The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 61 (Summer 2000).
On May 4, the U.S. started dislodging non-violent activists from year-old encampments set up on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques to protest the U.S. military presence. Since then there has been a cat-and-mouse game between protesters and the federal authorities; protestors enter the bombing range, the authorities arrest them.
Civil disobedience has been the predominant strategy of the movement. This has made it difficult for the U.S. to re-initiate military maneuvers. But as we will show, it has not dealt a decisive blow to the U.S.’s re-starting its deadly target practice on the island. We will examine the events and politics behind this struggle in order to argue for a mass working-class strategy and the building of a revolutionary party leadership as the alternative for taking the anti-imperialist struggle forward.
In April of last year, a civilian security guard, David Sanes, was accidentally killed by a bomb dropped by a Navy airplane in the course of training. This sparked a popular movement demanding that the routine use of Vieques for military practice be permanently terminated. The groundswell against the U.S. presence was so broad that the slogan “Ni un tiro más!” (Not one more shot!) was championed by the entire political spectrum in Puerto Rico. Most of the nationalist (as well as socialist-identified) left in Puerto Rico went along with the idea that a solid cross-class opposition to the military had been achieved.
Our last article (in Proletarian Revolution No. 60) predicted that the proclaimed national unity against the military in Vieques would inevitably crack. Sure enough, on January 31, Clinton and his henchman Pedro Rosselló, the incumbent governor of Puerto Rico from the pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP: New Progressive Party), arrived at a “compromise.” It meant that U.S. imperialism would continue to pull the strings and Rosselló would continue to dance. A presidential directive declared that the bombing would start up again in May. Rosselló supported this even though it differed little from the Pentagon’s previous offers which he had claimed to oppose — and at times with fairly militant rhetoric.
The PNP’s main bourgeois political competitor, the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD: Popular Democratic Party), supports the current commonwealth (i.e. colonial) status of Puerto Rico. During the peak of the pro-Vieques movement it played along with the popular sentiment. But when Rosselló caved in it trailed not far behind.
After Sanes’ death in 1999, protestors had set up encampments in the area of Vieques restricted for military use, in order to prevent further bombing. The best known personage in this civil disobedience was Rubén Berrios, head of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP: Puerto Rican Independence Party). The PIP is the third bourgeois party in Puerto Rican politics, much smaller than the PNP and PPD; it generally wins a tiny amount of votes. It nominally favors independence for Puerto Rico, as opposed to either the current status or statehood.
The encampments remained in place from April 1999 until May of this year, when over 200 protestors were dislodged and arrested. While the U.S. of course always had the military capacity to dislodge a small number of protestors for unlawful trespassing onto its property, it feared to do so until recently. Clinton & Co. knew that the encampments were a symbol of the mass sentiment against the military that permeates Puerto Rico. For this reason, although we disagree with passive civil disobedience as a strategy, we believe that defense of the encampments was a vital task.
The PNP, however, never supported the encampments, even when it was pretending to oppose the military presence. The PNP understood too well that the encampments would eventually have to be squashed. The PPD equivocated over the question but, true to its bourgeois character, came out against continuing the encampments after Clinton and Rosselló struck their deal. Sila Calderón, the mayor of San Juan and also the PPD’s gubernatorial candidate in the upcoming elections, is the most important figure in the PPD. She said that after Rosselló agreed to collaborating in the removal of the demonstrators, there would be a potentially violent situation; “it would be highly irresponsible on the part of whatever leader to make a call for civil disobedience."
What was what needed was a defense of the civil disobedience activists through a tremendous escalation of protest activity on Vieques itself, plus a call for mass militant action throughout Puerto Rico. Given the uproar over the accidental death of one man, would the U.S. risk dropping any bombs if masses of people descended on Vieques and refused to budge? Would the imperialists and their agents feel free to arrest or injure masses of protesters, who are backed up with the support of the trade unions and other mass organizations in Puerto Rico and elsewhere? This is the kind of power that has yet to be tapped into.
It is a question of the balance of forces. There have been months to prepare a powerful response. But a few hundred non-violent protesters on Vieques, however heroic and resourceful, were not enough. The working class and oppressed have to fight fire with fire. In our leaflets and magazine, we have argued for mass workers’ demonstrations and a general strike.
Unfortunately, nothing like this approach has been posed by the leaders of the pro-Vieques campaign. The struggle should already have been taken up by the mass organizations of Puerto Rico’s workers, the unions. The working class, even under misleadership, had already proved its capacity in militant strikes and even general strikes, as recently as the 1998 strike against privatization. (See PR 58.) Under revolutionary leadership, the unions would mobilize the workers in a determined struggle. But the union leaders today stand for collaboration with the system and avoidance of confrontation.
