Writings on Puerto Rican History, Politics and Activism

From the Convention Organizing Committee: 

  1. Puerto Rico’s Complicated Colonial Status: “Plebiscites” Do Not Accurately Measure Public Opinion
    By Jan Susler, Co-Chair, Puerto Rico Subcommittee
  2. The Struggle between Vieques and the U.S. Navy – and the Local Businessess in Solidarity
    By Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan; Co-chair, International Committee & Jan Susler; Co-Chair, Puerto Rico Subcommittee
    *Related Convention event: Trip to Vieques
  3. The Application of the U.S. Death Penalty in Puerto Rico
    By Mariana Nogales
    *Related Convention event: Workshops II, Death Penalty, Fri. Oct 25
  4. University of Puerto Rico Strike: 2010 – 2011
    By Giovanni Roberto
    *Related Convention event: Workshops III, Student Movement in Puerto Rico, Sat. Oct 26


  1. Puerto Rico’s Complicated Colonial Status: “Plebiscites” Do Not Accurately Measure Public Opinion
    By Jan Susler, Co-Chair, Puerto Rico Subcommittee

    May 14, 2013

    Since the 1898 Treaty of Paris and U.S. military invasion of the island, Puerto Rico has remained a territory of the United States. Since then, the issue of the island’s status has been foremost on the minds of the Puerto Rican people, who differ when it comes to the preferred relationship with the U.S. – independence, U.S. statehood or some version of the status quo (commonwealth or Free Associated State).

    Many people are quick to judge this complex issue by looking to the results of the several “plebiscites” (1967, 1993, 1998, 2012) – none binding on the U.S. Congress. For many reasons, it would be a mistake to use these plebiscites as a true measure of status preference.

    The main reason such “popularity polls” are not a valid measure is due to the U.S. having cultivated a colonial mentality accompanied by an unhealthy dose of inferiority and simultaneously having criminalized the advocacy of independence. There have been efforts to destroy the movement altogether, including collecting counterintelligence dossiers on people exercising their constitutional rights to speech, assembly and association; framing activists for alleged crimes; encouraging employers not to hire activists and landlords not to rent to them; and violent government and right-wing acts against – and the murder of – independentistas.

    Another reason is the occupation of the island by U.S. military bases, armed forces personnel, U.S. courts, U.S. textbooks that teach — in English — that George Washington is the father of the country, U.S. cultural and commercial goods, and U.S. agencies, particularly repressive agencies such as the FBI. These agencies weigh heavily in the electoral process, contributing resources to whichever party they determine will best serve U.S. interests in a particular election.

    Yet another reason is the structure of the political parties and elections on the island. In the context of a failed economy which cannot support its people, the government is one of the largest employers of the population, and political parties receive governmental stipends that perpetuate a patronage system. In other words, if you want to work in a country where opportunity is scarce, you will ultimately support whichever party keeps food on the table.

    Other factors which must be considered: the independence movement, while dispersed, is far broader than the independence political party itself. Some in the movement refuse to participate in what they consider colonial elections, while some make a pragmatic decision to vote for the status quo and not for the independence party, to try to ensure the defeat of the statehood party. However, some joke that the “blue laws” which ban alcohol on Election Day is because after one drink, everyone reveals their independentista spirit.

    None of the plebiscites has taken into account the mandates of international law, under which the U.S. would withdraw its presence, and the people would convene a constitutional assembly based on the decolonization alternatives recognized by international law.

    Furthermore, the plebiscites do not measure the growing sense of nationalism and pride in internationally-recognized Olympic athletes, Miss Universe pageant queens, Grammy-winning musicians, all of which would evaporate if Puerto Rico became a U.S. state.

    President Obama recently announced that the budget includes $2.5 million for yet another upcoming plebiscite — the debate will continue.

    A peek at the results demonstrates the complex political terrain of “plebiscites” in Puerto Rico:

    The majority of Puerto Ricans affirm the Puerto Rican nation and nationality, a sentiment which is reflected in the “plebiscites,” as well as in the general elections — adding the votes for independence, sovereignty and statehood, the majority is against the colonial status.

    In the 1967 plebiscite, held during a status quo administration, the independence
    movement actively boycotted the “plebiscite” as it was not a true process of self-determination, and was not binding on U.S. Congress. The ELA prevailed with 60.4%; statehood received 39%.

