America’s Backyard: Puerto Rico

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In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the United States had to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin American. In his own words: "if any South American country misbehaves it should be spanked."All US presidents that succeeded him have, in lesser or greater measure, continued to exercise their perceived right over a region often known as “America’s Backyard”. After more than 400 years of Spanish colonial domination, in 1897 Puerto Rico was given the right to govern over its affairs. only five months later, Spain and the US went to war over the last Spanish colonies in the region. American Forces occupied Puerto Rico. The Treaty of Paris clearly established that all Puerto Rican affairs were to be decided by the United States Congress. President Theodore Roosevelt recommended that Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens. Despite the overwhelming opposition from the Puerto Rican legislators, in March 1917 the US Congress decided that all Puerto Ricans were now US citizens; but only to be ruled and not be given the rights. Many Puerto Ricans were forced to fight in the America’s wars and many died. Up to this day not much has changed, as that Treaty of Paris is still valid.

TIME CODE : 00:00_05:00

Narration:

In the United States of the 19th century, Manifest Destiny was the widely held belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the whole continent.

In 1904, President Theodore Rooselvelt declared that the United States had to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin America.

In his own words: "if any South American country misbehaves it should be spanked."

All US presidents that succeeded him have, in lesser or greater measure, continued to exercise their perceived right over a region often known as “America’s Backyard”.

Map of Latin America: PUERTO RICO

Narration:

After more than 400 years of Spanish colonial domination, in 1897 Puerto Rico was given the right to govern over its affairs.

Although still under the rule of the King of Spain, for a short time Puerto Ricans had a degree of autonomy they were never again to enjoy: only five months later, Spain and the US went to war over the last Spanish colonies of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines… and Puerto Rico. After swiftly defeating the Spanish, American Forces occupied Puerto Rico.

Alejandro Torres:

After the occupation of Puerto Rico and the subsequent cessation of hostilities between the Kingdom of Spain and the United States, negotiations for a treaty began to take place in Paris.

Jose Paralitici:

The Treaty of Paris clearly established that all Puerto Rican affairs were to be decided by the United States Congress.

Up to this day nothing has changed, as that Treaty of Paris is still valid.

Narration:

In 1900 the US Congress gave Puerto Rico its own popularly elected House of Representatives. Even the building itself was designed to resemble Washington’s.However, the U.S. Congress retained the power to overrule the Puerto Rican legislators.

President Theodore Roosevelt then recommended that Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens.Despite the overwhelming opposition from the Puerto Rican legislators; in March 1917 the US Congress decided that all Puerto Ricans were now US citizens. One month later, the U.S. entered the First World War

Jose Paralitici:

When the US citizenship was imposed on all Puerto Ricans, with it came all the US military laws, and the law that made conscription compulsory.

Narration:

20,000 Puerto Ricans were sent to the Great War.

Jose Paralitici:

Whoever broke the conscription law ended up sentenced to prison in the United States.

Narration:

After the First World War came all the many others that the US has taken part in only in the Korean War almost 800 Puerto Ricans died. Then came Vietnam. 65 thousand Puerto Ricans who lived in the island were sent to that war. Proportionally, Puerto Rico sent more soldiers than any other state in the US… without even being considered a US state.

TIME CODE : 05:00_10:00

Jose Paralitici:

During the Vietnam War years, we had plenty of political activism here at the University of Puerto Rico.

Narration:

As an academic and historian with leftist ideals, during the 1970s Jose Paralitici got involved in the protests against US militarism in PR

Jose Paralitici:

The military draft by the US Army was still current, and there was obviously a lot of opposition against the war So that activism against the war, against the military draft and against the presence of the US military here at the university, also brought people who supported the American system.

In 1971 the Extreme Right placed a bomb here at the Faculty of Social Sciences. It was a very powerful bomb. The Right associated the social sciences students with the radical Left.

This was one of our lecturers and a great leader, very dedicated to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence and to all the students’ struggles.

Narration:

Puerto Rico’s left has historically been identified with the nationalist movement. Decades before the Vietnam years, those campaigning for independence were already victims of repression in Puerto Rico

One of the most notorious incidents happened n 1937 in the town of Ponce. The nationalists had organised a peaceful demonstration to commemorate the abolition of slavery, Blanton Winship, the US-appointed Governor of Puerto Rico ordered the police to open fire at the demonstrators.

Alejandro Torres:

The result was of 22 dead and around 197 injured.

Narration:

No police officer was even suspended, and Governor Winship never issued an apology. From then on things steadily worsened for the nationalists.

Jose Paralitici:

In 1960 Edgar Hoover, then Director of the FBI, had sent a memo to the FBI’s office in Puerto Rico stating that the advance of the independentist movement had to be stopped at whichever cost.

