PUERTO RICO A Talk with a "Machetero

September 25, 2007

Seven years have passed since a Wells Fargo employee drove off with $7.2 million in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1985, the action was attributed to Los Macheteros, the machete wielders, a Puerto Rican liberation organization that since 1976 has claimed credit for a series of armed attacks against FBI and U.S. military installations on the is- land. Filiberto Ojeda Rfos, 56, is a founder of Los Macheteros. He is currently under federal indictment in Hartford, accused of conspiracy in the Wells Fargo case. On August 30, 1985, he and 14 other independentistas were arrested in an early-morning raid car- ried out by 225 FBI agents and mem- bers of the Puerto Rican Ancillary Police. Ojeda was kept in preventive deten- tion for 45 months, the longest pre-trial jailing for any prisoner in U.S. history. Now that he is free on bail, the FBI closely monitors his movements through an electronic beeper perma- nently strapped to his ankle. He may not leave San Juan without permission from the Hartford judge; he must report daily to court authorities and is under a strict curfew. Los Macheteros says its goal is to draw international attention to Puerto Rico's colonial status and, through armed action, to pressure the United States to withdraw from the island. Ojeda has testified before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress. His political activism dates from the 1950s. From 1961 to 1969 he lived in Cuba, studying political science at the University of Havana. There he joined a Puerto Rican revolutionary or- ganization, the Movimiento Pro-Inde- pendencia. A year after his return to Puerto Rico, he was arrested and ac- cused of participating in another pro- independence group, the Movimiento Independentista Revolutionario en Armas, though these charges were later dropped. Now, if convicted, he faces a sentence of up to 250 years. U.S. authorities monitor Ojeda's movements with an electronic shackle strapped to his ankle Frank T. Fitzgerald teaches sociol- ogy at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, and is the author of Managing Socialism: From Old Cad- res to New Professionals in Revolu- tionary Cuba (Praeger, 1990). NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS I ,, rS iThe Wells Fargo trial is currently awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on whether taped conversations of Ojeda in his home may be introduced as evi- dence. Ojeda and the eight other inde- pendentistas charged in the case are protesting the decision to hold proceed- ings in Hartford, believing they would only receive a fair trial in Puerto Rico. The Wells Fargo trial has been delayed for two years. When will it begin? Very important things have been happening. In July 1988 the federal district court judge in Hartford sup- pressed evidence that the FBI obtained through electronic surveillance, because the tapes were not immediately sealed as required by law. The FBI delayed the sealing for 84 days, time enough to alter the contents of the tapes in its laborato- ries in Washington. The violation was so evident that the presiding judge saw no alternative but to suppress the tapes. Prosecutors immediately appealed the decision before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. A panel of three judges thoroughly reviewed the case and unanimously confirmed the opinion of the district court. This decision was then appealed by the government to the Supreme Court, and a hearing was held on February 28, 1990. The Court opted to remand the case to the Second Circuit and to order further findings to determine whether government agents had acted with jus- tification. The fact that three senior judges from the Second Circuit, in addition to the district court judge, unanimously agreed that the FBI had violated the procedures for electronic surveillance makes the acceptance of the appeal very suspicious. This demonstrates that [the Supreme Court's] intentions are either to pressure the Second Circuit into justifying the government's posi- tion and permitting the use of the tapes, or to avoid responsibility for condemn- ing a clear violation of the law by the FBI. This is an important case because of its political nature. Whatever is decided by the Supreme Court establishes a binding precedent in the United States. If the evidence is suppressed, other persecuted organizations who are vic- tims of the same type of violations by the FBI can appeal on the same grounds. That is where things are now. We are waiting for the courts to decide, and the trial could start by September, in Hartford. You were recently found innocent in an important case in Puerto Rico. Yes, on August 26, 1989. In 1985 I was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting two FBI agents during the attack on my home. As they admitted during the trial, they tried to murder me. It was an extremely important trial. It was covered every day by the media, and the Puerto Rican people became involved. This trial raised many issues, like language and jury selection. Most Puerto Ricans do not speak English, but federal proceedings have to be held in English. Prospective jurors had to stand in front of the judge to be quizzed on their understanding of English. This was very offensive to people. I under- took my own defense in Spanish, be- cause I have the right to speak to