Edmundo Fernandez, the late patriarch of the family that produces Ron del Barrilito in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, told a story of having been a student at the exclusive Blair Academy boarding school in New Jersey during the Spring of 1917, when the Congress of the United States overrode the wishes of Puerto Rico’s local legislature and imposed U.S. citizenship on the island’s residents.
Fernandez said he happened to be in the presence of his history teacher when the news broke and asked him what it all meant. The teacher, he said, told him it meant that for as long as that law remained in effect, the United States would always be looking over its shoulder in fear of what Puerto Ricans might do to retaliate.
A lot of atrocities have occurred since then that would take too long to repeat here. Most recently the Congress of the United States installed a fascist junta disguised as a financial control board to privatize Puerto Rico’s entire infrastructure, including its beaches, healthcare system, schools and the University of Puerto Rico.
Privatization is seemingly taking place to pay off $70 billion that the island’s government allegedly borrowed — largely from vulture hedge funds who refuse to submit the alleged debt to an audit or any kind of scrutiny — to stay solvent while the United States continues sucking the capital and resources out of it and leaving next to nothing in return.
The junta has also demanded that the puppet government of Puerto Rico cut pensions, displace thousands of residents in public housing so that their dwellings could be sold to private interests, fire employees and reduce the minimum wage to $4.25 an hour to anyone under the age of 25, which will surely drive most of Puerto Rico’s next generation, including some of the smartest people in the world, off the island. The regime has even gotten the government to criminalize all forms of public protest in response to the privatization move.
On June 11 of this year, two significant events took place that could not more precisely underscore what Fernandez’s history teacher foresaw 100 years ago.
In the first event, the struggling islanders were maliciously asked to vote in a plebiscite, staged by Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party. The ballot question asked them whether they preferred statehood, two separate forms of sovereignty, or, strangely enough, the current authoritarian status that is choking them to death.
June 11 was also the day that the National Puerto Rican Day Parade rolled up New York City’s Fifth Avenue with a pro-independence revolutionary, who was part of the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional), a clandestine para-military organization that took credit for a series of anti-colonial bombings in New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, during the early 1970s.
Oscar Lopez Rivera, who was raised on a farm in San Sebastian until the age of 14, when his family was forced to pursue a better life in Chicago, spent nearly 36 years in prison for seditious conspiracy, a crime that, based on the number of people who have ever been charged with it, appears to have been invented almost exclusively for Puerto Ricans.
President Barack Obama commuted Lopez Rivera’s sentence in January in response to a worldwide campaign that included appeals from Sen. Bernie Sanders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President Jimmy Carter and dozens of municipalities across the country, including Hartford, CT, the city with he highest concentration of Puerto Rican residents.
By the hundreds of thousands, many more Puerto Ricans paid tribute to Oscar Lopez Rivera at the parade than voted in the plebiscite. An estimated 78 percent of the island’s electorate chose not to vote in protest. Nearly everyone who did vote was an active member of the political party manufactured by the plebiscite.
After the parade, Lopez Rivera, a smart 74-year-old man who is equally fluent in English and Spanish, embarked on a thank-you tour to the U.S. cities and towns hat passed resolutions demanding his release from prison. He has been received as a hero by thousands of cheering Puerto Ricans at every single stop, particularly among educated young people, who seem to become more boldly Puerto Rican the more they learn about the island’s debt crisis. After each event, hundreds of them — many with their school-age children — line up to pose for photos with him, photos that will hang on living room walls and be handed down for generations as family heirlooms.
Hartford’s turn came on June 20, when Lopez Rivera addressed a crowd of about 450 cheering supporters at a forum hosted by Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez of the Working Families Party, who also drafted and proposed the city’s Oscar resolution. The forum was held at the Real Artways museum on Arbor Street.
Among the things that Lopez Rivera discussed was his firm belief the Puerto Rico will eventually be a sovereign independent nation. The struggle to get there will require that Puerto Ricans remain evermore faithful to their advanced culture and learn to stop thinking like colonized people, who have been so conditioned to believe they are incapable of exercising control over their destiny that they unconsciously try to live up to that lie in everything else they do in life.
