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A Matter for Our Movement

Political Murder in Puerto Rico

by FORREST HYLTON

I.

Thanks to many fine African- and Arab-American as well as gay speakers at the rally in Washington on September 24, we focused on issues of occupation in Iraq and Israel/Palestine, dispossessed people, refugees, and the right to return to occupied territories, including parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. We were reminded of the history of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines and informed that President Gloria Arroyo has made use of September 11 to criminalize protest and step up counterinsurgency efforts there, where US soldiers help man checkpoints. Amiri Baraka called on us to institutionalize a national-level anti-imperialist political formation in order to raise the movement from lowku to haiku. Meanwhile, 20 city blocks full of anti-war protestors surrounded the White House. Though it received meager press coverage, the protest showed anyone who cared to look that the anti-war movement in the U.S. has acquired broad moral authority and political legitimacy. This, it seems, arises from its ability to express feelings and address questions that matter to the majority of people in this country.

The National Rally for Families of War Veterans, in contrast, was attended by President Bush, Christopher Hitchens, and a smattering of Republican Party faithful. To explain the anti-war mobilization, conspiracy theorists charged that as a front group for the World Workers’ Party, the ANSWER coalition was in cahoots with Pyongyang, Tehran, and other axes of evil; that the occupation of Iraq was connected to avenging those who died in the attacks of September 11. Clearly, far more military families mobilized against the war than for it, and at the protest, foreign occupation was linked to domestic racism and inequality. An important minority of citizens may be inching toward radical change in structures of political feeling and consciousness across racial/ethnic, religious, and class divides.

Even if that proves not to be the case, however, we received a clear message — in the form of political assassination in Puerto Rico — about potential consequences of anti-imperialist struggle on September 23, the day on which the nationalist ‘Grito de Lares’ was proclaimed against Spain in 1868. As a speaker from San Juan reminded the few protestors not marching on the afternoon of September 24, the colonization of Puerto Rico was part of the first wave of US political-military expansion at the end of the nineteenth century. Considering the role played by Puerto Rico and Latin America more broadly in rise of the U.S. as an imperial power between 1898 and 1930, as well as the massive presence of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, and Colombians in US cities, towns, and fields, the lack of Spanish or bi-lingual English-Spanish speakers was surprising. It suggests the urgency of deepening ties to progressive forces in Spanish-speaking immigrant communities and forging solidarity with radical anti-imperialist movements in Latin America.

 

II.

Distracted by disaster at home and in Iraq, we may not have heard the Bush administration’s message; news of it was buried at the bottom of p. 16 in Sunday’s New York Times, and was briefly mentioned in the New York Daily News. This being the case in the city with the largest Puerto Rican population in the U.S., it seems safe to assume that the story did not receive serious coverage in national or local papers. What follows is intended as a modest effort to spread the word. It should be complemented by a reading of Rafael Rodriguez Cruz’s detailed description of the murder.

Basic facts are now established. After being surrounded on a farm near Hormigueros, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, was shot by an FBI sniper on September 23 and left for 20 hours to bleed to death. He was between 72 and 75 years old, and while he granted interviews and issued frequent statements to the media, he had been living clandestinely since September 23, 1990. Though he was high on the FBI’s list of most-wanted fugitives (having been condemned in absentia to 55 years), it is not clear why the FBI did not simply arrest him, as they did his Ojeda Rios’s widow, Elma Beatriz Rosado (who was released on September 24), or let him surrender to Jesús Dávila, a reporter. Unless one assumes, as I do, that the FBI wanted him dead rather than alive. That would explain why they did not let medical personnel into the area where the operation took place.

We often forget the anti-terrorist hysteria whipped up during the Reagan years, especially after Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish neo-fascist, tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981; Michael Ledeen and Claire Sterling became the sort of overnight experts on terrorism that have proliferated since 2001, insisting that a "Bulgarian connection" with Soviet communism was behind the attack. Back then, in what Noam Chomsky called the "Second Cold War," "anti-terrorism" was used mainly as a weapon in the crusade against radical nationalism in the Middle East, Central America, and Cuba. Filiberto Ojeda Ríos and those he led into the $7.2 million Wells Fargo depot robbery in West Hartford, CT, in 1983, fit snugly under Washington’s "communist terrorist" rubric.

