The Statue of Liberty, to many people across the world, is supposed to be a symbol of freedom and liberty, a beacon of hope and opportunity for those who reach the shores of the United States. On October 25, 1977, however, the Statue surprisingly became embroiled in a dramatic and controversial incident which served to highlight one of the most ignored and overlooked issues in both US domestic and international political circles: colonialism and the case of Puerto Rico.
On that date a group of Puerto Rican activists came together in direct action to express their indignation over the continued incarceration of the five Nationalist freedom fighters that had been serving close to 25 years in prison for actions supporting the independence of Puerto Rico. They occupied the statue for a full day, as gunships and snipers in helicopters circled overhead. In the meantime New York and New Jersey, fearing the clandestine Puerto Rican independence group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) was responsible and was poised to blow her up, battled for jurisdiction over the incident. The compañeros unfurled a Puerto Rican flag off the crown of the Statue and a banner at the statue’s base which demanded the release of the Nationalists. President Jimmy Carter unconditionally released the Nationalists in 1979 after a strong international campaign pressured his administration for their release; they were welcomed home as heroes both in the States and in their native Puerto Rico.
As we approach the 30th anniversary of this action, we reflect on the role that the Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. have played in the historical struggle for self-determination and independence for the archipelago.
Two veteran activists based in New York City share their points of view regarding the role of the Diaspora in the struggle for national liberation and share their thoughts regarding possible ways forward toward freedom. Miguel ‘Mickey’ Melendez, a former Young Lord, and Frank Velgara of Pro-Libertad, discuss the role of the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. and in particular t New York City within the struggle for national liberation. Far from offering a complete and diverse vision of the movement in New York, this report allows the compañeros to nonetheless impart insight and strategic visions for the future.
Melendez, whose 2003 book "We Took The Streets: Fighting For Latino Rights with The Young Lords", revealed that the Lords authorized him to organize an armed clandestine wing to the organization. He revealed that when the Puerto Rican communities are organized, then the role of the Diaspora in the movement has been to raise consciousness in the United States about the case of Puerto Rico. The Diaspora can raise the issues of the working class experience in Puerto Rico vis-à-vis the working class experience in the U.S. and within communities of color. When we are able to link the issues of workers and of the labor movement, Melendez feels that important connections are made. He mentions that many former activists are coming together to assess what can be done to move things forward. "The more we go around the more we hear that young people are looking for an organizational form to make those connections and have these kinds of conversations. Right now, we don’t have this here."
Velgara, who is also a former member of El Comité-MINP (Movimiento de Izquierda Nacional Puertorriqueño / National Movement of the Puerto Rican Left), shares that "the role of the Diaspora has been defined by the organizations on the island." He explains that this role is defined by the political perspective and the visions emanating from there, starting with the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PNPR). In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the PNPR looked to and saw the Diaspora in New York City as a source for resources and a backup for what they were doing on the island. Their main actions (1950 & 1954) came after long periods of organizing and other work with sympathizers, including printing jobs in peoples’ basements and simply identifying supporters and sympathizers.
Later, during the 1960’s, el Movimiento Pro Independencia (MPI) – Pro-Independence Movement – opened a beachhead in the Diaspora and even had some of its members move here. Velgara explains, "by 1972, when the organization became the Partido Socialista Puertorriqueno (PSP) (The Puerto Rican Socialist Party), it had people identified in the US who were supporters, who were organized, who shared similar visions. They realized the importance of creating a national network of chapters."
Although they reached out to the Communist Party USA, the Party attempted to assume control of the activists and of the issues involved. But with the fiery actions of the CAL (Comandos Armados de Liberación, Armed Commandos for Liberation of Puerto Rico), guerillas gaining ground in the Latin America, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Revolution – and with all of those movements also calling for the freedom of Puerto Rico, the CPUSA could not control the Puerto Rican agenda. The PSP was eventually able to organize and count on over 30,000 members between Puerto Rico and the United States.
Melendez feels strongly that in those years, there was a lot of good work that was started, but that there was a lot of unfinished work, mostly due to COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) government intervention. The Young Lords, Black Panthers, CP USA, and dozens of the other left organizations in the United States were also subject to the criminal violations of COINTELPRO as was our movement for national liberation.
"The biggest thing this government fears is black people being organized and then you had black people being armed and that’s another layer of vigilance and threat. When organizing communities of color moved into the working class, that’s when they had to stop it – they understand the potential there." He explains that the government will go after people, organizations and their resources, and include deep level of infiltrations, to try to really isolate them.
