The Widespread Movement For A Constitutional Convention
Though the Tydings Bill had serious and decidedly harmful design flaws, 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 Partido Unión Republicana, 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, leader of the Partido Liberal de Puerto Rico, was also quoted 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, where Don Pedro was living at the time, hosted a meeting with the local leaders of Puerto Rico’s three main political parties—the Liberal Party, Socialist Party, and Republican Union. This meeting resulted in a call to the presidents of those parties, and Don Pedro, to immediately hold the constitutional convention to establish the Republic of Puerto Rico. The call was responded to favorably by those party’s presidents and enthusiastically echoed by their local political leaders, student leaders, and other organizational leaders 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 Frente Unido por la Constitución de la República. This broad front regularly engaged leaders from all of Puerto Rico’s political parties in addition to other groups and organizations. Their first major public event took place May 10 in Caguas and had about 10,000 people in attendance with some 350,000 more estimated as listening to its radio broadcast. The newspaper El Imparcial regularly published 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, El Imparcial listed thirty municipalities. More towns eventually joined.
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 other prominent locations by people of all ages, but especially young people. These occurrences were widely publicized in newspapers, sometimes daily. One such occurrence at Santurce’s Central High School, on May 12, received front page coverage. As students protested under the raised flag of Puerto Rico, police appeared and drew their guns as the students 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. With the students continuing to demonstrate, Governor Winship then mobilized two National Guard units to intervene.
Don Pedro And The Constitutional Convention
When Don Pedro began the push for a constitutional convention it was significant because of both its timing and the level of thought he had put into it. 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, El Mundo began to publish four newly written articles by Don Pedro on the constitutional convention.
These articles, between April 27 and May 28, covered topics that included: 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 constitutional 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 democratically chosen to negotiate a treaty, as equals, with the United States who, in turn, must offer due respect to these representatives, chosen as they were through a legitimate process involving honest and energetic national dialogue.
The idea of a plebiscite was criticized by Don Pedro as both inappropriate and offensive. 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 constitutional 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, the colonial regime inevitably worked against and prevented 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 began to take the focus of the political leaders. Third, political leaders, especially Luis Muñoz Marín, who spent much of his time during this period in Washington, began to engage in negotiations over the terms of the Tydings Bill and what independence could look like.
Regarding the third aspect, Don Pedro was very clear in his critique of politicians negotiating with U.S. officials around independence. Essentially calling out what he saw as the backwards nature of these negotiations, he said, “They are beginning where they should end, and they want to end where they should begin.” In other words, instead of discussing the terms of independence with U.S. officials before exercising their sovereignty, Puerto Rico’s political leaders should be exercising their sovereignty through the constitutional convention process and then discussing after that the terms of the international relations between the Republic of Puerto Rico and the United States government.
The attention given to Don Pedro and the Nationalist Party by the colonial regime was significant in this period. On May 7, Colonel Cole wrote a report speaking to the threat they posed during the campaign for a constitutional convention. In the report, he said 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 Party members.
The conviction of Don Pedro for seditious conspiracy in the moment he is receiving considerable support for holding a constitutional convention is no coincidence. A national process beginning with an assertion of sovereignty and involving a later treaty negotiation to end the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico was obviously a scenario the colonial power structure wanted to avoid. When visited by his wife in jail after his July 31 sentencing, and before being sent to Atlanta Penitentiary, Don Pedro said the U.S. knew exactly what they had in their hands: “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. Unfortunately, the movement has been overshadowed in historical texts by the trial of Don Pedro and the Nationalist Party members, if it is mentioned at all. The push for a constitutional convention was an incredible expression of Don Pedro’s nationalist philosophy in its most diplomatic sense. It embodies three key aspects of Don Pedro’s nationalist philosophy: the nullity of the Treaty of Paris, the boycott of elections, and non-recognition of the authority of the U.S. regime. While his imprisonment was itself significant, the pro-convention movement adds a whole other contextual understanding to it that can inform a re-interpretation of this period in his leadership.
- 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).