War Against All Puerto Ricans: A Review

“Empires are devils disguised as guardian angels. The American flag is a skull and crossbones over two bunches of bananas. Democracy is a lady who presents herself with a machine gun between her legs, tear gas at her breast and her hat adorned with pistols and .45 revolvers.” — Don Pedro Albuzu Campos

Nelson A. Denis is a Cuban-Borinquen author whose War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony I just finished. It was recommended to me by several Boricua comrades and I thank them greatly for it. Denis writes not as a detached academic or bloodthirsty fetishist of dead brown people in the service of some millenarian goal, but as a son of the Island who sincerely loves his people and desires their liberation and independence. He does not pose as an objective authority nor does he use the fact that he is Puerto Rican to push a counter-revolutionary political line in service of imperialism. He is a revolutionary partisan of his colonized, oppressed, exploited nation and people’s writer who writes so that his people’s story may be told.

In light of the criminal abuse visited upon the Puerto Rican people and their national territory in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, study of this piece is even more necessary. We can never forget the fascist Trump visiting the island, throwing paper towels into a crowd, relief supplies left to rot on airstrips, and the fact that it was not the United States government, but the Puerto Rican people themselves who have been relentlessly working to restore electricity, water, and other necessities to their people. The US Government has done nothing to the benefit of the people of the Island since it took control from the rotten Spanish Empire along with the Philippines and Cuba after the Spanish-American War. Students were denied the right to speak Spanish in schools, and displays of pride in their heritage were forbidden. English was forced down the throats of the people of the island and even teachers were punished for speaking Spanish to Spanish-speaking students. Puerto Rico is an island purposefully impoverished and maintained in that poverty through the intentional designs of the United States government. The name of the island in Spanish means “rich port”. The soil of the island allowed for a myriad of crops to be grown, both food and cash. Tobacco, bananas, coffee, sugar, and more. The Americans turned Puerto Rico from a multi-crop economy into a sugar colony — taking advantage of natural disasters to force the jíbaro peasants to give up their land to Yankee banks and forcibly put thousands of acres under sugar. The series of crooked colonial governors dispatched to the Island by successive US presidential administrations, the most notorious of which was Charles H. Allen of Domino Sugar fame, turned the island into their own personal playgrounds, doling out favors and looting the wealth of the Puerto Rican people to their personal cliques of friends from the East Coast and Midwest while thousands starved in the streets of Jayuya and San Juan. The first elected Native governor of the Island was an opium addict named Luís Marin who supported Nationalist aspirations until the FBI blackmailed him with his drug addiction which he had picked up while he was a bohemian wandering through the streets of Greenwich Village and frittering away his deceased yet adored father’s estate and legacy.

What did the Yankees bring to the people of Puerto Rico, concretely and at the most grassroots level? Did they improve the healthcare apparatus? To the contrary. Puerto Rico was seen as a destination for disgraced yet money hungry doctors from El Norte who, in the case of the infamous “Dr.” Cornelius Rhoads, took pride in dosing Puerto Ricans with deadly doses of radiation for the purpose of killing them. Remember, this was the opening of the age of eugenics (we still live in that age, by the way). The Nazis took notes from the United States for their own eugenics programs. Denis writes: “Every year, more than 1,000 women walked into the Hospital Municipal de Barceloneta carrying a little suitcase containing a bathrobe, underclothes, slippers, a rosary, and sometimes a Bible. Each woman would talk to a doctor, fill out a few forms, and be assigned to a bed. Two days later, she’d walk out with her tiny newborn, the joy of her life. She didn’t know, however, that her tubes had been cut and that she would never have another baby. For decades, the doctors in Barceloneta sterilized Puerto Rican women without their knowledge and consent.” — p. 33.

Let’s review the definition of genocide as laid out by the Convention established by the United Nations (an imperialist entity, I know, but bear with me) to “prevent” that very thing.

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group; Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

So, undoubtedly, what the United States did to Puerto Rican women constitutes genocide in the strictest sense of the word, laid out by their own ideological water carriers at the United Nations. It also subjected Puerto Rican political prisoners to unethical medical experiments most of which legally constitute torture. For example, Denis describes how Nationalist political prisoners who were arrested in the aftermath of the failed uprising were subjected to radiation experiments which ultimately lead to several deaths. I couldn’t help but recall how Black occupied public housing projects in my own city of Saint Louis were chosen to situate blowers which sprayed dangerous chemicals into the air and caused many to die from cancer decades later. The imperialists have no qualms, ethical or moral or otherwise, about using their subjects as guinea pigs. After all, it’s not like we’re real people.