It was one of the most successful bank robberies in history, and Ojeda Ríos had been waging armed struggle against the US since helping found the Movimiento Indepndentista Armado (MIRA) in 1967. He was arrested in the early 1970s, but escaped, and helped form the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) in New York City, renamed the Ejército Popular Boricua-Los Macheteros in 1976. Part of Che Guevara’s generation, he accepted the latter’s ideas about the place of guerrilla focos in triggering revolutionary change. Like Che, he rejected the cautious, bureaucratic reformism characteristic of communist parties in Latin America and regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. Indeed, Dylcia Pagán, a former political prisoner who served a 20-year sentence before being granted clemency by President Clinton in 1999, described Ojeda Ríos as "our Che Guevara."

As head of the EPB-Macheteros, he once directed a political-military operation that blew up nine fighter jets on Muñiz Air Force Base, and was eventually captured in a shootout with police in Connecticut in 1985. He served three years without trial before being released on bail in 1988-a year marked by the spread of the first intifada as well as anti-IMF riots in Algeria and Nigeria. He went into clandestinity just as George H.W. Bush prepared to launch the first Gulf War against the Iraqi people and the multiethnic, multinational oil proletariat in the Middle East. Thus the co-ordinates of the political world in which Ojeda had come of age had shifted in the direction of counterrevolution, and anti-imperialist nationalist — as well as communist — projects were pronounced dead. To judge by electoral participation and political mobilization in general, for a majority of Puerto Ricans, independence seemed a lost cause.

 

III.

Although the independence movement is internally divided and represents a tiny minority of Puerto Ricans, what is striking is the extent to which the execution of Ojeda Ríos has caused outrage among those who do not support independence. An editorial in New York’s largest Spanish-language daily, the center-rightwing El Diario/La Prensa, pointed out that "Ojeda’s life and death are an important part of Puerto Rican history, of the struggle of a people to preserve its dignity and of a government that says it is struggling for democracy abroad, but which continues to maintain a colonial relation with this island of 3.8 million U.S. citizens." Like Hurricane Katrina, then, the murder of Ojeda exposed the racist exclusion of people who are only formally U.S. citizens, on a day of symbolic significance to Puerto Ricans of all political stripes. Antonio Camacho — who served a fifteen-year prison term for his role in the Wells Fargo robbery — argued, "They want to humiliate the people so that we won’t celebrate on symbolic dates." Puerto Rican governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá called for an investigation, noting his "deep indignation" over the FBI’s criminal behavior, and appointed Dr. Héctor Pesquera, co-director of the Movimiento Independentista Hostosiano — which denounced a planned FBI operation to make 125 arrests of independentistas — to observe the autopsy and report on results. Julio Fontanet, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, announced the creation of a seven-person investigative commission to present findings within 90 days.

As one would expect, repercussions in New York were immediate, as Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez called on the FBI to explain its actions, and Vicente Alba, the Brigada Vieques, and the Comité Pro-Libertad organized a protest rally at 26 Federal Plaza on September 26. An assemblyman from the Bronx, José Rivera, said, "In the history of the struggle to de-colonize Puerto Rico, there have always been men and women who have said, ‘Presente.’ Filiberto Ojeda was one of themand I say to the U.S. Congress that they stop playing with the Puerto Rican people, because the status of Puerto Rico is behind all this." Puerto Rican nationalist unity — multiethnic, transnational, and cross-class — is a welcome development in brutal times marked by incidents like the assassination of Ojeda Ríos. One need not be a follower of Che Guevara, or pine for the days when armed struggle seemed, to many, the correct path to revolutionary social change, in order to see the significance of such acts for Puerto Ricans, Latin Americans, and radical anti-imperialists around the world.

The question needs to be posed: here in the Homeland, does the regime count on the silence and ignorance of our growing anti-war movement when it carries out exemplary acts of imperial savagery in Puerto Rico? In no small measure due to victories in Camp Crawford and after, the anti-war movement figures into the presidential calculus, and the killing of Ojeda Ríos represents an injury to our movement.

Before taking up armed struggle in 1967, Ojeda Ríos had been a trumpet player with the legendary Sonora Ponceña, but after going into clandestinity in 1990, he had to leave melody-making to others for fear of being captured. Now that he’s gone, let’s make our voices heard alongside the voice of his widow: "FBI out of Puerto Rico!"

FORREST HYLTON is author of An Evil Hour: Colombia in Historical Context (forthcoming from Verso), as well as co-editor of Ya es otro tiempo el presente: Cuatro momentos de insurgencia indígena, the second edition of which is forthcoming from Muela del Diablo. He can be reached at forresthylton@hotmail.com.



























CLARIFICATION

ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH

We published an article entitled "A Saudiless Arabia" by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the "Article"), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the "Website").

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005