The Widespread Movement For A Constitutional Convention
Though the Tydings Bill was written with severe consequences, when it was introduced on April 23, 1936 a nation-wide conversation on independence began. Even Rafael Martínez Nadal, the pro-statehood leader of the Republican Union Party, was quoted in El Mundo on April 25 saying “Rather than lifelong slaves, rather than think of the political slavery of our children and grandchildren, our choice is not in doubt. Any man worthy of being called a son of this land, rather than ignominy with a full stomach, must prefer hunger with dignity and honor… every man who feels himself to be free must vote for the Republic of Puerto Rico.” Antonio Romero Barceló, the leader of the Liberal Party, was also quoted that same day saying “If circumstances come to put us in a situation without alternatives, we are resolutely bound to demand the independence of the homeland… even if we starve to death.”
Also on April 25, the Mayor of Aguas Buenas hosted a meeting with the local leaders of Puerto Rico’s three main political parties – the Liberal Party, Socialist Party, and Republican Union — resulting in a call to the presidents of those parties, and Don Pedro, to immediately hold the Constitutional Convention and establish the Republic of Puerto Rico. The call was responded to favorably by those party’s presidents and would be enthusiastically echoed by their local political leaders, students leaders, and leaders representing other organizations throughout Puerto Rico.
On May 4 several hundred people, including intellectuals and representatives from civil, social, and cultural groups, held an assembly in the Ateneo Puertorriqueño and formed the United Front for the Constitution of the Republic. This broad front would regularly engage leaders from all of Puerto Rico’s political parties in addition to other groups and organizations, with their first major public event taking place on May 10 in Caguas — about 10,000 people were in attendance and some 350,000 more were estimated to have been listening to the radio broadcast of the event. The newspaper El Imparcial regularly publicized an “honor roll” of municipalities where the U.S. flag was lowered and the Puerto Rican flag raised in City Hall in support of the Constitutional Convention movement — by May 12 they listed thirty such municipalities, and more towns joined afterwards.
Besides the more than thirty town halls previously mentioned, the Puerto Rican flag was also raised outside of the University of Puerto Rico, several high schools, and many other prominent locations by people of all ages, but especially young people. These occurrences were widely publicized in newspapers, sometimes daily. One such occurrence taking place at Santurce’s Central High School, on May 12, would receive front page coverage. As students protested under the raised flag of Puerto Rico, police appeared and drew their guns as the protestors became more energized. Negotiating and getting the police to withdraw, the students then began to riot, destroying the inside of Central High. When the police arrived again, they clubbed the students, used tear gas, and fired shots in the air until the rioting ended. Then, when the protests continued, Governor Winship mobilized two National Guard units to intervene.
Don Pedro And The Constitutional Convention
When Don Pedro began to push for a Constitutional Convention it was significant both because of its timing and the level of thought he had put into the idea — his thoughts on the topic had been published in the media since at least 1923, without grabbing much attention or support. In this environment following the introduction of the Tydings Bill, beginning just four days later El Mundo would publish four new articles by Don Pedro on the Constitutional Convention. These articles, between April 27 and May 28, covered topics including: the process for organizing a Constitutional Convention in Puerto Rico; similar conventions held in Cuba and the Dominican Republic that the U.S. took part in; the ruinous relationship the U.S. has had with Puerto Rico; the importance of the Convention in organizing a legitimate power in Puerto Rico and electing its legitimate representatives; and, as time passed, the inability of Puerto Rico’s political leaders to actually come together.
The purpose of the Convention was two-fold: 1) to establish the sovereign power of Puerto Rico as a free nation; and, 2) to elect the legitimate representatives of Puerto Rico that would negotiate a treaty with the United States. According to Don Pedro, the existing political parties “do not represent the legitimate national will, owing to the conflict of interests between them. Partisanship can end only in a Constitutional Convention that also solemnly invests in its plenipotentiaries the power of the homeland.” He then wrote, “After the Constitutional Convention meets and the respective plenipotentiaries are designated, then we can do all the studies necessary to determine the international relations between the United States and Puerto Rico through the respective treaty; all the time can be taken that is necessary to resolve a matter so vital; but this time will be spent by people with the power to resolve it.”
