Candidate Profile: Rubén Berríos
October 6, 2000
For many years, the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and its president for almost three decades, Rubén Berríos Martínez, have stood in the margins of Puerto Rican politics. In fact, in the plebiscites held in 1967, 93, and 98, independence as a political status option never received more than 3% of the votes. The 1999 death of a civilian security guard during U.S. military exercises on the island of Vieques, however, unleashed a wave of nationalist sentiment in Puerto Rico that breathed new life into the PIP. Rubén Berríos is the partys candidate for Governor, and while he is not expected to win the election, some polls now predict that he may collect as much as 10% of the vote an unprecedented figure for an independentista over the last 40 years.
Berríos is 61 years old and a native of Aibonito, Puerto Rico. He graduated from Georgetown University in 1961 and went on to study law at Yale. He also received a doctorate in International Rights from Oxford University.
Berríos has long been a prominent figure in the Puerto Rican independence movement. He rejects U.S. sovereignty over the island and has written that "[t]o break the law of the empire is to obey the law of the Motherland." Under the inspiration of his mentor, PIP founder Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, Berríos became the partys president when he was only 31 years old.
In 1971, Rubén Berríos led protests against the U.S. Navys use of Culebra, one of the islands off the coast of Puerto Rico. After squatting on the island for three days, Berríos was arrested and spent several months in prison. Because of the efforts of Berríos and others, the Navy abandoned its facilities on Culebra.
The following year, Berríos was elected to the first of four terms in the Puerto Rico Senate. Over the years, he has taken the cause of Puerto Rican independence to a number of international forums, including the United Nations. He has been an Honorary President of the Socialist International and a member of the Executive Council of the Latin American Association for Human Rights.
In 1996, Pedro Rosselló, an advocate for statehood for Puerto Rico, was elected to his second term as Governor in a landslide. Berríos, running as the PIP candidate, received less than 4% of the votes. Many political observers saw the election as a sign of the demise of the PIP as a viable entity. Those suspicions were supported by the poor showing of the independence option (2.6%) in the 1998 plebiscite.
Over the last 18 months, however, the independence movements fortunes have reversed dramatically. Since the death of David Sanes Rodríguez on Vieques on May 19, 1999, Rubén Berríos and other PIP leaders have led a major effort of civil disobedience that has brought the Vieques issue to the worlds attention. Berríos led a group of supporters who established camps on the Navys bombing range and acted as human shields against the resumption of military exercises. For just less than a year, Berríos himself camped on the island, weathering storms and the threat of forced evacuation. He was eventually removed from the island, charged with trespassing, and sentenced to several hours in jail. Only afterwards did he reveal that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Berríos became a hero for many Puerto Ricans because of the sacrifices he made to protest peacefully and effectively against the Navys policies. He has said the experience was a transforming one for him as well. "I have learned that you can win the battle over the most powerful of nations, the United States, if you have the moral force behind you."
In the election this year, Berríos is hoping that his reputation for civil disobedience will inspire Puerto Ricans to engage in "electoral disobedience" and vote for him. He said recently that the other candidates for governor want there to be "no other alternative. But it does exist," he said. "It is constant and has started to grow since the beginning of the year."
In addition to the human rights issues surrounding Puerto Ricos status as a territory of the United States, Berríos argues that there are economic advantages to independence as well. In September he made a rare appearance before Puerto Rican business leaders, where he asserted, "We havent united, nor are we doing anything to join the world economy. Puerto Rico is cooking on wood stoves and riding donkeys. The excuses that we are too small or we have the best and most stable economy are false, we havent surpassed any country in the past 25 years."