“It has been easier for me to carry on the external struggle, but harder for me to decolonize my mindset,“ Lopez Rivera said. “At times when I thought I had transcended something that is part of the vestiges of colonialism, they pop up . . . We can decolonize our minds. We can see beyond the now. We can see beyond the ‘I’ to the we. And we can feel very secure that we can do what we need to do.“
As for the culture part, Lopez Rivera said: “Most Puerto Ricans love Puerto Rico. They love the Puerto Rican identity. They love the culture, the language, Salsa. We’re a very happy people. And that love alone is the common denominator that we need to decolonize Puerto Rico. If we engage in seeing what we want Puerto Rico to be as an act of love, we can decolonize Puerto Rico. If we love Puerto Rico, it behooves each individual Puerto Rican, no matter where they’re at, to fight and struggle for Puerto Rican independence. I’m certain there are enough Puerto Ricans to do it.“
He’s right. How could anyone not love being Puerto Rican?
Americans are fond of characterizing the United States as this giant bag of M&Ms with a wonderful assortment of multi-colored nationalities swimming around inside.
But Puerto Ricans have evolved into such a balanced blend of European, African and Taino Indian cultures and subcultures — in the way they live, speak, eat, dress, think, and in their traditions — that they share an organic attachment to all of those cultures at once, regardless of their skin color. In other words, every Puerto Rican is an M&M bag unto himself and the harmony with which those various cultures orchestrate our existence is too wonderful to give up.
That feeling is exactly what Oscar Lopez Rivera reaches for in every appearance he makes with the moral authority of one who spent 36 years in jail to protect it. After completing his tour of the United States, Lopez Rivera plans to deliver the same message to every single town and city in Puerto Rico, where thousands more are expected to cheer him on and listen intently.
“I think with the conversations in every municipality, we can develop a clear idea of where the people want to go,“ Lopez Rivera said.
He underscored his belief in Puerto Rico’s independence on June 19, when he testified before the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization, explaining to the committee members that they have every reason now to take the case for decolonizing Puerto Rico to the UN General Assembly, inasmuch as the United States Supreme Court declared last year that Puerto Rico is not a self-governing entity but a colony, ruled over by the Congress of the United States. International law and the UN define colonialism as a human rights crime. Lopez Rivera went on to say that the appointment of an unelected financial control board to transfer whole chunks of the island to private hands under the guise of collecting an inflated debt is as baldfaced as colonialism can get.
He also announced plans to establish a foundation managed by a cross-section of Puerto Rican society that would fund projects that cultivate Puerto Rican self-sufficiency and sustainability, such as the Casa Pueblo, community self management project to protect the island’s natural, cultural and human resources. The foundation would also fund community initiatives, such as the campaign to stop private interests from building a giant incinerator next to the Caño Tiburones Nature Preserve between in Arecibo and Barceloneta.
“All we need is to come together and we can do it,“ Lopez Rivera said. “Puerto Rico has never developed an internal market. The only way we can do it is by creating small projects that are not going to take capital out of Puerto Rico . . . One of the things that I’m hoping is for Puerto Ricans in the diaspora to be able to invest in Puerto Rico and let that money stay in Puerto Rico.“
To hear Oscar Lopez Rivera speak, one gets the impression that, like most of the independentistas, his years in prison were simply a rude interruption to the mission that he vowed to give his life for. He has very clearly set out to complete the mission by using his superstar status to harness the unity that helped to win his freedom around independence.
Judging from the standing-room-only crowds at his forums, the strategy is working. He is saying all the right uplifting things that Puerto Ricans have been thirsting to hear about themselves since Don Pedro Albizu Campos last uttered them more than a half century ago.
The crowds are so far responding very positively to his message and he’s just getting started. Imagine what the response is going to be like in a year — heck, in the next few months.