    In the 1993 plebiscite sponsored by a statehood governor, ELA again prevailed with 48.6%; statehood received 46.3%, and the independence party, 4.4%. In the 1998 plebiscite, the winner was “none of the above,” with 50.3%; the ELA, less than 1%; statehood 46.49%; and the independence party 2.54%. The pro-commonwealth party campaigned for "none," to protest the exclusion of its definition of "enhanced" commonwealth from the ballot.

    While the previous three “plebiscites” described three status options (the definitions of which were often contested) and asked voters to select one, the 2012 plebiscite (held during a statehood administration) was the first to ask two questions: (1) "Are you satisfied with the current territorial status?" to which 54% of the voters responded “no.”(2) Voters were asked to select the status of their choice from three different options (the definitions of which were again hotly contested): statehood, "sovereign free associated state," and independence. The votes were 61.5%, 33.3%, and 5.5%, respectively.

    However, 466,337 voters intentionally left the second question blank, as part of the commonwealth party’s protest over the failure to include their preferred definition of “free associated state.” Those blank votes, added to the sovereign free associated state votes, amount to 51% of the total, leaving statehood with 45.1% of the total vote. The statehood party’s claimed victory rang hollow, as even the U.S. president stated the results were “unclear.”

    Trailer: La última colonia, by Juan Agustín Márquez


  2. The Struggle between Vieques and the U.S. Navy – and the Local Businessess in Solidarity
    By Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan; Co-chair, International Committee & Jan Susler; Co-chair, Puerto Rico Subcommittee

    For half a century, the U.S. Navy expropriated two-thirds of the Vieques territory in the 1940’s and used the island for bombing practice and other military activities.  For decades people in Vieques protested military presence, violence, socio-economic stagnation, environmental destruction and health effects.  Between 1999 and 2003, a non-violent civil disobedience movement – sparked by the April, 1999 Navy killing of Viequense security guard, David Sanes, during a bombing practice accident – with participation by millions of Puerto Ricans and others in the archipelago and the Puerto Rican diaspora, ended U.S. Navy bombing on May 1, 2003.

    In the 1970's, the Guild’s Puerto Rico Project offered solidarity and legal support to the struggle, and Guild members, at the side of Puerto Rico Bar Association colleagues, provided legal defense during the 1999-2003 wave of civil disobedience.

    The community continues to struggle: 1) for environmental clean up – thousands of unexploded bombs and other military artifacts still litter beaches, mangrove lagoons and the coral reefs/ocean floor around the Eastern portion of the island; 2) return of ex-Navy lands (most of the land was transferred to the jurisdiction of U.S. Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service); 3) sustainable development; and 4) attention to Vieques’ heath crisis (the island suffers 30% more cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico, exaggerated levels of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular ills and other catastrophic diseases).

    Vieques, the site of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and home to one of the few bioluminescent bays in the world, is a wonderful vacation destination. You’ll want to visit the Fortín Conde de Mirasol (a Spanish fort built in 1845, which now serves as the island’s museum and home to the historical archives, http://enchanted-isle.com/elfortin/), and patronize businesses friendly to the Vieques struggle:

    Seagate Hotel 787 /741-4661
    Tropical Guest House 787 /741-2449
    Casa de Kathy 787 /741-3352
    (none are owned by Viequenses but by people in solidarity)

    Bieke Bistro/El Patio 787/741-6381
    El Fogón 787/909-2423
    La Viequense panadería  787/741-8213

    Car rentals:
    Maritza’s Car Rental  787/741-0078\

    Contact: Robert Rabin at robert.rabin@cprdv.org, 787/741-1717
    Nilda Medina at incubadora.bieke@cprdv.org787/206-0602
    Ismael Guadalupe at 

