Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Create Dangerously – The Immigrant Artist at Work

By Edwidge Danticat – 2010, 2011

A review by Steve Halpern

Several years ago I wrote a twenty-seven page history of the nation of Haiti. My paper only attempted to give a bit of the outline to Haiti’s history.

Edwidge Danticat lived in Haiti until she was twelve years old, and then became an immigrant in the United States. She has written an important book about what Haitian history has meant for the people who live in that country. In order to appreciate this history, I believe it is useful to look at a bit of background.

For hundreds of years, the production of sugar, using slave labor, was the most lucrative way of making money in the world. About thirty percent of the French income, in those days, came from sugar production. The French colony of San Domingue (former name of Haiti) was the most lucrative producer. In fact, during the revolution of the thirteen colonies, that became the United States, the kingdoms of both France and Britain viewed the Caribbean islands as more politically and economically important.  

Then, hundreds of thousands of slaves in San Domingue carried out a revolution led by Toussaint L’ Overture. In order for this revolution to be successful, the slaves needed to defeat the armies of Spain, Britain, and France. This is how the nation of Haiti was born.

France lost over 60,000 soldiers because of their defeat in Haiti. Because of this defeat, France needed money and agreed to sell their colony in Louisiana to the United States at a bargain basement price. The 828,000 square miles of land in the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. However, the Native Americans who lived on this land did not agree to this transaction, and continued the war to defend against the invasion of their homeland. 

Because Haiti was the only nation in the hemisphere, at that time, that freed all of it’s slaves, the surrounding nations declared sanctions against the new republic. Clearly, the slave owners from France, Britain, Portugal, and the United States didn’t want there to be any communication with a nation of slaves who won their freedom by means of revolution.

Because of the isolation of Haiti, the French government demanded reparations for the revolution that ended French rule of the island. The alternative to paying these insulting and exorbitant reparations would be further isolation and possible war against France.  So, the Haitian economy was further crippled by a debt that no rational person would feel they had any obligation to pay.

Then, in the year 1915, the United States military invaded Haiti. The Haitian people led by Charlemagne Péralte resisted the U.S. occupation forces. The U.S. military captured Péralte and murdered him while he was in their custody. They then took a photo of Péralte on a cross with a Haitian flag draped on his head. The U.S. military made thousands of copies of this photo and distributed them throughout the island. This photo was clearly designed to intimidate the Haitian people.

The Haitian reality

Edwidge Danticat began her book with an execution that took place in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1964 of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin. Numa and Drouin attempted to organize a guerilla insurrection against the hated regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Towards the end of her book Danticat wrote about how thirteen-year-old Daniel Morel viewed that execution. He walked over to the corpses and picked up the blood soaked glasses of Louis Drouin. Someone almost immediately snatched those glasses from the hand of Morel.

At that moment, Daniel Morel decided that he wanted to be a photo journalist to document the reality of what was happening in his homeland. During the years of the Duvalier dictatorship, taking controversial photos might be punished with a death sentence. This is why Daniel Morel needed to leave Haiti in order to take photos that unmask the reality of the world.

In 1980 Morel retuned to Haiti and made a living by taking photos of weddings and other family events. He also took photos of the many corpses that had been left in the streets by the repressive forces known as the Tonton Macoutes.

Danticat interviewed one of the victims of the Tonton Macoutes by the name of Alérte Bélance. Bélance had escaped Haiti and Danticat interviewed her in Newark, New Jersey.

Members of the Tonton Macoute were looking for Bélance’s husband who opposed the repressive forces in Haiti. They could not find him, so they kidnapped Alérte Bélance. Then, they attempted to murder her with machetes. They cut off pieces of her face, amputated her hand, and left her for dead.

Miraculously Alérte Bélance was rescued and cared for by talented doctors at a Haitian hospital. The Tonton Macoute then looked for her in the hospital and the doctors hid her. The Macoute had a reputation of taking people out of the hospital and murdering them.

