ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento
Paddling Across the Caribbean for Freedom and Justice in Puerto Rico
The Prisoner and the Kayaker
Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
An unusual and very original political act. An athletic milestone. A feat of endurance. A hazardous journey. These and many other words have been used to describe the maritime journey of Puerto Rican environmental and human rights activist Alberto De Jesús “Tito Kayak” through the Caribbean Antilles last summer. At dawn on solstice day, June 21, De Jesús departed in a kayak from Venezuela’s Paria Peninsula towards the island of Grenada, thus beginning his journey of over 1,000 nautical miles to Puerto Rico.
De Jesús, who does not look his 54 years of age, did not undertake this extraordinary journey to wow and impress people- although he definitely succeeded at that. He was on a political mission, a seaborne crusade for freedom, and he has pointed that out in every opportunity, be it press interview or personal conversation. De Jesús kayaked the Caribbean to call attention to and gather international support for the release of Oscar López-Rivera, a Puerto Rican who has been incarcerated in the US for 31 years.
Oscar’s supporters refer to him in different ways. Some call him a political prisoner, others a prisoner of war, or jailed patriot, or anti-colonial warrior. He was convicted in 1981 for “seditious conspiracy”. Specifically, he was charged with belonging to the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a clandestine Puerto Rican pro-independence group that engaged in armed struggle in the Chicago and New York areas in the 1970′s. However, he was not convicted of any specific act by the organization. This 69 year-old man, who was not even accused of one single act of violence, is serving a de facto life sentence, much longer than sentences handed out to convicted murderers and rapists. His next parole hearing will be fifteen years from now. De Jesús is calling on the peoples and governments of the Caribbean and Latin America to join the call for Oscar’s release, freedom now.
Since the US invaded Puerto Rico in 1898, repression and persecution against Puerto Ricans on the basis of political beliefs has been constant and relentless. It has spanned from police and FBI surveillance, infiltration and disruption of lawful and peaceful independentista organizations and campaigns, to outright assassination. To name just two of the most outrageous examples of the latter: On Easter Sunday 1937 local police, under orders from US-appointed governor Blanton Winship, slaughtered a peaceful Nationalist march in the streets of Ponce city, killing 19 and wounding around 150, Puerto Rico’s own Bloody Sunday.
And in September 2005, FBI agents- with the assistance of local police- murdered independentista leader Filiberto Ojeda-Rios, head of the clandestine group Los Macheteros, in his house in the town of Hormigueros. The autopsy determined that he died from lack of medical attention. The image of flak-vested FBI agents gloating over Ojeda-Rios as he gasped his last breath burns in the heart and consciousness of every patriotic Puerto Rican. To add insult to injury, the FBI chose to carry out the assassination on September 23, a date that is sacred in the Puerto Rican calendar, for it is the anniversary of the 1868 Grito de Lares, the nation’s first uprising for independence and freedom. No Puerto Rican believes that the FBI chose the date of September 23 at random.
The US government’s criminal acts against Puerto Rico’s self-determination and its people’s freedom of expression are too many to mention here, and are way beyond the scope of this article. All these acts remain unpunished in the courts- the empire does not judge its own actions. No US government personnel ever did time for the Ponce massacre or for the killing of Ojeda-Rios, or for the mysterious death of independentista activist Angel Rodríguez-Cristóbal in 1979 in Tallahassee federal prison while doing time for a non-violent protest in the sandy beaches of Vieques island against the US Navy presence there. Rodríguez-Cristóbal, a Socialist League member from the town of Ciales, allegedly committed suicide right before the end of his sentence. Whereas independentista activists are severely punished by the US courts for both real and imaginary acts, US federal and state law enforcement agents and intelligence operatives have a get-out-of-jail-free card.
But Puerto Rico is no passive victim. This Caribbean nation has a centuries-long tradition of struggle- both peaceful and not so peaceful- against colonialism, dating all the way back to the Taino resistance against the Spanish conquest, going through the 19th century Grito de Lares, and the mid-20th century Nationalist resistance and Communist labor organizing, and all the way to the armed actions of the FALN and Los Macheteros, and independentista participation in local labor and environmental struggles. Most Americans who know anything about Puerto Rico know about the 1950 attempt on US president Truman’s life, and the armed attack against the US Congress four years later, both acts committed by members of the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party. For over 110 years of US colonialism, there has not been a moment in which the invader has not encountered resistance. In its Resolution 1514, the United Nations recognizes the absolute right of colonized peoples to fight against colonialism and for their independence and self-determination.
Most Americans who know something about the FALN do so because of the bombing of Fraunces Tavern in southern Manhattan on January 24 1975. The tavern was- and still is- a classy bar-hangout for New York City’s upper crust- what we now call the 1%- where in 1783 George Washington bade farewell to his troops after the end of the Revolutionary War. The bomb that went off that day killed four and wounded tens of others. It is not easy to talk in a neutral way about a bombing that took place just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. But if we don’t, then right-wing pundits will, adding their own particular and convenient ideological spin. Every time Oscar is up for parole, right-wing campaigners linked to law enforcement agencies take relatives of the bombing’s victims to the parole board and to the media to speak up against his release. But they tend not to mention one significant fact: he is not in prison because of the Fraunces Tavern bombing. In fact, no one is. Nobody was ever convicted or even prosecuted for that act. Oscar is not in prison for any violent action.