  3. The Application of the U.S. Death Penalty in Puerto Rico
    By Mariana Nogales

    Even though Puerto Rico's (U.S.-approved) Constitution has an explicit prohibition of the death penalty, expressing that "the death penalty shall not exist," the U.S. Department of Justice actively pursues enforcing the death penalty in Puerto Rico in the Federal District Court of the District of Puerto Rico – and in a vehement fashion, we might add.
    Puerto Rico is the only place in the world where the death penalty is imposed and legislated by another country, and where its people have no say in the decision.  Puerto Rico has one representative to the U.S. Congress who cannot vote.
    In 2000, in the first case in Puerto Rico under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, U.S. v. Héctor Oscar Acosta Martínez, local federal judge Casellas found that the federal death penalty was inapplicable in Puerto Rico – a decision later overturned by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Puerto Rican jury's verdict in the case was “not guilty.”
    In the second case, 2005, U.S. v. Hernando Medina Villegas and Lorenzo Vladimir Catalán Román, the Puerto Rican jury found them the defendant guilty, but did not impose the death penalty. The third case in 2006, US v. Carlos Ayala López; fourth, in 2012, U.S. v. Edison Burgos; fifth, 2013, U.S. v. Alexis Candelaria; sixth, 2013, U.S. v. Lashaun Casey and seventh, 2013, US v. Xavier Jiménez Benceví –  all were found guilty but in each and every case the Puerto Rican juries refused to impose the death penalty .
    In February 2010, a pro-statehood governor entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Authorities, freely granting jurisdiction to the federal authorities in many criminal cases which would otherwise not be handled in federal court. The Puerto Rican Coalition Against the Death Penalty's prediction of the disastrous results was realized: an avalanche of cases were eligible under the Federal Death Penalty Law of 1994.
    At the moment there are about a dozen cases pending certification, putting more than 20 people in danger of facing the death penalty, making it one of the jurisdictions with the highest number of cases certified by the U.S. Department of Justice for the death penalty.
    The people of Puerto Rico have a long history of rejecting the death penalty.  It was abolished by law in 1929 and constitutionally prohibited in 1952.  Its rejection has been reaffirmed consistently throughout all the cases, notwithstanding the Federal Prosecutor's cries for blood and vengeance.
    The Puerto Rican Coalition against the Death Penalty is the fighting front that unites religious organizations, secular organizations, political and civil rights organizations, families of victims opposed to the death penalty, individuals and the Puerto Rico Bar Association. The Puerto Rican abolitionist struggle has taken us to diverse and international contexts.  For years, we have appeared before the United Nations Decolonization Committee’s hearings on Puerto Rico's colonial status to denounce what we believe to be the issue that best exemplifies our colonial condition: the imposition of the U.S. death penalty.  We are also a part of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty and have attended several assemblies of the U.S. National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, where we have presented the Latino struggle with the death penalty, the specific case of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans facing the death penalty in many states and the federal jurisdiction. In 2008, the NCADP awarded us the Lighting of the Torch Award.
    In each and every death penalty case, we organize demonstrations attended by dozens – and sometimes hundreds – of people to protest in front of the Federal Court for the duration of the entire sentencing phase.
    For Puerto Ricans, the fight against the death penalty is personal and one of the utmost importance.
    The next case is scheduled for October 2013 and might be concurrent with this year's National Lawyers Guild Convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
    Mariana Nogales is an attorney and part of the Puerto Rican Coalition since 2007. She has occupied several positions in the Coalition, including General Coordinator in 2009-2010, and is currently part of the International Affairs Committee. Secretary to the Greater Caribbean for Life working group, she is also a member of the Puerto Rico Bar Association Committee on the Death Penalty, Amnesty International Puerto Rico, Movimiento Amplio de Mujeres de Puerto Rico, and Secular Humanists of Puerto Rico.
  4. University of Puerto Rico Strike: 2010 – 2011
    By Giovanni Roberto

    The University of Puerto Rico (UPR), founded in 1903, is the island’s most important educational institution: it has been instrumental in the development of the economic, social and cultural development of Puerto Rico. Since its inception, it has also been an integral part of the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, and is considered by many as a tool for the perpetuation of the tense relationship of political subordination. For the same reason, the UPR campuses have been the center of social struggles of all kinds: against imperialism and war, for independence and social justice, and for the emancipation of oppressed groups.

    In 2009, the then-Governor, Luis Fortuño, a pro-statehood supporter and self-defined Republican, pushed through several laws, including Law # 7 (Ley 7), the most famous which was intended to reduce public employment and weaken state institutions.  In less than a year, the UPR’s budget was permanently reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars. University administrators, always subordinate to the governor in power, implemented internal austerity measures immediately affecting services and study conditions of over 50,000 students. During that time, they eliminated courses and sessions, closed study rooms and threatened to eliminate tuition waivers, the existence of which benefited more than 10,000 students across the university system of 11 campuses.

    The threat of eliminating tuition waivers resulted in an increase in student demonstrations, assemblies at all campuses and finally the indefinite strike in Río Piedras, the largest and most influential campus of the university system. The strike, which began on April 19, 2010, began to spread to each of the 11 campuses in the first weeks, achieving a university-wide strike, the first in the history of the UPR.

