Published On: Sat, Jul 4th, 2015

War Against All Puerto Ricans by Nelson A. Denis



The war against all Puerto Ricans began over a century ago. Within a few years of occupying Puerto Rico in 1898, the US de-valued the Puerto Rican currency by 40% and owned 80% of all the island’s farms…as well as the insular postal system, the entire coastal railroad, and the San Juan International Airport.

The US military quickly controlled another 13% of the island.

In addition, U.S. federal agencies controlled Puerto Rico’s foreign relations, banking system, currency, customs, tariffs, import/export quotas, radio waves, commerce, transportation, military service, maritime laws, and cabotage rights.

Although Puerto Ricans were declared US citizens in 1917, just in time for World War I, these same “citizens” were found ineligible for minimum wage legislation in 1922, when the US Supreme Court ruled that the US constitution did not apply to Puerto Rico. This did not sit well with the macheteros – the sugarcane workers – who worked 50 and 60 hours a week for starvation wages.

In 1934, the macheteros went on strike, and asked Pedro Albizu Campos to lead them.

The “war against all Puerto Ricans” was officially declared by the Puerto Rico Police Chief in 1935. After murdering four Puerto Ricans in the Rio Piedras Massacre, Police Chief E. Francis Riggs announced that, if Albizu Campos continued to “agitate” the macheteros, there would be “war to the death against all Puerto Ricans.”

Eighty years later, just three months ago, Nation Books published my book War Against All Puerto Ricans. It documents how and why this war was waged. I knew this history had to be told. What I didn’t know, was the response it would receive.

An Instant Audience

Two weeks before it was published, the book was a #1 Amazon Best Seller. Two days after the book’s release, the Independence Party of Puerto Rico (PIP) called me, to ask how they could promote it on the island. Within one month I made 23 TV and radio appearances, with further bookings scheduled for C-SPAN, New York 1, and Democracy Now.


Print journalists found the book quickly. Robert Dominguez of the New York Daily News wrote “Prepare to be outraged…meticulously researched…a timely, eye-opening must-read.” In Latino Rebels, Julio Varela wrote that “War Against All Puerto Ricans earns ‘instant classic’ status…anyone who wants to understand U.S. imperial history from the time of Manifest Destiny needs to read this book.” In Respuesta, Andre Lee Muñiz praised “the book’s historical value…a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about Puerto Rico.” In Gozamos, Hector Luis Alamo wrote “Nelson Denis doesn’t just give us history. He gives us history on fire…a thoroughly researched indictment of over a century of U.S. policy toward one small island…a full-throated eulogy of brave heroes, men and women of conviction, who devoted every drop of their blood to a people and a principle.”

From Washington, D.C., Congressman José Serrano wrote that “It is a book that every student of the US–Puerto Rico relationship should read.”

In his maximum security federal prison, Oscar López Rivera read the book and praised it in the pages of Claridad newspaper, saying that the book is especially important for young people to read, and learn their history.

In Chicago, the brother of Oscar López Rivera – José López Rivera – invited me to Division Street for a four-day book tour.

Next month, during the week of July 18-25, the Independence Party of Puerto Rico (PIP) has arranged a multi-city tour for the book, in all corners of the island.

This overwhelming response, within a few weeks of the book’s publication, made me stop and think. I am not a celebrity. I am not a famous writer. There was something going on, that had nothing to do with me.

It was the subject matter.

A Hidden History

The story of Puerto Rico, under the tutelage of the United States, had not been fully told. No one knew that Charles Herbert Allen, the first civilian governor from the US, stuffed the Puerto Rican economy into his pocket by stealing thousands of farms, running up to Wall Street, and making himself the president of Domino Sugar.


Inauguration of Gov. Charles Herbert Allen


No one knew that Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín was an opium addict, and that J. Edgar Hoover used this information to control the island’s politics.

No one knew that Police Chief Riggs, who declared “war to the death against all Puerto Ricans,” was the heir to the Riggs National Bank, which had colonial investments all over South and Central America.

No one knew that, right after the Ponce Massacre, the Police Chief re-arranged the corpses in the street, and then took photos of them, to make it look like the murdering policemen had acted in “self-defense.”

No one knew that an OSS/CIA operative named Waller Booth opened a nightclub near Camp Las Casas in Santurce, where he spied on nearly every Nationalist on the island.

No one knew that Albizu Campos was being subjected to TBI (Total Body Irradiation) while in La Princesa prison and everyone – from the FBI to Luis Muñoz Marín to the prison guards themselves – knew all about it.



No one knew that the US kept a torture facility in Aguadilla, near the Ramey Air Force Base – where hundreds of Puerto Rican prisoners were interrogated, tortured, and killed.

The reason that no one knew, is because all the information was buried in police files, hospital records, newspaper archives, US congressional transcripts, and 1.8 million pages of secret FBI files, known today as carpetas.

