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Anti-colonial nationalism in Puerto Rico, Latin America, and beyond: Lessons for the Greek left?

Is opposition to the aggression of neighboring countries and support of national sovereignty fascist, and can nationalism be reconciled with an internationalist outlook?

In recent years, popular displays of national affirmation have been labeled as “nationalist” and cited as evidence of support for right wing politics, racism, or even fascism. For example, many Greek leftists attacked the massive popular protests of early 2018 against official recognition of the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as an independent state named “Macedonia.” Not only were participants (including the star speaker of the massive Athens rally on February 4, renowned composer and leftist legend Mikis Theodorakis) characterized as supporting or being manipulated by fascists, but leftists who questioned such blanket condemnation were also subject to personal rejection.

Another recent example is the “Brexit” referendum in Great Britain in 2016. Mainstream media as well as prominent leftists (with a few notable exceptions) blamed the result in favor of leaving the European Union on “populist British nationalism,” which was seen as nearly synonymous with racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. Apparently, in Europe (and to some extent elsewhere) “nationalism” is incompatible with leftist politics.

However, nationalism hasn’t always been so narrowly confined to right-wing politics. Anti-colonial movements throughout the world, including those firmly on the left, have often referred to their struggles for national independence and sovereignty as “nationalist.” Some point to Marx’ position on the “Irish national question” as the basis for a Marxist concept of “anti-imperialist nationalism” that later would be developed by Lenin’s theory of “national self-determination.” Lenin’s assertion that “it is impossible to fight for the socialist international revolution against imperialism unless the right of nations to self-determination is recognized” helped inspire many Marxist-influenced struggles for national liberation, for example in Vietnam.

Augusto Sandino

In Latin America, anti-colonial movements predated Marx and called for winning national sovereignty as well as Latin American and Caribbean unity. While it is true that oligarchical rulers in nominally independent 19th century Latin America often pursued exploitative and militaristic policies while espousing nationalist sentiments (which would categorize them as “right wing”), in practice they surrendered national sovereignty to imperialist interests as the price for remaining in power. By contrast, even non-Marxist anti-imperialist leaders, such as Nicaragua’s Augusto Sandino, made clear that their nationalism meant commitment to democracy and justice for the poor majority, which placed them firmly on the left. Interestingly, one of the young leaders of the non-Marxist, nationalist and anti-imperialist Cuban Orthodox Party would later embrace Marxism while remaining committed to anti-imperialist nationalism. His name was Fidel Castro.

Νationalism hasn’t always been so narrowly confined to right-wing politics. Anti-colonial movements throughout the world, including those firmly on the left, have often referred to their struggles for national independence and sovereignty as “nationalist.”

One of the most striking histories of Latin American nationalism is that of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. Like much of Latin America and the Caribbean, Puerto Rico saw various pro-independence struggles against colonizer Spain during the nineteenth century. The United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War of 1898; as part of the change of colonial rulers Puerto Rico lost what autonomy it had gained through years of struggle and once again became a colonial possession without any sovereignty, a political status which continues today. U.S. colonial rule was characterized by political and cultural repression, combined with divisive alliances with local elites, which weakened resistance to U.S. capitalist exploitation.

After Puerto Rico’s Unionist Party dropped national independence as a political status option, dissident members left and formed the Nationalist Party in 1922.The new party advocated for independence as the only solution to Puerto Rico’s colonial problem. While it participated in elections until 1932, the party forbade its members from accepting positions in the colonial government’s agencies. As was generally true among similar parties and movements, Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party was not only anti-colonial and anti-imperialist but also supported economic and political alliances throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The party’s economic platform was less well defined, although generally favored small local businesses and landholders more than the oligarchy. However, its numerically small membership was generally whiter and more affluent than the poor workers and peasants who comprised the majority of Puerto Ricans. The Nationalist Party’s low-key profile would change radically after 1930, when Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos was elected as its president.

Called “Latin America’s last liberator” by Gabriela Mistral, and the symbol of “Latin America unredeemed but untamed” by Ché Guevara, Albizu was a Black Puerto Rican, born into poverty, whose charisma and brilliance were recognized early in life. He was a distinguished student who earned advanced degrees with honors in chemical engineering and law from Harvard. As a student activist, he became involved in solidarity work in favor of Irish decolonization and independence. Albizu was befriended by Irish Republican leader Eamon de Valera, who later asked him to help draft Ireland’s constitution. He also pinpointed the root of conflicts in many countries as being the unjust concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite few.

Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos

>Albizu returned to Puerto Rico in 1922 and opened a law practice. While he had identified as nationalist and pro-independence since student days, he initially belonged to the Unionist Party until 1924, after the Unionists formed an alliance with the elitist, pro-colonial Republican Party of Puerto Rico (unrelated to the U.S. party). Albizu proposed an economic, cultural, and political program to the alliance which included return of lands to Puerto Rican ownership and improving workers’ wages and benefits; reversal of education policies that imposed U.S. history and culture and eliminated Puerto Rico’s own; removal of the U.S. territorial court and creation of a Puerto Rican court with full jurisdiction except in matters involving U.S. and international law; and a formal request for the U.S. Congress to make resolution of Puerto Rico’s political status an urgent priority. When the alliance rejected his proposals, Albizu understood that there was no room for an anti-colonial position, nor even a sense of urgency regarding the status issue. Consequently, he joined the Nationalist Party.

