The War Against Nationalists

Developing A Military Regime

When strikes across several industries in Puerto Rico broke out in 1933, the U.S. government was put on high alert. In response, the U.S. administration, headed by President Roosevelt, made a number of appointments intended to take control of the situation and enforce order. The first appointment would be that of a former U.S. Army Colonel, Francis E. Riggs, as the new Chief of Police in Puerto Rico on October 1, 1933. Prior to this appointment, Colonel Riggs had been working in Nicaragua advising that country’s future dictator Anastasio Somoza who a few months later ordered the assassination of Augusto Sandino, the nationalist leader of the opposition to him.

The next appointment would be that of a former U.S. Army General, Blanton Winship, as the new Governor of Puerto Rico on January 12, 1934. Former Governor of Puerto Rico James Beverly had written a letter of recommendation for General Winship to the Bureau of Insular Affairs on January 1st, saying in it, “I strongly encourage the next governor to be an Army officer… He must be someone with a lot of experience who knows how to gauge and handle delicate situations and who has the necessary toughness to fulfill his duty, the same if it is favored by public opinion or not.” In addition to these appointments of two former Army officers, a new U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico was appointed, Aaron Cecil Snyder, as well as a new Judge for the District Court of Puerto Rico, Robert A. Cooper.

This is the same time that the police of Puerto Rico, now under Colonel Riggs, were being armed with military-grade weapons. Adding to the tense climate of confrontation, Chief of Police Riggs was quoted in El Mundo on February 5, 1934 as saying, “If the Police have to use their weapons and shoot in self defense or to maintain order, they will do so with effective results.” The order he received from Governor Winship was even more explicit: “In front of the nationalists, always shoot to kill.” A militarized regime had been created, with new judicial appointees able to control the exercise of law at the highest levels of the legal system. The FBI also sent agents to infiltrate and conduct surveillance on the Nationalist Party.

Bribery And Internal Opposition

In the middle of the sugar cane strike, on January 18, 1934, Don Pedro accepted an invitation to lunch by Chief of Police Riggs. Don Pedro’s wife Laura claimed that Riggs expressed interest in Puerto Rico, saying, “that due to his position he could not act publicly, but that he could help financially, for example, contributing with one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for Nationalism.” Juan Antonio Corretjer, however, denied that this offer was given, saying that such a bribe “presupposes weakness in the one to whom the offer is made,” and that Riggs knew Don Pedro was not an individual who could be bribed with money. As for what Don Pedro said about the two-hour lunch meeting, he told the press very simply that it was of a personal nature.

Due to the increasing militancy of Don Pedro’s leadership, this year is when those in disagreement with the direction the Party was going would either leave or conspire against Don Pedro. The first case of such would be following the July 1934 visit of U.S. President Roosevelt to Mayaguez. Declaring him “persona non grata,” Party leadership tried to organize a protest opposing his arrival with the help of the local Mayaguez chapter. The leadership of the Mayaguez chapter, however, did not support the initiative and would end up leaving the Party to form their own local party. The Summer of 1935 would see the exposure of an even more serious kind of internal opposition, originating in the Party’s Santurce chapter.

Invited to a private meeting organized by members of the Party, Ramón S. Pagán, then treasurer of the Nationalist Party, was surprised to find that said members were meeting to continue discussions already begun on how to assassinate Don Pedro. These members, beyond being opponents of the path the Party was on, also appeared to have been encouraged by elements of the colonial government. Juan Antonio Corretjer was later quoted in El Imparcial as saying that the Party had known since June of 1935 of plots against Don Pedro focused on the bribing of Party members. Don Pedro also spoke in a Party meeting in August involving the Junta Nacional and Juntas Municipales of an effort to plant explosives in Party offices, creating a reason to conduct raids of Party addresses and arrests of Party members. With the Santurce chapter being the focus of this conspiracy, much of their leadership would be expelled.

The Massacre At Río Piedras

Despite the bribery and internal opposition that existed, leading a number of members to leave or be expelled from the Party, the activities commemorating El Grito de Lares on September 23, 1935 made it very clear that the Nationalist Party was still strong, organized, and committed. The next month, on October 24, 1935, the Nationalist Party would experience their first major assault by the hands of the colonial government, resulting in the death of four nationalists, including Ramón S. Pagán, and one innocent bystander, in addition to the wounding of a fifth nationalist.

On October 20 Don Pedro gave a speech over the radio in which he severely denounced what he found to be a wave of assimilation in the University of Puerto Rico. He felt that the influence of U.S. imperialism was creating cowards and traitors among the student body, and that students ought to be courageous and patriotic in the face of this influence. Following this speech, and despite being applauded by political leaders and others who heard his speech, a campaign was started by a group of students to collect signatures in support of a protest at the University where Don Pedro would be declared “Student Enemy Number One.” The effort was denounced by the National Federation of Puerto Rican Students as an effort supported by elements of the U.S. regime to create a conflict that could result in the arrest of Nationalist Party members.

The students in opposition to Don Pedro notified police authorities of their intention to hold their protest assembly and requested their presence outside of the campus as a security against nationalists. When nationalists arrived at the campus in the morning of the assembly their car was intercepted by police and, after a brief confrontation, several policemen opened fire on their vehicle killing three of the four occupants. Witnesses claimed police were screaming, “Don’t let them leave alive!” Immediately after, as police were transporting a policeman that was wounded, a bomb struck their car. Giving chase to a suspect, the police engaged him in a shootout. When the suspect, another nationalist, ran out of bullets and began to surrender, the police shot and killed him. The event, taking place at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras campus, would be known as the Río Piedras Massacre.

The massacre was widely denounced. Pro-statehood political leader Rafael Martínez Nadal placed blame on the University administration, highlighting their allowing of such a political initiative as the holding of an assembly to declare Don Pedro “Student Enemy Number One” on an educational campus, when the dissatisfaction of the students could have been expressed in so many other ways. Chief of Police Riggs, on the other hand, declared in a press conference that there will be “war, war without end” against the Nationalist Party.


References:

  • Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
  • El Nacionalismo y la Violencia en la Década de 1930, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2007).
  • La Lucha por la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Juan Antonio Corretjer (Liga Socialista Puertorriqueña, 1949).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
  • War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror In America’s Colony, by Nelson A. Denis (Nation Books, 2015).

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