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.

Hiking The El Toro Trail in El Yunque

The problem with a rainforest is that, well, it rains. And when you are hiking the El Toro trail in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, you are reminded of that quasi-tautological fact quite often. You are also reminded of the remarkable effect that moisture has on damp earth as it renders its consistency a texture most appropriately described as “muddy.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. And I’m being reductive.

The El Toro trail constitutes an alternative to El Yunque’s more accessible, busier trails; it gets you to the top of the highest point in El Yunque, and delivers its payoff in the form of stunning views (when they are not being obscured by thick clouds and rain). But even the partial mix of sun and cloud make for some stunning interplays of light and the lush, freshly-washed foliage of the upper reaches. The trail is especially worth doing in the company of someone that knows the local flora and fauna; alternatively, one should sufficiently educate oneself so as to be able to have an engaged response to the tremendous biodiversity–four different forest systems–that can be experienced on the trail. (The linked post above describes the hike from the “other side;” we hiked up from the southern section of Route 191 to the Trade Winds Trail; other guides can be found here and here; in general, the El Toro trail, because not as frequently used, is not as well-maintained as the other, more mainstream ones.) Our guide was Robin Phillips, who also provided us with lodging (a simple cabin, with no electricity, but wonderful contact with the forest at night). Robin has led an interesting life; he knows the forest well; and he is kind and generous to a fault. An ideal companion for an El Yunque hike.

We began at 8 in the morning, parking our car a kilometer or so away from the trailhead. The initial parts of the trail–to the first river crossing–are relatively straightforward. The second section of the trail is easily the muddiest; the third is the steepest. Razor grass is a constant accompaniment; I made the mistake of not wearing a long-sleeved shirt; my wife made the mistake on wearing pants that did not cover her legs adequately. We both came back with many scratches and scrapes; I’d have to say I got off lightly compared to her. Toward the end of the ascent, the rain got worse, making our non-poncho covered sections progressively wetter. When we did get to the top of the trail, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the point of intersection with the Trade Winds Trail was the conclusion at the summit as opposed to being the starting point of another segment. This was a a bit of relief; the muddy, wet slogging was wearing thin by then. We were treated to a few minutes of mixed cloud and sun at the top before the rain closed in again, and forced us back down the hill after our quickly-devoured lunch. Descent was obviously quicker even if muddier thanks to the rain in the intervening time, and we found ourselves heading back for showers and a Christmas Day dinner with Robin’s wonderful family by 530PM.

Hiking in a rainforest means fewer soaring vistas of the kind experienced on high-altitude hikes; the foliage is in your face; the light is dappled and often weak; the muddy, slippery trails require a different sort of attention. Its most gratifying reward is the chance to experience a diverse set of ecosystems in close proximity to each other, intertwined in dazzlingly complex ways. The muddiness and lack of maintenance of the El Toro trail is well worth dealing with when these bargains are kept in mind.

The Tyranny of the Tourism Poster

On December 26th, as I waited for a ferry to take me from Fajardo to Culebra, I noticed a poster for the Luis Pena Nature Reserve (more accurately, for the Cayo Luis Pena, part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge). As I gazed at the dazzling blue waters, the painfully-white glistening sands, bewitched by the promise of the colorful aquatic creatures that surely played and frolicked below the waters of that oceanic snorkeling and scuba-diving paradise, I felt myself succumb, yet again, to that tyranny of the poster and the guidebook. And yet again, I felt the terror of that most fearful of things: the inadequate, not properly-realized, not fully-to-be-treasured, the missed-opportunity vacation. For if there is one mode of oppression that the tourist poster and the guidebook have the market cornered on, it is in making us feel like failures even when we manage to put down the laptop, take our fingers off the keyboard, dock the smartphone and head, bravely putting away our calendars, for the wilderness.

The artfully put-together tourist poster–like the illustrations of those improbably delicious-looking concoctions in cookbooks–promises us a glimpse of the impossible, the seemingly inaccessible. The photograph of the attraction in question will undeniably be of “postcard” or “coffee-table book” quality; fit to be mailed to friends, but somehow always felt to not be possible to actually visit (surely the photographer was granted special access to that Shangri-La, which beams at us from the poster?).

The poster, or the guidebook, assure us with a devastating two-fer, that this place has been visited, and even more damagingly, that if we do not visit it, we have somehow failed. The guidebook does this especially acutely with its listing of the “essential,” the “must-see,” the “ten things any visitor to X must do” and so on. These can be resisted perhaps by rhetorical devices like “Well, that’s what the editors of that guidebook think, but what do they know?” But such rhetorical bluster is just that; under the weight of the prescription, even our resolve crumbles; we become acutely conscious of the need to play by the guidebook’s (and the poster’s) playbook: Visit this place! Have these experiences! Or else!

The tyranny of the poster is perhaps more benign: one can console ourselves that even if we were not treated to precisely the same image as that currently visible, we might have seen a variant of it. But there is the rub. For the gloss and the finish of the poster assures us we didn’t see the advertised excellence, we merely saw the weaker, insipid version made available for our plebeian viewing. So we seek in our vacations to make sure we visit those places recommended by the guidebook, perhaps even in the order suggested, and we might even squirm ourselves into precisely those locations that will facilitate the takings of those photographs that will approximate the tourist poster with the greatest fidelity possible. How else would we assure ourselves of the authenticity of our experiences if not by total adherence to a template provided for us?