The (Almost) Forgotten Episode in Puerto Rican Nationalist History

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This essay is part of a series in commemoration of 50 years since the passing of Pedro Albizu Campos, the foremost Puerto Rican independence leader of the 20th century.

Introduction—1936

When we think of the year 1936 and Pedro Albizu Campos – Puerto Rico’s foremost independence leader of the 20th century – we tend to think of his conviction for seditious conspiracy and 10-year sentence into exile. While such is true, that simple narrative leaves much out, including what led to the empire’s sense of urgency to arrest and exile Albizu Campos: his widely answered call for a Constituent Convention to be held independent of the United States government.

Art by Yasmin Hernandez

This patriotic call for the Puerto Rican people to exercise self-determination through a process of national (non-partisan) dialogue created such a significant reaction throughout Puerto Rican society that one must wonder why it has received so little attention. Instead, the call to action made by Albizu Campos that has received much more attention – the focus of a newly published book – is the Revolution of 1950.

But why? Perhaps the latter event’s 24 deaths, 1,000+ arrests, 200+ deployed National Guard troops, machine-gunning and bombing by planes of two Puerto Rican towns, attack on then-President Harry Truman in Washington, and other such sensational facts, simply make for a more thrilling read. In any case, 1936 deserves our serious attention for reasons of its own.

Big Brother Is (Now) Watching

While Albizu Campos developed and organized the Nationalist Party into the anti-colonial threat it became over several years – during his time as the Party’s Vice-President and lead editor of the Nacionalista de Ponce newspaper from 1924-1927; during his networking campaign throughout Latin America from 1927-1930; and during his first four years as the Party’s President from 1930-1934 – it was a series of work strikes he helped lead, beginning in late 1933, that caught the attention of the United States government.

These strikes, taking place in the middle of the Great Depression, involved several industries but saw its fullest expression in the U.S.-dominated sugar industry. In the years prior, U.S. interests had bought from countless local farmers the lands that provided their livelihood and, in many cases, sustenance, bringing about a situation of incredible economic ruin, widespread poverty, and mass starvation. When U.S. banks sought to further cut worker wages despite such conditions, resistance began to take shape. In the end, workers in the highly profitable sugar industry not only formed their own national union, the Asociación de Trabajadores de Puerto Rico, but, in February 1934, also managed to win a wage increase, from $.45 cents per twelve-hour work day in 1933 to $1.50 per twelve-hour work day.

Albizu Campos speaking to sugar cane strikers in Guánica

Of course, this was not without serious opposition, nor without U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt drastically changing the face and nature of the Puerto Rican police force. To do this, he placed retired general Blanton Winship as Governor, and Colonel E. Francis Riggs as Chief of Police, the latter being infamous for orchestrating the assassination of Nicaraguan President Augusto Sandino, and for advising his replacement, the dictator Anastasio Somoza. Together, they transformed the police into a bona fide military force, adding hundreds of men, dressing them in military-style uniforms, establishing new training camps, introducing machine guns, grenade launchers, tear gas, riot equipment, and more. Sugar industry workers, during their strikes, were up against this new level of intimidation, and won.

Colonial Violence, Imperial Policy

Because the sugar industry workers had asked Albizu Campos to help lead their strike – he also helped them form the Asociación de Trabajadores de Puerto Rico – the Nationalist Party would now be directly targeted by police. Police would hit their target the very next year, on October 24, 1935, when they shot and killed three Nationalists driving outside the University of Puerto Rico, as well as a fourth that was on the scene. The event became known as the Río Piedras Massacre and, though it was not the first display of violence by the police, it showed the lengths to which their violence might be taken.

In fact, when speaking to news reporters, Chief of Police Francis Riggs was quoted saying there would be a “war to the death against all Puerto Ricans” if Nationalist Party activities continued.

