While our unelected president indulges his Tom Cruise fixation on the deck of an aircraft carrier, life goes on right here in “our backyard.” Cuba yet again made the annual U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring nations while the U.S. Navy pulled out of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Both events have their roots in the Spanish-American War.
One day after the 24-gun battleship USS Maine exploded in Havana Bay, killing 268 U.S. sailors, the February 16, 1898 headline on William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal blared: THE WARSHIP MAINE WAS SPLIT IN TWO BY AN ENEMY’S SECRET INFERNAL MACHINE. The “enemy” was Spain-occupier of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. “[Hearst’s] paper accompanied the story with a half-page sketch, concocted entirely from the artist’s imagination, that purported to show the location of the mine that had ripped through the ship, and of the wires that linked it to the Maine’s engine room,” says journalist George Black.
Hearst was soon offering a $50,000 reward “for the detection of the perpetrator of the Maine outrage.” Within two months and despite Spain’s willingness to negotiate for peace, the Spanish-American War had commenced, setting in motion more than a century of repression and struggle.
Puerto Rico When early American revolutionaries chanted, “Give me liberty or give me death” and complained of having “but one life” to give for their country, they became the heroes of our history textbooks. Menachim Begin robbed British banks to fund his violent cause (which included the killing of civilians in the King David Hotel explosion) and went on to become a prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But, thanks to the power of the U.S. media and education industries, the Puerto Rican nationalists who dedicated their lives to independence are known as criminals, fanatics, and assassins.
On March 1, 1954, in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representives, Congressman Charles A. Halleck rose to discuss with his colleagues the issue of Puerto Rico. At that moment, Lolita Lebrón alongside three fellow freedom fighters, having purchased a one-way train ticket from New York (they expected to be killed) unfurled a Puerto Rican flag and shouted “Free Puerto Rico!” before firing eight shots at the roof. Her three male co-conspirators aimed their machine guns at the legislators. Andrés Figueroa’s gun jammed, but shots fired by Rafael Cancel Miranda and Irving Flores injured five congressmen. “I know that the shots I fired neither killed nor wounded anymore,” Lebrón stated afterwards, but with the attack being viewed through the sensationalizing prism of American tabloid journalism, this did not matter. She and her nationalist cohorts spent the next twenty-five years in prison.
National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a secret memo to President Jimmy Carter in 1979, said of Lebrón: “No other woman in the Hemisphere has been in prison on such charges for so long a period; a fact which Communist critics of your human rights policy are fond of pointing out.” Brzezinski’s concern was, in part, based on the potential prisoner of war status of Lebrón and her colleagues.
Why POW? International law authorizes “anti-colonial combatants” the right to armed struggle to throw off the yoke of imperialism and gain independence. UN General Assembly Resolution 33/24 of December 1978 recognizes “the legitimacy of the struggle of people’s for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial domination and foreign occupation by all means available, particularly armed struggle.”
Since July 25, 1898, when the United States illegally invaded its tropical neighbor under the auspices of the Spanish-American War, the island has been maintained as a colony. In other words, the planet’s oldest colony is being held by its oldest representative democracy…with U.S. citizenship imposed without the consent or approval of the indigenous population in 1917. It is from this geopolitical paradox that the Puerto Rican independence movement-and its progeny in Vieques-sprang forth. There are 9,300 residents of Vieques, a tiny island off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. For nearly sixty years, Vieques had been used as a heavy weapons target range for the U.S. Navy. In addition, as journalist Juan Gonzalez points out, “the U.S. government is not content to simply use Vieques for its on military. It has the audacity to rent out the island to the armed forces of Latin America and Europe.” This arrangement earned Washington a cool $80 million in 1998 alone. This arrangement has also devastated the local fishing industry, eliminated Vieques as a tourist destination (despite its white sands, coral reef, palm trees, and clear warm waters), and led to socio-economic disaster. Some 50 percent of the residents are unemployed and 72 percent live in poverty. The fact that Vieques registers a 73 percent higher incidence of cancer than Puerto Rico as a whole has environmentalists and health experts wondering about the effects of so much bombingSespecially the use of depleted uranium (DU), which is considered by many to be a factor in the Gulf War Syndrome.
