The following article, dated January 16, 2000, was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 60 (Winter 2000). A follow-up article will be printed in Proletarian Revolution No. 61.
For well over a half-century, the U.S. Navy has used Vieques, a small Puerto Rican island, for target practice. Navy exercises have severely injured residents, many of whom contracted cancer from the toxic residue of the bombings, and destroyed the ecosystem.
But after 60 years, the people of Vieques and all of Puerto Rico said “Enough!“ When a civilian security guard, David Sanes, was accidentally killed last April by a bomb dropped by a Navy airplane, a popular movement arose to demand the immediate, unconditional and permanent withdrawal of the U.S. military. Justifiably angry, the people were demanding an end to the intolerable destruction of their land, their livelihood and their health.
Reacting to the pressure, a Special Commission on Vieques was established in Puerto Rico, with participation by the three main bourgeois parties there. In line with the mass sentiment, the Special Commission issued its report last summer, starting with a call for the permanent and immediate withdrawal of the Navy and a complete stop to all bombing and training in Vieques. President Clinton rejected these demands.
According to El Nuevo Día (January 16), Clinton remains intractable in his position that the military will remain for five years and carry out practice sessions, scheduled to recommence this spring, with inert bombs. This plan is an attempt to maintain the status quo as much as possible. It is an outright rejection of the demands of the masses of Puerto Rico. It is unacceptable.
When the results of the second round of negotiations are announced, a definitive moment of confrontation between the Puerto Rican masses and U.S. imperialism may arrive. But the problem is that the on-going opposition has so far been limited to pacifist civil disobedience by only several hundred activists camped out on Vieques. Yet 50,000 people staged a demonstration at the Roosevelt Roads military base last July 4, and there were other mass protests earlier. A widespread anger against the U.S. military in Vieques pervades the outlook of the workers and poor throughout Puerto Rico. In our view, mass mobilization is possible and urgently needed. It is key to the success of the demand for a complete and immediate withdrawal.
The Vieques situation dramatically demonstrates an inescapable fact: Puerto Rico is still a colony ruthlessly dominated by North American imperialism. The U.S. military occupies not only two-thirds of Vieques but about 13 percent of all cultivable land in Puerto Rico, which is routinely occupied by at least 35,000 U.S. Army soldiers.
Puerto Rico also lacks control of other aspects of its own economic and political life. For example, Puerto Ricans can be drafted by the U.S. Army, and any of its laws can be overturned by the U.S. Congress – but residents of Puerto Rico can’t vote for President and lack voting representation in the U.S. Congress. The Puerto Rican government can carry out plebiscites over the question of the island’s status, supposedly to see whether the people favor statehood, commonwealth or whatever. But plebiscites are always non-binding, and Congress always gets the final say. In the eyes of their masters, colonial slaves cannot decide on the conditions of their emancipation.
U.S. capitalists control the majority of businesses in Puerto Rico and have enjoyed huge tax breaks and other financial incentives to invest there. U.S. companies extract about $20 billion in profits per year off the backs of superexploited Puerto Rican workers, chiefly in low-wage industries like tourism and textiles. Official unemployment in Puerto Rico is over 13 percent, more than three times higher than in the U.S. For those who can find jobs, yearly wages average $18,000, only 60 percent of the average for mainland workers. Nevertheless, the cost of living is about 25 percent higher than in the U.S.
Ever since the recession hit Puerto Rico in the early 1970’s, living standards and social services have gone down. In 1998 there was a powerful general strike by the workers against privatization: selling off the state telephone company to a U.S. corporation. (See PR 58.) Puerto Rico has been out-competed by other low-wage countries, above all Mexico and the Dominican Republic. The partial loss of tax exemptions previously provided to U.S. firms has led to major disinvestment; there have been drastic layoffs and increased austerity already. Pharmaceutical companies, an important part of the economy, are starting to downsize and close. Conditions are expected to get far worse in a few years when certain tax exemptions are withdrawn completely. These declining conditions have pushed the working class to the wall; another mass upheaval is just a matter of time.
