Lately the Caribbean island Vieques has dominated the news among Puerto Ricans who want to stop the U.S. Navy from playing war games on their homeland. Less publicized than Vieques, meanwhile, is the FBI's recent move to open secret dossiers compiled on Puerto Ricans for over five decades. The files reveal a chilling pattern of government intrusion into private and civic life. They provide a metaphorical if not literal basis for longstanding fears that the government dosed a Puerto Rican nationalist leader with radiation. And they may help explain why some young nationalists in the 1970s and 1980s turned from open political activity to clandestine violence.
Some of the files are not news. In 1976, the U.S. Justice Department banned a "counterintelligence project" that the FBI abbreviated as COINTELPRO—the 1960s-era scheme that used "dirty tricks" against dissident individuals and political groups. In the United States, COINTELPRO spied mainly on leftists such as the Black Panthers, but it also operated in Puerto Rico. In 1977, the Puerto Rican Supreme Court released COINTELPRO-style files to victims of surveillance; the dossiers were filled with notes and photographs tracking people's families, friends and jobs. The commonwealth government has since admitted that the FBI helped it surveil at least 75,000 independentistas.
Other files, released only in the past year, reveal that the FBI was secretly meddling with Puerto Rico's independence movement as far back as the 1930s. Last March, FBI Director Louis Freeh told a Congressional hearing that the early campaign had been illegal, and he ordered the files declassified. A subsequent tally counted 1.8 million pages kept on some 16,000 people. Only a few thousand sheets have so far been examined, but some are shocking.
Predictably, many reflect U.S. obsession with Pedro Albizu Campos, the firebrand Puerto Rican independence movement leader who died in 1965 after spending decades in and out of prison on terrorism and sedition charges. More surprising is the file on ex-governor Luís Muñoz Marín, who at the time headed the Puerto Rican Senate; he would later become the island's first elected governor and the father of its Commonwealth Constitution. Muñoz Marín was an unstinting U.S. ally, yet the FBI spied on him for two decades, collecting information on his personal finances and mistresses.
This cloak-and-daggerism profoundly threatened democracy in Puerto Rico, particularly during the 1967 plebiscite on whether the island should be a U.S. commonwealth, a state or a sovereign country. As Ronald Fernandez notes in his book Prisoners of Colonialism, the Pro-Independence Movement joined the Puerto Rican Independence Party in urging an elections boycott. Fearing that the parties' unity would promote independence, the FBI seeded them with "informant disrupters." Members sensed they were being infiltrated, but the government called them "paranoid."
It was not the first time the United States dismissed Puerto Rican nationalists as mental cases. Throughout his imprisonment in the 1950s, Albizu Campos claimed he was being bombarded with "atomic rays," and displayed his bloated legs covered with burn-like lesions. In response, the government diagnosed fungal and circulatory problems, and called Albizu Campos a paranoid schizophrenic.
So far, the newly released documents do not indicate that the United States radiated Albizu Campos. But in 1993, the Department of Energy announced that during the Cold War, the Atomic Energy Commission did radiation experiments on military personnel and civilians, including pregnant women, mentally retarded children and cancer patients—often without informed consent. Such revelations emerged in 1971 and have since been detailed in books like Eileen Welsome's The Plutonium Files. If Albizu Campos was demented, he was hardly more so than the demented times he lived in.
The newly released files do not tell if the FBI was involved in bombings and murders of independentista leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. But, they suggest that the agency's tactics contributed to the clandestineness and violence of groups such as the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN).
The FALN were linked in the 1970s and early 1980s to some 130 bombings that killed six people and injured others. Of 14 members convicted of crimes such as seditious conspiracy and weapons possession, none were linked to bombings. Nevertheless, they were given draconian prison sentences averaging 70 years apiece. Eleven prisoners are now free, following President Clinton's 1999 offer of clemency and parole. But they served time in facilities such as the Lexington, Kentucky Federal Prison's High Security Unit, a postmodern dungeon featuring confinement in all-white, soundproof rooms with fluorescent lights on 24 hours a day. These conditions were so cruel that they were scrapped after Amnesty International denounced them as a violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Amnesty International noted that Lexington-style units lead to mental disorders such as hallucinations. There are no reports by FALN prisoners of being bombarded with atoms. But as the FBI files show, Puerto Rico's independence movement has for long been invaded by invisible and pernicious government forces. Radiation? In this case, fantasy is no more fantastic than history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Debbie Nathan is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.