Oscar López Rivera And FALN Were Right: Puerto Rico Is A US Colony

Oscar López Rivera served many years in prison–before finally having his sentence commuted by Barack Obama earlier this year–for having the temerity to suggest that the US treated Puerto Rico like a colony–and that Puerto Ricans should do something about it, including taking violent measures if necessary, a standpoint forced upon them by the systematic exploitation of the island by the mainland. He was right; and recent events have only proved him right all over again.

Puerto Rico lies devastated by Hurricane Maria; its residents lack housing, food, water, medicine, electricity; the lives of many its residents are endangered; but the White House, which has busied itself in recent days with interfering in how a private entity should discipline its employees, has merely sat on its hands and fiddled. Unconscionably, it has refused to suspend the Jones Act thus blocking the delivery of supplies to Puerto Rico by ships not registered the US. Indeed, rather than expediting relief efforts and the supply of aid, the incompetent Chief Executive has merely ranted about Puerto Rico’s debts. His supporters, who probably do not realize Puerto Ricans are American citizens, are not to be blamed; they have figured out, correctly enough, that Puerto Rico is not ‘really’ American:

Puerto Rico has been a US possession since it was “acquired” — in the usual colonial fashion, through armed disputation — from Spain in 1898. Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917, just in time for 20,000 “Boricuas” to be drafted to serve in World War I. Almost a century later, Puerto Ricans living on their island are not allowed to vote in presidential elections; Puerto Ricans have attained neither statehood nor independence. Along the way, they have suffered the indignity of a ban — imposed in 1948 — on owning a Puerto Rican flag, singing a “patriotic song,” or advocating for independence. Their curious political status, a “United States territory,” which is not a state, but whose residents are given automatic US citizenship, ensures economic and political exploitation by the “mainland.”

Colonies suffer at the hands of colonizers; callousness and indifference make sure that deliberate malevolent cruelty is not required; it is enough merely to not care. (The English honed this art to a fine degree during their creation of the Great Bengal Famine during the Second World War–millions died then.)

Rivera’s parent organization, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional  (FALN) took violent measures–between 1974 and 1983–in an attempt to free Puerto Rico from US subjugation; it had figured out that colonizers require unsubtle ‘persuasion’ at times. There is much sanctimonious bewailing when political organizations fighting to liberate occupied lands deploy violence to achieve political ends; when asked to defend their tactics, a straightforward defense is that the occupier forced their hand, that the denudation of the colonized land and its citizens is a violent act that requires a retaliatory response. Consider now the callous indifference with which the US administration has responded to the dire situation in Puerto Rico: the blood of all those who die for lack of water, food, or electricity in hospitals will be on their hands. If a modern-day FALN were to arise and take up arms, only the deliberately obtuse would have the temerity to suggest their violence would be unjustified.

Update: Shortly after I posted this, I heard the news that the Jones Act has been suspended. My broader claim stands; moreover, this belated lifting does nothing to exculpate the initial callous response and rhetoric.

Oscar López Rivera and the Cabanillas

My essay on the Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera “Oscar López Rivera and the Cabanillas” is out in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Please read and share. Oscar’s case–and the miscarriage of justice at the heart of it–deserves to be known and talked about far more widely than it is now.  I owe many thanks to Fernando Cabanillas and Jan Susler of the People’s Law Office for their help in writing this essay.

‘Empire,’ ‘Self-Government,’ and ‘Religious Conflict’

In The Colors of Violence, an attempt to contribute ‘a depth-psychological dimension to the understanding of religious conflict, especially the tensions between Hindus and Muslims [in India]’, Sudhir Kakar writes¹:

If Hindu-Muslim relations were in better shape in the past, with much less overt violence, it was perhaps also because of the kind of polity in which the two peoples lived. This polity was that of empire, the Mughal empire followed by the British one. An empire…Michael Walzer observes,² is characterized by a mixture of repression for any strivings for independence and tolerance for different cultures, religions and ways of life. The tolerance is not a consequence of any great premodern wisdom but because of the indifference, sometimes bordering on brutal incomprehension, of the imperial bureaucrats to local conflicts of the people they rule. Distant from local life,  they do not generally interfere with everyday life as long as things remain peaceful, though there may be intermittent cruelty to remind the subject peoples of the basis of empire–conquest through force of arms. It is only with self-government, when distance disappears, that the political questions–‘Who among us shall have power here, in these villages, in these towns?’ ‘Will the majority group dominate?’ ‘What will be the new ranking order?’–lead to a heightened awareness of religious-cultural differences. In countries with multireligious populations, independence coincides with tension and conflict–such as we observe today in the wake of the unravelling of the Soviet empire.

This  analysis of religious conflict is not inconsistent with those that see it grounded in economic dispute and class struggle; the political questions noted above have an economic dimension to them as well, for variants of the power being mediated and parceled out and haggled over are very often economic ones; and class struggles may only become more starkly visible when the mediating hand of empire is removed. It is however, in the Indian context, inconsistent with those accounts of Hindu-Muslim conflict, which view the two ‘communities’ as living in a state of peaceful, tolerant amity before being rudely interrupted in their mutually respectful reveries by the heavy hand of the divide and rule colonialist; instead, here, it is the colonial stamp that keeps the incipient clashes at bay.

The empires of the colonialist enterprise displaced questions of power to its centers, away from the margins, and rendered its most central questions in a form that appeared only in highly restricted forms–pertaining to survival, not flourishing–to its subjects. ‘Local conflicts’ of the sort alluded to above remained low-stakes affairs, the spoils accruing to their victors not great enough to warrant the mobilization of a favored group along lines that emphasized social, cultural and religious identity. It is only when the trappings of the immense power associated with governmentality become visible that the group draws in closer and prepares to make an ambitious, even if expensive and bloody, play for power.


1. Sudhir Kakar, The Colors of Violence, Penguin Books India, 1995, pp.  241

2. Michael Walzer, ‘Nations and minorities’, in C. Fried, ed., Minorities: Community and Identity, (Berlin: Springer Verlag), pp. 219-27