The island called Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. This fact means that the rights US citizens assume to be theirs do not necessarily apply to Puerto Ricans living on the island. The history of Puerto Rico since the United States military invaded it in 1898 makes this very clear. Whether one is taking a look at the economic relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, the political relationship, or the military relationship, the blatant nature of the colonial relationship is foremost.
This becomes very clear in Nelson A. Denis’ 2015 history War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. Partially a biography of the Nationalist leader and hero Pedro Albizu Campos and partially a history of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement in the early and mid-twentieth century, this text tells a story more people in the United States should know. The racism and just plain disregard for human lives described in Denis’ narrative is a match for the very worst of humanity’s inhumanity to other humans. The fact that it continues in Washington’s current dealings with Puerto Rico is testament to the arrogance intrinsic to colonialism, no matter how it is dressed up.
In short, Puerto Rico is owned by Wall Street. Any investment or other input of money into the island’s economy via investment in industry, agriculture or services is removed at a greater rate than it was put in. No matter what form this colonial approach takes and no matter what it is called, the fact is that the history of the people of Puerto Rico is one where their poverty only increases along with the debt. Because it is a colony and not a full-fledged independent nation (or a state), Washington controls much of Puerto Rico’s political system. This has meant that the islands are not only home to large military bases, one island was used for bombing practice for decades. This has also meant that the minimum wage in Puerto Rico is not subject to the same restrictions. So, if the dominant industries want lower wages to make a profit, the wages have been dropped. Indeed, this possibility is part of Washington’s current efforts to get Puerto Rico to repay the banks that own Congress and have bled the Puerto Rican nation over the past years via an economic development program set up for US industry and banking.
War Against All Puerto Ricans is a fascinating story of a movement and a man whose history has been intentionally left out of most history books. Instead of the truths told in these pages, what most US residents, including many of Puerto Rican ancestry, know about Puerto Rico is that it is an island with beautiful beaches and sugar cane. They do not know that it was invaded by US troops in 1898 toward the end of the Spanish-American War and has been occupied ever since. Nor do they know that its history since that invasion is one where most Puerto Ricans live at the mercy of corporate America, exist in poverty, and seen those country men and women who fight back killed by the US military and police forces acting in coordination with that military. They have not heard of the independentistas and the nationalists, nor do they know that many of those independence fighters have been in US prisons for decades.
Denis opens his book with a brief introduction to his family and his interest in Puerto Rico. From there the story moves quickly through a bit of Puerto Rican history, a description of the prison known as La Princesa—a prison condemned by the United Nations—where hundreds of nationalists were held after the insurrection he details at the end of the text. The book’s tone is truly set in the chapter describing what is known as the Ponce Massacre. This murderous episode in Puerto Rican history took place on Palm Sunday 1937. Families had gathered in the town square for a celebration of the holiday and the independence movement. Police and military surrounded the crowd and fired their pistols, shotguns and machine guns. Thirteen minutes later, nineteen people lay dead and dozens more were wounded. The police lied to the press and said they had been fired upon first. Honest journalists decried the cover up and tried to get the news out to the world. The police cover up failed, but the world did not pay much attention.
Denis’ utilizes a unique device to fill the middle part of his text. He introduces four men he considers crucial to the story he wishes to tell. The first is a man who would be a poet, an opium addict, a Nationalist and then a pawn of the FBI and US banks. Then there is the OSS agent, a filmmaker, the nationalist hero Pedro Albizu Campos and a barber who was so much more than just a barber. By providing biographies of these men, the author tells the history he set out to tell. It is a fascinating and engaging tale.
Denis writes these sentences towards the end of his book: “The story of Albizu Campos is the story of Puerto Rico. It is also the story of empire.” Reading this book reminded this writer of all the lies told daily about Washington’s overseas adventures today. It also makes clear that this is nothing new. War Against all Puerto Ricans is well-researched, quite readable, and essential to any reader interested in Puerto Rico, US history or the nature of colonialism. It is not a pretty tale, but it is one that must be told.