[Ppnews] FBI Witch Hunt Stokes Puerto Rican Independence Movement

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 31 11:17:48 EST 2008

FBI Witch Hunt Stokes Puerto Rican Independence Movement

By Jessica Pupovac, AlterNet
Posted on January 31, 2008, Printed on January 31, 2008

They say that when Filiberto Ojeda Rios was 
killed, all of Puerto Rico stood still.

"The financial district shut down," José Lopez, 
Executive Director of the Puerto Rican Cultural 
Center, explained recently in a small café along 
Paseo Boricua, the heart of Chicago's vibrant Puerto Rican neighborhood.

His eyes lit up as he went on. "Literally all of 
the banks and offices were closed and people were 
just standing outside, watching the caravan go 
by. Usually it is a one hour trip to his tome 
town of Nagüabo. That day, it took seven hours. 
Everywhere there were hundreds of people. Little 
kids made their own signs that said, '¡Viva 
Filiberto!'. It was an incredible outpouring of 
love and compassion that really was felt throughout that whole time period."

Filiberto Ojeda Rios was the founder and longtime 
leader of the Popular Boricua Army, or Los 
Macheteros, a militant wing of the Puerto Rican 
pro-independence movement. He was shot by FBI 
agents in his home on September 23, 2005, at the 
age of 72, and left to bleed to death.

Although Los Macheteros haven't participated in 
armed actions for 15 years, the FBI has continued 
to aggressively pursue their leadership. It is an 
effort that has led them to the doors of multiple 
New Yorkers affiliated in some way with the 
Puerto Rican struggle to wrest control of the 
island from the U.S. government. Three of those 
people -- social worker Christopher Torres, 
graphic designer Tania Frontera and film maker 
Julio Antonio Pabón Jr. -- were recently handed 
subpoenas by the FBI/NYPD Anti-Terrorism Task 
Force, and, after securing a postponement, have 
been ordered to testify before a grand jury 
February 1st at the Eastern District court in Brooklyn.

Torres and Frontera were both supporters of the 
successful struggle to force the U.S. Navy off of 
the island of Vieques, which was used for decades 
as a bomb range and weapons testing ground. 
Pabón's father, meanwhile, is unsure why his son 
has been targeted, but he believes it might have 
to do with his coordinating a visit by The 
Welfare Poets, a radical arts collective and 
supporters of Puerto Rican independence, to 
Wesleyan University, where he attended school years ago.

"We're preparing to challenge those subpoenas," 
Susan Tipograph, Torres' attorney, told AlterNet. 
"My concern is that the grand jury is being used 
in a way that undermines the First Amendment 
rights of people who are engaged in 
constitutionally protected political activity."

"There certainly is a history of the federal 
government using grand jury subpoenas to cast a 
wide net investigation into political movements," 
Tipograph added. "There is a particular history 
of that in relationship to the Puerto Rican independence movement."

There is also a long history of resistance to those subpoenas.

Puerto Rico, currently a commonwealth, has been 
under U.S. control since 1898. Although Puerto 
Ricans are subject to U.S. laws, they have no 
representation in Congress and don't have the 
right to vote in presidential elections. Though 
many Puerto Ricans fear changing the status quo 
and removing the island nation from U.S. 
tutelage, they are currently worse off 
economically than any state in the Union. The per 
capita income in Puerto Rico is $20,058, half 
that of Mississippi, the poorest state. Almost 
half of Puerto Ricans live below the poverty 
line, and a third of its population is 
unemployed. The United Nations Special Committee 
on Decolonization has for decades repeatedly 
condemned Puerto Rico's status and called on the 
U.S. to return occupied land, release political 
prisoners and allow Puerto Ricans the right of 
self-determination and independence. Many Puerto 
Ricans have called for the same thing. There is 
currently a spectrum of organizations and 
political parties promoting independence.

However, ever since the FBI was officially 
founded in 1935, it has regarded any and all 
opposition to U.S. sovereignty with suspicion. 
According to the FBI's own estimates, from 1936 
to 1995, agents collected between 1.5 and 1.8 
million pages of intelligence on organizations 
and individuals advocating independence.

In 2000, per his request, the bureau began 
handing over selected files to Rep. José Serrano 
(D-NY). The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at 
Hunter College has been sorting and filing them 
and publicly releasing select contents. Among 
them is a 1961 memo from then-Director J. Edgar 
Hoover to the San Juan field office, initiating 
Cointelpro activities against the movement and 
its leaders. The memo orders agents to begin 
collecting information on independence leaders' 
"weaknesses, morals, criminal records, spouses, 
children, family life, educational qualifications 
and personal activities other than independence 
activities," so as to "disrupt their activities 
and compromise their effectiveness."

