The Campaign To Free The Nationalists

Immediate Support For The Nationalists

Even before Don Pedro and the seven other Nationalist Party members were sentenced to prison, they received significant support. Many people even sacrificed from their own funds to contribute money to the costs of the nationalists’ legal defense. Immediately after the conclusion of their trial a meeting was held on August 9, 1936 in San Juan’s Municipal Theater where the National Congress For The Freedom Of The Political Prisoners was organized. This National Congress worked on a continental level to gain support for the release of the nationalist prisoners. The more than twenty thousand dollars they were able to raise was used to cover court proceedings and to maintain a presence of delegates throughout Latin America.

The President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, received numerous appeals for the commutation of the sentences of the nationalists. On September 15, 1936 a letter was signed by intellectuals representing France, Belgium, Colombia, Italy, Egypt, Switzerland, Catalonia, Palestine, Brazil, Spain, Uruguay, Australia, Bolivia, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic. On another occasion, 100 prominent intellectuals and leaders in the U.S. wrote to President Roosevelt, including Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Sherwood Anderson, Ruth Benedict, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., among others. Luz María Serradel, a friend of Don Pedro’s from Harvard, wrote a letter to President Roosevelt with a list of signatures from members of the Mexican Committee For The Freedom Of Pedro Albizu Campos. Henry Epstein, who also knew Don Pedro at Harvard and who was serving as the New York State Attorney General, also wrote a letter to President Roosevelt asking for his release.

A number of international congresses also joined in calling for the release of the nationalists. At the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace, held in Buenos Aires in December 1936, Don Pedro was declared “Hero of America” and “Moral President of the Anti-Imperialist Consciousness of the entire Continent.” A week before the Conference opened a letter was sent to the President of Argentina signed by the Executive Committee of the National Clergy of Puerto Rico. In their letter they wrote, “The invading intervention has culminated with a policy of terrorism that has been unraveled against the nation’s purest leadership,” pointing out that the nationalists’ only charge was “defending the independence of our land.”

East Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio

One individual deserving mention that was also active in the campaign to free Don Pedro and the nationalists was Vito Marcantonio. An Italian-American politician born, raised, and a permanent resident of the East Harlem section of New York, Vito Marcantonio was a New York University-trained lawyer who was able to secure the almost complete support from the constituents in his congressional district and earn a seat in Congress for more than a decade. This support was earned not only by his radical, people-centered politics, but also the practical services thousands of his constituents received yearly through the help of volunteers.

Due to the large Puerto Rican population of East Harlem, Vito Marcantonio became known as a defender of Puerto Rican rights. Becoming an ally of the Nationalist Party, which had a chapter in New York, he was able to use his place within Congress in their favor, unlike Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner in Congress who is a non-voting member. When the Tydings Bill was introduced in 1936, Marcantonio responded by introducing a bill of his own, saying, “Genuine independence and the declaration of the responsibility of the United States for the present disastrous state of the economy of Puerto Rico, and the abysmal poverty of its people, is the purpose of my bill.”

Following the indictment of Don Pedro and the other nationalists for seditious conspiracy, Marcantonio took an active interest in their defense. Invited by the defense to become part of their team, he wrote Judge Cooper asking the trial be delayed a few days so that he could travel to Puerto Rico and be present for it — this request was denied. The reason for his request was an effort by U.S. authorities to prevent him from arriving on time, which Pan American Airways assisted by denying him flights for over a week. Known for traveling almost exclusively between New York’s City Hall, his congressional district, and Washington, D.C., and spending the great majority of his time in East Harlem, Marcantonio finally landed in Puerto Rico on August 1, 1936 — his first and only time outside of the continental U.S. Almost immediately, Marcantonio was accompanied by members of the defense in a visit to Don Pedro in jail.

Marcantonio had his first opportunity to speak in court following an August 3rd petition for a new trial. Marcantonio’s main argument was the existence of evidence showing three jurors held a bias against Don Pedro and the nationalists. He also had a meeting with Ernest Gruening, who directed the Division of Territories and Island Possessions of the U.S. Department of the Interior, where he unsuccessfully tried to gain his support for the nationalists’ release. When Marcantonio returned to New York on August 11, he began working to mobilize stateside support for the nationalists, resulting in the American Committee for the Defense of Puerto Rican Political Prisoners composed of elements from some thirty organizations. Marcantonio worked very hard to expose the bias of the jurors and the political nature of the trial.

Continued Support For The Exiled

In 1937 four prominent international congresses were held that included among their activities a call for the release of the nationalists: the Pan-American Press Conference held in Chile, the World Youth Congress held in New York’s Vassar College, and two other congresses held in Mexico. In October 1938 the Pan-American Colombian Society approved a resolution to begin a continental campaign for the release of the nationalists. In March 1939 the Cuban Committee for the Freedom of the Puerto Rican Patriots was founded by faculty members of the University of Havana, Cuban students, lawyers, scientists, historians, journalists, writers, artists, and others.

Biographer Marisa Rosado lists a number of national and international bodies that called for their release, such as the Popular Congress for American Peace in Buenos Aires, the Congress of Latin American Journalists in Valparaiso, Chile, the P.E.N. Clubs in Buenos Aires, the Senates of the Dominican Republic and Argentina, the Workers Congress of Guadalajara, Mexico, and the Constitutional Assembly of Cuba. She also lists several Cuban organizations, such as the Reporters Association of Havana, the Athens Club, the José Martí Popular University, the Revolutionary Union Party, the Union of Writers and Artists, the National Women’s Union, the Anti-Imperialist Agrarian Youth, the Workers Confederation of Cuba, and others.

Many of these organizations wrote directly to the U.S. President calling for the release of the nationalist prisoners. In the end, as Marisa Rosado writes, “All of these claims were ignored. It was obvious that the United States authorities and their colonial associates wanted Albizu and the other nationalist leaders in jail. The republic, another Latin American republic, was not what they wanted as a system of government in Puerto Rico.” Clearly, with all of the support the nationalists received, from so many countries, from prominent individuals spanning countless segments of American and international society, and from politicians in their very House of Representatives, the United States meant to keep them in jail in order to crush the movement for independence led by the Nationalist Party.


References:

  • Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
  • El Movimiento Libertador en la Historia de Puerto Rico, by Ramón Medina Ramírez (San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1970).
  • I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings of Vito Marcantonio, edited by Annette Rubenstein (A. M. Kelley, 1973).
  • Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
  • Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician 1902-1954, by Gerald Meyer (State University of New York Press, 1989).

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