Nelson A. Denis is a the kind of renaissance man that significantly shapes the perceptions of his generation. In the tradition of New York reform politician Vito Marcantonio, he is an attorney, former editorial director of El Diario, former New York State Assemblyman (D. 1997-2001), and the author, most recently, of War Against All Puerto Ricans!—a hybrid text, equal parts history, biography, social critique, and political statement. Denis, using declassified F.B.I. files (carpetas) and other primary source materials, mines what is hidden at the heart of the “commonwealth” relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Over a century of clandestine operations implemented by the U.S. to maintain colonial control over the island nation are uncovered in great depth and with a sensitivity only an experienced writer could wield. I came away from the text feeling that I understood a new definition of Orwellian horror and its actualization. Puerto Ricans do not exist in the continental imagination. As the colonized exists only in the imagination of its colonizer as a beast of burden, a subaltern. That being said, I came away from this interview hopeful for the possibility of a future. Hopeful for the future of a people struggling to be free from the shadow of a world superpower in decline.
This interview was conducted via email over the course of a few weeks. I reached out to Nelson Denis, who, in campaigning for the book, made himself very available to the public. He kindly agreed to converse with the Broome Street Review regarding the writing of his book, the hidden history of Puerto Rico, and the recent events of the debt crisis.
How did you come to write “War Against All Puerto Ricans!”? What inspired this radical text and what was your process like while writing and researching it? Finally, how did you manage to find publication for such a controversial title?
I didn't originally set out to write a book. For the past 40 years, I have been interviewing family members in Puerto Rico, and people whom they introduced me to — especially early members of the Nationalist party, who had been active in the 1930s through 1950s.
I heard astounding stories and kept notes on them. I followed up with several of these stories, and cross-interviewed many people to verify and particularize the facts.
Just before graduating from Harvard undergrad, I published a well-researched article on the constitution of Puerto Rico, and the referendum process which preceded it, by way of "legitimizing" the E.L.A. before the U.N. Decolonization Committee. The article became the cover story of the Winter 1977 Harvard Political Review, and it is included in the appendix of my book.
By the way, I find it fascinating that the principal draftsman, architect and lobbyist for the "constitution," Chief Judge of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court José Trias Monge, later REPUDIATED the entire "E.L.A." (Estado Libre Asociado – Free Associated State or Commonwealth) process as a cheap colonial veneer in his book Puerto Rico: Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World (Yale University Press).
I still wasn't writing a book.
Then in 2000, Congressman José Serrano got the "carpetas" de-classified. Many thousands of secret F.B.I. files suddenly became available. I read a few dozen of these carpetas and became enraged with what I saw — how lives, careers, and families had been destroyed, all over the island, for six decades.
That is when I decided to write this book. To get the record straight — on how the U.S. government, the F.B.I., and economic hit men systematically destroyed the fabric of Puerto Rican society, to ensure a continuity of revenue. The legacy of all this, is what we have on the island today — a ruined economy, a corrupt political class, a cancerous relationship with the U.S.
WAAPR is now an Amazon bestseller. It would seem people have been waiting for a comprehensive document, a timely Jeremiad, chronicling the excessive injustices perpetrated by the U.S. in Latin America. Specifically within Puerto Rico. In your Harvard Review article “The Curious Constitution of Puerto Rico”, you call it “friendly paternalism”. WAAPR clearly illustrates the various ways in which the U.S. has used P.R. not only as a colonial vessel and mercantile battery, but as a test site—a repository for military weapons testing, political farce and extortion, gerrymandering, surveillance (carpetas), police brutality, torture. The list of abuses goes on and on. What you’ve managed to uncover is all at once eye-opening, grotesque, unsurprising, and exciting. As well, it’s affirming that you tell the stories the remain untold. For those of us in the diaspora there’s so little available on the revolutionary life of Don Pedro Albizu Campos. And I was glad to read about Juan Emilio Viguié—a figure not often brought up. I was surprised to learn that he’d spent time working in Presidio, TX with a certain Mexican revolutionary…
All my lauds aside: The passing of the Jones-Shafroth act in 1917 makes Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens. It becomes clear to critics that the act is flawed in four obvious ways: “(1) the US Congress could ignore any Puerto Rican bill of rights, (2) it could override any ‘laws' passed by the Puerto Rican legislature, (3) the resident commissioner had no vote in the US Congress, and (4) US ‘citizenship' was a vehicle for drafting Puerto Rican men into the US military.” (p195) This sets the tone for what César Ayala and Rafael Bernabe refer to as the “American Century”. On top of that we have a long history of unfair cabotage policy (Jones Act) since the twenties which reminds me of 17th century Mercantilism. While I do not agree that Puerto Rico is the world’s last colony—I do know, for a fact, that Puerto Rico is the world’s most notable (and notably ignored) colony because of its proximity to the U.S. Now in the 21st century, where are we? Has anything changed?