Enter the Nationalist Party. D. Pedro Albizu Campos was the figure most associated with the Party in the mind of both his own people and the US government, which maintained a massive surveillance file (carpeta) on him. Every Puerto Rican who was active in anti-imperialist political life, Nationalist or otherwise, had a carpeta. Denis painstakingly describes how the FBI, Insular Police, and US Army effectively turned the island into a police state. Anything you said could be overheard by an informer, put into an FBI carpeta, and subject you to arrest at any time. Campos was an orphan who struggled his way to Harvard College and Harvard Law. He used his law degree not to become a neo-colonial hack, but to return to his island and serve his people. He took very little to no pay for his work and eventually saw his law license suspended as political punishment. He ended up in prison in Atlanta, was released, and went right back to his island. The FBI followed him. The Nationalists were uncompromising on one thing — Puerto Rico should be entirely and wholly free from all forms of Yankee subversion and aggression. The United States had no place in Puerto Rico, so said the Nationalists. For this common sense argument and political stance, this party was hounded, its members were arrested en masse, and incidents like the 1937 Ponce Massacre show how an empire will deal with those who “fly the coop”. Ponce saw the outright slaughter of unarmed people for the crime of attending a march on Palm Sunday. Women with palm fronds in their hands were beaten until their brains ran down the pavements. Unarmed Cadets of the Republic were slaughtered. This incident marked the elevation of the struggle to a new stage and undoubtedly set the tone for the 1950 uprising — although the very presence of US forces on the Island is ultimately to blame.

The 1950 uprising was directly triggered by the detention of the personal barber of Albizu Campos — Vidal Santiago Díaz. He was tortured with waterboarding and electric shock at Ramey Air Force Base under the direct supervision of J. Edgar Hoover. Despite this torture, Díaz never confessed the location of the weapons that the Nationalists had been stockpiling for their planned initiation of armed struggle. Diaz did learn, however, that a top Party member was a snitch who was responsible for the seizures of Nationalists and their arms caches. Immediately upon being released, Diaz shouted this information to the first Cadet of the Republic that he saw and this information was immediately conveyed to Party leadership. The brother of the snitch was made to carry out a virtual suicide mission — attacking the La Fortaleza governor’s mansion and attempting to assassinate the junkie governor, Marin. Naturally, this mission was a failure and none of the team made it past the courtyard. However, it’s still a beautiful story. The uprisings at Jayuya, Utuado, Arecibo, Mayaguez, Ponce, Naranjito, and San Juan were all suppressed — Maoists know that armed struggle without the formation of base areas and mass support has failed before even beginning. What the Nationalist Party attempted was a form of proto-focoísmo divorced from the masses. The sad thing is that the Nationalists had proto base areas — jíbaros in the interior supported them heartily and firmly and these could have been easily conveyed into Maoist style bases of support — however we should be generous considering that hindsight is always 20/20 and a non-Communist Party that is being hounded by several alphabet agencies isn’t necessarily in the best position to understand the intricacies of Maoist military thought. However, it’s a good lesson for those of us today who would investigate and engage with prior attempts at struggle in this fashion against Empire.

My opinion is that Denis’s best trait as an author is his uncanny ability to delve deep into the lives of the people he studies as only an individual that really, truly gives a fuck about his people and knows them can do. Far from being a detached and dry academic exercise, War Against All Puerto Ricans drops you right into Ponce on March 21, 1937, or San Juan in 1950, or La Princesa. You can feel the radiation rotting Albizu Campos from the inside. You are in Salón Boricua with Vidal as he sings his Christmas aguinaldo about his marble handled pistol while shooting US soldiers in the streets, broadcast live on radio across the Island. You are wandering the streets of Greenwich Village or hanging out in Charlie Yee’s opium den with Luis Marin, the man who would carry the dragon chasing habit with him into the most powerful position on Puerto Rico. This is a trait that more left authors need to study, learn and develop. We need to develop and promote emotional connections with our subjects and put our pens to use for the people in this tradition — there is no such thing as an impartial author or journalist. Denis’s book is a perfect example of how revolutionary minded authors can develop and shape the minds of their readers in a correct direction through clever use of humor, partisanship, and delving deep into the contradictions of the individuals, organizations and processes that we study and teach on. Read this book.