When we think of these horror stories, we might also consider that the 2010 earthquake that erupted in Haiti cost the lives of thousands as well as the destruction of much of Haiti’s infrastructure. This earthquake destroyed homes, churches, schools, bookstores, libraries, art galleries, museums, movie theaters, and government buildings.

Danticat’s chapter on this earthquake is titled “Our Guernica.” Guernica might be Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting. This depicted the effects of a Nazi bombing of a Spanish town. This bombing supported the repressive forces of Francisco Franco. I believe Danticat felt that this painting also began to portray the horror of the effects of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

We might also consider that the destruction by earthquakes can be prevented. While earthquakes routinely destroy residential buildings, oftentimes, commercial skyscrapers survive. This is because buildings can be constructed to withstand earthquakes. Clearly this did not happen in Haiti, a nation that is one of the poorest in the world.

While the earthquake was, in part, a natural disaster, the so-called international relief effort can only be called criminal. A huge amount of money was allegedly donated to Haitian relief. $500 million of that money went directly to the military of the United States that allegedly participated in this so-called relief effort.

Another $300 million went into the Caracol Industrial Park. Before the earthquake Haiti became a center for the production of clothes, toys, and the baseballs used by the major leagues. The capitalists who contributed to Carocol believed that this industrial park would continue to generate profits for investors. However, while they claimed Carocol would aid in Haitian development, that never happened.

Former President William Jefferson Clinton supervised much of the so-called relief effort to Haiti. We might consider that Clinton’s home state of Arkansas was a part of the Louisiana Purchase. As I mentioned, this sale was made possible because of the Haitian Revolution.

One of Clinton’s first acts as President was to break one of his campaign promises. Clinton had promised to give Haitian refugees asylum in the United States. Then, he reversed this pledge and refused to give thousands of Haitians asylum. Capitalist investors found Clinton’s record with respect to Haiti acceptable to place him in charge of large amounts of money in the so-called Haitian relief effort.                 

The Cuban response

The Cuban government has made a priority of human needs over profits. While the capitalists of the world make investments in order to maximize profits, Cuba gives aid to nations throughout the world because there is a need.

Cuban doctors have been in Haiti for many years. Because of their contribution, Haitian health care made significant improvements. Cuba also trained about 500 Haitians to become doctors.

When we see the immense problems that Edwidge Danticat had documented in Haiti, we see how the problems we face have an international character. Human needs are more important than the drive to maximize profits. I believe that the history of Haiti gives us one more example of how we all need to promote a world without borders, that will make human needs our only priority.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Directed by Cheiwetel Umeadi Ejiofor

Starring: Maxwell Simba as William Kamkwamba,
Cheiwetel Umeadi Ejiofor,
& Lily Banda

The idea of this film is taken from the book of the same name.

Available on Netflix

A review

By Steve Halpern

Recently I viewed the powerful and moving film, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. The director and one of the stars in the film is Cheiwetel Umeadi Ejiofor. Ejiofor is an experienced actor, and also portrayed Solomon Northup in the film, Twelve Years a Slave.

This is the story of 13 year-old William Kamkwamba, who lived in a small farming village in Malawi. Malawi is a landlocked African country bordered by Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia.

The theme of this film begins with Kamkwamba being expelled from school because his parents could not afford to pay the tuition of $80 per year. In spite of this setback, Kamkwamba utilized a bare bones library to begin to understand the basic principals of wind-powered turbines. Then, he, his friends, and family managed to get materials from a junk yard, as well as wood from local trees, to build a wind-powered generator that irrigated the crops on his family’s farm.    

While that is the theme of the story, the background to Kamkwamba’s accomplishment gives us a unique view of what life is like for hundreds of millions of people in the world. In real life, Kamkwamba experienced five months when his family barely had enough food to eat. In the film, Kamkwamba’s beloved dog starved to death.

We also see in the film how many farmers in this village felt compelled to sell their land, because they didn’t feel there was a future in farming. The corporation that purchased this land cut down trees that would be sold on the market.