the people in Spanish. The main issue was that this was a case of an independentista against the FBI as an institution. Thejury, made up of Puerto Rican workers, saw this clearly. They did not see just me on trial; they saw themselves and the Puerto Rican people on trial. They made a historic decision: They unanimously acquitted me. Why did you get involved with Los Ma- cheteros ? The FBI has institutionalized re- pression in our country. It created "subversive" lists with the names of more than 150,000 independentistas, who often find themselves thrown out of work. FBI agents organized and trained death squads within the Puerto Rican police department. Los Macheteros is a clandestine organization formed in 1976 that uses armed struggle to oppose U.S. repres- sion in Puerto Rico. It is a continuation of our long struggle for independence. People who believe in independence have to protect themselves against re- pression; clandestinity provides that type of protection. Of course, clan- destinity does not mean hiding from the people, only from the repressive forces. You have to be immersed in the popu- lation to be able to progress toward the goal of independence. One branch of Los Macheteros does organizing in communities around concrete issues. For example, squatters struggling for housing get our support. Workers on strike get our support. Another part of the organization under- takes military actions, such as attacks against U.S. military bases in Puerto Rico. You refer to repression in Puerto Rico. What have you personally experienced? I was first arrested in New York City, for a day, for demonstrating against the Playa Gir6n [Bay of Pigs] attack against Cuba. Then, when I tried to go to Cuba, FBI agents threatened me with five years in jail and a $5,000 fine. While I was in Cuba, the FBI ques- tioned my family about my where- abouts. I was arrested by the FBI in Puerto Rico in 1970. They accused me of being a Cuban agent, and they started a smear campaign against me, saying that I was working for the Cubans and not for the Puerto Rican people. Over the years, my whole family has been visited by the FBI. My sister's apart- ment in New York was ransacked a couple of times; nothing was stolen, but all her things were thrown around on the floor. My brothers have been har- assed at work. The FBI tried to get them fired. In the early 1980s, the FBI began watching me constantly. They put microphones in my home and car and wiretaps on my phone and on the public phones across the street from my house. They tailed me by foot, car and even airplane. Then, in 1985, they attacked my house. They said it was to arrest me, but I truly thought they intended to murder me. They came dressed in mili- tary garb, with painted faces and bazoo- kas, using air cover to control the whole neighborhood, as if it were a military commando operation. This was in connection to your alleged involvement in the 1983 Wells Fargo incident? Yes, that's correct. But the surveil- lance was part of their investigation into Los Macheteros as a political or- ganization. In 1985, Los Macheteros assumed responsibility for the Hartford action. At that point, the FBI redirected its investigation; instead of accusing us of political activities in Puerto Rico, VOLUME XXIV, NUMBER 2 (AUGUST 1990) 5 ----they decided to accuse us of criminal conspiracy and robbery. It was conven- ient for them. They could try us in Hartford, even though they alleged that a conspiracy took place in Puerto Rico. This is one of the reasons we are de- manding a change of venue. If we are going to get a fair trial, it will be in Puerto Rico, not Hartford. The Bush administration has proposed a plebiscite to determine whether Puerto Rico will remain a Commonwealth, become a state, or achieve independ- ence. How have Puerto Rican independentistas reacted to this? There are two tendencies among independentistas. One is that of the Puerto Rican Independence Party,* which will participate in the plebiscite and is convinced that Washington will not grant statehood even if this option wins. We think this is not only a grave mistake, but a very dangerous policy, because it dissipates any sense of struggle. If statehood will never be granted, even if it wins by a large ma- jority, then why should we struggle [against it]? Everything seems to indicate that there have been offers and negotiations behind closed doors between the U.S. government and the leaders of the par- ticipating parties. The PIP has been led * One-of Puerto Rico's three major parties, social democratic and pro-independence. The other two are the pro-statehood New Pro- gressive Party and the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party. to believe that the United States has no intention of incorporating our nation as a state, and this is exactly the line that has been fed to the people. At the same time, President Bush has been actively campaigning in favor of statehood. The second tendency, adhered to by other independentista organizations, is to boycott the plebiscite, because we consider it illegitimate, a plebiscite without freedom, a manipulation of the Puerto Rican people. It is a plebiscite to calm international opinion, to ease the pressure for decolonization. The United Nations has established that a "transfer of powers" is necessary before a legiti- mate plebiscite can be held. A process to enable people to think