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Ambivalence Over Albizu

by Lance Oliver

March 31, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

It’s no surprise that Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero Barceló has vocally led the opposition to the decision by Puerto Rico Day Parade organizers in New York to dedicate the event to Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos. It’s a little more surprising to see New Progressive Party Vice President Norma Burgos defending the decision.

If two statehooders so obviously dedicated to their party and their cause can disagree, then it’s no wonder that Puerto Rico as a whole has feelings about Albizu Campos that are sometimes oddly mixed.

Here are two statements that may seem contradictory, but I believe both to be true:

Pedro Albizu Campos is widely admired in Puerto Rico.

If he were alive today, preaching the same message as in the 1930s and 1950s, very few in Puerto Rico would follow him.

Albizu Campos believed that only violent opposition would end U.S. rule over Puerto Rico. Just as the governments, both federal and island, used dirty tricks, unconstitutional laws and occasional deadly force against him and his followers, Albizu Campos had no hesitation about using violence against those governments.

The results were shootouts between police and Nationalists, the infamous Ponce Massacre 63 years ago this month in which police killed demonstrators, assassination attempts on a U.S. president and a U.S.-appointed governor, as well as the attempt to storm La Fortaleza and presumably kill Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín.

It was a bloody time in Puerto Rico history and the government’s tactics were often just as abusive as the Nationalists’. When a federal jury of mostly Puerto Ricans could not reach a verdict on charges that Albizu Campos was trying to overthrow the U.S. government, a second jury, consisting mostly of Americans, was empanelled and returned the guilty verdict the government wanted.

Efforts to muzzle Albizu Campos also led to another infamous legal abuse, the so-called Gag Law, or "La Mordaza." The government used the law to make virtually any expression of support for independence illegal.

Finally, there’s the gruesome question of whether Albizu Campos was subjected to radiation experiments while in his prison cell. Doctors who examined him found strange lesions that could be explained by exposure to radiation. That sounded like an outlandish charge to make against the government until a few years ago, when U.S. Energy Department officials admitted that radiation experiments had been carried out with both military and, in some cases, unsuspecting civilians in the early years of the nuclear age.

Yet Albizu was no innocent victim. He embraced violence more than democracy. Romero Barceló’s criticisms of the parade organizers for paying homage to Albizu Campos center on the Nationalists’ fascist tendencies and use of violence. Albizu Campos’ approach to ending colonialism was nearly the opposite of the pacifistic approach of Mahatma Gandhi.

So is the decision to honor Albizu Campos at this year’s parade tantamount to idolizing a murdering fascist, as Romero Barceló would have us believe, or is it simply a question of honoring one of Puerto Rico’s legitimate heroes, regardless of political ideology, as Burgos explained it?

The question goes to the heart of the ambivalence in Puerto Rican society. Though many admire Albizu Campos for his dedication to his cause and the sacrifices he made, few agree with the two central aspects of his fight: independence and acceptance of violence as a means to achieve it.

Few Puerto Ricans want separation from the United States, though in their hearts they may feel very separate from the 50 states. Few support violence for any reason.

The demonstrators currently camped on Navy land on Vieques have widespread support because they have kept their protest civil and non-violent. When a group tried to take a more confrontational approach and block entrances to Navy land, widespread public opinion against their tactics forced them to back down.

With Albizu Campos safely relegated to a spot in history, and with many people fuzzy on the exact facts, he can be honored with a parade meant to include all Puerto Ricans.

Such a parade could not have happened in his lifetime, and if he were alive and in his prime today, preaching the message from his heart, it would still be impossible.

While some call for a boycott and denounce the parade, many more are ambivalent. It is the same ambivalence born of being boricua at heart with a U.S. passport in the pocket, of being attached to but not part of the United States, of being an early-21st century island still wrestling with the legacy of late-19th century colonial conquest.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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