Because there were fewer trees, flooding became a more serious problem and farming became more difficult. In nations like Malawi, people also cut down trees for fuel to cook food. While we just turn on the stove to heat our food, people all over the world need to collect wood to cook their food.

Then, we see one of the elders of this village protesting this sale of land and asked for government support. He was beaten and eventually died of his wounds. This is the kind of corruption we see in nations where the people live on the knife-edge of survival.

Then, we see a meeting of Kamkwamba and his father with someone who works for a corporation that profits from the sale of farm products. Kamkwamba’s father asked for assistance to keep his farm running after a poor harvest. We might keep in mind a few facts about farming while considering this meeting.

Even when farmers use the most efficient farming methods, they, at times, rely on government support. While farmers supply humanity with all the food we eat, they are subject to unpredictable weather conditions. However, when Kamkwamba’s father asked this official for support, that official was adamant in refusing this legitimate request for assistance.

Then, we see how the entire region where Kamkwamba lived became desperate to obtain food. While Kamkwamba’s family had an insufficient crop and needed to ration their food, much of that food was stolen by people who were starving.

Under these conditions, Kamkwamba was able to build his wind-powered generator that irrigated his family’s land during the dry season. I’m no farmer, but I understand that farmers who have an irrigation system have a real advantage over farmers who rely completely on the weather in order to water their crops.

In real life, Kamkwamba’s achievement became famous. He received the resources that allowed him to complete his basic education in Malawi. Then, he received a full scholarship at Dartmouth College, and now is building more wind and solar powered generators in his homeland.

While this is a compelling story, there is another story this film doesn’t attempt to portray. That is the extreme disparity between the reality of Malawi and the reality of developed nations like the United States of America.

While the people of Malawi were desperate in their search for food, much of the food in this country is thrown out. This food is being destroyed while about fifty million people in the United States routinely live in hunger. While hundreds of millions of people in the world don’t have enough food to eat, the government in this country spends hundreds of billions of dollars on the so-called defense department. This money has been used to go to war against some of the poorest people in the world.

America First?

Recently President Trump refused to pay about 800,000 federal workers for about one entire month. He did this because congress and the senate refused to allocate billions of dollars in funding to extend a wall on the southern border of the United States.

This is a clear example of how President Trump has made the scapegoating of immigrant workers the center of his political priorities. These same immigrant workers are the ones who work on farms, and in restaurants to provide everyone in this country with the food we need. They also work in some of the most technical jobs of research and development, as well as health care.

Recently Michael Cohen a former lawyer for President Trump testified before Congress. He argued that the President is a liar and a racist. While all of this was happening, President Trump threatened the people of Venezuela because he doesn’t like the President that they elected.

After all of this, the President spoke to a conservative meeting where he started by embracing the flag of the United States. While his politics were being denounced all over the world, Trump appeared to be happy. Why?

When we look at the military campaigns the flag of this country has been used for, we might begin to see why President Trump appeared to be happy. We can start with the genocide against Native Americans. Then, there was the horrendous institution of chattel slavery. While the Civil War brought an end to slavery, the armed forces were then used to defend the institution of Jim Crow segregation that denied Black people citizenship rights. Then, there were the wars against the people of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Those wars were a nightmare to the people of those countries.

However, while all these horror stories were taking place, school boards throughout this country asked children to stand up every morning, to place their hands on their hearts, and pledge allegiance to a flag they claimed represented liberty and justice for all.

So President Trump was happy and even ecstatic because he sees how all the horror stories of the world allow him and a few hundred others to sit on billions of dollars worth of assets. He also understands that while the democrats might argue against his policies, they are also tied firmly to the capitalist system. As long as this is the case, he has nothing serious to fear from his so-called Democratic Party opposition.

Junkyard parts and satellites that circle the globe

When I looked at the primitive wind generator and pump Kamkwamba built out of junkyard parts, I thought about the advanced technology we all take for granted in this country. We take for granted that we have access to both electricity and running water. Most of us have an automobile that gives us a considerable amount of flexibility. We also have cell phones that receive signals from satellites in the atmosphere.

