The following is a book review and personal reflection about the book War Against All Puerto Ricans, by Nelson Denis
In the past, I’ve written about how DemocracyNOW’s Juan Gonzalez did an amazing job at changing the invisibility of Puerto Rico’s situation and producing an engaging and very well informed lecture on the current crisis there. I am now going to write about a book that I had been hesitant to read for months, but ultimately came around to reading and could not put it down.
I must explain my hesitation with a minute detail: my own father was from Utuado, which together with Jayuya was one of the places ever in history where the US government has bombed its own citizens. My own family history is embedded into, and put in relief against, the greater history of the Boricua tribe. Today, my father is merely cynical about nationalism, frequently telling people who support Puerto Rican statehood: “don’t have me remind you later that I told you so! (when things don’t turn out as statehooders expect)”. My family is divided on the political status, and having grown up in this environment day in and day out, this book provides me with context, helping me to understand the world from which my father’s cynicism emerged.
We must have Porto Rico, because when a territory of that nature falls into our hands it must never be parted with. – The New York Journal of Commerce
We are not pledged to give Porto Rico independence … It would be much better for her to come at once under the beneficent sway of these United States than to engage in doubtful experiments at self-government, and there is no reason to believe that her people would prefer it. – The New York Times
Because of the nature of what a colony is–basically a country that still has not gained political rights–colonies tend to have a difficult time getting their narrative right. The identity and reality of Puerto Ricans has been proposed and is monopolized by America. People born in Puerto Rico are tax-paying American citizens that live in an island occupied by America, must use American passports and visas when they travel out of the states, must therefore avoid going to where Americans are hated, are expected to abide by American laws, and are governed by a President and a Congress in whose democracy they are barred from participating. The island can not trade with other countries and its waters are protected by the US Coast Guard as part of the US Caribbean border. They have no say in their immigration policy, in who gets a green card and who can become a US citizen in their own island and gain the right to vote, etc.
This type of power over a population does not consolidate itself overnight, and what Nelson Denis does in War Against All Puerto Ricans is document the early decades of the American occupation of Puerto Rico, and how the local population was tamed into submission by the military industrial complex, particularly under anti-Communist paranoia which was at its height just as nationalists were most indignant and most prepared for a revolution against the greatest empire on Earth.
The author is a brilliant and engaging narrator, and the book reads like a novel, although it’s entirely historical and contains nearly 100 pages of sources which took decades to compile. WAAPR contains colorful and funny characters, side stories and anecdotes that are either a pleasure to read, or deeply shocking.
Another benefit of the book is that it helps people who have not lived in a colony to begin to understand the profound psychological repercussions of colonialism. There are many intangible things about living in Puerto Rico that can only be understood by living there. How media persistently presents a Spanish-speaking people with English-speaking cultural and aesthetic ideals, and how this slowly and daily erases the legitimacy of oneself. How the currency is in English and Spanish-language currency looks like fake money. How one’s identity is unclear and people question even whether Puerto Rico is a country, and whether they are in fact Americans. All these things, day in and day out, hammer into the collective psyche of a people, and Puerto Ricans are only uncomfortably, marginally, and awkwardly half-ass embedded into America’s collective psyche as outsiders who are also insiders.
WAAPR is not for the faint of heart, and one must be careful to read dispassionately. There were times during the reading when I had to put the book down. My stomach was revolted. It wasn’t when reading about the Ponce massacre and other massacres, or the sterilization of thousands of uninformed women, or the carpetas incident: these are all events I knew about. It was when reading about the parts I didn’t know about that I had to invoke sobriety: the imprisonment and torture of thousands of innocent people for believing in an ideal, the experiments with prisoners which reduced them to lab rats …
According to the Yankees owning one person makes you a scoundrel, but owning a nation makes you a colonial benefactor. – Pedro Albizu Campos
Then there were the instances where I had to remind myself not to blindly idealize people merely for their pro-nationalist views. Few people discuss how Albizu Campos, the hero of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, was a devoted Catholic who saw no distinction and no clear boundary between his patriotism and his faith: he probably would have instituted a loathsome theocratic-like regime on the island, if he had had his way. Yes, he was a great orator with unequaled passion, but so was Hitler: and for that same reason people need to stop themselves from following blindly after someone without digging deeper into the details of that person’s ideas.
Also, many people today are calling for the release of Oscar Lopez, who was a nationalist terrorist in the 70’s, and even have the audacity of comparing him to Mandela. Well, he’s no Mandela. The reason why dozens of other nationalists were set free and he wasn’t is because he has declared war on the US and refuses to give up violence as a tactic. He has basically sworn to continue engaging in the same acts that got him into jail. Do independentistas really want a terrorist who has vowed to kill innocent people again for the sake of his ideals to roam the streets, and become the image and the voice of their movement? That is the LAST thing Puerto Rico needs.
One small side note: a similar volume to this has probably not been written about Spain’s colonial misdeeds for four centuries prior to the Spanish-American war in Puerto Rico, which involved–among other things–the genocide of Tainos, the theft of all the gold in the island’s rivers and extraction of other wealth, the enslavement of Blacks, and the “libreta de jornada” which required even white Puerto Ricans to work for Spaniards and report their weekly hours of work to the government, instituting de-facto slavery even after slavery was abolished, and many other attrocities. It must be noted that the US was not better or worse than Spain as a landlord, and that idealized depictions of the Spanish heritage and history of the island are also biased and misinformed.
And so while I understand and share the anger and indignation that drove the author to write WAAPR, it’s important to evaluate the recklessness of some of these nationalists in honest light of the hard facts. And also, it’s important to remember that, in the end, their tactics DID NOT free Puerto Rico. The US is the most militarized empire in the history of humankind and the decolonization of the island, whether in favor of statehood or independence, must happen without the use of weapons.
The book painfully ends up with a reflection of America itself and at what cost she came to be “great”. It does not spare words of honesty in this regard. Maybe if enough people read this book, this false sense of exceptionalism, and the many sad dysfunctions that it masks, can be tackled honestly and overcome.