freely and control their lives must take place first. Only then-and it may take years-can we legitimately call for a plebiscite. For example, most of the industries in Puerto Rico are owned by U.S. finan- cial groups. The U.S. pharmaceutical and electronics industries are the back- bone of the economy. People fear that independence would cause these enter- prises to leave Puerto Rico. With an official unemployment rate of over 20%, really perhaps close to 40%, people fear for their jobs, for their survival. Sixty- five percent of Puerto Rican families receive food checks, the equivalent of food stamps in the United States. The injection of federal funds into the coun- try is so great that the government keeps a hold on nearly every Puerto Rican family. How can we have a legitimate plebiscite under conditions that create such a sense of dependence on the North American system, the colonial system? La Perla neiahborhood in San Juan: Puerto Rico is Dart of Latin America Does Los Macheteros have a plan to move toward economic independence? In March 1984 we put forth a pro- gram of national reconstruction, to move economic power into Puerto Rican hands. Our aims were nationalis- tic and pluralistic, not the creation of a socialist economy, but a reform of the capitalist system, using some elements of a socialist program. We proposed a mixed economy that would combine private businesses, cooperatives, and publicly controlled enterprises. At the same time, we also stated our willing- ness to negotiate with foreign-owned industrial establishments, to seek their cooperation in plans for national recon- struction. In order to carry out this program, political empowerment is essential. We want to ensure the implementation of a true democracy, with representation from all sectors of society, particularly those traditionally ignored and abused by the colonial administrators: workers and the poor in general. The most im- portant thing would be to establish a provisional government and congress to convene a popular discussion of what type of government and what type of system we Puerto Ricans want. This is not the first time that the United States has proposed a plebiscite for Puerto Rico. No, this would be the third plebi- scite in less than 40 years. The first, in 1952, established the present Common- wealth. But it solved nothing. Unem- ployment, corruption, crime, drug addiction, mental illness-all these problems grew worse. The second plebi- scite was in 1967.* The FBI tried to manipulate the various parties, create conflict among them, and interfere with possible participation by independen- tistas. It was a farce. The fact that there is now talk of a third plebiscite shows that the first two meant absolutely noth- ing. Just as this one would mean abso- lutely nothing. * In the 1967 plebiscite, commonwealth status won 60.4% of the vote, statehood 39.0%, and independence 0.6%. Voter ab- stention was close to 30%, with most inde- pendentistas and several pro-statehood forces boycotting the balloting due to FBI interfer- ence. NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICASIs the popular movement prepared for nationwide struggle? The interaction of progressive po- litical forces in Puerto Rico has scarcely been one of strong solidarity. Colonial- ism and FBI intelligence operations have kept them divided [by playing up] is- sues with a low degree of relevance, or through vicious personal attacks. Colo- nialism has many ways of distorting a society that is alienated not only from the means of production, but also from the basic elements of national conscious- ness and self-esteem. Even those who understand the nature of colonialism lose faith in the people's struggle and become demoralized. Individualism, arrogance, mistrust, personal conflicts and manipulation-all these tend to have an effect on popular organizing. The enemies of the people, mainly the FBI, reap this harvest of division and. deepen the rifts. Nevertheless, there is an objective reality-that of a colony in deteriora- tion-influencing the movement of the Puerto Rican masses toward freedom and true democracy. The enormous number of people without work, the high crime and general corruption, the deterioration in services for education and health care that were of low quality to begin with, the high cost of living, the ecological deterioration and environ- mental contamination-all of these elements of Puerto Rican reality deter- mine the path of progressive forces and the real possibilities for unity. There is a very strong tendency toward organizing at the local level around the diverse issues that bring people together. As a result, hundreds of independent local organizations have appeared. And there is a movement to unify all these local organizations into a popular front to coordinate on na- tional issues. Do you expect to win your case in Hartford? The U.S. government tries to isolate us by calling us terrorists. But the people of the United States must see that this is false. To struggle for independence is our right, just as it was your right in 1776. We need support in the United States in order to get the fairest possible trial in Hartford-which will never be as fair as we could have gotten from a jury of our peers in Puerto Rico.

Tags: Puerto Rico, independence, macheteros, Filiberto Ojeda, Interview

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