Understanding this reality, I believe it is reasonable to say that the resources exist to eliminate hunger and poverty in the world. Today, people who live in nations like Malawi justifiably resent the fact that corporations from developed nations profit off of their dire poverty. If working people in this country used the immense resources here to give basic assistance to the nations that desperately need it, those attitudes would begin to change.

Because we live in a capitalist political economic system, giving sustained and meaningful aid to impoverished nations is out of the question. The reality has been that factories in this country have closed, and moved to nations where wages are between $1 and $10 per day. This transfer of wealth has saved the international capitalist system from complete collapse. However, that collapse will not be postponed forever.

For me the film, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind gives us an idea of the ingenuity that workers and farmers have under some of the most dire conditions. I believe that understanding this, we can also say that the working people of the world have the capacity to deal with the immense challenges we will face. Yes, we can develop a mass movement that demands that new governments make a priority of human needs and not profits.

Monday, February 25, 2019

News the media feels is unfit to print

About a week ago I wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The letter was critical of a column by George F. Will where he, in effect, explained how he had no idea of what the words capitalism and socialism mean. The Inquirer considered publishing my letter, but ultimately declined.

The letters that the Inquirer did publish on this topic demonstrate the clear limitations of the press in this country. One of those letters argued that there are aspects to both capitalism and socialism that are desirable.

Clearly, there are many, like Bernie Sanders, who agree with that perspective. However, for me, the rational definition of socialism is the antithesis of capitalism. Just as the capitalist system replaced feudalism, socialism is a rational way of replacing capitalism.

The pioneers of capitalism didn’t attempt to establish a more enlightened rule of kings and queens. No, they worked to establish a completely different political economic system. This is what a genuinely socialist, or workers government will do.

Below is my unpublished letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

To the Editor,

George F. Will, in his column pretending to be about socialism, has his facts backwards. Will argues that socialism means, "Everyone will be nice to everyone else, through using other people's money." We can expose the clear hypocrisy of this statement with a quotation by John Locke, whose writings inspired the revolutionaries who founded this country. Locke argued that, "All wealth is the product of labor."

This means that literally all the goods and services we need and want are produced by working people. While we produce all wealth, capitalists spend time figuring out where to invest the wealth we produce. Then, they spend time trying to maximize profits on the labor of each and every worker. What are the results of this system?

Today poverty and war are as much a part of the human experience as the wind and the rain. One out of every six people in this country doesn't have enough food to eat. 80% of the world's population lives on $10 per day or less. These conditions exist while a few hundred families have more wealth than half the world's population.

Bernie Sanders and others claim that they support the idea of socialism. If you look at their proposals, at best, they would like to make capitalism more egalitarian. The problem is that the core value of capitalism is to derive profits from workers, and this will not change as long as capitalism exists. 

I believe it is useful to imagine what the world would look like if human needs were viewed as more important than profits. Our standard of living would improve radically, while we would need to spend considerably less time working a job. All this means that our problem is not the idea of socialism, but the routine functioning of the capitalist system. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

War Against All Puerto Ricans – Revolution and terror in America’s colony

By Nelson A. Denis
2015 – Bold Type Books - Hachette Book Group

A review

By Steve Halpern

In the preface to his history of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Nelson A. Denis reported on an event that shaped his life when he was eight years old, living in the Washington Heights section of New York City.

“I was eight years when men from the FBI banged on our door at 3 a.m. No one understood what was happening: my mother screamed, my grandmother cried, and I hid behind a curtain. The FBI agents grabbed my father and took him away; we never saw him again.”

Denis’ mother was Puerto Rican and his father was Cuban. The year of the FBI raid on his home was 1962, the year of the so-called “Cuban Missile Crisis.” Denis’ father was an elevator operator, a union member, and a supporter of the Cuban Revolution. However, he was not a spy. He was deported to Cuba without a trial. Nelson Denis vowed that he would become a lawyer, so no one would ever be able to knock on his door and rip his family apart again.

