BY MARTÍN KOPPEL, ROLLANDE GIRARD, AND JACOB PERASSO
Rafael Cancel Miranda, a leader of the struggle for Puerto Rico's independence, is one of a group of five Nationalists who in the early 1950s conducted armed protests in Washington, D.C., against U.S. colonial policy. Cancel Miranda, together with Lolita Lebrón, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, and Irving Flores, carried out an armed demonstration in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954. Oscar Collazo took part in a 1950 attack on Blair House, President Harry Truman's temporary residence.
The five Nationalists spent a quarter century in U.S. prisons for their pro-independence actions. Faced with a growing international defense campaign, the U.S. government finally freed Figueroa Cordero in 1978 and the other four in 1979.
In an interview with Militant reporters Rollande Girard and Jacob Perasso, conducted April 27, 1998, in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, and in subsequent discussions with this reporter, Cancel Miranda recounted some of the background to those dramatic events and the political experiences he was part of during his years in jail.
Cancel Miranda became involved in Puerto Rico's independence movement as a youth in the early 1940s in the western city of Mayaguez.
"My father was the president of the Nationalist Party com mittee in Mayaguez," he said. "I was brought up among Nationalists. I grew up hearing the name of Pedro Albizu Campos. He and my father were comrades-in-arms and friends, and when he would come to speak in Mayaguez he would stay in our home." Albizu Campos was the central leader of the Nationalist Party and the Puerto Rican independence movement for several decades.
On March 21, 1937, Cancel Miranda's father and mother attended a Nationalist Party rally in the city of Ponce that was attacked by the police on orders from Gen. Blanton Winship, the colonial governor. The cops fired on the peaceful gathering, killing twenty-one people and wounding two hundred. "Blanton Winship, an American who had been appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was praised for `defending democracy' by slaughtering our people," said Cancel Miranda, who at the time was six years old.
"My parents survived the massacre. My mother went there dressed in white and returned dressed in red, covered in the blood of the dead, whose bodies she had to crawl over as the bullets flew overhead." He would never forget that image.
A couple days later, he refused to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag in his first-grade class, and was promptly sent home.
As he grew up, Cancel Miranda found out more and more about the truth behind the Ponce massacre and other brutal realities of U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico. "As the years went by I began to seek out the root of the problem, and the ideas advocated by my father and my Nationalist friends, who were serious and noble people. I wanted to be like them.
"While in school, I learned that the Yankees had bombed San Juan and killed Puerto Ricans from U.S. ships on May 12, 1898, and that they had invaded us on July 25 of that year. I learned this and other facts, and came to the conclusion that my parents and the Nationalists were right. Through my own convictions I became a Nationalist and partisan of Puerto Rico's independence.
"As a teenager, I and others organized nationalist youth committees in different towns. We had a radio program and a small newspaper."
Cancel Miranda recalls meeting Albizu Campos in December 1947 when the Nationalist Party leader returned from the United States after serving out a ten-year prison sentence - first in the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta, then in New York - on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government and "inciting rebellion" against it. "I went to welcome him as part of the Cadets of the Republic. The Cadets were the military section of the Nationalist Party. We wore black shirts and white pants."
Jailed for refusing U.S. draft
Following World War II, widespread resistance to Washington's attempt to impose English as the main language of instruction in Puerto Rico's schools forced the U.S. government to drop that effort. Cancel Miranda relates that "in high school, when they tried to make us all speak English in class, we organized a student strike in defense of our language, and I along with others was accused of organizing it. They kicked me out of school for a year and barred me from studying in my town. I had to go to San Juan to finish school, even though I had only about two months to go before graduating."
Washington also had a hard time convincing Puerto Rican youth to join the army of the colonial master that occupied their homeland. During World War II, scores of Puerto Rican youth had been jailed for refusing to serve in the U.S armed forces. During the 1950-53 Korean War, some one hundred thousand youth on the island refused to be drafted. In 1948 Cancel Miranda, then eighteen, was one of those who said no to the U.S. draft.
"One day," he recounts, "I was walking to school in San Juan with other students, and there was a car with four men sitting at the corner. I saw their faces and knew they weren't Puerto Ricans. They were four FBI agents. I handed my books to the other students to take them to the place where I was living, because I figured I might not return. They arrested me and charged me with refusing the U.S. draft. Later they arrested another six or eight youths.
"To me it didn't make sense to be in the same army that invades your country and massacres your people. If you're going to fight, you should fight them.
"The U.S. court here in Puerto Rico - they call it federal but it's a foreign court -sentenced me to two years and one day in prison. They put me on a plane along with five or six of us and sent us to the U.S. prison in Tallahassee, Florida."
There Cancel Miranda soon ran into trouble with the jailers for confronting racist segregation inside prison walls. Under Jim Crow legislation at the time, the prison dormitories were segregated.