There was a march of 100,000 through the streets of San Juan on February 21, one of the largest demonstrations in Puerto Rican history. But it was kept silent and passive. Given the pro-capitalist nature of the union bureaucracy and with bourgeois political figures in the PNP and PPD discredited, the leadership was handed to the clergy—which had played a critical role in the defeat of the 1998 general strike by their insistence on ending the strike on terms highly unfavorable for the working class. Instead of a militant and spirited display of mass opposition to imperialism, the clerical leaders imposed a message of passivity.
As a result of the successful restraint of the working class, Clinton, Reno and Rosselló seem about to succeed with their attack.
The absence of the organized working class helped reinforce the false impression that nothing more than symbolic protest against the military is possible. The only exception so far was a four-hour work stoppage by the electric utility workers union, UTIER, on May 8. Rosselló was so terrified of the prospect of strike sentiment spreading that he ordered the National Guard to occupy several public installations.
In the course of these events the nationalist leadership of the protests has shown its bankruptcy. Once the die was cast on January 31, the PIP maintained its focus on civil disobedience. After the activists were basically dislodged from the encampments on May 4, there was only one big rally, along with a number of smaller ones. A few thousand united in a protest called by the PIP and other groups in front of the Federal Building in San Juan on May 5. In that protest, demonstrators rightfully denounced Calderón as a traitor for crossing their picket line to attend a celebration at the building with Rosselló!
At the ceremony she was a master of equivocation. “It is necessary to open our ears, our minds and our hearts to the demands that are being made to us against what [the demonstrators] perceive is an injustice. Some can disagree with those demands. But there is room, I propose, to make a better accommodation through cooperation than what was imposed by force yesterday,” referring to the May 4 arrests.
But on May 7 Berrios stated that “our struggle is against the Navy, the U.S. government and the bombing of Vieques. I’m not going to waste one minute of my time attacking Calderón … or Governor Rosselló.” As if the fight against the Navy could be separated from the fight against the Puerto Rican parties that were caving in! The ranks of demonstrators had it right, not Berrios.
The PIP is an openly pro-capitalist party. Its reformist views go a long way toward explaining the compromising character of its “independence” proposals and its insistence that U.S. attacks on Puerto Rico are a matter of mistaken policy rather than imperialist necessity.
Since his first arrest, Berrios was among those who re-entered the bombing range and were re-arrested. Some may serve heavy jail time, as Berrios has done in the past. We defend all the activists against any charges. At the same time, Berrios’ actions have to be analyzed for their political intent. By engaging in individual or small-group civil disobedience, Berrios has sought to keep the masses passive. At no point did he or the PIP call an all-out mass mobilization.
Just as the PIP capitulated to the overtly colonial parties, some of the more radical nationalists have capitulated to the PIP. The Congreso Nacional Hostosiano (CNH) is a nationalist group ostensibly to the left of the PIP. Ismael Guadalupe of the CNH has been a leading spokesman for the Comité pro Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques (CPRDV: Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques), which played a leading role in the encampments. Guadalupe is currently facing federal charges based on his participation in a number of civil disobedience acts over Vieques. (In 1979 he was sentenced to six months in jail for trespassing on military lands in Vieques and spent six months in jail, and he was also a target of an FBI campaign.) Individual bravery is no substitute for the necessary mass mobilizations. While the PIP refuses to call for them, the CNH fails to criticize the PIP or fight for such a policy itself.
More recently, the CPRDV endorsed a fast in front of the White House to pressure for a meeting with Clinton. This is another act that reflects weakness and victimization rather than the power that could be tapped into. Many Latino and other workers in the U.S. could be drawn into solidarity action with the Vieques struggle.
The CNH’s apparently diplomatic peace with the PIP is also shown by its shifts on electoral policy. Juan Mari Bras, formerly head of the now-defunct Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) is another leading figure in the CNH. Mari Bras called for all independentistas to vote for the PIP. Worse, he argued that since the PNP candidate was certain to lose to Calderón, the perceived “lesser evil,” voting for Berrios and the PIP wouldn’t damage her chances.
The most prominent far-left grouping in Puerto Rico is the Frente Socialista (FS: Socialist Front). This front groups together individual members as well as three main organizations: the Partido Revolucionario de Trabajadores Puertorriqueños (PRTP: Puerto Rican Workers Revolutionary Party), in political solidarity with the guerrillaist Macheteros; the Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST: Socialist Workers Movement), an “independent socialist” formation with sizeable youth and student support; and the Taller de Formación Política (TFP: Political Education Workshop), associated with the pseudo-Trotskyist United Secretariat. The MST and TFP collaborate on a monthly newspaper, Bandera Roja, which serves as an organ for the FS as a whole. Although each component group reserves the right to issue its own propaganda, they have agreed on a common program, and we have seen no distinct identifying statements on the Vieques struggle from the groups.
