina Earnest: In this era of decolonization, the newly formed United Nations had a special committee to help that process along. The nationalists wanted their help. On October 30th, 1950, nationalists assaulted police precincts in seven towns. They stormed Governor Munoz Marin’s mansions, La Fortaleza, in San Juan. In one town, Jayuya, nationalists even managed to lift the Puerto Rican flag in defiance of the gag law and declared for the free republic of Puerto Rico. The countermeasures were swift. President Harry Truman declared martial law. Munoz Marin called in the U.S.-trained Puerto Rican National Guard. Most striking of all, those National Guardsmen bombed the towns of Jayuya and Utuado. It was the only time, says Nelson Denis, that the U.S. military carried out a bombing campaign against its own citizens.

Nelson Denis: That’s how the United States dealt with it very quickly, 5,000 National Guardsmen, bombing of two towns, and a clampdown on any media attention to it. President Truman tried to dismiss everything, the revolution that happened in 1950, as quote unquote, an incident between Puerto Ricans, but that didn’t seem all that credible when two of those Puerto Ricans showed up in Blair House and tried to assassinate him.

Male: Outside Blair House, the President’s temporary Washington home, extreme fanatics of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party try to force their way in, guns blazing, to assassinate the President of the United States. When the three-minute shooting is over, assassin Griselio Torresola lies dead on the Blair House lawn, and White House policeman Leslie Coffelt is dying a few feet away.

Nina Earnest: The assassination attempt took place on November 1st. By the following day, Puerto Rican forces had the revolt under control. In the end, 28 people had been killed, most of them Nationalists. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Puerto Ricans were arrested, including Pedro Albizu Campos. Once again, the revolutionary went back to prison. He would spend yet another decade of his life there. A few months after the revolt, 76% of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of drafting a new constitution that would grant them some autonomy under the commonwealth status. Since Puerto Rico was soon to be ostensibly in Puerto Rican hands, the United Nations would no longer consider the island a colony that demanded its attention.

Nelson Denis: At that point it was like game, set match. It’s like, “Hey, the game’s over. Everybody take your bottles and go home. There’s nothing more to say.”

Nina Earnest: Despite his failure in 1950, Pedro Albizu Campos has not been forgotten. To the contrary, he is still widely revered. Nelson Denis is among many, especially in the Puerto Rican diaspora, who admire him for standing up to the U.S. when the odds were stacked against him.

Nelson Denis: Even though he didn’t win that military battle, he won, in my view, the moral victory, the moral battle of showing the world what is right and what should be.

Nina Earnest: Harry Franqui-Rivera is less laudatory. He sees Albizu Campos as something of a conservative, cultish figure whose followers had a nostalgic vision of a Puerto Rican nation that hearkened back to a time before U.S. rule.

Harry F.-R.: They were completely defeated and discredited philosophically. Munoz Marin is offering a peaceful path towards modernity, to create a new Puerto Rico, a new Puerto Rican. What the Nationalists are offering is going back in the past.

Nina Earnest: As for the legacy of the 1950 revolt, Franqui-Rivera says the territorial government’s swift response to it showed Congress that Puerto Ricans could govern themselves, and it demonstrated to Puerto Rican voters that Munoz Marin was an effective leader. Perhaps Albizu Campos did help shape the future of Puerto Rico, just not in the way he would have liked.

Brian Balogh: Producer Nina Earnest. Helping her tell that story was Harry Franqui-Rivera from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, and Nelson Denis. He’s the author of War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.