Vieques could be the spark to a new general strike movement in Puerto Rico. As Vieques demonstrates, a great deal of Puerto Rico’s importance for U.S. imperialism lies in its important geographical position. Its locale is ideal for U.S. military power imposing its hegemony over the rest of Latin America. Washington has ceded formal control over the Panama Canal, and its Southern Command, which organizes military interventions in Latin America, has moved to Puerto Rico. U.S.-trained troops used Vieques as a launching pad for the invasions of the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada and Panama as well as the covert wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In the increasingly likely event that Washington will use the “war on drugs” as a pretext for a new dirty war in Colombia, U.S. “advisers” and U.S.-trained Colombian troops would doubtless be sent out from Puerto Rico, separated from Colombia by only a few hundred miles of ocean.
Vieques is also a base menacing other areas of the world. As the main training location for the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, Vieques has been a necessary stop along the way to strategic locations in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Bomber pilots involved in the destruction of Serbia and Iraq practiced first on Vieques. And Vieques is a main training location for other NATO navies.
In this light, getting the Navy out of Vieques is not just the business of Puerto Ricans. All who oppose U.S. imperialism have an interest in handing it a serious setback.
After Sanes was killed last April, activists began camping out on territory occupied by the military in Vieques in protest. At that point, Clinton was stalling in the face of the broad popular threat. He appointed a special panel to further ponder the question. As things dragged on, tension built up since bombing would have routinely been scheduled to re-commence in December 1999. For several weeks in late fall, Clinton and Governor Pedro Rosselló, along with the military brass, engaged in secret backroom “negotiations,” with Rosselló claiming to the media he had matters well in hand. Finally, on December 3, Clinton and Secretary of Defense Cohen announced the orders they would be issuing to the military. The routine bombing scheduled for December would not occur; bombing would be postponed to the spring. A package offer was also announced, including:
The Puerto Rican masses reacted with anger and shock to this offer. Clearly the Navy hoped to use the money as a bribe and bargaining chip. Moreover, to even refer to the “consent” of the “Viequenses” for a continued Navy presence is an insult, given the mass opposition throughout Puerto Rico. The offer, among other things, was a maneuver to dispose of the matter as the concern of residents of Vieques only, not of all Puerto Ricans.
Of course, Clinton will not be president in five years. Since Puerto Ricans living on the mainland can vote, Democratic presidential candidates Gore and Bradley have pandered to them by uttering a few words of sympathy over the hardships in Vieques. But there is no reason to believe that once in office either would be any less favorable to the military than the Republicans. After all, the Democrat Clinton has continued his Republican predecessors’ policy of terror bombings and invasions of small countries to enforce U.S. imperialism’s world hegemony. Vieques was vital for those campaigns, and Gore or Bradley would be just as certain to continue them as McCain or Bush.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay Johnson called Vieques “an irreplaceable asset” and “the crown jewel of live-fire, combined-arms training.” He has promised not to work to remove the installation but to “convince” the Viequenses to acquiesce. The Navy clearly hopes that Clinton’s successor will feel no need to carry out any election-season promises they might make to Puerto Rican voters.
Clinton’s sleazy proposal still represented a concession on his part, a response to the intense unpopularity of the military presence in Vieques. The question for the mass of Puerto Ricans and their supporters abroad is how to throw the imperialists out.
If a mass struggle is unleashed, the U.S. Navy could indeed be kicked out of Vieques. For it would present Washington with an enormous threat. Any mass uprising by Puerto Rican workers would clearly expose Washington’s democratic pretensions and the island’s colonial status. A military confrontation by U.S. armed forces would be a catastrophic embarrassment for Washington, which continues to pontificate against Russia for subjugating Chechnya. Clinton obviously fears such a development.
It would also expose the mainstream political parties on the island. Governor Rosselló represents the ruling pro-statehood party, the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP). Sila Calderón, who is running for governor in next November’s elections, is the main mouthpiece of the more liberal Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), which supports the current “commonwealth” status. Third is the much smaller Partido Independentista Puertoriqueño (PIP), which calls for an independent capitalist Puerto Rico to be established through electoral and legislative means (like appealing to Congress and the United Nations.)
None of these parties actually want to eliminate the imperialist relation between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, no matter how much they would like to change the specific status of relations. Their political ties to the U.S. hamper their ability to fight effectively even for the Navy’s withdrawal from Vieques – all the more because any serious struggle to kick the U.S. military out of Vieques would raise the question of U.S. military presence in all of Puerto Rico.