This was the background that led Denis to spend years researching the unvarnished history of the struggle for Puerto Rican Independence. That struggle has a history of literally hundreds of years. It goes back to the Spanish colonization of the island, and then to the United States invasion of Puerto Rico.

Denis’ history centers on the life and times of the Puerto Rican Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who died in 1965. As we will see, Campos did not die of natural causes.

Domino Sugar

Charles Herbert Allen was the first civilian governor of Puerto Rico. During these, and many years after, the government and the press incorrectly reported the name of the island as, “Porto Rico.” Allen consolidated his position as governor, and became president of a sugar trust that today is known as Domino Sugar.

Denis reported on what it was like to work cutting the sugar cane that made Charles Herbert Allen a wealthy man. The fulgoneros routinely hoisted 50,000 pounds of sugar cane onto rail cars every day. However, this wasn’t the worst job.

Twelve-year-old Julio Feliciano Colón was a cutter known as the macheteros. Denis reported on young Julio’s life:

“Every morning he set out to defenderse—to fend for himself and his family. Every evening he came home drenched from head to toe with sweat.” He did this backbreaking work six days per week. The following is Denis’ description of what it meant to be a sugar cane worker:

“The cane choked off any breeze, and the soil radiated heat like an oven. Julio would sweat profusely all day as he grunted and strained alongside the oxen. Crane flies and gnats flew into his mouth as he spoke, and he spat them out like coffee grounds. Mosquitos bit his eyelids, nostrils, lips, and gums and flew into his ears buzzing like jets. But Julio did not complain.”

Thinking about these conditions, we might begin to understand why sugar cane workers have been some of the most militant in the world. We can begin with the slave revolution on the island that became the nation of Haiti. Then, there was the Mexican Revolution in the state of Modelos led by Emiliano Zapata. Then, there were two revolutions in the sister island nation of Puerto Rico, that is Cuba.

Understanding this history, we can see why the revolutionary sentiment in Puerto Rico was so strong. We might also think about how the government adopted systematically ruthless measures in order to counteract this revolutionary sentiment.

Puerto Rico and the history of the United States

An early description of Puerto Ricans as reported in the United States Senate was:

“A heterogeneous mass of mongrels.”
“Savages addicted to head hunting and cannibalism.”

In those days, few if any of the senators spoke the language of Puerto Rico, which is Spanish. In fact, the schools and government proceedings on the island were all conducted in English. This meant that most people on the island had no idea of how their homeland was being organized.

We might also consider that it was General Nelson A. Miles who was the commander of the U.S. military forces that invaded Puerto Rico in 1898. Before Miles went to war against the people of the island, he was also the commander of the U.S. armed forces in several engagements against Native Americans. In those years, the violation of treaties with Native Americans was the routine policy of the United States government.

The Union Army’s defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War led to the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These Amendments declared that anyone born in the United States is supposed to have equal protection under the law.

However, the same army that went to war against Native Americans and invaded Puerto Rico, withdrew from the former Confederate states. This allowed terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan to take political control of the Southeast of this country.

While the Constitution declared that there was supposed to be equal protection under the law, over 4,000 people were murdered or lynched and the federal government did nothing to prosecute the murderers. This was how the Jim Crow segregationist laws took hold in this country.

The repressive policies of the United States also affected workers. From the years 1877 to 1934 there were numerous labor strikes, but most were defeated. Then, in the year 1934, in the midst of the depression, unions began winning strikes and gaining recognition.

In that same year, there was a strike of sugar cane workers in Puerto Rico. Wages had been about 75 cents for a 12-hour day. Those wages were reduced to about 45 cents. These were starvation wages. Pedro Albizu Campos became the leader of the strike.

