It took a natural calamity, Hurricane Maria, to wake Puerto Ricans up to the fact that, as far as Donald Trump and his administration are concerned, Puerto Rico is merely a far-flung colonial possession separated from the mainland US by, as Trump put it, “a thing called the Atlantic Ocean.” Trump made his sophomoric reference to Puerto Rico’s location while standing beside Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. It was from Spain that the United States originally took possession of Puerto Rico and several other Spanish colonies. This occurred after the US decided to become an imperialist power in the late 19th century. The US declared war on Spain after Washington, with the help of “yellow journalistic” newspapers owned by publisher William Randolph Hearst, advanced trumped up charges that Spain blew up the USS Maine in Havana harbor. The warship blew up as the result of an accidental boiler explosion. In 1898, Spain formally ceded Puerto Rico to the United States.
In 1917, Puerto Rico became a US territory and American citizenship was conferred on its residents. Last year, 97 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for US statehood. Puerto Rico’s Republican Party-affiliated Governor, Ricardo Rossello, pushed for Puerto Rican statehood, only to be treated by Trump as the equivalent to a leader of a Third World banana republic.
Trump and his administration seem to believe that the 3.4 million citizens of Puerto Rico are not American citizens or have some second-class citizenship status. Trump also said that Puerto Rico’s financial rape by Wall Street was somehow responsible for its post-hurricane destruction. Trump said Puerto Rico’s “old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the island was destroyed, with billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
Trump indicated that Puerto Rico was some sort of Third World beggar nation that had to pay its debts to Wall Street before being considered for hurricane relief assistance. Trump is also in arrears of $32.7 million in unpaid taxes to the government of Puerto Rico after the bankruptcy of Trump’s Coco Beach Golf Club, which Trump renamed the Trump International Golf Club Puerto Rico. In previous statements, Trump appeared to hold all Puerto Ricans responsible for the island’s financial collapse and his own gold club bankruptcy on the island.
With Trump showing the back of his hand to Puerto Rico in a dire time of need, many of the 97 percent of puertorriqueños who supported independence in the referendum are having second thoughts about statehood. The Department of Homeland Security refused to grant Puerto Rico a waiver to the Jones Act, which requires ships entering Puerto Rico from other US ports to be under the US flag. The Trump administration was more than willing to waive the law in the cases of hurricane relief for Texas and Florida, but not so for Puerto Rico. While Puerto Ricans grew more desperate without fresh water, food, and medicines, ships flying other flags were unable to deliver relief supplies to the stricken island from other American ports.
Most Puerto Ricans are unaware that their neo-colonialist “commonwealth” status as a US territory was cooked up by the Central Intelligence Agency to ensure that Puerto Rico remained a US military base for Cold War operations directed against Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, British Guiana/Guyana, Venezuela, Panama, Guatemala, and other countries in the Western Hemisphere.
National Security Council documents from 1970, classified CONFIDENTIAL-EYES ONLY, describe how two attorneys from the influential Washington law firm of Covington and Burling met with NSC official Viron Vaky on July 10, 1970, to discuss the issue of the island of Culebra, an island 17-miles east of Puerto Rico that was used by the US Navy as a weapons testing range. The Covington and Burling lawyers – Richard Copaken and Tom Jones – were representing the residents of Culebra who wanted the Navy to cease using their island for target practice. The attorneys believed that National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon’s counselor, Bryce Harlow, has hidden agendas for upholding the Navy’s right to continue using Culebra as a weapons range. What the attorneys told Vaky reached right into the heart of Puerto Rico’s quasi-colonialist regime.
Copaken told Vaky that the situation in Puerto Rico had to be viewed in a historical context. He said that Puerto Rico’s first Commonwealth Governor, Luis Munoz Marin, who helped destroy the Puerto Rican pro-independence Nationalist Party, developed the “commonwealth” contrivance so that Puerto Rico would serve the long-term interests of the United States.
The classified memorandum of Copaken’s comments state that Munoz Marin’s “principal lieutenants during his 15 odd years as governor were Roberto Sanchez and (fnu) [first name unknown] Negron [Senator Luis Negron Lopez of Munoz Marin’s Popular Democratic Party]. Sanchez [who succeeded Munoz Marin in 1965 as the second Commonwealth governor] spent most of his time in Washington in liaison with the USG [US government]. Over time Sanchez became a close friend of Abe Fortas, who was the Commonwealth’s attorney here.” Fortas was a long-time political crony of Lyndon Johnson. Fortas was nominated by Johnson to the US Supreme Court where he served from 1965 to 1969. Fortas resigned in disgrace amid an ethics investigation.