Another unmentioned fact is that, according to a FALN communique, the Fraunces Tavern attack was in retaliation for a bombing that took place in Puerto Rico two weeks earlier. On the eleventh of that month, a bomb went off in a public activity of the independence movement in the town square of the city of Mayagüez. Two people were killed: socialist activist Angel Luis Charbonier, and Eddie Román, a bystander. To this day, no one has done time or been prosecuted for this act, although the independence movement has some pretty good leads as to the specific identities of those behind the bombing. These leads have been presented to the Puerto Rico Justice Department, which has done nothing with them.
It is not my intention to either justify or repudiate what happened in Fraunces Tavern, but rather to give an appropriate context for understanding it. But, as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly told us: if you try to start a rational discussion of terrorism you get accused of being an apologist for terrorism, or worse. One has to ask, how many Americans who know about Fraunces Tavern ever heard of the bombing in Mayagüez? Acts of violence committed against the Puerto Rico independence movement are not part of the official narrative. They are forgotten and sent down the Orwellian memory hole. The Mayagüez attack was no anomalous isolated incident. It was part of a violent spree of bombings, arson and assassination against the independence movement that lasted throughout the decade of the seventies, thoroughly documented by the local press but ignored by the American media. Even most American progressives know nothing about this bloody history.
Most of the men and women who were arrested along with Oscar were released in 1999. He is the only one that remains in prison. He has spent more time behind bars than any other Puerto Rican independentista ever did. Longer than Mandela, almost as long as Leonard Peltier.
No conflict between nations or civil war is over without there being a prisoner exchange between the warring parties. In the colonial case of Puerto Rico, only one side holds prisoners. The release of Oscar, as well as of the other two Puerto Rican political prisoners, the Gonzalez-Claudio brothers, is therefore an essential prerequisite for this Caribbean nation’s freedom and full self-determination.
When I first saw Alberto de Jesús’ daredevil protests on local television, I was reminded of the 1985 film Turk 182, in which Timothy Hutton plays a graffiti avenger that repeatedly makes a fool of New York City’s mayor and eludes all of the city police’s attempts to capture him. De Jesús, whom we all call “Tito Kayak”, represents a new breed of activist, one that combines originality, style and extraordinary courage. He could be a professor emeritus at the Ruckus Society and also teach the folks at Greenpeace and Code Pink a thing or two about penetrating security perimeters, hanging banners from unusual places, and pulling off incredible escapes.
In 1999 De Jesús made history by camping out alone in the US Navy firing range in Vieques with the aim of putting an end once and for all to the war games and target practice that had gone on there nonstop since World War Two. At first, people called him insane, but his insanity caught on. Half a dozen people joined him, then dozens. The protest went on for weeks, then months. More camps were set up by political parties, labor unions, churches, and independentista organizations, and the whole affair snowballed into a phenomenon that turned Puerto Rican society upside down, and even received support from activists in the US and other lands, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Rigoberta Menchú, to name just two. In May 2000, federal authorities raided the camps and arrested hundreds, but the protesters failed to quit.
In November 2000, De Jesús, with the cooperation of about a dozen supporters, got on top of the Statue of Liberty and hung a “Peace for Vieques” banner from her head. This was a repeat of an almost identical action taken in October 1977, when activists draped a Puerto Rican flag on Lady Liberty’s forehead as they called on the Carter administration to free the Nationalist prisoners which had been in jail since the 1950′s. The campaign eventually succeeded, and in 1979 the last Nationalists in prison received a presidential pardon and were received as heroes in Puerto Rico.
When they saw him on top of the Statue of Liberty in 2000, US law enforcement authorities saw their chance to put De Jesús away- they were just aching for the opportunity to make an example of this real life Turk 182. At that time he happened to be under probation after having been repeatedly arrested in Vieques. He spent a year in Manhattan Correctional for violating his probation. For one year, both De Jesús and Oscar were prisoners of the USA.
In September of the following year, two jet liners crashed into the World Trade Center, only three or four blocks away from where De Jesús was doing time. Many activists feared that the 9-11 attacks, with their inevitable sequel of repression and war, would be the end for the Vieques movement. But that turned out not to be the case. After the initial horror and shock, the protesters regrouped and regained the initiative. And four years after De Jesús’ lone stand in the firing range the impossible happened: the Pentagon got fed up with the never ending protests and left Vieques. Nonviolent protesters had routed the world’s most powerful naval force. It was a gigantic victory for anti-colonial forces and peace-loving people all over the world. The Puerto Rican people thus have an enormous debt of gratitude to Tito Kayak.
