War Against All Puerto Ricans

Revolution and Terror in America's Colony


By Nelson A Denis

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The powerful, untold story of the 1950 revolution in Puerto Rico and the long history of U.S. intervention on the island, that the New York Times says “could not be more timely.” In 1950, after over fifty years of military occupation and colonial rule, the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico staged an unsuccessful armed insurrection against the United States. Violence swept through the island: assassins were sent to kill President Harry Truman, gunfights roared in eight towns, police stations and post offices were burned down. In order to suppress this uprising, the US Army deployed thousands of troops and bombarded two towns, marking the first time in history that the US government bombed its own citizens.

Nelson A. Denis tells this powerful story through the controversial life of Pedro Albizu Campos, who served as the president of the Nationalist Party. A lawyer, chemical engineer, and the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard Law School, Albizu Campos was imprisoned for twenty-five years and died under mysterious circumstances. By tracing his life and death, Denis shows how the journey of Albizu Campos is part of a larger story of Puerto Rico and US colonialism.

Through oral histories, personal interviews, eyewitness accounts, congressional testimony, and recently declassified FBI files, War Against All Puerto Ricans tells the story of a forgotten revolution and its context in Puerto Rico’s history, from the US invasion in 1898 to the modern-day struggle for self-determination. Denis provides an unflinching account of the gunfights, prison riots, political intrigue, FBI and CIA covert activity, and mass hysteria that accompanied this tumultuous period in Puerto Rican history.




La Princesa

In 1808 it was a beautiful Spanish castle. In 1976, a US district court ordered it shut down forever, calling it “a notorious monument to man’s inhumanity to man.” By 1950 it was already a brutal prison where inmates were starved, tortured, and used for medical experiments. People called it La Princesa (the Princess), but it was actually a graveyard—designed to break men and women, to kill their spirits, to grind them into drones, then animals, then feces and ash.

The prison housed over six hundred souls; at least fifty were blind, crippled, lacked an arm, had elephantiasis, or were hunchbacked. Humans with every imaginable deformity walked about in rags, and none were excused from work of some kind or another.1

On the outside it looked like a quaint Spanish mission: wood and red-brick masonry and white-framed windows, nestled behind swaying palm trees and topped by a four-foot clock, a trim cupola, and a US flag. Inside it was a rectangular stone fortress, about one hundred by thirty feet, with a cement courtyard in the center ringed by cells on three sides. The fourth side was an eighteen-foot wall with a catwalk patrolled by guards with rifles and dogs.

The prison’s three galerías (galleries) totaled 7,744 square feet and held over 400 inmates (providing less than twenty square feet per inmate); three galerítas (little galleries) held another 150. A quarantine gallery held the mentally deranged, and thirty calabozos (dungeons) held the “difficult” prisoners.

After the Nationalist revolt of October 1950, the jail became so crowded that galería prisoners had to sleep on the floors and in hallways and bathrooms. In the galerítas, two or three men slept in every bed, some of which had no mattresses and most of which had no sheets. Many of the mattresses were old, dirty, worn, and torn. Even in the hospitalíto (the medical clinic), inmate patients had to sleep on the bare floor.

The dungeons—arranged along a hallway on the first floor, fifteen to a side, all divided by concrete partitions—were famous throughout Puerto Rico. This hallway was covered with filth, barely lit and poorly ventilated. Each row of fifteen cells shared a common roof of iron bars as thick as railroad tracks, topped with steel walkways. The guards patrolled them from opposite ends, stopping when they met in the middle to retrace their steps. It was a vantage point, like a captain’s bridge: the guards could look down and see every occupant of every cell. They could also point their rifles at them.

Each dungeon held one inmate, one can of water, and one bucket for human excrement. That was all. There was no sink or toilet, no bed, mattress, or blanket, no other furniture. Prisoners slept on the floor and, after using the buckets, covered them with their shirts to combat the stink and the scarab beetles, which loved to eat from the buckets. The only air and light entered through the iron-bar ceilings, twelve feet over the prisoners’ heads. A nauseating odor permeated the entire area. It floated up from the buckets, which were emptied only once every twenty-four hours.

Each morning, two forlorn prisoners and four armed guards went from cell to cell. The prisoners entered, lugged out the buckets, and emptied them into a barrel hanging from their shoulders on two wooden bars. The stench of crap and urine was suffocating. Sometimes, if they felt like it, the guards brought the inmates’ breakfast at the same time the buckets were emptied.