Narration:

Hoover’s memo was part of COINTELPRO or Counter Intelligence Program: a series of covert projects conducted by the FBI and aimed at infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations .In Puerto Rico COINTELINPRO’s main target was Juan Mari Bras, the late leader of the Pro-Independence Movement. Raul and Rosi are his son and daughter.

Raul Mari:

Throughout his whole life our father was a victim of persecution and harassment, targeted not only against himself but also against us: his family.

Rosi Mari:

When we were young, every time my father was at the home were we lived there would be an FBI car parked outside.It was a black car and every time my father left, the car would leave right behind him.

The FBI mounted an investigation unit with cameras and sound recorders, all pointing at my parent’s bedroom, and they worked around the clock with personnel rotating every eight hours.

Narration:

In addition to COINTELPRO for over nine decades the Puerto Rican police carried out another illegal surveillance programme known as CARPETAS, or files.

Raul Mari:

They had a file for each of the pro-independence activists in Puerto Rico. They had very detailed accounts of all the activities we participated in and of all public and private comments we made. And all the visits to both my father’s file and mine were made by FBI agents.

Narration:

After a Senate Ruling from 2005, Raul, Alejandro and many others could get hold of all files on them.

Alejandro Torres:

This card is my student ID from 1971. So the University of Puerto Rico was handing copies of this documentation to the Intelligence Division.

Here for example is a picture that the Cuban extreme Right based in Puerto Rico published. It’s related to an activity in which I participated, but they falsely signal my three friends and me as part of the armed faction of the Socialist Workers Movement.

TIME CODE : 10:00_15:00

Sergio Ramos:

There was a time here when the police used to put together some files. That is something that the police intelligence units do everywhere. But here the pro-independence activists complained about being surveilled, but the truth is that everyone here was being surveilled, even we were.

Narration:

A member of the Cuban extreme right, Sergio Ramos was the leader of an anti-communist organization by the name of Abdala, According to declassified FBI documents, Abdala were implicated in acts of extreme violence.

Raul Mari:

Sergio Ramos is recognised as an anti-Castro activist who participated in terrorist activities.

Narration:

As the son of the main independentist and leftist leader, Raul was the target of numerous attacks from right wing extremists.

Raul Mari:

I used to work as a commercial pilot at a company called Vieques Air Link when Rene Fernandez, a well known Cuban anti-Castro terrorist, tried to place an explosive inside the plane I was about to fly.

Narration:

But the clashes between the extreme right and the independentists are not just a thing of the past.

In 2009, a group of right wing Puerto Ricans affiliated to the US Republican Party organized a tribute for Julio Labatud, another Cuban extremist widely suspected of terrorist attacks in Puerto Rico.A group of independentists, outraged by the tribute to such criminal, broke into the Congress and clashed with the organizers.

Sergio Ramos:

We tried to stop this mob from getting in and someone I couldn’t recognise threw an object.

Sergio Ramos:

This shows that section of the Puerto Rican people who are hostile towards the Cuban exile community based here.

Andres Pich:

We looked in every direction and found that there was a fire extinguisher close by, so my friend Bencomo and I tried to get it but we couldn’t as everything was happening too quick. Eventually we got the extinguisher and we sprayed them with it, and that was what finally calmed down that herd of people.

Osvaldo Bencomo:

That was when the whole thing stopped. They left running and screaming…

Narraton:

This is Osvaldo Bencomo. According the FBI, he was the Military Chief of CORU in Puerto Rico.

During the 1970s CORU was the most notorious of the many extremist right wing groups operating in the island. An entity that the FBI accurately described as “an umbrella group for anti-Castro terrorist organizations” Bencomo ultimately was the man responsible for several bombs and other attacks on leftist targets.

Osvaldo Bencomo:

I’ve got several independentist friends and we chat a lot, they treat me well and I treat them well too, with respect. But there are other independentists who are intransigent.

Narration:

Together with Bencomo, the other main leader of CORU in Puerto Rico used to be Reinol Rodriguez.

Now living in Miami, Reinol admits to being in charge of all sorts of violent actions against the Cuban regime, but denies carrying out attacks in Puerto Rico.

Reinol Rodriguez:

I was in Puerto Rico between 1971 and 1979, and the communists over there knew me, so I was a stone in their shoe during all that time. There were operatives during that time, carried out by other people, but those were secret operations, a different thing. You’ve got to bear in mind that we’re in the United States and, therefore, we respect the laws of the United States.