Newspaper showing funeral procession for Elías Beauchamp and Hiram Rosado

At the funeral of the slain Nationalists, Albizu Campos promised their deaths would not go unavenged. Four months later, on February 23, 1936, after leaving the Sunday service at a San Juan church, Chief of Police Riggs was shot dead by Elías Beauchamp after the shots of a fellow Nationalist, Hiram Rosado, missed. Three reactions followed. Immediately, police arrested both men and brought them to headquarters, where they were executed. Then, on March 5, Albizu Campos was accused of seditious conspiracy, remaining out on bail. Finally, on April 23 a close friend of Colonel Riggs, Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, introduced a bill into Congress that would allow for Puerto Rico to transition over four years into an independent country if voters expressed desire for such through a referendum.

According to the bill, the referendum would take place in November 1937 as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on independence. In the case of a majority ‘yes’ vote, Puerto Rico would become independent in four years, during which time tariff costs on Puerto Rican products would increase 25% per year until Puerto Rico paid as much as any other country. This four-year transition period, criticized by many as a guaranteed formula for “independence with starvation,” differed greatly from the 20-year transition period given to the Philippines by the United States in the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. Seen by many of Puerto Rico’s political figures as a disastrous offer, punishment for the killing of Colonel Riggs, the Tydings bill nevertheless produced a significant response, one that was not exactly anticipated.

Patriotism in Full Swing?

Despite the nature of the Tydings bill, many leaders, including Statehood supporters, began calling for independence. For example, Rafael Martínez Nadal, President of the island’s Republican Union that advocated for Statehood among the status options, spoke strongly in favor of independence. “They give us two choices… a free republic, with ruin and starvation, or the ignominy of slavery,” he declared. “Rather than lifelong slaves, rather than think of the political slavery of our children and grandchildren, our choice is not in doubt. Any man worthy of being called a son of this land, rather than ignominy with a full stomach, must prefer hunger with dignity and honor. If the Tydings bill becomes law, every man who feels himself to be free must vote for the Republic of Puerto Rico.”

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Albizu Campos speaking in Teatro Tapia on the Tydings Bill and the need to hold a Constituent Convention

Throughout the island, patriotic sentiment was on clear display. Outside the University of Puerto Rico, several high schools, dozens of town halls, and other prominent locations, the U.S. flag was lowered and the Puerto Rican flag raised in its place. This was done by people of all ages, but especially youth, almost on a daily basis. Each time, patriotic chants would take place until police came to remove the national symbol of Puerto Rico. One time a riot broke out. As these events took place, the island’s newspapers would cover them, sometimes on the front page. The founder of the Nationalist Party, José Coll y Cuchí, supported the widespread fervor by publishing an article in newspapers calling on Puerto Ricans to raise the Puerto Rican flag at their homes, workplaces, and anywhere else they could.

In this climate of activity stemming from the introduction of the Tydings bill, Pedro Albizu Campos called on all the political leaders of Puerto Rico to convene in a Constituent Convention. The purpose of this convention was twofold: 1) to establish the sovereign power of Puerto Rico as a free nation; and, 2) to elect the legitimate representatives of Puerto Rico that would negotiate a treaty with the United States. The fact that he called for this convention to be held independently of the U.S. speaks to his understanding of the 1898 Treaty of Paris as being null and void as regards Puerto Rico because it was signed without the consent or participation of the autonomous government established there by Spain in 1897. To Albizu Campos, the U.S. was recognizing Puerto Rico’s right to independence by offering it in the Tydings bill, and Puerto Ricans should claim that right – through the Constituent Convention.

As countless cities saw great displays of national pride, momentum started building towards the declaration of the Republic of Puerto Rico. More and more, political figures and the parties they represented came out in favor of independence.

A Dream, Deferred

What made Albizu Campos’ call for a Constituent Convention so significant was not only its timing, but the thought and research he had put into the idea. Since at least 1923 the media reported his thoughts on the topic without them grabbing much attention. Then, beginning four days after the Tydings bill was presented, between April 27 and May 28, four articles again containing his thoughts on the topic were published in El Mundo. This time, with much of the island calling for independence in spite of the bill’s promise of ruin, the idea received much more support than in the past.