The proclivity to capitulate is relatively obvious in the cases of the PNP and the PPD: these parties are known as the colonial parties for good reason. They have no history of real opposition to the U.S. military in Vieques or anywhere else, since they basically support imperialism’s aims. In general, they differ only over how the supposed “partnership” between Puerto Rico and U.S. imperialism should be carried out. Thus, despite their lip service over Vieques, they have not managed to join the forces camped out in protest.
Governor Rosselló in particular has no history of favoring the Navy’s immediate withdrawal. As a pro-statehood politician, logic clearly points him the other way. One wing of the statehooders is led by the Old Guard, in the person of Luis Ferre, and is completely submissive to Washington no matter what. Rosselló leads the wing that calls for a statehood based on equality, an end to second-class citizenship, and even a hard-nosed approach to Washington. He projects himself as a strong governor who won’t blink in the face of an outright racist Republican or even the President. But he still needs to prove to Washington that Puerto Rico can be “just another state”: socially quiescent, loyal and eager for military bases.
The PPD (called the “populares”) is descended from former Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, who went from an independentista to a “commonwealth” advocate. The commonwealth idea has always included support for the establishment and maintenance of military bases and sweetheart deals with the U.S. Since the populares were the dominant colonial administrators for so many decades, their “support” for a total withdrawal from Vieques now is certainly dubious; U.S. dominance over Vieques is clearly a result of the existing commonwealth relationship. The PPD’s best bet is to hope that a PNP sellout will get them off the hook.
In contrast, the PIP has distinguished itself by playing a leading role in the Vieques struggle. But it too wants to maintain a dependent relation on the U.S. – its “independence” option in the 1989 plebiscite called for the continuation of U.S. military presence in Puerto Rico for 25 years! Not without reason, many nationalist-minded independentistas routinely boycott these plebiscites, given the fraud of the “independence” option as put forward by the PIP. In large part, the PIP is trying to use the Vieques issue to rescue it from marginality in Puerto Rican politics.
The PIP’s economic program is thoroughly capitalist. It has often asserted that its vision for Puerto Rico is to accomplish what Mandela has done in South Africa: Mandela symbolizes the removal of racist apartheid but has continued the superexploitation of South African Black workers. The PIP’s projected economic program for an “independent” Puerto Rico also accepts continued dependence on U.S. investments on the island – although it also wishes to open up the Puerto Rican market for European investment. As long as Puerto Rico’s economy is based on capitalism, it needs investments from the U.S. or Europe. To do so it must provide incentives like low wages and long hours and tax breaks. If it doesn’t face these capitalist realities, it will decline even further in the face of competition by other imperialist-dominated countries. The PIP has no solution to this dilemma because there is none under any capitalist rule.
This is why authentic Marxists argue that there is no way Puerto Rico can possibly have even the semblance of independent bourgeois development in a world dominated by imperialism. Only after the socialist revolution, when the major means of production are expropriated from the imperialist overlords, can a workers’ state make a start in raising productivity in an oppressed nation like Puerto Rico. (We will return to this later.) Thus the PIP, like the other treacherous bourgeois parties, represents no answer to imperialist domination over the Puerto Rican masses.
It is no accident, therefore, that none of the bourgeois parties have pointed to the only solution for Vieques. They have avoided calling for mass working-class mobilization to kick the U.S. Navy out. To illustrate this key point, we need to review how the struggle has been carried out so far.
After Sanes’s death, Ruben Berrios, the head of PIP, established an encampment on the Navy-owned hill in Vieques where the killing occurred. This was joined by encampments representing other forces, including environmentalists, community activists, unions and fishermen.
The encampment tactic is his central strategy. It had been utilized successfully by Berrios in the early 1970’s, after several children were killed by Navy exercises in neighboring Culebra. But the end of that operation left Vieques as the last site for live bombing practice in Puerto Rico. There was every reason to believe that the fight now would be much tougher than three decades before.
The PIP’s commitment to the encampment strategy entailed leaving negotiations over the future of Vieques to Rosselló. While the PIP “invited” the PNP and PPD to join the encampments, it demanded no commitment that would expose them if they did not put their bodies on the line. In the Special Commission, the PIP joined the other parties in building the illusion that all three main bourgeois parties were united around the key demands. The PIP refrained from criticizing its overtly pro-imperialist opponents and didn’t warn about their inevitable betrayal down the road. Indeed, Manuel Rodriguez Orellana, an important PIP spokesperson, enthused about the new unity, contrasting it with the anti-PIP attacks made by the PNP and PDP during the Culebra struggle:
What a difference a few decades make! Now there is solid support and the independence movement is not alone in calling for the permanent cessation of military practices and the devolution of Navy-held territory. Now everyone, including the Archbishop of San Juan, who called this practice “immoral,” wants the Navy to stop.