Narration:

Despite his assurances, FBI files signal him as the man behind a plot to murder Puerto Rico’s nationalist leader Juan Mari Bras. The Cuban extremists failed to kill Mari Bras. However, another member of his family was the victim of a mysterious murder.

TIME CODE : 15:00_20:00

Raul Mari:

The CIA organized that group of Cubans who were directly responsible for the murder of our brother and of many other Puerto Ricans.

Narration:

In March 1976, Santiago, the eldest son of nationalist leader Juan Mari Bras, was found dead inside an abandoned car. He had been beaten and then shot at point blank.

Raul Mari:

The news of that shook us all in such a way that for the rest of our lives we will always remember such unpleasant situation.

Rosi Mari:

We were very desperate, as we had no news of our brother. Then our father’s secretary came very alarmed to tell us that a dead person had been found. I immediately thought it was him and that it had been an act of repression against us.

Narration:

The actual perpetrator of the crime is Henry Coira. After serving 14 years in jail for the murder, he now lives in Miami, Florida.

Henry Coira:

I had a fight with [Santiago Mari]. In the fight I shot him and he immediately fell dead. I thought: “what am I going to do now?” I was very nervous so I drove the car [with Santiago’s body] and left it parked in front of a food factory. Because of that I was imprisoned in Puerto Rico.

Narration:

Henry Coira has a history of mental disorders and many believe he could have been used by extremists to carry out the murder of Santiago Mari.

Raul Mari:

[Henry] Coira was raised in the same neighbourhood where we lived as children, and everyone knew he had mental health problems

Narration:

Up to date, the FBI continues to withhold information deemed vital for the solving of the case. However Police investigations have hinted that Santiago Mari was assassinated in reprisal for his father’s political activism.

Juan Mari Bras:

It’s not revenge what will cheer up the hearts of people so deeply hurt that they cannot enjoy such a trivial and miserable feeling as revenge.

Long-live a free Puerto Rico! Long-live!

Raul Mari:

I have transformed that negative energy from my brother’s murder into positive energy aimed at continuing the fight for the independence of our nation.

Narration:

But not all those who campaigned for independence did it in a peaceful manner.

Jose Paralitici:

The Puerto Rican pro-independence movement has had all sorts of struggles that are allowed and reasonable in the fight against colonialism.

These range from the legal struggle to the clandestine and the subversive.

Narration:

The Macheteros, or the “machete wielders” were the most high profile of all the armed groups campaigning for independence. Amongst other things, they carried out the shooting of a US Navy bus, killing three sailors.

They also attacked an Air Base in Puerto Rico, destroying eleven US Air Force fighter jets, totalling damages in excess of 45 million dollars… in 1981. But probably their most publicized operative was the 1983 robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in Connecticut, United States. Part of the seven million dollars they stole was used for gift giveaways in Puerto Rico’s poor communities.

Antonio Ramos:

We’re approximately 45 minutes away…

Narration:

Antonio Ramos has dedicated most of his life to maintaining alive the memory of what he calls the martyrs of the Independentist movement.

Antonio Ramos:

[singing]

… the insurgents marched on, holding their Ceole high Calibres, and machetes to shake things up,

on the day they shouted: “Long-life free Puerto Rico!”

On the day they shouted: “Long-life free Puerto Rico!”

We’re heading to visit the site where two activists were executed by the police back in 1978.

TIME CODE : 20:00_25:00

Antonio Ramos:

One of them ended up lying over here, while the body of the other one was found a few away. Besides being brutally beaten they were executed while lying on their knees.

The agent was the only one of them was armed. He brought those two kids here, where they were ambushed . I was an entrapment.

Narration:

The police man involved initially claimed that they had shot the two men in self defense while foiling at terrorist plot. An FBI investigation bat this claim , however subsequent investigations uncovered the plot by the police to assistant the young activist , ten police officers went to jail for murderers.

-What I am showing you is known as the “ impact area” about 900 acres of land . This is a lake that dried up from all bombs that fell on it. It looks like a lunar landscape, each of those craters is from a bomb that fell.

Narration:

The Island located 13 kilometer of Puerto Rico’s main land , flying over there , the new landscape , was no were to be seen among the beauty of this natural paradise . We then learnt by the pilot hat commercial aircraft don’t fly over the east of the Island .

-13% of our Country at was at one time occupied by military bases and installations. There is no state in the US that has such a high percentage .The documents were made by the US Navy. If consider the size of Pureto Rico and of Vieques ,which is this Island here , You can figure out the size of the huge area controlled by the US Navy. In that area they carried out their military exercises.

Narration:

These days Puerto Rico independence movement is a minority force .

-What is truly surprising is that , with all they have done in order to try to annex us , to assimilate us into the US, we still have a movement that fights for our right to independence .

   

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