These articles would lay out the process for organizing a Constituent Convention in Puerto Rico, reflect on similar conventions held in Cuba and the Dominican Republic that the U.S. took part in, critique the ruinous relationship the U.S. has had with Puerto Rico, emphasize the importance of the convention in organizing a legitimate power in Puerto Rico and electing its legitimate representatives, and, as time passed, react to the inability of Puerto Rico’s political leaders to actually come together.

Albizu Campos and Juan Antonio Corretjer

According to Albizu Campos, the Constituent Convention was the only diplomatic way out of Puerto Rico’s colonial condition. In his view, until representatives were chosen through a process involving all of Puerto Rican political society, nobody had the right to negotiate anything with the U.S. government on behalf of Puerto Rico. Once legitimate representatives were chosen and had taken time to determine the international relations Puerto Rico would have with other countries, then they could negotiate a treaty, as equals, with the United States. And the U.S. had to respect these representatives, chosen as they were through a legitimate process involving honest and energetic national dialogue.

The momentum for this began when, on April 25, the Mayor of Aguas Buenas hosted the local leaders of the island’s three main political parties – the Liberal Party of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and the Republican Union. The result of the meeting was a call issued to the presidents of those parties – Antonio R. Barceló, Bolívar Pagán, and Rafael Martínez Nadal – along with Pedro Albizu Campos, to immediately hold the Constituent Convention in favor of the Republic of Puerto Rico. At the start of May, Albizu Campos discussed the option with these leaders and at one point issue a joint call to hold the convention with Barceló of the Liberal Party after a meeting with him in Caguas. Hundreds of University of Puerto Rico students also met and came out in strong support of the Constituent Convention.

On May 4, in support of the Pro-Constituent Convention movement, hundreds of delegates met in an assembly and formed the United Front for the Constitution of the Republic. This body regularly engaged leaders from all of the island’s political parties, other civic, social, and cultural groups, as well as prominent intellectuals. By the end of May, after tens of meetings throughout the island at a time when the Puerto Rican flag was being raised everywhere for all to see, more than twenty municipalities had come out in support of the Constituent Convention for the establishment of the Republic of Puerto Rico.

Despite this clear support throughout Puerto Rico for the holding of the Constituent Convention, especially among younger leadership, Barceló, Pagán, and Martínez Nadal, the Presidents of the island’s main political parties, spoke in favor of the convention but never officially took up the project. They instead continued to discuss the Tydings bill, Luis Muñoz Marín, the future leader of the Commonwealth Government of 1952, himself spending a lot of time in Washington discussing amendments with congressional and other U.S. leaders. Albizu Campos, highly critical of this avoidance of the Constituent Convention process in favor of discussions with Washington, called out its backwards nature. “They are beginning where they should end, and they want to end where they should begin,” he said.

The energetic and wide-reaching campaign in favor of the Constituent Convention for the Republic of Puerto Rico was even more remarkable on the part of Albizu Campos for another reason. Again, when we think of the year 1936, we tend to think of the arrest and exile of Albizu Campos. This overlooks the fact that even after he was accused of seditious conspiracy in response to the killing of Colonel Riggs, and as he prepared for his trial, he exercised incredible patriotic and diplomatic resolve by calling for a national process of dialogue and consensus. Thus, when finally convicted and sentenced on July 31 – by a jury composed of ten Americans and two Puerto Ricans closely tied to U.S. corporate interests – the campaign for a convention was dealt a severe blow.