Pedro Albizu Campos

Albizu Campos had been a gifted student. He had an advantage over his classmates in that he was fluent in English. Eventually he attended Harvard University and also excelled there. He learned several languages and earned a law degree. He became a lieutenant in the U.S. military during the First World War in command of 200 soldiers. However, Campos decided that his main goal in life was the liberation of the Puerto Rican people. He wasn’t attracted to the many job offers that would have allowed him to live a comfortable life.

At Harvard, Albizu Campos became attracted to the Irish independence struggle. He was so talented, that people felt he was the best spokesperson for Irish independence. He even assisted Éamon de Valera draft the constitution of the Free State of Ireland.

After returning to Puerto Rico, he used his powerful oratorical skills to agitate for the independence of the island and his Nationalist Party. Because of those skills and his reputation, he became the leader of the strike of sugar workers. The strike was victorious and the wages of sugar workers increased to $1.50 per day.

During the strike, Campos had lunch with one of the power brokers on the island. He was offered $150,000 if he betrayed the sugar workers. Another benefit to this proposed betrayal would be that he would receive the support required for him to be come governor of Puerto Rico. Campos declined this offer and said that his homeland could not be sold.

After the victory of the sugar workers strike, there was a nationalist upsurge on the island. Governor Blanton Winship prohibited all public demonstrations. In this atmosphere Pedro Albizu Campos was charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government.

At his trial, the jury was packed with U.S. citizens who were born on the mainland. This was in spite of the fact that Albizu Campos was supposed to be tried with a jury of his peers. The military also mobilized in an attempt to intimidate supporters of Albizu. Under these conditions Albizu Campos was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison that he served in an Atlanta, Georgia penitentiary.

The Ponce Massacre and it’s aftermath

During the same time as Albizu Campos was in police custody, a legal Nationalist demonstration was held in Ponce, Puerto Rico. In the midst of the demo, the mayor and police chief told the demonstrators to go home, that the parade was over. The participants continued to march and the police, who were armed with machine guns, fired on the demonstration. In all, the police murdered 17 unarmed Puerto Ricans.

The government immediately attempted to cover up the massacre. Staged photos were taken of the police chief looking up at rooftops for alleged snipers that never existed.

What the government didn’t know, was that an experienced newsreel director named Juan Emilio Veguié had made a thirteen-minute film of the entire massacre. Veguié was concerned that exposing this film to the public too soon might endanger his life. So, he buried the film in waterproof containers, and only showed it to select audiences.

We might consider the fact that thirty years after the Ponce massacre, there was a rebellion in my hometown of Newark, New Jersey. The rebellion protested police brutality in the city, and this was one of hundreds of rebellions that erupted in this country during those years. Just as in the Ponce Massacre, law enforcement officials promoted an imaginary story that there were snipers on rooftops firing at the National Guard. In all, there were about 21 people who were murdered by the National Guard in Newark during these rebellions, and hundreds were arrested.   
One of the ways the U.S. government hoped to maintain control of the island was by establishing secret dossiers on about 100,000 Puerto Ricans. These hated dossiers accessed by the FBI were known as carpetas.

Muñoz Marín’s father was an active politician on the island. However, Muñoz Marín didn’t have much of a reputation in Puerto Rico. He had lived in New York City, spoke fluent English, and upon returning to the island, he gave numerous speeches advocating for independence.

Because of the FBI’s surveillance program, they learned that Marín was an opium addict. The FBI used this information to blackmail Marín into abandoning his ideas of independence. This was after Muñoz Marín became Governor of the island.

Albizu Campos returns to a changing Puerto Rico

In the year 1947 Albizu Campos completed his prison sentence and returned to Puerto Rico. Thousands greeted him upon his return. However things were changing on the island.

Today the town of Barceloneta is the place where the Pfizer company manufactures all of the Viagra sold in North America. Back in the 1930s the hospital in Barceloneta was the place where about 20,000 women were sterilized. These women were not aware of those sterilizations at that time.