Copaken described Sanchez and Fortas as CIA operatives committed to keep Puerto Rico as a stable US military and intelligence base. Copaken’s revelations continued: “During the Dominican crisis [of 1965] CIA operated out of Puerto Rico and used Fortas’ link with Sanchez to get Munoz Marin’s acquiescence. The CIA agent in Puerto Rico was a Sacha Boldman or Goldman. This was the same agent who had channeled CIA assistance to a school in Costa Rica for Latin American political leaders.”
The Covington and Burling attorney continued in his expose of Puerto Rican-CIA links:
“Sanchez became governor in 1964. Personal scandal – divorce and re-marriage to his secretary with whom he had been having an open affair – affected his candidacy for reelection. Negron became a rival candidate and Munoz Marin advocated unity of the party behind Negron. However, Sanchez insisted on being a candidate, and both he and Negron became candidates for the 1968 election, thus splitting their party.
“At this point, Sanchez obtained USG support through Fortas, CIA/AID/Navy aid was given to his campaign. There were disruptive actions directed against Negron. According to the theory, Negron’s essential conservatism would have wrecked the Commonwealth and created severe problems; hence USG support for Sanchez.
“When, however, it became evident that Sanchez could not defeat Negron, support was switched to Ferre [Luis Ferre of the New Progressive Party – affiliate of the US Republican Party] as the lesser of two evils. CIA/FBI and particularly US Navy support was given to Ferre, and he won. This gave the Navy a hold over Ferre.”
It has been the Commonwealth status that has led Puerto Rico into bankruptcy and made it vulnerable to the Wall Street vulture funds that prey on financially distressed countries, particularly those in Latin America. A federal government-appointed financial control board has enacted socially-crippling austerity measures for the island. Following a US Supreme Court ruling that limited Puerto Rico’s autonomy, the island has little room to avoid severe budget cuts and “fire sale” disposal of commonwealth assets. And the sale of public lands in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands is what has criminal syndicates like the Trump and Kushner organizations chomping at the bit.
The appeals of the people of Culebra against the Navy’s bombing of their island fell on deaf ears in San Juan and Washington as the NSC memo further details:
“Ferre, according to Copaken, contributed heavily to President Nixon’s campaign and is on close personal terms with him. Given this fact, plus the Navy’s hold, the Navy believes it will have its way on Culebra. The result is a surface duplicity, while they work out a deal underneath.
“Ferre’s family leases the only drydock facilities in San Juan from the US Navy; he has copper interests on the island. By cooperating with the US Navy he obtained USG support in a host of similar matters, or vice versa; his cooperation with the US Navy may have been secured by trading for things he wanted from the USG in other things.
“Copagen [sic] alleged that there is close cooperation with the ‘White House’ certainly at the political level. Bryce Harlow went to Puerto Rico for July 4th celebrations, but one of the things he went down for was Culebra (precisely what Harlow was to do about Culebra, Copaken refused to say.”
In the memo, Vaky says he told the attorneys he never heard about “the sinister picture they were painting” about Puerto Rico. Vaky also stated the NSC “had no operational responsibility in the matter.”
Vaky passed the Culebra memo to Kissinger in a July 13, 1970, cover memo classified CONFIDENTIAL-EYES ONLY. Kissinger scribbled a note on the cover memo, which stated that the Covington and Burling lawyers believed that Harlow was “involved” in the Culebra matter.
Copaken later wrote a book about the Culebra incident, titled: “Target Culebra: How 743 Islanders Took on the Entire US Navy and Won: An Insider’s Account.” The book was published in January 2009. Unfortunately, Copaken was never able to conduct a book tour to describe for audiences the US government’s control over Puerto Rico; he died from pancreatic cancer on December 8, 2008, a few weeks before the book was published.
For Washington, Puerto Rico has never been taken seriously. Its days as a major US military and intelligence “aircraft carrier” in the Caribbean are long over. Washington, via a long line of pathetic “quislings” who have served as governors of the territory, would rather Puerto Rico be seen and not heard, especially when it comes to treating the islanders as full and equal US citizens. The recent hurricanes that have hit the Caribbean have taught all the colonial vestiges in the region that they would be better off as independent states responsible for their own well-being and recovery than be treated as insignificant colonial pawns.