And perhaps a more relevant question: If we’ve been set up for the catastrophe of our present by ELA status (among many other things), what recourse do we have for recovery? Will Puerto Rico be vacated by mid-century?
This is a very involved question, but here are the basic components as I see them:
Jones Act Reform
Ending the Jones Act in Puerto Rico could mean the shift of 50,000 jobs from Jacksonville FL to Puerto Rico. It would also end artificial price support for U.S. products, which has forced Puerto Ricans to pay 15-25% higher prices than on the U.S. mainland, for every product they consume.
International Trading Rights
Puerto Rico does not have the authority to create trade relations with any country on earth. This must end a.s.a.p. The economic benefits are obvious and enormous.
Corporate Re-Patriation of Profits
There should be no corporate tax abatement scheme (particularly for U.S. and foreign corporations) without a mandatory re-investment of a stipulated percentage of profits into Puerto Rican industrial development and local infrastructure.
End of Plenary Jurisdiction
The U.S. Congress has plenary jurisdiction (absolute veto power) over any law passed by the Puerto Rico legislature. In other words, Puerto Rico’s legislature is treated like a child, and all of their laws are subject to arbitrary annulment. This also must end a.s.a.p.
Tariffs, Import/Export Fees and Regulations
Puerto Rico needs to set her own import/export tariffs, and keep the money in her treasury. Currently it all goes to the U.S.
Statehood is not an option: the U.S. Congress, Wall Street, the Jacksonville unions, and the Jones Act carrier companies will all fiercely oppose it.
That leaves independence...but we need a phased independence, during which the above five (and several more) measures are put into place...so that Puerto Rico can become self-sufficient, de facto independent, and create its international relationships in a deliberate, optimal manner, not out of desperation. After a 10 or 15 year period...complete and irreversible independence. It is both doable and necessary.
I’m glad you mentioned the idea of a phased independence. In the book you discuss the Tydings Bill. It struck me as strange, too strange, that the amended Tydings Independence Bill (which did propose a phased independence for Puerto Rico in the forties) was turned down—despite its general support from all of Puerto Rico. It would seem strange that its only vocal opposition was from the first Governor of the island, Luis Muñoz Marín. Come to find out he was blackmailed by the F.B.I...
|"Described by reliable informants as having a bad case of 'Puerto Rican inferiority complex,' which results in anti-American tendencies."|
What incentive does J. Edgar Hoover have to blackmail Luis Muñoz Marín with character defamation while the Tydings bill (which proposed a 4 then 20 year plan for gradual independence) is on the table in the U.S.? Do you think this was manufactured to create the illusion that Puerto Ricans (via their first elected Governor) did not approve of or desire independence?
If so, it would seem these illusions of democracy on the island are still being manufactured today—with questionable referenda…Now here we are…On August 1st the island was allowed to default on some 72 billion dollars in debt which accrued probably from the late sixties onward (correct me if I’m wrong). This economic crash was inevitable. What does default look like in a Puerto Rico which is well below the poverty line and already pressed with absurd austerity measures?
Luis Muñoz Marín opposed every member of his own party...ALL of the PPD (Partido Popular Democratico, Popular Democratic Party) legislators supported the Tydings Bill except for LMM...but he was the 800-pound gorilla.
J. Edgar Hoover blackmailed LMM because it behooved the U.S. to keep Puerto Rico as a territory. They make more money that way. Also J. Edgar Hoover was not about to expose P.R. to the "red menace" of Communism, which he was convinced would occur in virtually every country that the US did not dominate. It was a very self-serving neurosis.
The Estado Libre Asociado was a farce engineered to demonstrate to the U.N. Decolonization Committee that P.R. was no longer a colony. That was the only purpose of the whole charade. The best research on this is a book written by the Attorney General and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, José Trías Monge, who was the principal draftsman and lobbyist for ELA status at the U.N. The book he finally wrote was Puerto Rico: Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World (Yale University Press).
Default on the $73 billion debt is necessary and ultimately constructive. UNTIL significant reforms are structured into the debt negotiation — things like Jones Act Reform, Chapter 9 powers, international trading rights — PR should not pay this debt. Once they pay the debt, they lose all leverage.
Remember what Don Pedro said: "The only way to deal with the United States, is to become a very big problem for them."