However, after the Second World War the United States was becoming the super power of the world. To counter the growing nationalist sentiment on the island, the government initiated operation bootstrap that invested millions of dollars for the development of Puerto Rico.

We might consider that capitalists don’t invest money to benefit workers, but to gouge out profits for investors. This became clear when the government adopted Law 53 known as La Ley de la Mordaza (the law of the muzzle or gag law.) Law 53 outlawed any mention of independence, the whistling of the Puerto Rican Anthem Borinqueña, or the ownership of a Puerto Rican flag.

All of these measures were in clear violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution that was supposed to support the idea of freedom of speech. Even the Nobel Prize nominee Francisco Matos Paoli was sentenced to 20 years in the notorious prison La Princesa for owning a Puerto Rican flag.

Today Puerto Ricans all over the world proudly display the flag of their homeland. We might consider that that for over a decade possession of a Puerto Rican flag on the island was a crime punishable with a prison sentence.  

Law 53 was similar to the Smith Act that was adopted during the Second World War in 1940. 18 members of the Socialist Workers Party were convicted of violation of the Smith Act for merely opposing the United States participation in the Second World War. The Socialist Eugene Debs had also been convicted of violating another law when he gave a speech in opposition to U.S. participation in the First World War.

This was the politically charged atmosphere when Albizu Campos returned to Puerto Rico in 1947. In 1949 New York City Congressman Vito Marcantonio gave the following testimony on the floor of Congress about the day-to-day government harassment of Albizu Campos:

“Today he lives in San Juan under the type of police surveillance and intimidation that could only have been duplicated in Hitler Germany.  .  .When the leader of the Nationalist Party leaves San Juan to attend a meeting or to make a speech, his car is trailed through the countryside by an armed column of police cars and jeeps. Every hotel or home in which he stays is immediately surrounded by a cordon of police. Every meeting of the Nationalist Party takes place behind police lines. Campos is an American citizen, yet he and his party are harassed at every turn.”

Under these conditions the Nationalist Party felt that there was no way to legally organize resistance to the government. This is the reason why the party developed the seemingly impossible strategy of taking on the United States government with an armed struggle resistance.

So, in this atmosphere, every two weeks Albizu Campos went to the Salón Boricua for a haircut. Salón Boricua was a cultural center where people enjoyed learning about the news that wasn’t reported in the press.

The owner, Vidal Santiago, cut Albizu’s hair. Santiago had a connection to someone in the military who gave him food he used to feed indigent families in the neighborhood. Santiago also used this connection to obtain armaments that he stored in a basement.

Then, one morning Santiago was thrown into a car by police officers without being charged with a crime. He was taken to a military compound where he experienced every method of torture known. But Santiago refused to give his torturers any information. After being detained for weeks, the police returned Santiago to his shop and told him he could only leave with permission from the officers.

At this time, a failed nationalist uprising erupted on the island. One of the Nationalists was a traitor who gave the authorities the information about the uprising.

In the town of Jayuya the nationalists gained the upper hand. In the following paragraph Nelson Denis described how the United States responded to the uprising in Jayuya:

“The planes dropped 500-pound (227-kilogram) bombs and strafed the town with .50-calliber armor-piercing machine guns, each Thunderbolt (fighter plane) releasing up to 1,200 rounds per minute. It was the only time in history that the United States bombed its own citizens.”

The last sentence of that paragraph needs to be changed. In 1985 the Police Department in Philadelphia opened fire with 10,000 rounds of ammunition on a home occupied by members of the MOVE organization. Then, the police dropped a bomb on the MOVE home. The authorities made a decision not to put out the ensuing fire. As a result, 11 occupants of the MOVE home died either from gunshots or the fire that eventually engulfed three blocks of row homes.     

When we understand this history, we might also appreciate Vidal Santiago’s decision to defend himself, rather than surrender to the authorities. Those authorities were unaware that Vidal Santiago had access to a storehouse full of weapons.

When Santiago viewed the armed forces congregating outside his shop, he opened his arms depot and prepared to defend himself. Other nationalists who gave up to the authorities were subsequently murdered.