For Don Pedro the Constitutional Convention was the only diplomatic way out of Puerto Rico’s colonial condition. Through it, legitimate representatives would be chosen that could negotiate a treaty, as equals, with the United States — and the U.S. had to respect these representatives, chosen as they were through a legitimate process involving honest and energetic national dialogue.
The idea of a plebiscite was also criticized as inappropriate and offensive by Don Pedro. He explained in an interview published on May 2: “First of all, the plebiscite is a legislative formula that is used to consult the will of the inhabitants who occupy a strip of land between two sovereign nations when the population of the two sovereigns has been mixed in such a way that it is not possible to draw a territorial limit to divide them; the Plebiscite is never used to consult the national will of a duly constituted nation to ask whether it wants to be free.”
As far as what this Convention process would look like, Don Pedro offered the following outline: “Each political party can hold a national convention and designate the number of delegates that have the right to represent them in the Constitutional Convention according to the prior agreement arrived at by all the political parties. These conventions of the respective political parties can be held the same day, and on the next the Constitutional Convention can be held with the designated delegations of the respective political parties. This Constitutional Convention can then designate the plenipotentiaries of Puerto Rico in order to resolve with plenipotentiaries of the United States everything concerning a permanent treaty between both nations.”
The Empire Intervenes
While Don Pedro’s push for a Constitutional Convention received much more support than in the past, a few aspects of the colonial regime would inevitably prevent it from taking place. First, Governor Winship began prohibiting public meetings at the onset of the movement, leading to increased repression by police. Second, the approaching November elections would begin to take the focus of the political leaders. Third, political leaders, especially Luis Muñoz Marín who would spend much of his time in Washington, would begin to engage in negotiations over the terms of the Tydings Bill and what independence would look like. With regard to this third aspect, Don Pedro was very clear in his critique of politicians negotiating with the U.S. around independence, calling out its backwards nature by saying, “They are beginning where they should end, and they want to end where they should begin.”
The attention given to Don Pedro and the Nationalist Party by the colonial regime was significant. On May 7 the commander of the 65th Infantry Regiment, Colonel Cole, wrote a report speaking to the threat Don Pedro and the Nationalist Party posed during the campaign for a Constitutional Convention, saying that if independence was given to Puerto Rico the environment “will give Albizu Campos more than a fair chance of becoming the head of government.” Reports from the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division during July and August also show the close attention the regime was paying to the trial of Don Pedro and other members of the Nationalist Party.
It has been suggested that the conviction of Don Pedro for conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government by force, just as he is seeking to participate in a national dialogue in favor of meeting with the U.S. as equals to negotiate a treaty ending the occupation of Puerto Rico, was no coincidence. When visited by his wife in jail following his July 31 sentencing before being sent to serve his term in Atlanta Penitentiary, Don Pedro said the U.S. knew what they had in their hands and that, “if they had left me six more months in the streets I would have made the Republic.”
The 1936 movement for a Constitutional Convention led by Don Pedro is a significant event in the history of Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence. Despite this, the movement has been overshadowed by the trial of Don Pedro and the Nationalist Party members, if it is mentioned at all. Based on the nullity of the Treaty of Paris and involving the boycott of elections and the non-recognition of the U.S. regime, the push for a Constitutional Convention can be seen as the highest diplomatic expression of Don Pedro’s nationalist philosophy. It puts to question the grounds for charging him with seditious conspiracy, and it adds a greater significance to his imprisonment than is already argued without mentioning the Convention movement.
- Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
- Historical Journals and Periodicals, Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library and Archives (Hunter College, CUNY).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Obras Escogidas, 1923-1936, Tomo III, edited by J. Benjamín Torres (Editorial Jelofe, 1981).
- The Critical Year of 1936 through the Reports of the Military Intelligence Division, by María E. Estades-Font in Puerto Rico Under Colonial Rule: Political Persecution and the Quest for Human Rights (State University of New York Press: Albany, 2006).