Yet before the strong recommendations of the Special Commission came out, Rosselló had already been making his conciliatory intentions quite obvious. Only because of popular sentiment was he compelled to go along with the Special Commission recommendations. It was also obvious that Rosselló was gearing for a sellout during the first set of secret negotiations in the Fall. When the Clinton offer was announced, again popular sentiment forced Rosselló to reject it as adamantly as he did. Thus saluting him for rejecting Clinton’s first offer was another case of building illusions: a serious newspaper reader could see that Rosselló and those around him were just not satisfied that the particular deal didn’t give them enough political cover.
Rosselló was capable of an opportunistic response to mass pressure. But it was absurd to think he would really buck the U.S. in a showdown. After all, he is U.S. imperialism’s most steadfast political supporter in Puerto Rico and the grand architect of a series of privatization campaigns and assaults on protective labor laws on the island. As well, he dutifully served as commander of the police attacks on the proletarian general strike that shook the island in 1998.
It was also remarkable that the PIP remained mute regarding the secret negotiations. Serious fighters would have insisted that there was nothing to negotiate from the beginning. At minimum, relying on mass support, they would have demanded open negotiations.
Now the veneer of unanimity in Puerto Rico has cracked. The implications of the second round of secret negotiations are becoming more evident. In particular, the press has been running articles, day after day, explaining that Rosselló was likely to go for a deal that allowed the use of inert bombs as long as a definite date for departure was set; his objection to the first offer was that it left the question of definite departure too obviously open.
The PPD, as represented by Sila Calderón, is still maintaining its stance of unity with Rosselló and an unwarranted optimism that a good result will win out. Ex-Senator Fernando Martín, vice-president of the PIP, recently admitted, “Everything points to a governmental disposition toward acceptance of renewed bombing in exchange for a fixed departure date, which is unacceptable to us, and I believe it is also unacceptable to the majority of the Puerto Rican people.” (El Nuevo Día, Jan. 2.)
But the awareness of an imminent sellout hasn’t meant any change in practice. The PIP maintains its reliance on symbolic acts of civil disobedience and hopes for the growth of the protest encampments. In the article just cited, Berrios says that if they are dislodged without being arrested (a possible tactic to prevent growing sympathy for the activists), “we would return to the restricted areas because you can be sure that the Army has to pay the price.” That’s it. The PIP still refrains from any talk of mobilizing the biggest power on the island, the Puerto Rican working class.
(We will take up the positions of left nationalist and socialist groupings in this struggle in a subsequent article.)
In some cases the PIP has even moved against more militant elements in Vieques. For example, the PNP, Police Chief Toledo, and the Archbishop of San Juan all condemned the expansion of the civil disobedience when it moved to blockade the Navy’s access to its weapons storage facilities at Camp Garcia in December. At the time, the PIP added its own weight to the reactionary pressure exerted by its allies, in the guise of advice to the militants. Martón demagogically pointed out:
I recommend that [the blockaders] be extremely cautious and careful because this is the type of situation that the Marines would take advantage of because of its sensitivity and they may move their agents in; and the only ones in Puerto Rico who want to bring about violence in the Vieques situation are the promoters and backers of the Marines. (El San Juan Star, Dec. 9.)
The best interpretation of the PIP’s line is that militant action like the blockade might bring about a violent response from U.S. forces and therefore is a bad idea. The worst is that Martín is accusing the blockaders of being U.S. Marine agents. Under pressure, the blockade was disbanded.
In addition to the large-scale popular protests around Vieques (and also against environmental damage from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base), there were mass demonstrations demanding the unconditional release of Puerto Rican political prisoners. Most of these prisoners had been in U.S. jails for two decades even though they were never linked to any particular bombings or acts of terror. Their outrageously long sentences made it obvious that their victimization was part of the overall aggression by the U.S. against any anti-imperialist struggle by Puerto Ricans. In September, 11 prisoners were granted a heavily conditional “clemency” deal – a political straitjacket imposed by Clinton in rejecting the just demand for their unconditional release.