Albizu involved himself in all phases of party activity, including writing for the newspaper, speaking in small and large gatherings, and running for office in the colonial elections of 1924 in order to have a pro-independence party represented. In 1925 Albizu was elected vice-president of the Nationalist Party. Convinced of the need to promote Latin American solidarity in the struggle for independence, Albizu offered to undertake an alliance-building tour. During Albizu’s solidarity tour, which lasted from 1927 until 1930, he visited the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. In every country he met with political, economic, cultural, and student organizations, wrote articles, and gave large public lectures. Albizu called attention to Puerto Rico’s colonial oppression, U.S. efforts to dominate Latin America economically and politically, and the need to rekindle the Bolivarian dream of a Latin American and Caribbean alliance based on respect for national sovereignty as well as social and economic justice. He also attracted the attention of Washington, which exerted diplomatic pressure to limit his movement and sent spies to his public events. In the case of Haiti – which was under U.S. military occupation – Albizu was forced to illegally enter for only two days, and activists met him at a clandestine activity.

Albizu’s insistence on the necessity of Puerto Rico’s independence to achieve a free and united Latin American and Caribbean not only continued the work of nineteenth century liberation movements, but also sowed the seeds of active Latin American solidarity with Puerto Rican political prisoners that continues today. In each country, nationalist and other anti-colonial groups enthusiastically supported him. Moreover, while Albizu never embraced Marxism, he enjoyed mutually supportive relationships with many Communists; for example, the Communist student organization of Cuba publicly declared Albizu to be a mentor. He also supported workers’ unions, while warning that the (U.S.-sponsored) Pan American Labor Federation’s organizing efforts in the region were not meant to promote labor rights but to weaken resistance to U.S. economic colonialism.

Soon after returning to Puerto Rico, Albizu was elected President of the Nationalist Party. After the 1932 colonial elections, where once again a coalition of pro-colonial parties won amid widespread evidence of fraud, Albizu announced that the Nationalist Party would from then on boycott elections, condemning them as anti-democratic charades that pitted “Puerto Rican against Puerto Rican” and promoted “the death of the homeland.” Albizu helped revitalize the Party’s activities, giving many speeches and interviews, adding women’s and youth organizations, and supporting strikes by consumers and public car drivers against high monopoly prices of bread and gasoline.

Then in 1934, when the U.S.-affiliated sugar cane workers’ union sided with the growers, the workers called a wildcat strike and invited Albizu to lead it – and he accepted. The move sent shock waves from San Juan to Washington, as it appeared to signal a possible convergence between organized labor “class” struggles and the anti-colonial “nationalist” movement for Puerto Rican independence. The U.S. colonial rulers responded, first by directing the growers to agree to workers’ demands and terminate the strike. Second, they began a campaign of demonization and repression of the Nationalist Party, which would within a few years lead to assassinations, reprisals, and the incarceration in the U.S. of the Party’s leadership for a decade on charges of “seditious conspiracy” despite international outcry. In particular, US officials began to characterize Albizu’s denunciation of US colonial policies as “fascistic” – a charge that would later resurface during the Cold War repression of Puerto Rican independence and other left groups. The colonizers and their local supporters had no problem labeling the Nationalist Party as fascist despite the fact that its membership and leadership also included Communists; what mattered was that Washington’s self-image that it brought enlightened, democratic rule to Puerto Rico would not tolerate challenges.

Albizu returned to Puerto Rico at the end of 1947 and was re-elected as president of the Nationalist Party. At this time, the U.S. military machine was expanding in Puerto Rico – including occupation of almost three-fourths of Vieques Island – citing the “Cold War” as additional justification for its half-century colonial occupation. At the same time, Washington had found a charismatic politician named Luís Muñoz Marín to lead Puerto Rico’s transition to a “free associated state.” This would allow Washington to proclaim to the world that its colony had exercised self-determination, while not actually conceding any sovereignty.

Muñoz enthusiastically carried out repression of all pro-independence groups as well as Communists and Socialists, including signing a “gag law” that went far beyond the anti-subversive U.S. Smith Act on which it was based. For example, mere possession of a Puerto Rican flag was grounds for arrest and even incarceration. Muñoz publicly attacked the Nationalist Party as “fascist,” claiming that its rejection of colonial elections was “anti-democratic,” while its decade-long resistance to Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the U.S. military draft and denunciation of U.S. military base land expropriations were somehow evidences of Nazi and Communist sympathies. Armed actions in both 1950 and 1954 were Nationalist Party attempts to warn the world of the fraudulent “autonomous” government that the U.S. would install in Puerto Rico, but were used to justify repression while reducing international attention.

Today, the Nationalist Party is a small organization dedicated to keeping alive its legacy as an important movement for Puerto Rican independence. Despite attempts by some revisionist historians to portray it as fascistic, the record proves that it was well within the tradition of Latin American anti-colonial and anti-imperialist nationalism: pro-democratic, internationalist, and leftist even if not specifically Marxist.

Albizu defined Puerto Rican nationalism as “the homeland organized to rescue its sovereignty.” This tradition of nationalism still exists, for example in socialist Cuba, where it is common to identify as nationalist while rejecting the racism and imperialism of capitalist colonizers. This author has heard comments in Cuba that the “nationalism” of right wing groups, parties and governments in Europe and in the U.S is contemptuous of the sovereignty of other countries, thus not truly internationalist. Moreover, they note how the elites profit from the cynical manipulation of “populist” and “patriotic” symbols, while their people grow poorer.

What can Latin American anti-colonial nationalism – “the homeland rescuing its sovereignty” – offer to leftists in Europe who recoil from national flags and other popular symbols of sovereignty, but who in doing so allow their appropriation by fascist groups and their elite partners? Might it help Greece – whose experience since the nineteenth century of “dependent independence” has more in common with Latin America than with imperialist England or Germany – to recover its leftist tradition of combining resistance against foreign occupation with economic justice for the majority?


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