The Heroes of this History 

The final confirmation of all this history came from the people who lived it: the Nationalists themselves. I interviewed dozens of them over a period of forty years, starting from 1974.

They had lived in a world where selfishness was a great asset, a world owned by strangers and governed by corruption, a world so threatening and capricious that to tell the truth was to risk one’s livelihood, one’s freedom, and sometimes one’s life. It took a long time (in some cases years) to earn their trust, but it was worth every moment. Their personal recollections – with respect to the Ponce Massacre, the Rio Piedras Massacre, the trial of Albizu Campos, the Gag Law arrests, the 1934 sugarcane strike, the police terror of Governor Blanton Winship, the haplessness of Moncho Reyes, the bombing of Jayuya and Utuado, the conditions at La Princesa and El Oso Blanco prisons – all closely parallel the newspaper accounts, congressional testimony, and FBI files from 1930 to 1965.

To see a 182-page FBI file on Pedro Albizu Campos, which documents how he was abused and mistreated in La Princesa prison, you can click on this link:

The Nationalists fought a brave battle against the most powerful empire in history. As the years progressed, and I earned their trust, these brave men and women opened up to me. They told me things I’d never seen in any history book, or heard in any lecture hall: not at Harvard, not at Yale, or anywhere.

In exchange for sharing this information, all they asked was that I tell the story straight: with no embellishment or undue drama. It wasn’t much to ask…but no one had ever done this for them.

The Facts

On October 30, 1950, a violent revolution swept through Puerto Rico: Nationalists tried to kill President Harry S. Truman; gunfights roared in eight towns; revolutionaries burned police stations, post offices, and selective service centers.

To suppress this revolution, the US Army deployed 5,000 troops and bombarded the towns of Jayuya and Utuado – the only time in history that the United States government has bombed its own citizens. They also arrested 3,000 Puerto Ricans and imprisoned Pedro Albizu Campos. While Albizu was in prison, evidence strongly indicates, the US subjected Albizu to TBI (Total Body Irradiation) until it killed him.

The Outlook

War Against All Puerto Ricans tells the story of this revolution. The book occupies the same cultural space as Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, in 1971. It challenges us to re-set our moral compass. It awakens the public conscience to America’s plundering of an entire island, whose residents have been US citizens for nearly a century.

It also arrives at a critical time.

April 21, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Albizu Campos.

The island is in economic malaise with a $73 billion debt, two gasoline tax hikes in the past year, soaring electrical and water costs, government pension rollbacks, layoffs, and an 11.5% IVU (sales tax).

John D. Duncan, a powerful Republican congressman from South Carolina, has proposed that a “Financial Control Board” should take over the island’s economy, and its government.

At the same time that working class and middle-income Puerto Ricans are being squeezed off the island, the government extends a 20-year tax exemption on interest, dividends, and capital gains, for foreign (ie, US) investors in the same island. This latest corporate welfare, called Act 22, was passed in 2012 and applauded by the New York Times, and the US business press.

The moment that its debt was downgraded to “Junk Bond” status, Puerto Rico became a target for corporate raiders and hedge fund managers, who are now using Act 22 to buy “distressed properties” in every corner of the island. The latest raider is John Paulson, whose hedge fund made $15 billion by betting against the US economy in 2007, during its national mortgage crisis.

Paulson is using Act 22 to buy and build two $500 million beachfront hotels in San Juan. A herd of hedge funders is following right behind him. The entire stampede is trumpeted by the New York Times (“Puerto Rico Luring Buyers with Tax Breaks,” Sept. 5, 2014), Bloomberg Business (“Puerto Rico: Tax Haven for America’s Super-Rich,” June 6, 2014), and New Yorker Magazine (“The Puerto Rico Problem,” April 6, 2015).

What does this have to do with War Against All Puerto Ricans?


Albizu Campos was correct, when he observed that “owning a person makes you a scoundrel, but owning a nation makes you a colonial benefactor.” The conditions are now mounting, for the gentrification of Puerto Rico. Within one more generation, the entire island will become a playground for America’s super rich.

John D. Duncan, a powerful Republican congressman from South Carolina, has already proposed that a “Financial Control Board” should take over the island’s economy, and its government.

Unless we recognize this threat, and confront it together, the war against all Puerto Ricans will soon be over. Our island will be gone. Our people will have been evicted. It all reminds me of something my grandmother once told me: “Puerto Rican eyes are all dark, with lots of yesterdays in them.”


Nelson photo - at OSCAR MARCH (1)BIO:

Nelson A. Denis served as a New York State Assemblyman. A graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School, he wrote over 300 editorials for El Diario/La Prensa, and received the Best Editorial Writing award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

War Against All Puerto Ricans by Nelson A. Denis