Pedro Albizu Campos would spend most of the rest of his life experiencing horrendous conditions in prison. Those conditions included being routinely exposed to lethal amounts of radiation for long periods of time. This wasn’t going to happen to Vidal Santiago.

Santiago had more than armaments at his disposal. He had a radio that was broadcasting speeches of Pedro Albizu Campos. He turned up the volume on the radio so everyone could hear these speeches. The following are quotations of Albizu Campos that might have been broadcast on that day:

“A people full of courage and dignity can not be conquered by imperialism.”

“When tyranny is law, revolution is order.”

“Big is the empire we battle, but bigger is our right to be free.”

For three hours Vidal Santiago held off 40 soldiers outside his salon. The soldiers didn’t believe they were battling with only one person who happened to run a barbershop. Santiago was wounded several times, but never gave up. Only when a bullet took his life was the standoff over. Vidal Santiago became a national hero of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico today

One aspect of today’s Puerto Rico are the immense profits that corporations have derived from the island. Those corporations include: Domino Sugar, drug companies, tourist hotels, the airline corporations, Wal-Mart, auto manufacturing corporations, as well as arms manufacturers who have profited from the bombing of Vieques Island. Then, we can think about all the corporations associated with these enterprises that include: banks, insurance companies, advertising agencies, as well as corporate law firms.

Yet, after robbing the Puerto Rican people of this considerable amount of wealth, banks report that Puerto Rico has a debt of $70 billion. Because of this so-called debt, the government has implemented austerity plans.

The recent hurricane that struck the island cost the lives of over 3,000 people. The hurricane was not the only reason for all these deaths. The U.S. government took it’s time in reestablishing water supply and electricity to many of the residents of the island.

President Donald Trump demonstrated his contempt for the Puerto Rican people in his visit to the island after the hurricane. He was photographed throwing paper towels to a crowd of onlookers. We might think of all the money that has been robbed from the Puerto Rican people. In return for that immense amount of lost wealth, the President of the United States of America gave the Puerto Rican people rolls of paper towels.

Cuba today

Considering the effects of a hurricane to Puerto Rico, we might also consider how the nation of Cuba responds to hurricanes. Days before a hurricane hits Cuba, there is an evacuation plan. Cuban citizens are educated and know what they need to do to prepare for a hurricane. Everyone, even cows, pigs, and chickens are evacuated from the area where the hurricane is anticipated to hit. After the hurricane, there is a mobilization to repair all the damage done to those areas. Because of these measures very small numbers of Cubans perish because of hurricanes.

In a recent column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Kristof argued that today Cuba has three times more doctors, per capita, than the United States. He also argued that the infant mortality rate in Cuba is lower than in this country. Because of this, Kristof estimates that about 7,500 children die in this country every year because the health care system lacks the sophistication of Cuban health care.

José Martí, the Cuban nationalist leader once argued that Cuba and Puerto Rico are like, “two wings of the same bird.” I believe there are profound lessons to be learned by studying the histories of these two islands.

Those histories were similar before the year of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Then, two differing scenarios unfolded. Today, Cuba doesn’t have many of the conveniences of the developed world. However, the Cuban people have a government that makes a priority of supporting their interests.

When we look at the political repression of Puerto Rican nationalists mentioned in Denis’ book, we can also think about the more recent Puerto Rican political prisoners who were held in the dungeons of this country for decades. The names of some of those political prisoners include: Rafael Cancel Miranda, Lolita Lebrón, as well as Oscar López Rivera. Thinking about the tenacity of the historical legacy of both Puerto Rico and Cuba gives us reason to feel optimistic for the future of working people in the world.

Today, the pretense that the United States government supports the Puerto Rican people is wearing thin. Nelson A. Denis has given us the unvarnished history of what the United States domination of Puerto Rico has meant for the people. His book is well worth reading to discover one aspect of the horrendous history of the government of the United States of America.