For Melendez, who participated in the takeover of the Statue, there was a lot of trauma associated with the movement in New York City and how it was repressed. The cadre was involved in military battles with police; police would come into the community and peoples’ home, shooting them. "Most people were directly or indirectly affected by this it took people some time to figure out their footing after suffering that trauma, some people lost their footing and are lost forever, some others cut out a little sliver of political work for themselves and continued to work on that. It has taken a while but many of us are looking at all these situations and are coming back together to do this."
It is no secret that COINTELPRO is alive and well and being used across the nation and Puerto Rico. Animal rights activists are being targeted, as well as former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army members. Members of Rompiendo El Perimetro and La Nueva Escuela in Puerto Rico have been harassed and followed by the colonial agents of the FBI. When asked about what some see as a coming wave of arrests in the movement, our veteran activists have clear opinions on what our communities can do to prepare and respond. Velgara explains that arrests will come to the extent that the movement is seen as a threat to the colonial power structure.
"People are not seeing repression coming every day and there has been less activity [by the state] within the last 6 months. We need marches and confrontations – there has to be a serious anti-repression initiative and solidarity initiative put together or we will get caught with our pants down again." Velgara explains that the FBI started an investigation in Chicago five years ago but it was not widely publicized. "Whenever the feds fuck with you the alarm should go out to all"; all organizations and activists should be notified as to their activities and inquiries and we should not instead wake up one morning and find all the activists in a city arrested. He also feels that independence activists should be depending on, nurturing, and cultivating "our own people and communities to have our back" so they can respond and force politicians to respond to such attacks.
Melendez also feels that "people need to document it and fight it in the courts and fight it in the streets. This is a worldwide phenomenon – it is the military part of globalization, to eliminate this voice of independence and of sovereignty, and not just in Puerto Rico and the United States. It is a worldwide movement to control the planet." Some places are lost and some places, like Puerto Rico, are up for contention. While declaring a need for a political organization that complements a mass movement as tools needed to defend against repression, Melendez also says that "people need to understand that the more organized we are – that’s the best protection we can offer each other. Use these instances [of repression] to politicize people. They [the feds] are reacting this way because they recognize that there is a seedbed of potential there for a mass movement to grow. They want to send the message that no matter how old you are, ‘we’ll come after you’. Ours is that we need to organize and agitate and gain victories because people relate to victories, not defeat." As for the Diaspora, Melendez consistently points out that we need to connect what’s happening in Puerto Rico with what is happening in our communities in the States.
When discussing what they see as some of the victories or contributions of the Diaspora to the movement for national liberation, both Velgara and Melendez mention the liberation of our political prisoners as one key campaign whose success depended on the work done in the Diaspora. Melendez discusses direct action such as the takeover of the Statue of Liberty in 1977 and the mass mobilizations and marches of 1970 where 100,000 people marched to the United Nations calling for Puerto Rico’s freedom. Velgara mentions the full decade of work and organizing of El Frente Unido which was a united front of many organizations that worked towards the liberation of the Nationalists in 1979. The co-founder of ProLibertad also stresses the work done to build solidarity for the Puerto Rican independence movement. "One of the characteristics of the Diaspora has been that in every effort toward solidarity you will find Boricuas involved. And people don’t realize then the enormity of support that our movement received in solidarity. For example, Filiberto [Ojeda Rios] lived in the Diaspora and he worked to raise funds and support for Casa Las Americas." Ojeda Rios was the leader of Los Macheteros-Boricua Popular Army, an underground revolutionary organization dedicated to the freedom of the island. Ojeda Rios was assassinated by the FBI in 2005. Velgara discusses how Puerto Ricans organized support and receptions for delegations from Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba and how it was the Boricuas in New York and the rest of the U.S. who pulled together the Junta de Coordinacion Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Coordinating Committee) which was an umbrella group of the leftist guerrilla groups in Latin America at the time. This solidarity work greatly increased the profile of our movement and the support it received abroad.
It’s obvious to everyone that Puerto Rico’s fractured independence movement needs a shot in the arm, a shift in tactic and strategy, a shift in focus in order to move beyond the impasse which paralyzes it and into the necessary momentum to secure victory. What concerns Melendez is the inability to "form a united front that really becomes this third entity that is viable and credible and begins to develop a vision. One problem is that they’ve never really addressed the economics of an independent Puerto Rico and what it could look like – its never really addressed the citizenship issue. What’s important is to have an independent Puerto Rico on an equal footing with the United States and that the United States no longer determines our economic structures. The liberation of Puerto Rico is going to depend on the establishment of a united front." Although this was something that Filiberto called for, initially people in the movement responded but then things returned to what was comfortable and was familiar.