Cell door in La Princesa

Photo courtesy of http://freephotooftheday.com/2011/12/06/la-princesa-puertorico-tourism-company-san-juan-puerto-rico/

Breakfast was short and simple: a cup of black coffee, agua de arroz (water in which rice had been boiled), and a lump of old bread. Lunch and dinner were rice and beans. Once a week the inmates received carne molida (ground beef) or Spam frito (fried Spam).

Even as they ate, the inmates fought off mosquitoes that flew down from the ceiling, rats that stole their bread, and bedbugs that migrated from cell to cell in search of warm bodies.

The dungeons were filled with sick men. After a few months in confinement—with little food, light, exercise, or fresh air—they became walking skeletons. They grew anemic, suffering from dysentery, hookworm, malaria, and scurvy. As their digestive systems shut down, they lost all desire to eat. Many inmates did not survive the dungeons.

The warden didn’t care because the calabozos housed highly accomplished criminals: men convicted of theft, looting, arson, murder, and even cannibalism. But the most dangerous prisoners were the Nationalists, and these he did care about. The career of every prison official in La Princesa—from warden to guard—would be destroyed if the Nationalists caused any trouble, inspired prisoners to revolt, or attracted attention from the press. And so they had to be isolated. The Nationalists spent more time in the dungeons than any other group, including the murderers and cannibals.2

After the October 30 revolts, mass arrests filled all the prisons with 3,000 prisoners for the next few months. This number gradually diminished as trials were held, and some prisoners (generally the better financed) were found innocent. The week before Christmas 1950, the dungeons were still stuffed to capacity. One man was insane. He counted eternally, as he had for the past six months: “47, 48, 49 . . . 47, 48, 49 . . . 47, 48, 49.”

Another man sat hunched in a corner. Had he risen, he would have stood six feet tall—but he was too weak to stand. He’d been in the dungeon for over a year, weighed 110 pounds, and was starving.

A third man was only twenty years old; he had a slender, boyish body and big brown eyes guarded by long dark lashes. Two inmates had died fighting over him.

A fourth man would make a cord out of his pants and hang himself on Thanksgiving Day.

A fifth man lived with a Puerto Rico Upland gecko. He fed it dozens of bedbugs every day and let it crawl all over him. He also talked and sang to it. This man was a murderer.

US Army doctors had convinced a sixth man, named Hector, to swallow “some new pills” for a few weeks. He started vomiting and developed bloody diarrhea, then liver cancer. Hector belonged in a hospital, but La Princesa didn’t want any bad publicity, so he went into the dungeons. The army doctors never returned.

Hector’s neighbor was insane and smeared feces all over dungeon number seven.

Deusdedit Marrero, a social worker in dungeon number eight, was in the process of losing his mind. He had played no part in the revolution. He was at work when it broke out on October 30, and he was not a Nationalist. Unfortunately, Deusdedit was a Socialist, which was close enough for the Insular Police.3 They arrested him in his office and sentenced him to twenty years. While still in prison, Deusdedit would learn that his pregnant wife had committed suicide—and he would end his own life.

In the ninth dungeon, Francisco Matos Paoli was a Nationalist and a prolific poet. A few friends sent him cigarettes and cigars, which he bartered with the prison guards for pencils. Paoli wrote every day. Sometimes he snuck a poem out to his fellow Nationalists. Other times he unrolled a cigar, wrote a poem, rolled it back up, and smoked the poem.

He also wrote on the floor and on every wall of his cell. Every square foot had a poem on it. The warden heard about it and made Francisco paint over the walls—but two weeks later, he had covered them with poems again.4

Separated from everyone, in the fifteenth dungeon, was a small man with fiery brown eyes and wet towels wrapped around his head. For several days his legs had been black, and his gums were bleeding. Fifty-nine years old and exhausted beyond measure, he paced silently up and down, always the same five steps, back and forth. One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . . an interminable shuffle between the wall and door of his cell. He had no work, no books, nothing to write on. And so he walked.

One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . .

His dungeon was next door to La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan, less than two hundred feet away. The governor had been his friend and had even voted for him for the Puerto Rican legislature in 1932. This didn’t help much now. The governor had ordered his arrest.

One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . .

Life had turned him into a pendulum; it had all been mathematically worked out. This shuttle back and forth in his cell comprised his entire universe. He had no other choice. His transformation into a living corpse suited his captors perfectly.

One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . .

Fourteen hours of walking: to master this art of endless movement, he’d learned to keep his head down, hands behind his back, stepping neither too fast nor too slow, every stride the same length. He’d also learned to chew tobacco and smear the nicotined saliva on his face and neck to keep the mosquitoes away.

One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . .

The heat was so stifling, he needed to take off his clothes, but he couldn’t. He wrapped even more towels around his head and looked up as the guard’s shadow hit the wall. He felt like an animal in a pit, watched by the hunter who had just ensnared him.

