News Highlight

A Moribund Independence Movement Stirs Anew
Submitted by: Adrian

SAN JUAN, P.R. - They looked like boys, not revolutionaries. But the two University of Puerto Rico students pulsed with grim purpose as they held forth on a lush campus lawn on a recent afternoon.

"If you are going to be a repressive imperialist power, don't expect us to sit here and do nothing," said Gamelyn Oduardo, 19, a political science major in a knitted Rastafarian hat. "When you kick an anthill, all the ants are going to come out."

The anthill, in Mr. Oduardo's analogy, is Puerto Rico. The ants are Puerto Ricans who share his bristling hostility to the United States. And the kick was the killing in September of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a fugitive Puerto Rican nationalist, in a gun battle with agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The death of Mr. Ojeda Ríos, cornered in a farmhouse in September, was a revivifying jolt to an independence movement that had seemed all but dead, or at least settled into wistful, toothless old age.

Here and there in San Juan, a city of colonial antiquity as well as Burger Kings and Church's Chickens, wrathful graffiti has turned up on storefronts: "F.B.I. Asesinos" (F.B.I. Assassins) and "Vive Filiberto" (Filiberto Lives). A reggaetón rapper has recorded "Dear F.B.I.," whose few printable lines include, "I will throw rocks at the feds," and, "They knocked down the man but not his ideas."

Someone shot at a guardhouse at the federal court building here on Oct. 13. American businesses and government buildings have received bomb threats, the sort of thing that has not happened since protests against the Navy bombing exercises on Vieques peaked about four years ago.

And last week, a group of hooded students held a sit-in at a Reserve Officers Training Corps building in Mayaguez, saying they wanted to "let the enemies of our people know there are young people here willing to put up a fight."

The F.B.I. has said Mr. Ojeda Ríos, who was 72, shot first as agents approached his door on Sept. 23. The agents did not let anyone enter the farmhouse until the next day, by which time Mr. Ojeda Ríos had bled to death.

Many here condemn his violent past - Mr. Ojeda Ríos founded a militant group, Los Macheteros, that claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in the 1970's and 80's, was convicted of a $7 million robbery in Connecticut in 1983 and had twice before shot at federal agents.

But Puerto Ricans were incensed that he had been left to die, and that the shooting took place on a sacred date for the independence movement, the anniversary of an uprising against Spanish rule in 1868.

The F.B.I. said it delayed entering the house for fear it was wired with explosives, but many here called Mr. Ojeda Ríos's death a blatant human rights violation and a sign of American disrespect for Puerto Rico. In response, Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., has requested an independent review of the shooting.

"This event made a profound impression on our people," said Nelson Canals, a 61-year-old lawyer who is organizing rallies to promote independence and to protest the F.B.I.'s handling of the shooting. "If we take this opportunity to educate, more people could become conscious that we need a radical political change."

He and other graying independentistas have long pointed out that as residents of a United States commonwealth, Puerto Ricans cannot participate in federal elections or send voting members to Congress.

More recently, independentistas have argued that the minimum wage law and other American regulations put Puerto Rico at a disadvantage compared with its neighbors in the Caribbean and Central America, where businesses can operate far more cheaply. Yes, they say, Puerto Ricans live comfortably in comparison to many neighboring lands, with abundant federal aid and consumer goods - but at what price?

"Do I have to give back my dignity?" Mr. Canals asked. "Be your lackey? Send my children to war when you need them?"

There is no question that independentistas needed a jump-start. Their political party won less than 3 percent of the vote in last year's governor's election, losing its place on the ballot for the first time in almost four decades.

Many independentistas voted for Gov. Aníbal Aceveda-Vilá, who supports the commonwealth status, because they did not want the statehood candidate to win the tight race.

Not only that, but independence has won only a small fraction of the vote in three nonbinding referendums on the island's status in the past 40 years. Nevertheless many Puerto Ricans with no wish for independence feel for the movement.

At Plaza Las Américas, a giant mall, shoppers can buy Brooks Brothers suits and Tiffany jewelry, as well as baby clothes stamped with the face of Pedro Albizu Campos, the island's first nationalist leader, who wanted Puerto Ricans to wage an armed struggle against the United States.

The line to view Mr. Ojeda Ríos's body during his wake stretched around a city block. "Friday evenings, buy us a couple drinks and everyone is an independence supporter," said Angelo Falcón, president of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy in New York, repeating a well-known joke. "It's something that Americans don't quite feel comfortable with or understand."

Hard-core independentistas like Mr. Oduardo said they hoped to turn the outcry over the F.B.I. shooting - extraordinary because it has cut across political lines - into something powerful and permanent. One day in late October, students packed an amphitheater to hear Mr. Canals and other pro-independence speakers memorialize Mr. Ojeda Ríos and reminisce about the glory days of the nationalist movement.

They listened intently and clapped, but the event felt more like a history lesson than a rallying cry. Nicole Soto, 20, said afterward that while the idealist in her supported independence, the pragmatist was not so sure. "If we get independence, what are we going to do next?" she said. "We'll be like all the other Latin American countries. It's going to be rough and bad. But I don't know - maybe it will be better than it is right now."

Mr. Oduardo, standing near a mural of Mr. Ojeda Ríos that students had painted the previous day, dismissed such uncertainty as "the colonial mindset working on us."

"Puerto Ricans say, 'We're not prepared, we're not enough, we can't do it,' " he said. "They don't really know. They are in a society of consumption and that is what's going on here."

But outside the university gates, the graffiti was fading and Puerto Rico had reverted to its usual partisan bickering. A $300 million budget deficit is paralyzing the government as Mr. Aceveda-Vilá and the legislature, which fights him on everything, debate how to solve it. Government layoffs may be in the works as the island's credit rating keeps dropping and its attractiveness to outside investors falters. Taxes are rising, as are tolls, utility rates and university tuitions.

The pro-commonwealth governor and pro-statehood legislature are so gridlocked that no movement on the status issue is likely until at least 2008. Nonetheless, independentistas say they feel a new energy since Mr. Ojeda Ríos's death. A change in political status could come sooner now, they insist.

Behind them, next to Mr. Ojeda Ríos's face on the newly painted mural, were the words of Che Guevara: "Do not stop being young. Do not turn into old theorists or theorizers. Conserve the freshness of youth."

Ariana Green contributed reporting for this article.
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