Filiberto Ojeda Rios: a Puerto Rican life

About the author
Ari Paul is a freelance journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in In These Times,Citizen Culture, and Time Out Chicago.

23 September 2006 marks the anniversary of the death of Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios at the hands of the United States's federal police service, the FBI. It is also a day when the people of this Caribbean island of about 4 million people celebrate Grito de Lares, an uprising in 1868 against the Spanish colonial rulers.

Some call it a coincidence, but Puerto Rican independence activists (both on the island and in the United States, under whose administration Puerto Rico operates as a self-governing commonwealth) see the killing of Rios as not just a botched attempted to arrest an alleged bank robber, but as a deliberate blow against their movement.

On the anniversary, activists in the western town of Lares, in San Juan province, and in New York will come together to commemorate Grito de Lares; but this year they will mourn their loss and display their anger against what they feel was an unjust act by an unjust occupier. For many other US citizens, the event can serve as a way to renew the debate on possible independence for the territory.

Ari Paul has written for The American Prospect, In These Times, Z Magazine, Red Pepper, and many other publications. He lives and works in New York

Also by Ari Paul in openDemocracy:

"Colombia's agony, Coca-Cola's responsibility, Americans' solidarity" (31 August 2006)

Filiberto, life and death

Filiberto Ojeda Rios was the leader of an armed resistance group called the Macheteros, or the Boricua People's Army. What some would call a terrorist ring others called a group of freedom fighters using violence against American military outposts. Since Rios saw the American presence itself as the result of a violent invasion, he thought violence in response was justified.

His militant politics were mixed with a carefree temperament. News footage shows him laughing out Viva Puerto Rico! while being hauled off by American law-enforcement agents. The Economist, a conservative British weekly, called him "unusually bright", reporting that he had entered university when he was 15 years old.

In 1983, he was arrested with other members of the Macheteros in connection with a bank robbery in Connecticut. While out on bail he was being tracked with an electronic ankle bracelet, which he removed on the symbolic date of 23 September, and went underground.

While in hiding in the western part of the island, Rios became (according to some independence activists) a sort of folk icon, as he often gave radio interviews from safe houses and wrote newspaper articles. People would often talk about "Filiberto sightings", and these added to his mystique even among those who may not have shared his politics.

There are many accounts of Rios's last days. What is known is that an informant had tipped off the FBI where Rios and his wife were living, although Rios himself wasn't keeping it much of a secret. Independence activists say he displayed a Macheteros flag over his door, a claim also made by the Nation magazine. Hundreds of federal agents, working without local officers, surrounded his house. They claim Rios fired at them, and that they fired back. Rios was shot, but the agents sealed off the area and would not enter the house until the next day, where he was found dead. FBI officials claim they waited for safety reasons. Rios's followers claim they did this so he would bleed to death.

Five months later, in February 2006, the FBI raided the homes of several independence leaders. In addition to the protests that followed Rios's death in Puerto Rico itself, two US Congressmen from New York questioned the FBI about its behaviour. Puerto Rico's attorney-general also conducted an investigation. A federal report cleared the agents of excessive wrongdoing in ambushing Rios's dwelling.

Since his death, supporters in Puerto Rico have held vigils in his memory on the 23rd of each month in various towns, according to activists in New York. A group of artists called the Ricanstruction collective have screened video interviews with Rios around the city on the same date.

"Whether they agreed with his politics or means of fighting for independence or not", says Hiram Rivera Marcano, 29, an independence activist living in New York, "most Puerto Ricans felt it was a cowardly act of violence against a 71-year-old man."

The case for freedom

After its long history of Spanish colonisation, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American war. Today, people sceptical about the independence movement contend that Puerto Rico has it better than other Caribbean states due to its special relationship with the United States. Life expectancy is high. Puerto Ricans qualify for American public-assistance programmes without paying taxes for them. They can move freely to American cities and gain employment. The relative poverty in the independent Dominican Republic has caused waves of migrants to cross the Mona Passage into Puerto Rico in search of a better life.

"What is not ever mentioned or taken into consideration", says Marcano, "is the price that has been paid by Puerto Ricans for this ‘better' living."

Unemployment is higher relative to America's more depressed states. Puerto Rico also has higher rates of poverty than the poorest states, including hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi. With a lack of opportunities in Puerto Rico, many move to the United States, where they struggle to survive in the country's working-class barrios. "We have lost traditions and family customs", says Marcano. "Every day we lose more and more of who we are, in the name of assimilation here in the United States."

The island is still of importance to the United States. Puerto Rico is a place where American businesses can set up production at low cost. And, like Native American reservations and maverick states such as Nevada, Puerto Rico serves as a place for Americans to gamble.

The small island of Vieques off Puerto Rico's coast may no longer be used for target practice by the American military, but it is still of strategic military importance. It could be a jumping-off point for a war with Cuba. It also gives the US a foothold in a region that is progressively rejecting the legacy of the Monroe doctrine and the Washington consensus alike.

Meanwhile, nationalists see Puerto Rico as the last real colony in a world where multinational corporations have taken the place of the imperial occupier in places like Latin America. At the same time, in plebiscites the people of Puerto Rico have overwhelmingly endorsed the status quo. Even the Macheteros only count around 1,000 operatives. Other separatist groups are considered dormant by US law-enforcement agencies.

For Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the reason independence never became popular was institutionalised fear among Puerto Ricans. Some feared economic instability and violence from the United States. Others distanced themselves from independence because they knew it would mean losing public assistance. "We have learned to look forward to and appreciate food stamps and other hand outs the US throws at us", says Marcano.

Marcano believes that even though a transition to independence would have its consequences, all former colonies must have their taste of sovereignty in the 21st century. In the spirit of the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, Rios forecast that the movement for independence would be motivated by something other than a cold cost-benefit analysis of national sovereignty. "One cannot love as much as we love our people", Rios told a reporter in a videotaped interview while underground. "The people won't let themselves be fooled."