One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . .

Far away, he could hear the ocean breaking on the rocks of San Juan’s harbor and the screams of demented inmates as they cried and howled in the quarantine gallery. A tropical rain splashed the iron roof nearly every day. The dungeons dripped with a stifling humidity that saturated everything, and mosquitoes invaded during every rainfall. Green mold crept along the cracks of his cell, and scarab beetles marched single file, along the mold lines, and into his bathroom bucket.

The murderer started screaming. The lunatic in dungeon seven had flung his own feces over the ceiling rail. It landed in dungeon five and frightened the Puerto Rico Upland gecko. The murderer, of course, was threatening to kill the lunatic.

One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . .

The man started walking again. It was his only world. The grass had grown thick over the grave of his youth. He was no longer a human being, no longer a man. Prison had entered him, and he had become the prison. He fought this feeling every day.

One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . .

He was a lawyer, journalist, chemical engineer, and president of the Nationalist Party. He was the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard College and Harvard Law School and spoke six languages. He had served as a first lieutenant in World War I and led a company of two hundred men. He had served as president of the Cosmopolitan Club at Harvard and helped Éamon de Valera draft the constitution of the Free State of Ireland.5

One, two, three, four, five, and turn . . .

He would spend twenty-five years in prison—many of them in this dungeon, in the belly of La Princesa. He walked back and forth for decades, with wet towels wrapped around his head. The guards all laughed, declared him insane, and called him El Rey de las Toallas. The King of the Towels.

His name was Pedro Albizu Campos.


Four Hundred Years of Solitude

The King of the Towels was in jail for a serious reason. He was trying to reverse four hundred years of history.

In the sun-splashed paradise of Puerto Rico, you can lie on a beach in the morning, hike through a rain forest during the day, and spend the evening exploring the ancient walls of a colonial city. The white coastal sands glitter like sugar. The water is so pristine that, from an airplane, you’ll see several shades of turquoise between the shore and the deep blue of the ocean. Through the middle of the island, the Cordillera Mountains form a series of misty ridges draped in thick sierra palm and pine forest, whose foothills taper gracefully into the Caribbean. Over a thousand silver streams and rivulets gush down the mountains and rush headlong into the sea.

The world’s third-longest underground river, the Río Camuy, lies under a beautiful, vast cave system—ten miles of cool limestone caverns and 220 caves—packed with dripping stalactites, giant stalagmites, and flowstone walls.

El Yunque is the only subtropical rain forest in the United States. Wreathed in clouds or framed against a cobalt sky, it rises majestically with a canopy of forest trees, plunging waterfalls, and natural swimming pools. Its 28,000 acres nourish over fifty species of orchids, as well as giant tree ferns, sierra plants, bamboo thickets, heliconia, ginger, and 225 native tree species, all thriving in an explosion of color and natural beauty. It also houses lizards, iguanas, the coquí tree frog, and seventy-nine types of birds, including the rare green-feathered Puerto Rican parrot (rarely seen outside the Puerto Rican legislature and Washington, DC).1

The entire island is volcanic, and its soil is very rich. It is strategically located between North and South America—the first major land mass that a Spanish galleon would encounter after a long and harrowing voyage.

For all those reasons, over four centuries, Puerto Rico became a military and political football.

The abuse of the island started early. In 1493, Columbus made his second voyage to the New World with seventeen ships, 1,200 men, horses, cattle, guns, and smallpox. When he finally reached a major island, it happened to be Puerto Rico. The Taíno Indians welcomed Columbus, but they made a big mistake: they showed him some gold nuggets in a river and told him to take all he wanted.2 Naturally, this started a gold rush.

Spain named the island Puerto Rico (meaning “rich port”) and invaded with embroidered bibles and African slaves. They enslaved the Taínos as well: every Taíno over the age of fourteen had to produce a hawk’s bell of gold every three months or have their hands cut off. Since they’d never seen a hawk, a horse, an armored man, or fire-breathing muskets, the Taínos did as they were told.3 To make matters worse, a strange plague (smallpox) was killing all the Taínos but sparing the Spaniards, which meant they must be gods or at least immortal. This didn’t sit well with an old Taíno named Urayoán—and so, in 1511, he conducted a little experiment.