It does not take a Marxist to recognize how volatile the situation is. As Carlos R. Rivera pointed out:
If the U.S. insists on resuming the bombing on Vieques, all those claims by U.S. leaders that the Puerto Rican political prisoners were common criminals and terrorists will really emerge as nothing but twisted lies. We are sure that the Minute Men of 1776 would not have put up with what the Puerto Rican residents of Vieques have had to endure. Just as we know that the inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard or Staten Island would not put up with the Navy bombing their islands. They wouldn’t tolerate it for a couple of hours ... the U.S. Navy’s shooting will be no less than an act of state terrorism. (The Free Press.)
Certainly the working class is already making this connection. And workers’ hostility to the imperialist-backed war against Puerto Rican independentistas can only be accelerated by the recent exposure of the so-called “carpetas” (subversive dossiers) campaign. Thousands of Puerto Ricans, largely independence supporters, were spied on and harassed by the commonwealth police intelligence unit for decades. Information on the victims was used to deny them employment, instigate unlawful arrests and other attacks; the victims included Puerto Ricans from every walk of life. Rosselló publicly apologized and has attempted to quiet down the whole scandal with a paltry cash settlement to a small number of the victims. But significant reports have come out showing the decisive role of the FBI and other wings of the U.S. government behind the affair.
Despite the growing discontent of Puerto Rican workers with U.S. imperialism on both economic and political grounds, the PIP did not call for mass workers’ demonstrations, even when arrests and renewed bombing were imminently posed in early December. Now more than ever, working-class action would also be a way to put a stop to Rosselló’s barely hidden intentions to sell out. Why doesn’t the PIP call for such a mobilization?
The fact is that pro-capitalist parties like the PIP are afraid to unleash the power of the working class, even though this is the way to win the demands they want. A working-class upheaval over political as well as economic questions is a threat that the PIP fears. The 1998 general strike took on a pronounced political character but was undercut and sold out by the pro-capitalist union leadership. Yet even though it did not win its objective, the massive power of the Puerto Rican working class was evident to all.
If the working class was mobilized, the demands against the military in Vieques would too easily transform the struggle in a direction which the PIP wants to avoid at all cost. The workers would use a big strike or other mass action to carry forward their hostility to privatization and other attacks fostered by the imperialists and their lackeys.
The imperialists and their friends in Puerto Rico label groups like Los Macheteros and the FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) “terrorist” in order to hypocritically denounce their “violence” – as if the imposition of colonial status were not the real act of violence against a whole people, as if colonialism had occurred non-violently or could ever be maintained without the army and police. Colonialism is in fact an act of state terror. Nevertheless, the strategy of groups like the Macheteros has mainly revolved around bombing particular installations or targets associated with the U.S. oppressor, as both symbolic acts and an attempt to intimidate the U.S. into changing policy. This strategy has not gained the support of the working class, by and large; our class has far better methods at its disposal.
Nevertheless, the Puerto Rican workers overwhelmingly supported the unconditional release of the U.S.-held prisoners. There was a demonstration of over 100,000 in San Juan last summer demanding their unconditional release. There is at the very least a sense of self-respect and pride when workers see the Macheteros, as Puerto Ricans, reassert their right to use violence against the oppressor, if it should again bomb in Vieques. Authentic Marxists of every nationality join with those workers in rejecting the hypocritical preachings of the mass murderers in Washington who castigate the “terrorism” of the oppressed.
The problem is that the small acts of guerrillaism that left nationalists engage in do not do any serious damage to imperialist rule. Their strategy flows from the fact that these radical groups are not rooted in the working class. It is no accident that their method of struggle is based on acts of a small elite rather than helping to build working-class struggles which utilize the powerful position of our class in society, its ability to act collectively and its potential to develop anti-capitalist consciousness. These groupings have no desire to help develop the conscious struggle of the working class. This is the main reason why we reject so-called “terrorism” as a strategy for the oppressed, even though at certain times specific acts cannot be excluded as subordinate tactics within the context of mass struggle.