A U.S. Senate committee in 1975 found the program 
"imposed summary punishment, not only on the 
allegedly violent, but also on the non-violent advocates of change."

In 1977, the FBI began employing a new tactic of 
intimidation against independentistas: the grand 
jury subpoena. According to Michael Deutsch of 
the People's Law Office in Chicago, resistance to 
the subpoenas was organized and unwavering. The 
grand juries were seen by activists, he wrote, as 
"an illegal instrument of colonial authority 
whose powers of inquisition they must resist." 
For refusing to comply with more than 20 grand 
jury subpoenas, scores of pro-independence 
activists -- some of whom were summoned more than 
once -- spent anywhere from four to 18 months in 
jail -- and some of them were summoned more than once.

Lopez, a "grand jury resister" who spent seven 
months in jail for refusing to testify against 
his compañeros, says the subpoenas had a 
"chilling effect." So, too, did the even more 
drastic sentences handed to two men who still 
languish in prison -- Carlos Alberto Torres and 
Lopez' brother, Oscar Lopez Rivera. They have 
spent 26 and 27 years in prison, respectively, on 
arcane "seditious conspiracy" charges, after 
prosecutors were unable to tag them with anything else.

The criminalization of the Puerto Rican 
independence movement in the late 1970s forced 
many prominent leaders underground and, to many, 
reinforced the idea that independence could not 
be achieved through diplomatic means. Ultimately, 
repression would foment radical resistance. In 
1979, the Macheteros committed their first armed 
action, when they attempted to steal a San Juan 
police car, and killed Officer Julio Rodriguez 
Rivera in the process. A handful of covert 
attacks, mostly targeting property owned by the U.S. government, followed.

In 1983, Macheteros robbed $7.5 million from a 
Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, Connecticut. 
Filiberto Ojeda Rios was accused of masterminding 
the heist and arrested. After being released on 
bail, Ojeda Rios returned to his clandestine 
existence and earned a spot on the FBI's Most Wanted list.

After his assassination in 2005, Rios' martyrdom 
stoked a new wave of indignation among Puerto 
Ricans. Soon thereafter, the Puerto Rico Justice 
Department sued U.S. authorities, including FBI 
Director Robert Mueller and then-Attorney General 
Alberto Gonzales, demanding information related 
to the operation that led to his death, as well 
as a series of FBI searches that followed. The 
lawsuit was dismissed last summer.

Responding to public outcry, however, the U.S. 
Department of Justice did publish a 237-page 
report on the incident, which absolved the FBI from any criminal liability.

Many see the recent subpoenas, which are the 
first in over two decades, as an attempt to 
publicly reclaim the offensive. But, as José 
Lopez puts it, "Sometimes, the more you repress 
people and try to stifle dissent, you create more 
consciousness and it has the opposite effect that the government would want."

On January 10th, the day of the first grand jury 
hearing (and postponement), approximately 3,000 
people demonstrated in various towns in Puerto 
Rico in support of the "New York 3." Meanwhile, 
in Brooklyn, some 100 people showed up on the 
courtroom steps, including numerous prominent 
City Council members. And, although it was a 
cold, rainy day in Chicago, Lopez says, at least 
100 people came downtown to demonstrate. 
Demonstrations also took place in Hartford, San 
Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Orlando, 
Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and Cleveland.

Similar actions are being planned throughout 
Puerto Rico and the mainland on February 1st.

The renewed attention on the Puerto Rican 
independence movement could provide a much-needed 
push for a bill sitting in the House of 
Representatives that would begin a true 
self-determination processes: H.R. 1230, "The 
Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act," sponsored by 
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). The bill would create 
a Constituent Assembly within Puerto Rico to 
educate, dialogue and eventually create a Puerto 
Rican-initiated alternative to "commonwealth" status.

Regardless, many in the movement anticipate more 
repression before change occurrs. According to a 
statement released earlier this month by the 
Ejercito Popular Boricua, "The true reason for 
persecution against the EPB-Macheteros and those 
who struggle for independence in general is that 
we are a force capable of educating and organizing the people."

José Lopez puts it a different way. With local 
youth streaming in and out of the café to ask his 
advice about projects they were organizing, 
classes they were teaching and press conferences 
they were preparing to hold, he explained, "The 
idea that you can sell to the world that you are 
a democracy, a benign empire, that you struggle 
for human rights and self-determination -- the 
Puerto Rican independence movement is constantly challenging that."

Jessica Pupovac is an adult educator and 
independent journalist living in Chicago.

© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/75196/

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