Velgara agrees that the movement in general needs to be strengthened and reiterates that the strength of the movement in the Diaspora is related to the strength of the movement in the archipelago. "The movement here is scattered right now and this unity is not a luxury, it’s a necessity."
Both of our veteran luchadores feel that something needs to be organized in New York City and the U.S. to combat repression and for connecting the movements on the island to the States.
With that being said, however, both men are clear on the work that they find exciting on the island. Frank Velgara points out "the work with the beaches" as one exciting point of struggle right now in Puerto Rico and urges activists to consider those campaigns as not isolated community campaigns but national struggles that must be tied into the larger national liberation campaign. He also mentions the continuing struggle of the Viequenses and the growing number of young activists from different organizations as trends that he finds hopeful. Melendez congratulates La Nueva Escuela for the work they are doing in communities across the island, drawing a comparison to the work of The Young Lords. (La Nueva Escuela is a new grassroots organization in Puerto Rico comprised of young people who organize and conduct political education in marginalized communities across the island, fighting against issues such as police brutality, political repression, freedom of expression, and eminent domain while tying those issues to the larger national liberation struggle). "Its about going to where the people are, it’s a way of understanding people and understanding what we need to do to change people’s minds, politicizing people all great revolutions go to the people, find out what people want and then organize around it, and gain a victory from that. Revolution is about bettering people’s material life, not about giving up your life (unless that’s what you decide to do). It is fundamental Marxism: lifting up the daily life of the working class."
Frank Velgara and Miguel Melendez clearly see the need for an organizational form in New York City to deal with the issues of repression and to serve as a mechanism to connect with the experiences in Borinquen. Both men desire to see young people and organizations like La Nueva Escuela come to New York City to visit different communities and make the connection and talk to young people in the Diaspora. Melendez sees the need for intergenerational continuity in the movement, calling for elders to ensure that younger activists are connected to history and nurtured as leaders. The old issues of division must also be eliminated – for example, the often cited issue of Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico as authentic and Puerto Ricans from the States as not being ‘real Puerto Ricans’ is one that has to be addressed. There have been experiences in New York City of emigrant Boricuas attempting to take control of organizations built here simply because they were from Puerto Rico and ‘know what Puerto Rico is all about’ as opposed to those who are raised in the Diaspora. Velgara points out that this has led to divisions and complete disintegration of once-effective organizations. For Melendez, these dynamics, just like the dynamic of the lack of "Afro-Boricuas" and women in leadership in the movement, are manifestations of colonialism and must be combated. It is one thing to suffer a collective exile and live in the belly of the beast, having your identity and community under constant attack, but it’s another thing to do that while your own people back home reject you simply by virtue of living that exile and its consequences. Miguel Melendez additionally points out that the movement must do more to support its former political prisoners, especially economic support. For those who have sacrificed everything to move the Nation toward emancipation, the movement must be prepared to do more to economically support those who return and then have to struggle to make ends meet and survive.
Velgara insists that dialogue must occur in the movements both in the Diaspora and Puerto Rico. To him, dialogue must come first and then coordination on some initial issue. He recognizes, however, how difficult this task can be, but conveys the urgency behind its need. "We need to come together before the state brings us together we have the potential here in the Diaspora to contribute to this process while remaining involved the dynamics of our communities here, which are also being destroyed."
As we in the Diaspora grapple with the issues of immigration, education, housing, health care, police brutality, rising costs of higher education, we come to terms with the fact that those are the same issues being faced in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico those issues can be confronted within the context of an anti-colonial struggle. In the Diaspora we must focus on our daily material lives while attempting to maintain our identities as Puerto Ricans and maintaining a commitment to the liberation of our ancestral homeland. We do so in the tradition of many of our great National Heroes and Freedom Fighters, the former political prisoners liberated in 1979 and 1999 who lived the Diaspora, and fought the same battles while maintaining their identities and suffering persecution and imprisonment for advocating their Nation’s freedom.
It is fitting that our flag flew from the crown of the Statue in distress in 1977. It is the Diaspora that has had to live ‘en carne propia’ the effects of colonialism in Puerto Rico and as such it has a responsibility and a right to remain completely embedded in any process of national liberation for our homeland. The 30th Anniversary of the seige of the Statue simply reminds us that the role of the Diaspora has been crucial, has been combative and radical, and that the inevitable victory of our cause will be marked by the coordinated march forward of our united Nation.
Juan Antonio Ocasio Rivera is an activist and social worker in the New York City area.