Puerto Rican resistance to the U.S. war in Iraq, unfolding in the context of struggles for independence and economic justice, has special characteristics. Recent opposition to military recruitment and FBI harassment of youth activists suggests that young people in Puerto Rico are at the center of these conflicts.
During the month of August for the past five years, activists have campaigned in Puerto Rico to persuade high school students to request that school authorities deny U.S. military recruiters access to their names, home telephone numbers and addresses.
Under terms of the 2003 No Child Left Behind Act, U.S. financial assistance to schools depends both upon school authorities allowing recruiters access to students and providing them with students’ contact information. Under the law, it takes a specific request from students or families to keep schools from handing over the data.
The social-democratic Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) has assumed a leadership role in the anti-recruitment campaign. In an Aug. 13 press conference in San Juan, gubernatorial candidate Edwin Irizarry Mora, joined by Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago, launched a three-day anti-recruitment campaign.
PIP activists placed themselves at school entrances throughout the island to talk about military enlistment with students and to give them a form for requesting that school authorities not divulge their personal information. Spokespersons hinted at possible legal actions aimed at forcing schools to allow the anti-recruitment activists to enter school buildings.
Santiago, jailed for civil disobedience during the fight to free Vieques Island from the U.S. Navy in 2003, told reporters that last year 49 percent of Puerto Rican high school students requested that their identity data be withheld from recruiters. Alluding to poverty as a stimulus to enlistments, the lawyer pointed out that “prosperity is a lie in Puerto Rico. … half the population lives below the poverty level, including 200,000 workers who leave every day to earn their bread through the sweat of their brow.”
In Mayagüez the next day, Irizarry Mora, having joined over 20 PIP members at city schools, reported that students and parents were taking the request forms more readily this year than last. Young people are rejecting recruiters, he said, in spite of financial blandishments. They know they face being sent to Iraq, he said, “a scenario where every day more and more are dying.”
The Orlando Sentinel reported July 30 that the war has killed 66 island-based Puerto Ricans and wounded 1,700 more. Since 2003, 6,275 have joined the Army or Army reserve. Some 2,300 Puerto Rican National Guard and reservist soldiers are serving in Iraq.
U.S. foreign wars have long elicited resistance in Puerto Rico. Recent opinion surveys put current antiwar sentiment at 75 percent of the adult population, higher than the 62 percent in the United States.
Over 3,000 teachers union members demonstrated against the Iraq war on March 19 in front of the Santa Catalina seat of government in San Juan. The Orlando Sentinel took note of “soldiers dying for a country that will take their blood, but not their votes.”
The people of Puerto Rico, while furnishing troops for the Pentagon, have no vote in U.S. elections.
Recruitment statistics confirm Puerto Rican antiwar biases. In the U.S., as of 2006, the recruit/service-age-population ratio for Hispanics was 1.15, for non-Hispanics, 0.95. In Puerto Rico, that ratio was 0.51 in 1999, 0.40 in 2003.
Young people in Puerto Rico, sought after by contending forces, are under the gun, especially when antiwar activities are seen as possibly propelled by independence sentiments.
The New School is an anti-colonial initiative with centers in San Juan and Mayagüez. The cooperative engaged in community organization, popular education, and human rights work that attracted FBI attention.
On Aug. 7, government agents detained and briefly jailed biologist Roberto Viqueira Ríos, who is associated with the school. At a press conference in Mayagüez three days later, Michael González, a leader of the school, denounced the FBI’s “systematic abuses” and warned of possible resort to civil disobedience.
Elma Beatriz Rosado Barbosa, widow of independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, who was gunned down by the FBI in 2006, advised, “Every time the FBI dares to make a move to touch, or even to look at a fellow independence supporter, we need to … be there available to defend that person tooth and nail.”