He told a lonely Spaniard named Diego Salcedo that a lake filled with virgins was waiting for him. Diego dashed right over but met a lakeful of Taíno warriors instead. After they drowned him, Urayoán watched and poked and smelled the body for three days. When Diego began to rot, Urayoán spread the news. Riots broke out all over the island, and Ponce de León shot 6,000 Taínos in order to maintain public order and respect for the queen.4

Three centuries later there were no Taínos left, but the situation hadn’t changed much. Puerto Rico was still a political football. In 1812 the first Spanish constitution, the Cádiz Constitution, was extended to Puerto Rico, and the island became a province of Spain with the same rights as other provinces. In 1814, the Cádiz Constitution was repealed; in 1820 it was restored, and in 1823 it was abolished. In 1824 the Spanish governor was again given absolute power over Puerto Rico.

On September 23, 1868, nearly 1,000 men rose up in the town of Lares to demand independence from Spain. By midnight they’d taken over the municipal seat of government, deposed the Spanish officials, arrested the Spanish merchants, and hauled them all off to jail. They hoisted a white flag with the inscription “Libertad ó Muerte; Vive Puerto Rico Libre; Año 1868” (Liberty or Death; Free Puerto Rico Lives; Year 1868). They took the town hall and forced the parish priest to celebrate a Te Deum for the establishment of the republic. Then they declared Puerto Rico independent, installed a provisional government, and offered freedom to any slave joining their cause.

The next afternoon, the Spanish militia from nearby Pepino routed the rebels, and troops pursued them from Aguadilla to Arecibo. El Grito de Lares had ended.5 In response to it, however, a liberal constitution was adopted in 1869, which restored Spanish citizenship to Puerto Ricans, as well as the right to representation in the Cortes Generales (the Spanish parliament).

Thirty years later, in 1897, the Spanish prime minister signed the Carta de Autonomía (Charter of Autonomy), which granted Puerto Rico the right to its own legislature, constitution, tariffs, monetary system, treasury, judiciary, and international borders. After four hundred years of colonial rule, the charter created the free Republic of Puerto Rico.6 Elections for the new legislature were held in March 1898, and the new government was scheduled for installation in May.

On May 12, cannon blasts awakened everyone in San Juan as twelve US battleships, destroyers, and torpedo boats bombarded the city for three hours, turning the sky black with cannon smoke. Homes were hit. Streets were torn. El Morro lighthouse and La Iglesia de San José, a sixteenth-century church, were shelled repeatedly. The governor ran to Fort San Felipe del Morro to defend the island with three Ordoñez cannons, but San Juan became a ghost town as 30,000 residents fled the city, the world shattering all around them. The Spanish-American War, declared by the United States on April 25, had arrived in Puerto Rico.7

When US soldiers invaded the inner towns, the New York Times trumpeted, “Our Flag Raised in Puerto Rico.”8 As the war continued and US troops marched through the island, the Puerto Rican bourgeoisie were still buzzing about liberation, but the peasants—sick of politics, politicians, and promises, no matter what country they came from—couldn’t care less. When the American soldiers passed by, local dogs barked at them and farmers kept plowing their fields. They accepted the change in sovereignty with the same fatalism with which they accepted hookworms, hurricanes, and tuberculosis.9

Americans were more upbeat about the matter. “Give my best love to Nannie, and do not make peace until we get Porto Rico,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1898.10 “Porto Rico is not forgotten,” replied the senator. “We mean to have it.”11 The New York Journal of Commerce declared, “We must have Porto Rico,” because when a “territory of that nature falls into our hands it must never be parted with.”12

The New York Times noted “the commercial value of Porto Rico” and “the wisdom of taking . . . and keeping it for all time.” According to the Times, it was “a charming winter resort,” a fine naval station with “a commanding position between two continents,” and “an island well worth having.” In language akin to that of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” the Times concluded, “We need it as a station in the great American archipelago. . . . We are not pledged to give Porto Rico independence. . . . [I]t would be much better for her to come at once under the beneficent sway of these United States than to engage in doubtful experiments at self-government, and there is no reason to believe that her people would prefer it.”13 Even the poet Carl Sandburg, who saw active service in Puerto Rico with the 6th Illinois Infantry during the war, wrote, “For four hundred years this island had been run by a Spanish government in Madrid. Now it was to be American and it was plain that the island common people liked the idea.”14

On July 4, 1898, in the Central Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, the Reverend J. F. Carson read from the Holy Bible, “And Joshua took the whole land, and the land rested from war.” He sermonized that “the high, the supreme business of this Republic is to end the Spanish rule in America, and if to do that it is necessary to plant the Stars and Stripes on Cuba, Porto Rico, the Philippines or Spain itself, America will do it.”15 That same night, in the Presbyterian Church of Fifth Avenue, the Reverend Robert MacKenzie prophesied, “God is calling a new power to the front. The race of which this nation is the crown . . . is now divinely thrust out to take its place as a world power.”16 Senator Albert J. Beveridge also saw a divine plan. “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing,” he declared. “He has made us adept in government so that we may administer government amongst savages and senile peoples.”17