Since the arrests, the FS has taken the initiative in organizing demonstrations in front of Fort Buchanan, a major military base in San Juan, and student protests, walkouts and strikes at University of Puerto Rico campuses in Ponce, Mayagüez, Bayamón, and Hato Rey. In the past year, it sought to heighten anti-imperialist sentiment by organizing rallies against U.S. military installations and recruitment facilities throughout the country.
For several months, FS militants have been under attack by the Puerto Rican government and moderate forces within the Vieques movement for their unapologetic defense of Puerto Ricans’ right to defend themselves against the imperialists. Luis Angel Torres of the MST wrote: “Faced with the history of violence and illegal actions by the Navy and the repressive character of the police, it would be absurd to pretend that we who are struggling against this powerful military monster should rely solely on peaceful actions and repudiate our legitimate right to self-defense and to combat the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed.”
Most importantly, since the arrests the FS has come out for a nationwide general strike. We of course support the call for a general strike and are glad that the FS has begun openly working for it. A general strike is a powerful weapon in the working class’s arsenal, far stronger than isolated acts of small-group civil disobedience.
But building for a general strike requires that the ranks of workers’ organizations place demands on their leaders and prepare to ultimately replace any leadership that serves as an obstacle. In this case we hope it is not a matter of “too little, too late.” The February 21 march in San Juan was an opportunity to propagandize for a general strike and attract a layer of workers capable of providing leadership in this fight. Yet most groups abided in full with the clerical imposition of complete silence and the banning of all literature distributions. According to our reporter in San Juan that day, this included the FS; only the LRP was distributing literature calling for a general strike. As a much larger organization with an established presence in Puerto Rico, the FS could have done far more.
A concern is that Bandera Roja and various FS spokespeople have been politically uncritical of the PIP, In fact, the FS continues to endorse the civil disobedience strategy uncritically.
There is further evidence that the FS is not dedicated to independent working-class action. The FS appears to have come out for a vote for the PIP, right after Juan Mari Bras did so. According to our reporter, both Jorge Farinacci and Luis Angel Torres, of the PRTP and MST respectively, have spoken in favor of this strategy. If any wing of the FS does not hold this position, we have seen no public statement.
Nationalists like the CNH and even the PIP dabble in socialist rhetoric when it suits them. But the FS claims to be a Marxist revolutionary organization, from which advanced workers should expect a clear line of political opposition to bourgeois parties, including bourgeois nationalist parties. Of course, parties like the PIP may be temporary allies in specific moments of struggle. But that is a different matter from political support.
Bourgeois nationalists in colonies like Puerto Rico and other oppressed countries can often take an anti-imperialist line. But as the PIP shows, bourgeois nationalism represents an anti-working class program of austerity as well as capitulation to imperialism. In large part, the PIP’s political record on both these matters has alienated both the most steadfast radical petty-bourgeois independentistas as well as the working class at large. The FS proclaims the need for proletarian political independence in words, writing that “the interests of the bosses and the workers, the exploiters and the exploited, are irreconcilable.” These words are correct, but if the FS votes for the bourgeois PIP, it says that the classes in fact are not irreconcilable.
The FS does not warn the working class that nationalism is an enemy, despite the heroic struggle of many nationalists. For example, an article in the June issue of Bandera Roja says that “Socialists, though having important differences with the political ideas of the nationalists, must recognize the importance of nationalism in the struggle for independence.”
There is a difference between the struggle for reforms, in which revolutionaries take part alongside our fellow workers, and the ideology of reformism, through which bourgeois agents in the workers’ movement seek to hide the necessary revolutionary tasks from workers. Likewise there is a difference between the necessary anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation and the pro-capitalist ideology of nationalism. For Marxists, the struggle requires building working-class vanguard parties and an International, not multi-class parties that subordinate working-class interests.
The South African ANC is an outstanding example today of a nationalist party that incorporated much of the working class in order to betray it to national capitalism and imperialism. And it serves as a model for the PIP. (See PR 60.)
The task of revolutionary communists is to warn against bourgeois nationalist ideology and leadership, which will inevitably betray the struggle by seeking to keep within the bounds acceptable to the capitalist system.
The workers of Puerto Rico have proven quite capable of dealing strong blows to U.S. imperialism. Their strongest weapon in this struggle is their own advanced consciousness, which must be organized into a revolutionary party capable of fighting for leadership in all struggles. Revolutionary workers in the U.S. and throughout the world must join them in this struggle, and fight for the building of an international working-class revolutionary party, the re-created Fourth International.