Our rejection of urban guerrillaism has nothing in common with the pacifism preached by the PIP, which brags about its non-violence. Civil disobedience generally means a conscious decision to break a law. The purpose is generally to demonstrate symbolically that the law itself is an injustice and therefore deserves to be violated. However, civil disobedience also implies pacifism – at best a strategy designed to either avoid an attack by the state or to win public sympathy in the case of an attack. As a philosophy it equates the self-defense of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor. Concretely, the position of the PIP is that the people in the Vieques struggle should remain passive no matter what. It is another aspect of the PIP’s effort to prevent the protests from ever achieving a mass character. Massive participation by the working class is unimaginable if passivity in the face of attacks by the local police or the feds is demanded; workers will fight back when they see they have the numbers and power to do so. Furthermore, a strategy of civil disobedience means leaving activists not only open to arrest and physical danger; even more importantly, it means the protests will be brushed aside and isolated as soon as the authorities find it convenient.
Nevertheless, we do not wish to imply that activities like encampments or sit-downs are never useful as tactics within the overall struggle. It certainly made sense to camp out in Vieques. If the feds dare to go there to arrest demonstrators, that could gain more popular support for the movement and make the U.S. look like the monster it is to an even larger audience – as happened when the police rioted in Seattle.
But however embarrassing that would be for Washington, such occurrences are not enough to win. A useful tactic is no substitute for a successful strategy. In order to get the military out of Vieques and out of Puerto Rico, fighters are needed, not sacrificial lambs. Mass action by the working class in the form of a general strike would create a chokehold on profits. And mass workers’ demonstrations openly willing to defend themselves would be the best kind of deterrent to the use of arms by the imperialists. The police are less likely to attack if they fear an armed defense. And as we have pointed out above, Washington is more likely to back off and leave Vieques altogether if a full-scale battle smashes its ideological mask as the democratic defender of the oppressed in the Balkans, the Middle East, etc.
Revolutionaries must defend today’s demonstrators from all attacks by the imperialists and their agents. However, a greater struggle with wider goals is vital if the roots of the poisonous weed are to be removed.
Puerto Rican workers already know that the bombing of Vieques is far from the only abuse they have suffered under U.S. rule. These abuses have a common cause. And in Puerto Rico, as in other “third world” countries, the workers are aware that superexploitation and oppression at the hands of imperialism is common to all of them.
As revolutionary internationalists, we openly seek the defeat of U.S. imperialism in the current confrontation in Puerto Rico. We stand for a full withdrawal not only from Vieques but from all of Puerto Rico. For Puerto Ricans, it would mean no longer being subject to the injury, indignity and oppression of military occupation. It would strengthen their ability to exercise their right of self-determination without being menaced by the U.S. military. A full withdrawal would be a victory not only for Puerto Ricans but for all the workers and oppressed of the world.
Even more important than the military-technical setback for the U.S. would be its political and symbolic consequences. A defeat for U.S. imperialism in its main directly-ruled colony would not only expose its pseudo-democratic claims abroad, it could demoralize the imperialists – much as their defeat in Vietnam did a generation ago. Adm. Johnson expressed the fear that a victory for Vieques could revive movements against U.S. bases in other nations as well. In a joint statement with Marine Corps commandant Gen. James L. Jones, he said:
Our friends and allies also have interest groups that would prefer that these activities not take place near their communities. The “not-in-my-backyard” movement is a phenomenon that, if it succeeds at home, could greatly undermine training opportunities abroad.
His fear is our hope. We believe that it is critical to fight for a victory in Vieques and also to fight for the perspective of expanding the struggle into opposition to the whole U.S. military presence in Puerto Rico. At the same time, a call for an international struggle against the U.S. military must be launched. All this is possible but only through determined mass struggle up to and including a general strike.
The task for revolutionary workers in Puerto Rico, as elsewhere, is to build a revolutionary party to fight for a leadership that will prevent any more betrayals and defeats. What steps can be taken in this direction? And how can working-class militants fight to build the workers’ struggle?
In Puerto Rico, both the unions and the left have strongly expressed their support for Vieques. Yet in practice that has meant mainly sending small delegations to reinforce the civil disobedience encampments, rather than organizing for working-class mass action against the Navy. Here on the U.S. mainland, the AFL-CIO, in a welcome departure from its usual wholesale endorsement of imperialist militarism, voted at its convention to demand the complete removal of the Navy from Vieques.