But he did not rest after that. He continues his work for ecology and human rights, both locally and internationally. De Jesús had first become a public figure in the late 1990′s through his direct actions against the passage of ships carrying reprocessed nuclear waste between France and Japan through Caribbean waters. In 2000 he traveled to Japan, where he was hosted by anti-nuclear activists and had the opportunity to express his concerns to the Japanese authorities, which of course did not heed him. In 2007 de Jesús hung a banner from the Las Américas bridge, which crosses over the Panamá Canal, to protest the interoceanic traffic in nuclear waste. The nuclear horror of Fukushima in 2011 proved De Jesús right.
Also in 2007 he went to the West Bank to express his solidarity with the Palestinian people. During his visit he climbed up the Wall of Infamy being built by the Israeli state and put up a Palestinian flag on top, in plain sight of baffled and flabbergasted Israeli snipers. Tito knew full well the danger he was taking on, and had no illusions that his US citizenship would shield him from Israel’s murderous military. The cold-blooded murder of US activist Rachel Corrie by the Israeli Defense Forces four years earlier was fresh in the minds of everyone who accompanied him that day.
Tito Kayak has done this and so much more, so many other actions that deserve at least a passing mention, from death-defying stunts to protest successive Puerto Rican governments’ neoliberal policies, and standing tall against police brutality in the months-long 2010-2011 University of Puerto Rico student strike, to speaking to school children about the importance of recycling and environmental protection, and forming groups to clean up litter in beaches. All these actions and feats, both great and small, have earned him great esteem from the Puerto Rican people- except from some lumpen elements who have nothing but smoldering contempt for him, some of whom openly declared on Twitter that they wish he had sank and drowned in his kayak during his Antilles trip.
There is a certain mystique that surrounds the figure of De Jesús/Tito Kayak that fascinates his admirers and enrages his derisive critics. Just who is he? Local right-wing newspapers, such as El Vocero and Caribbean Business, allege that Tito Kayak’s finances are a mystery, and have even hinted at funding from Hugo Chávez. But his life is a mystery only to wannabe journalists who do not bother to do basic research. Alberto De Jesús is a working class man, a blue collar hardhat who makes a living as an electrician. He is not a man of long speeches, in fact he has not given many speeches in his life. He is not a writer, although he is certainly a reader. Upon first meeting him, people are amazed that this leftist boogeyman, this international troublemaker, is actually a regular guy, an unpretentious everyman who loves a good beer and hanging out with friends as much as the next guy.
The kayak trip through the Antilles, with all its hazards and hardships, was all for Oscar. Even though imprisoned in the USA, his presence was very tangible and real in the Caribbean. He was the real protagonist all along. In solidarity with Puerto Rico’s self-determination and in the spirit of anti-imperialist Latin American unity, Venezuela’s government joined the call for Oscar’s freedom and gave concrete support to Tito Kayak’s trip. The Venezuelan Navy fleet, the diplomatic corps and state media- particularly Telesur, La Radio del Sur and the CCS Caracas newspaper- provided critical support.
In early July, Venezuela hosted the 18th meeting of the Foro de Sao Paulo, an umbrella organization that brings together much of the Latin American left. The Puerto Rican delegation, composed of the Nationalist Party, the Socialist Front and the Movimiento Independentista Nacional Hostosiano (This organization’s name defies translation), intended to garner international support for the nation’s anti-colonial struggles.
The effort was successful as Puerto Rico’s colonial case was mentioned in the meeting’s final statement, the Caracas Declaration:
“Left-wing parties gathered in the Forum and all social movements are responsible to deploy all initiatives within our reach so as to turn the issue of Puerto Rico’s independence into a central item in the United Nations agenda. It is unthinkable that in the 21st century there are still colonial enclaves in our region and the world. We join in the demand for the release from prison of Puerto Rican political detainee Oscar López-Rivera, incarcerated in US prisons for 31 years now, whose sole “crime” was fighting for his land’s independence.”
We do not doubt that Tito Kayak’s lobbying activities in Venezuela prior to his departure the previous month, his media outreach and his rapport with the Venezuelan people, had a lot to do with our success in getting Oscar mentioned in the Caracas declaration.
In mid-September, Tito finally arrived in Puerto Rico, ending his epic voyage by landing in a protest encampment set up in Isla Verde beach, near the international airport (http://pr.indymedia.org/news/2012/09/52681.php). The camp was set up in 2005 by Tito and other concerned citizens, organized as Playas Pal Pueblo (Beaches for the People), to physically obstruct the illegal invasion of the public Isla Verde beach by high-rise hotels, and to call attention to other equally harmful and illegal encroachments of hotels and other private developments in Puerto Rico’s beaches. The story of this camp, continuously occupied for seven years, where protesters have set up organic gardens and solar panels under the constant threat of eviction by the police, is one of the great underreported tales of this Caribbean nation.
Looking back on those three months of danger and extreme endurance- with obstacles ranging from searing sun and treacherous currents to seemingly insurmountable funding and logistics challenges- Tito winces and describes the whole undertaking as a nightmare. But the real nightmare is the one that Oscar has been experiencing for 31 years. Freedom for Oscar. Freedom Now.
- Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author and journalist.
On Twitter: @amigosdelmarpr
Reproduced with permission of the author.
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