On July 21, 1898, the US government issued a press release stating, “Porto Rico will be kept. . . . Once taken it will never be released. It will pass forever into the hands of the Unites States. . . . Its possession will go towards making up the heavy expense of the war to the United States. Our flag, once run up there, will float over the island permanently.”18 On the floor of the US Senate, Republican senator Joseph B. Foraker declaimed, “Porto Rico differs radically from any other people for whom we have legislated previously. . . . They have no experience which would qualify them for the great work of government with all the bureaus and departments needed by the people of Porto Rico.”19

Within a few years, Puerto Rico would be stuffed with “bureaus and departments,” becoming a base for Roosevelt’s “big stick” policy in the Caribbean.20 In fact, nearly a decade before the Spanish-American War, US President Benjamin Harrison and Secretary of State James G. Blaine had already been considering the island’s value as a navy coaling station, provision center, and stepping stone to the Latin American market.21

Eugenio María de Hostos, the great Puerto Rican educator, summed it up as follows: “How sad and overwhelming and shameful it is to see [Puerto Rico] go from owner to owner without ever having been her own master, and to see her pass from sovereignty to sovereignty without ever ruling herself.”22

The United States told Puerto Ricans a very different story, however. On July 29, 1898, four days after the landing of American troops, Major General Nelson Appleton Miles issued a proclamation from his military headquarters in Ponce. It was the first official public statement from the US government explaining its plans for Puerto Rico:

The chief object of the American military forces will be to overthrow the armed authority of Spain and to give to the people of your beautiful island the largest measure of liberties consistent with military occupation.

We have not come to make war against a people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves but to your property, to promote your prosperity, to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government . . . and to give the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.23

This “enlightened civilization” held some firm views about their neighbors. On February 22, 1899, the New York Times ran an article headlined “Americanizing Puerto Rico,” describing Puerto Ricans as “uneducated, simple-minded and harmless people who are only interested in wine, women, music and dancing.”24 As late as 1940, Scribner’s Commentator stated, “All Puerto Ricans are totally lacking in moral values, which is why none of them seem to mind wallowing in the most abject moral degradation.”25 In 1948, popular writers were still ranting that “Puerto Ricans are not born to be New Yorkers. They are mostly crude farmers, subject to congenital tropical diseases, physically unfit for the northern climate, unskilled, uneducated, non-English-speaking and almost impossible to assimilate and condition for healthful and useful existence in an active city of stone and steel.”26

The most colorful (and color-conscious) opinions were voiced by the southern wing of the Democratic Party. Here are some choice words on the floor of the US Senate from Senator William B. Bate (D-TN), who had served as a major general in the Confederate Army:

What is to become of the Philippines and Porto Rico? Are they to become States with representation here from those countries, from that heterogeneous mass of mongrels that make up their citizenship? That is objectionable to the people of this country, as it ought to be, and they will call a halt to it before it is done.

Jefferson was the greatest expansionist. But neither his example nor his precedent affords any justification for expansion over territory in distant seas, over peoples incapable of self-government, over religions hostile to Christianity, and over savages addicted to head-hunting and cannibalism, as some of these islanders are.27

The national perception was clear: Puerto Ricans were ignorant, uncivilized, morally bankrupt, and utterly incapable of self-rule. The US would protect them, tame their savagery, manage their property, and deliver them from four hundred years of solitude.28


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  • "A pointed, relentless chronicle of a despicable part of past American foreign policy." —Kirkus Reviews

    “A patient, calibrated, fully-researched study of the mendacious, hypocritical way the United States treats its Caribbean colony, castrating its leadership, bombarding its villages, experimenting biologically with its population. Puerto Rico is, in a word, el calabozo. Denis knows the truth first-hand and refuses to sugarcoat it.” —Ilan Stavans, author of Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language

    “Sometime in the not-too distant future, we will resolve the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. To understand where we are going, we must know our past—both good and bad. War Against All Puerto Ricans fills an important gap in that historical understanding. It is a book that every student of the US–Puerto Rico relationship should read.” —Congressman José Serrano

On Sale
Apr 7, 2015
Page Count
400 pages
Bold Type Books

Nelson A Denis

About the Author

Nelson A. Denis was the editorial director of El Diario/La Prensa, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in NYC, and won the Best Editorial Writing award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. A graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School, Denis served as a New York State Assemblyman (1997-2001) and has written for the New York Daily News, Newsday, and Harvard Political Review. Denis also wrote and directed the feature film Vote For Me!, which premiered in the Tribeca Film Festival.

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