This is significant, despite the fact that at the same convention the bureaucrats gave their usual endorsement to the Democratic Party establishment’s favorite – Clinton’s henchman, Al Gore. It is still a step forward, even though the resolution did not call on any unions to take concrete action in defense of Vieques. Its importance only lies in the fact that the AFL-CIO bureaucrats felt forced to give cover for the Democrats, which they did only because of the determined support of Puerto Ricans for the struggle. On the U.S. mainland, support activity for Vieques has been limited to small demos and civil disobedience actions.
In Puerto Rico, now is the time to begin organizing mass actions to oppose the Navy. These include pickets and demonstrations, as well as work stoppages up to and including a renewed general strike. In the U.S., Vieques supporters must force the unions to make good on their words of support and mobilize their members for actions in defense of Vieques and Puerto Rico.
To carry out this fight against the bureaucratic mis-leadership of our class requires fighting to build a revolutionary party of the working class – here in the belly of the U.S. imperialist beast, in Puerto Rico and throughout the world. Such a party must be internationalist, fighting for the right of self-determination for Puerto Rico and all oppressed nations. Such a party would fight against the program of war, exploitation and austerity – the real program of the imperialists and their agents. A victory for the people of Vieques and all of Puerto Rico would be a glorious chapter in the history of our class and the building of that party.
The struggle over Vieques has already put the question of Puerto Rico’s status into bold relief once again. It is not by accident that there has been no decisive movement one way or another on this question for a long time. All the capitalist alternatives for Puerto Rico are dead ends.
Yet as we have previously explained, revolutionaries must defend the right of self-determination in Puerto Rico; that is, we defend Puerto Rico’s right to secede if the people there so choose. (See Self-Determination and Military Defense: The Marxist Method for a detailed discussion of self-determination in general, as well as PR 58 on Puerto Rico.) Only when the working class in the imperialist countries becomes the most steadfast advocate of the right to choose independence, can oppressed workers see the vast difference between the workers and the imperialists in the imperialist countries. Only then will they believe that authentic communist internationalism rather than any form of nationalism is in their best interest. That is why Leninists champion the right of self-determination and fight within the working class in the U.S. to convince our fellow workers of this policy.
However, it is a mistake to believe that the defense of the right of self-determination automatically means advocacy of secession. Today, while we defend the right of self-determination, we do not advocate secession. Why?
Many Puerto Rican workers have voted for the PNP and the PPD. This means not that they really want either statehood or commonwealth status but that they have few illusions in successful independence from imperialism on a bourgeois basis, i.e. the PIP alternative. At the same time, the 1998 strike clearly revealed their hostility toward privatization and to the imperialists they saw as its perpetrators. There is no doubt that the mass of Puerto Ricans on the island see themselves as a separate nationality from North Americans. In fact, they see many of the past “independentistas” as national heroes. Nevertheless, the prospect of independence is seen to be a disaster, since it is framed in a completely anti-revolutionary context – that is, only in its bourgeois form. Therefore, the position of the LRP is not to advocate immediate independence but to fight for every national democratic right for Puerto Ricans, including the unconditional freedom of all political prisoners.
On the other hand, if a progressive movement toward independence were developing, among at least an advanced layer of workers if not yet among masses, we would advocate independence ourselves and work within the movement for independence to make it strong and successful. At the same time, we would openly seek to truthfully expose the reactionary essence of nationalisma and the pitfalls of a nationally limited economy in today’s world. We would instead aim for a proletarian-led Puerto Rico becoming an integral part of a socialist federation of Carribean and Latin American Workers’ States.
We raise this question now not only for theoretical clarity. The question of national independence is bound to come to the fore for the workers’ movement in Puerto Rico again in the near future. If struggles such as the fight around Vieques succeed, it is possible that workers will see independence, with all its possible dangers, as the only way to fight imperialism. That option would be most likely if the consciousness of the U.S. working class and its level of struggle remains low as compared to Puerto Rico.
In such a development, revolutionaries would make clear that we fight for independence as the best way under the given circumstances to point to proletarian socialist revolution as the real answer. A workers’ Puerto Rico would immediately cancel its debts to the imperialists and expropriate their corporations without compensation. A Puerto Rican socialist revolution in the face of American imperialism would ignite oppressed peoples around the world and show them the road to liberation and to an international federation of workers’ states. And of course, a Puerto Rican revolution, especially given the growing importance of not only Puerto Rican but all Latino workers in the U.S., could become a spark for revolutionary struggle on the mainland.