Art by Yasmin Hernandez

Another major obstacle to the Constituent Convention was the upcoming November elections. Antonio R. Barceló, the President of the Liberal Party, which supported independence as part of its platform, called for a boycott on June 18 of the November elections in favor of supporting the united front for the independence of Puerto Rico. When the central committee of his party turned down the proposal the following day, Barceló offered his resignation but was quickly convinced to run for re-election as the Party’s President. Although Luis Muñoz Marín, then a leading member of the Liberal Party in favor of boycotting the elections, was able to gain the support of a majority in the party, a powerful minority, headed by Barceló, came out on top and decided to enter the elections.

As all of this time passed, and as it became clear that the Tydings bill would not be acted on by Congress in any way, much of the island prepared for the upcoming elections. Once again, Puerto Rico’s political leaders would prolong Puerto Rico’s bondage through observance of the colonial elections.

Re-Thinking Albizu Campos

Many questioned the timing of Albizu Campos’ conviction, including him. When visited by his wife in jail before being sent to Atlanta Penitentiary, he said the U.S. knew what they had in their hands, that, “if they had left me six more months in the streets I would have made the Republic.” Though not to speed up the holding of the Constituent Convention, Martínez Nadal and Barceló sent cablegrams in early July to President Roosevelt asking for the release of Albizu Campos for the sake of “public tranquility.”

These and other facts allow us to re-think Albizu Campos. Firstly, they add an underlying significance to his imprisonment, coming as it did in the midst of one of the most impactful and unifying campaigns he would ever lead in favor of Puerto Rican independence. Secondly, they put into question the accusation laid against him of wanting to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico by violence, seeking as he did to participate in a national dialogue in favor of meeting with the United States as equals to negotiate a treaty ending the occupation of Puerto Rico.

Another question we can consider is whether the Constituent Convention for Albizu Campos was a principle or a tactic. This very question was taken up by Juan Mari Brás in an article specifically highlighting the 1936 campaign. Pointing out that Albizu Campos had been speaking of a constituent convention for years, Mari Brás affirmed that it does appear to have been a principle, one that in 1936 became a successful tactic in creating a mass movement. He includes the following quotes by Albizu Campos:

“There is no other way out of this situation than the immediate holding of the Constituent Convention of Puerto Rico as a convenience to the United States and Puerto Rico.

After the Constituent Convention meets and the respective plenipotentiaries are designated, then we can do all the studies necessary to determine the international relations between the United States and Puerto Rico through the respective treaty; all the time can be taken that is necessary to resolve a matter so vital; but this time will be spent by people with the power to resolve it.

The Constituent Convention is an imperious, unavoidable, and irremissible necessity, and as long as such is not held, the liquidation of the North American regime in Puerto Rico is being slowed down to the detriment of the United States and Puerto Rico’s great world interests.”

Albizu Campos’ thinking in this respect allows us to better appreciate and understand another of his principles: the boycott of colonial elections (retraimiento). Arguing all colonial institutions to be illegitimate due to the Treaty of Paris being signed in violation of Puerto Rico’s autonomy, Albizu Campos held the idea of non-participation with the colonial regime even before he joined the Nationalist Party in 1924. Though his own party placed him on the ballot for Senator in 1932’s elections, by 1936 Albizu Campos was able to push for the boycott. At least until he was sent to prison, the boycott gained much support, especially from the more progressive sectors.

For Albizu Campos, the Constituent Convention was the key vehicle for authentic nation-building, not the colonial elections. Though the boycott was itself a principle based on non-recognition of the legitimacy of the U.S. government in Puerto Rico, he did not call for the boycott simply to boycott, but to promote national dialogue, unity, and self-determination. In an article, he stated:

“The political parties, acting as an amorphous conglomerate of opinion, do not represent the legitimate national will, owing to the conflict of interests between them. Partisanship can end only in a Constituent Convention that also solemnly invests in its plenipotentiaries the power of the homeland.

Until that is done, the colonial political parties and its leaders will continue giving the same spectacle they have up to now of putting above all matters the interests of their respective factions.

