In 1950, an armed rebellion broke out in the Puerto Rican city of Jayuya, aimed at winning independence for the island. The insurrection spread to several other cities before it was put down by troops and air strikes. As its last act, the Jayuya Uprising tried to assassinate the US President. Today, the entire affair is mostly forgotten in the US, but it remains a powerful symbol for the Puerto Rican nationalist movement.
Troops in Jayuya
The island of Puerto Rico had been a colony of the Spanish Empire for some 400 years before it was invaded by the United States and captured as part of the Spanish-American War in 1898, along with the Philippine Islands. In the aftermath of the war, an armed independence movement appeared in the Philippines, and the US waged a long and bloody anti-insurgency campaign there. By the 1930’s, an independence movement had also appeared in Puerto Rico, known as the Nationalist Party and led by Pedro Albizu Campos. The “nationalistas” became a target for the American-appointed colonial government, and when students at the National University in San Juan held a pro-independence rally in 1935, they were fired on by police. Five students were killed. In retaliation for the “Rio Piedras Massacre”, nationalists ambushed and killed the police chief, Colonel Elisha Francis Riggs. This led to the arrest of several nationalist leaders for “advocating violence”, including Albizu Campos, who was sent to the Federal Prison in Atlanta. In 1937, a march was held in the town of Ponce demanding independence for Puerto Rico and the release of Albizu Campos and the others. The police once again fired on the demonstrators: the “Ponce Massacre” killed 19 and wounded over 250. In 1948, the colonial government passed a law equating Nationalists with Communists, and outlawed any speech, actions or symbols that advocated Puerto Rican independence. It became known as “The Gag Law”.
The United States, meanwhile, treated Puerto Rico with more or less benign neglect, allowing the colonial government a free hand. But when the Cold War began, the Americans faced an embarrassing political problem. In the aftermath of World War II, a wave of anti-colonialism appeared, allowing the Soviet Union to depict the US and its allies France and Britain as colonial oppressors, and to depict itself as the champion of independence for the Third World. The United Nations supported decolonialization, and began drawing up lists of non-independent areas and the colonial powers that ruled them. And, to the chagrin of the United States, they were on that list–they ruled neo-colonies in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, all seized from Spain.
To prevent the Soviets from scoring points in the propaganda war, the US decided to act. The Philippines were granted political independence (though they would continue to be ruled by American-approved military dictators for the next several decades). Guam and Puerto Rico would now be considered as “commonwealths” or “associated independent states”, an odd status under which they were both “independent” but also possessions of the US.
By this time, the nationalist leader Albizu Campos had been released from the US prison and had made his way back to Puerto Rico. To the independence movement, the “commonwealth” status of Puerto Rico was just a cynical ploy by the US to keep the island under its control while preventing the embarrassment of it being listed by the UN as a “colony”. The arrest of Albizu Campos and the imposition of the Gag Law had also convinced the Nationalist Party that legal methods of agitation for independence were now closed to them, and the only way remaining was armed struggle. For the next two years, the nationalist movement would gather weapons and plan a “revolutionary uprising” that would capture the cities and win independence for Puerto Rico. It was targeted for 1952, when the “free associated state” status was scheduled to go into effect.
Things didn’t go to schedule, however. On October 26, 1950, the colonial government, apparently getting wind of the planned insurrection, launched a series of raids and arrested dozens of prominent nationalists. Albizu Campos happened to be out of town and avoided arrest, and in desperation he gave instructions that the planned uprising be launched immediately.
The primary target of the insurrection was the town of Jayuya, in central Puerto Rico. Led by Blanca Canales, a force of nationalists attacked the police station on October 29, and seized the post office and telephone station. Canales gave a speech in the town square in which she called for further uprisings and declared the independent Republic of Puerto Rico. Over the next few days, other groups of armed insurrectionaries temporarily seized government buildings in San Juan, Ponce, Mayaguez, Arecibo, Utuado, Penjuelas, Ciales, and Naranjito.
The response was swift. The colonial government immediately declared martial law, and sent US National Guard troops, stationed on the island, to root out the barricaded rebels. In Jayuya, where the insurrection was strongest, Air National Guard P-47 fighter/bombers were sent on air strikes against nationalist-held neighborhoods, destroying over half the buildings in town. Canales and the Jayuya rebels held out for three days before surrendering. Despite all the fighting, only a handful of people are known to have been killed.
In Washington DC, President Harry Truman announced that the Jayuya Uprising was an internal affair between Puerto Ricans and the US government had no involvement. This prompted the final act of the Uprising: Albizu Campos ordered a direct attack inside the US as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate that the independence movement considered the American government as its ultimate enemy. On November 1, two Nationalist sympathizers from New York, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, attacked the Blair House in DC, where President Truman was staying while the White House was being renovated.
Since the time of the Jayuya Uprising, the Gag Law was repealed and the Nationalists have once again been legalized as an electoral party, where they consistently get around one-third of the vote. Over the years a number of referendum votes have been held in Puerto Rico to decide between statehood, independence, or commonwealth with the US. In each, the majority has voted to retain the status quo as an “associated commonwealth”.