"For some reason they put me in the dormitories for whites," he notes. "In the dining hall, Blacks and whites were supposed to eat in different sections, but I would go eat with the Black prisoners whenever I wanted to. There were Puerto Ricans who, because they were a little darker-skinned than me, were put in the dormitories for Blacks. One prison guard, by the name of Haynes, used a racist term against one of us who was darker-skinned. I told him in my thoughts, `When you do that to me, I'm going to do something to you.'
"One day, when he did something to me I punched the racist guard. So I lost the five months of good time I had earned. They put me in the `hole,' in solitary confinement, and I had to serve out the entire two-year-and-one-day sentence."
Cancel Miranda was in jail in Tallahassee when Washington launched its war of aggression against Korea in 1950. That same year, the Nationalist Party led an armed rebellion in Puerto Rico, which the colonial regime brutally crushed. Thousands were arrested, including Cancel Miranda's father.
"When I returned from prison in 1951 I got married," he continues. "But just eleven days later, they wanted to lock me up again for refusing the draft. My wife Carmen and my sister Zoraida told me: don't let yourself get arrested!
"So I went to Cuba under a different name and lived there for fourteen months. In Havana I landed a job in the construction of the tunnel under the Almendares river. I worked that job several months. Later, the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was a U.S. puppet, put me in jail and deported me to Puerto Rico." Batista had come to power through a military coup in March 1952.
A short time later Cancel Miranda moved to Brooklyn, where he joined his wife. There he got involved in the effort to oppose Washington's attempts to prevent Puerto Rico's colonial status from being discussed at the United Nations.
Armed protest in U.S. Congress
"From the end of World War II until 1952, the U.S. government had to report to the United Nations on Puerto Rico," he explains. "There was a UN committee on territories that were not independent, and Puerto Rico was on that list as a colony. The U.S. government wanted to take Puerto Rico off the list so it wouldn't have to report and show its warts to the world. In 1953 they took their case to the United Nations, claiming that in 1952 we had by a sovereign, free vote become a `commonwealth.' They claimed we were happy and content.
"I got involved in lobbying at the United Nations. A couple of times my wife went with me to speak to the ambassador of India, a friend of Puerto Rico who fought for our position at the United Nations. But the Yankees won a victory and got Puerto Rico taken off the list of non- sovereign countries. They presented us to the world as satisfied slaves." Washington even engineered the expulsion of the official observer the Nationalist Party had had at the United Nations since 1945.
In response, Cancel Miranda said, he and three other Nationalists living in New York "decided to carry out a demonstration that would draw the world's attention to the truth about Puerto Rico, that would tell the world that there were Puerto Ricans who were willing to die for our independence and that the U.S. government was fooling the United Nations and the world - including my people - with this so-called commonwealth."
The other three were Andrés Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores, and Lolita Lebrón. At the time, Cancel Miranda, twenty-three years old, was a press operator in a shoe factory in New York. Figueroa Cordero was working in a butcher shop, Flores in a furniture factory, and Lebrón in a garment shop as a sewing machine operator.
The U.S. rulers, Cancel Miranda stated, "had the money and the arms, but we had the moral force. We went to Washington to carry out an armed demonstration - we knew that if we went with signs we weren't going to get attention. There we fired inside the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 1954." The shots, fired from the spectators' gallery, wounded five congressmen.
"They put us on trial in Washington, D.C. They sentenced the three men to seventy-five years and Lolita to fifty years. Then they took us to New York, where we were tried for `conspiracy to overthrow the government by force and violencé and sentenced to six more years. Can you imagine us thinking we could overthrow the U.S. government with little pistols? I wish I could!"
The four Nationalists were shipped off to different prisons. Figueroa Cordero was sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta; Lebrón to the women's prison in Alderson, West Virginia; and Flores to Leavenworth, Kansas, where Oscar Collazo, veteran of the 1950 Blair House action, was incarcerated. Cancel Miranda was sent to Alcatraz, the island prison in the San Francisco Bay.
"I've got the honor of being the only Nationalist who has ever been in Alcatraz, the worst prison they had," he says. "They thought they were humiliating me, but actually they were honoring me. It was like giving me a big medal. If they said, `You're a good boy,' it would mean I wasn't fighting for my people.
"I was in Alcatraz for six years. There they didn't allow me to see my children for the entire six years. A couple of times my wife and I got to talk through a glass in the visiting room, using a phone. And you had to talk in English.
"Afterward they took me to Leavenworth, where I spent ten years. Andrés, Irving, Oscar, and I were in Leavenworth together for several years.
"In 1970 we started a strike at Leavenworth because the guards had committed abuses against some of us. We stopped working. They charged me with organizing the strike and put me in the hole for five months."
Later that year, Cancel Miranda was transferred to Marion federal prison in Illinois, where he was held until his release in 1979. "A big strike took place in Marion too," he recounted, "because the guards had blackjacked a Mexican prisoner. They put me in isolation for eighteen months. This time they put me in the `behavior modification program' of the Control Unit. They gave us all kinds of drugs. When that didn't work they used the big stick."