“Depleted uranium burns on contact,” says Helen Caldicott, “creating tiny aerosolized particles less than fice microns in diameter, small enough to be inhaled.” These minute particles can travel “long distances when airborne,” Caldicott explains. The Vieques situation reached international prominence when, on April 19, 1999, two F-18 fighter jets getting in some last-minute target practice before heading off to the Balkans dropped two 500-pounds bombs on an observation post and killed David Sanes Rodriguez, a 35-year-old civilian worker. The incident sparked demonstrations and an activist occupation of Navy land in Vieques. One of those activists was none other than Lolita Lebrón.
Four years later, Vieques is free of naval terror…but not free of U.S. occupation. Cuba, on the other hand, had the audacity to shake off U.S. occupation in 1959.
Cuba At the time of the USS Maine explosion, Cuban and Filipino rebels were already fighting Spain for independence in their respective lands. The Maine was in Havana Harbor in 1898 on a purportedly friendly mission. “Yet,” writes author Tom Miller, “the visit was neither spontaneous nor altruistic; the United States had been eyeing Cuba for almost a century.” “At a certain point in that spring, McKinley and the business community began to see that their object, to get Spain out of Cuba, could not be accomplished without war,” Howard Zinn adds, “and that their accompanying object, the securing of American military and economic influence in Cuba, could not be left to the Cuban rebels, but could be ensured only by U.S. intervention.” American newspapers, especially those run by Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, jumped on the Maine explosion as the ideal justification to drum up public support for a war of imperialism. “Tabloid headlines depicting Spanish atrocities against Cubans became commonplace, and the influential papers of both men were outdoing each other in the sensationalized screaming for war,” says historian Kenneth C. Davis. When Hearst sent artist Frederick Remington to Cuba to supply pictures, he reported that he could not find a war. “You furnish the pictures,” Heart replied, “and I’ll furnish the war.” Spain was easily defeated, the legend of Teddy Roosevelt was manufactured whole, and the Cubans found themselves exchanging one colonial ruler for another. In the Philippines, where U.S. soldiers were ordered to “Burn all and kill all,” Six hundred thousand Filipinos were eventually wiped out…all to the war cry of “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” Today’s perception of Cuba has little to do with the fabricated heroics of one of the faces carved on Mount Rushmore (TR said: 3Democracy has justified itself by keeping for the white race the best portions of the earth’s surface.2) Since 1959, it’s all about Fidel Castro. The Cuban Revolution, the ensuing U.S. blockade, and seminal events like the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis have all been documented-in varying degrees of veracity-elsewhere. We know much less about the lower intensity U.S. assaults on Cuba. The Cuba Project, a.k.a. “Operation Mongoose,” was initiated by the Kennedy administration in January 1962 with the stated U.S. objective of helping the “Cubans overthrow the Communist regime from within Cuba and institute a new government with which the United States can live in peace.” “What has happened is a level of international terrorism that as far as I know has no counterpart, apart from direct aggression,” says Noam Chomsky. “It’s included attacking civilian installations, bombing hotels, sinking fishing vessels, destroying petrochemical installations, poisoning crops and livestock, on quite a significant scale, assassination attempts, actual murders, bombing airplanes, bombing of Cuban missions abroad, etc. It’s a massive terrorist attack.” The U.S. aggression toward Cuba since 1959 denied the world a chance to witness what that revolution may have become. “The world will never know what kind of society Cuba could have produced if left alone,” says William Blum.
But, in reality, Cuba has never stood a chance. As far back as the American Revolution, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams announced that U.S. control of Cuba was “of transcendent importance.” “The need to possess Cuba is the oldest issue in U.S. foreign policy,” Chomsky concludes.
Postscript The event that set all this into motion, the alleged bombing of the Maine, was investigated by Admiral Hyman Rickover of the U.S. Navy in 1976. Rickover and his team of experts concluded that the explosion was probably caused by “spontaneous combustion inside the ship’s coal bins,” a problem common to ships of that era.
MICKEY Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet and an editor at Wide Angle. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.