    The student strike managed to put administrators and the government of Puerto Rico up against the wall, creating a social movement that took shape and extended far beyond the walls of the university campuses.  It could be said that the students managed to channel the widespread discontent that grew against the government and the economic crisis.

    During the first month of the strike, the administration reported that they had plans to impose a new fee of $800 the following semester, which extended the standoff.  Students were successful in getting the administration to not make any substantial changes to the tuition waiver policy for the following semester so that there were no increases in August, however the administration continued its plans to increase tuition costs.  Because of their position, a new student strike took place between December 2010 and February 2011.

    This second strike was, however, different from the first.  On the one hand, the government decided to occupy the campuses with state police and use police force against students, which had not happened since the 1980s. On the other hand, the student movement had become isolated from other social movements and was the subject of constant anti-strike propaganda from the island’s non-supportive media corporations. The movement was also worn down after more than a year of intense student mobilizations.

    The strike ended without reaching an agreement with the government or administrators, but the impact of the mobilization of young students certainly had an effect on other struggles and political processes. Many of these young people were mobilized against the attempt of Governor Fortuño to eliminate the right to bail in August 2012. Others have since dedicated themselves to community work or remain active in social movements and change work across the country.

    The new Governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, recognized the importance of the student movement and eliminated the tuition increase as one of his first acts in office. Students view this sees this as a belated victory attributed mainly to the second student strike.

  5. LGBT Rights in Puerto Rico:  Still in the Closet
    By Osvaldo Burgos-Pérez
    LGBT communities in Puerto Rico have suffered a long history of discrimination and deprivation of basic human rights.  Basically, the lack of separation between church and state is one of the main reasons for this reality, followed by the total absence of gender perspective in our educational, cultural and public policy systems. All government branches are accomplices to this situation.
    In the case of the Judicial Branch, there is a shameful trend to limit and exclude LGBT rights from almost every aspect of our society. 
    In 2000 the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled on a case authorizing a transsexual woman to change her listed sex on her birth certificate.  This decision was made in the form of a judgment that applied only to the specific case.  Five years later in 2005, the same Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to change one’s sex on birth certificates.  On this occasion the Supreme Court issued its decision by Opinion, which means it becomes a precedent to be followed in other cases.  From that time on, transsexual people in Puerto Rico do not have the right to make any sex change on their birth certificates, making them more vulnerable because their legal documents are not consistent with their gender identity.
    In 2003 the same Court decided that same-sex couples were not protected under the local law against domestic violence, even when there is strong evidence that the legislative intent was to include all kinds of couple relationships, notwithstanding the sexes that comprise the couple.
    Early this year, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico issued an Opinion denying a lesbian mother the right to adopt her daughter in a second parent adoption case, even when all the evidence showed the requested adoption was in the best interest of the child. The government did not oppose the adoption.
    On the other hand, since 2002 there has been a hate crimes law on our Island, but hate crimes against LGBT people are completely absent from statistics because of the lack of prosecution of those cases and the lack of guidelines for the collection of such data.  This is a direct consequence of the homophobia and transphobia inside the Police and the Justice Department and prejudice against LGBT communities in our jurisdiction.
    In terms of gay marriage (forbidden in Puerto Rico), many attempts have been made to raise marriage between a man and a women to the constitutional level.  Even after the recent Opinion from the Supreme Court of the United States on this matter, some members of the fundamentalist religious sector brought this attempt to public discussion yet again.
    Notwithstanding, in recent months there have been some advances in recognition of LGBT rights in our Island.  For example, two bills recognizing the rights of LGBT communities (one forbidding discrimination in employment and the other including same-sex couples in the law against domestic violence) have been approved by the Puerto Rico Legislature, but the legislative process was humiliating and included all kind of insults, stereotypical comments and attacks against LGBT people. In this process, the initially proposed legislation suffered so many amendments that a huge part of the bill was eliminated.
    Even with the gloomy outlook summarized above, there is an enthusiastic and empowered LGBT movement in the Island making a great effort to make Puerto Rico a better place in which equality has a prominent position.
    The road to reach LGBT equality in Puerto Rico is long and steep, but we are willing to face the endeavor.  We will overcome.
    Osvaldo Burgos-Pérez is a gay attorney in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the President of the Human and Constitutional Rights Commission of the Puerto Rico Bar Association.  He served as Executive Director for the Puerto Rico Civil Rights Commission and is a former chair of the Puerto Rican Section of Amnesty International.  He is also co-founder of the Puerto Rican Coalition Against the Death Penalty.