The kind of treatment the Nationalists were routinely subjected to increasingly became public knowledge and fueled the campaign for their release. When Cancel Miranda's father died in 1977, his supporters campaigned to allow him to attend the funeral.
"I was in Puerto Rico for seven hours for my father's funeral," he related. "But my people jumped with anger when they learned that at the St. Louis airport, on the way to Puerto Rico, they put me in a dog cage. While waiting for the next plane, they took the dog out and put me in. I had mentioned it casually to people, because I had been in prison for years and it was a normal thing to me, but to them it was unimaginable."
Political activity behind bars
For years, Cancel Miranda remarked, "I kept thinking up escape plans, because I wasn't resigned to die in prison of old age. When the campaign for our release began, that's when I stopped thinking about escaping because the campaign became political work for us."
The broad and growing worldwide campaign for the release of the Puerto Rican Nationalists was the product of, and part of, the deep political radicalization in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. It was fed by the victorious mass struggle by African Americans that brought down the Jim Crow segregation system, by the anti-imperialist audacity of the Cuban revolution, by the deepening opposition to the U.S. rulers' attempts to crush the Vietnamese national liberation struggle, and by the resurgence of the Puerto Rican independence movement. In Puerto Rico itself, defiance of the draft became so massive despite scores of arrests that the U.S. government eventually decided to drop most prosecutions of resisters on the island.
This social and political upheaval found expression behind prison bars as well. By the late 1960s, there were increasing numbers of prisoners engaged in political activity, and Cancel Miranda joined with them.
The Cuban revolution had a profound impact on him. "As I heard more and more about Cuba," he noted, "I realized it was not just another military coup like so many others in Latin America, but a true social transformation. I internalized it to the point that the Cuban revolution has become as important to me as the fight for the freedom of my people."
When the Chicano struggle developed in the United States, "in prison I became involved in that fight, including the defense of Corky Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice," he said. Gonzales and the Chicano rights organization he led, the Denver Crusade for Justice, were the target of a government frame-up in the early 1970s.
Every September 16, Cancel Miranda would join the Mexican and Chicano prisoners in marking Mexico's independence day with a work stoppage. "I also got involved in the Black struggle. We did many other things, even producing newspapers like the Chicano prisoners' paper Aztlán. I also wrote a couple of articles for the Militant.
"In other words, I was never really imprisoned. I never felt defeated. I kept fighting inside prison and always had the hope of getting out - one way or another. When you resign yourself to the idea that you're not going to get out, that's when you become a convict. The prison becomes your world. But none of us resigned ourselves."
In the early years there was no campaign for the release of the Nationalist political prisoners. "For fifteen years or more we were buried in oblivion, in silence," Cancel Miranda commented. "Circumstances at that time were different. Maybe sometimes you might have heard a little voice somewhere asking: `I wonder what happened to those four young Nationalists?' It was later that the campaign for our freedom began. It began in Chicago, through two young American lawyers, Michael Deutsch and Mara Siegel from the People's Law Office.
International defense campaign
"I was locked up in the Control Unit after the big strike in Marion. This was in 1972. There was an Afro-American, Ed Johnson, or Akinsiyu, as he preferred to be called, who knew the People's Law Office. He was from the group called Republic of New Africa, and was in prison for his political ideas. Akinsiyu wrote the young lawyer, Michael Deutsch, and asked him to visit us, explaining that there were one hundred of us in the Control Unit. He said there was a Puerto Rican locked up with him who could also tell him the truth about what was happening.
"The Puerto Rican community in Chicago started the campaign. Then it grew. It spread to New York, then to Puerto Rico. In the United States, people of all kinds took part in the campaign."
The campaign spread to other countries too, especially in Latin America. The revolutionary government of Cuba was one of the most vocal defenders of the five Nationalist prisoners.
"There were committees working for our freedom in Venezuela and other countries. Even the UN Committee on Decolonization passed a resolution asking for our release," he notes.
"Thanks to thousands of people everywhere who supported us, we won a victory in 1979. We came out of prison standing, not on our knees."
Under international pressure, President James Carter released Figueroa Cordero in 1978, as he was dying of cancer. The other four were freed in September of the following year.
Some voices in U.S. big-business circles immediately protested the release of the four Nationalists, whom they labeled terrorists. "Two days after our release," Cancel Miranda recalls, "a newspaper in Chicago asked how it could be that in Puerto Rico thousands of people were waiting for us, holding Puerto Rican flags. And a few days before, in Chicago and New York, thousands of people from the Puerto Rican communities had welcomed us too.
"They could not understand how these people, who had shot up `our' congressmen, could be welcomed as heroes by our people.
"But they were also incapable of understanding the Vietnamese people, how the Vietnamese people were able to fight for their homeland and defeat them."
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