That is why they have not wanted to join in the patriotic norm of national unity through a Constituent Convention, to which Puerto Rican nationalism has repeatedly called them.”

This lesser-known, often overlooked episode was about more than Albizu Campos, for it involved widespread participation across Puerto Rican society. Nevertheless, Albizu Campos was a major figure within it, if not its chief inspiration and ideological leader. On May 7, Colonel O. R. Cole, commander in chief of the all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry, wrote a report speaking to the threat Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party posed during that campaign, saying that if independence was given to Puerto Rico, the environment “will give Albizu Campos more than a fair chance of becoming the head of government.” We can only speculate the answer to the following questions posed by Mari Brás: “Why did the Yankees imprison him in that moment? What would have happened if that repressive factor had not intervened?”

Perhaps now it is clear why this episode deserves our attention, and why it also allows us to re-consider and better appreciate the work and legacy of Pedro Albizu Campos. Indeed the desire to hold a Constituent Convention in Puerto Rico is not long-gone. The idea has continued to be discussed as a way out of the continued system of U.S. colonialism. Though many have provided differing and modernized outlines for what this process may look like – especially when it comes to the participation of the Diaspora – for those seeking to promote this form of national dialogue, unity, and self-determination, I end this essay with what Albizu Campos offered in this regard:

“[T]he Constituent Convention can be undertaken in the following way: Each political party can hold a national convention and designate the number of delegates that have the right to represent them in the Constituent Convention according to the prior agreement arrived at by all the political parties.

These conventions of the respective political parties can be held the same day, and on the next the Constituent Convention can be held with the designated delegations of the respective political parties. This Constituent Convention can then designate the plenipotentiaries of Puerto Rico in order to resolve with plenipotentiaries of the United States everything concerning a permanent treaty between both nations…

We must begin where we must begin, and that’s with the immediate organization of the sovereignty of Puerto Rico through its Constituent Convention.”

 References
  • Laura Albizu-Campos Meneses and Fr. Mario A. Rodríguez León, Editors. Albizu Campos: Escritos. Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas: Puerto Rico, 2007.
  • César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabe. Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History Since 1898. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2007.
  • Ramón Bosque-Pérez and José Javier Colón, Editors. Puerto Rico Under Colonial Rule: Political Persecution and the Quest for Human Rights. State University of New York Press: Albany, 2006.
  • Juan Antonio Corretjer. The Struggle for the Independence of Puerto Rico. First English Edition: Chicago, 2008.
  • Nelson A. Denis. War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. Nation Books: New York, 2015.
  • Frank Otto Gatell. Independence Rejected: Puerto Rico and the Tydings Bill of 1936. The Hispanic American Historical Review. Vol. 38, No. 1 (February 1958), pp. 25-44.
  • El Imparcial, microfilm. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Hunter College, CUNY, New York City.
  • Juan Mari Brás. Albizu Campos y la Convención Constituyente: ¿Principio o táctica? En Rojo, Claridad. September 1982, pp. 10-16. Reprinted in: Margot Arce de Vázquez, Ruth Vasallo, and José Antonio Torres Martinó. Pedro Albizu Campos: Reflexiones sobre su vida y obra. Editorial Marién: University of Texas, 1991, pp. 35-41.
  • Marisa Rosado. Pedro Albizu Campos, Las Llamas de la Aurora: acercamiento a su biografía. Ediciones Puerto: San Juan, 2008.
  • J. Benjamín Torres. El proceso judicial contra Albizu Campos. Editorial Jelofe: San Juan, 1979.

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Andre Lee Muñiz

Andre Lee Muñiz is a Boricua born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His family settled in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/ early 1960s from the Puerto Rican towns of Caguas and Añasco. As a public housing resident near Coney Island, Andre Lee attended local public schools and Kingsborough Community College. At KCC, he earned a minority student transfer scholarship to NYU, going on to earn a B.S. and M.A. degree, while also developing his interest in Puerto Rican history and culture. 

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