Attacks put Puerto Rican separatist rebels back in limelight
JUAN O. TAMAYO
Herald Staff Writer
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Campaigns to win U.S. statehood, sell the local
telephone company and move U.S. Army units here have brought Machetero
separatist guerrillas back into the limelight for the first time in years.
The Puerto Rican People's Army Los Macheteros -- The Cane Cutters -- and
violent tactics represent a tiny minority even among supporters of Puerto Rican
independence from the United States.
But in past months the group, believed to have only a handful of active
has staged a string of bombings, threats and dramatic capers that have drawn
headlines and the attention of security officials.
``It does not surprise me, for the time is right to express ourselves,''
Lebron, one of four Puerto Rican independence advocates who shot up the U.S.
Capitol and wounded five members of Congress in 1954.
The FBI raised the reward offered for fugitive Machetero leader Filiberto
Rios from $100,000 to $150,000 earlier this month after he claimed responsibility
for a bombing and a shooting in July. Police suspect Ojeda was behind three other
bombings during the month.
All five attacks were protests against Gov. Pedro Rossello's campaign to
the government-owned Puerto Rico Telephone Co., considered a national
resource by independence advocates. One police officer lost a finger when he
picked up a bomb hidden in a flashlight.
`Armed resistance' vowed
Ojeda also has vowed ``armed resistance'' if Washington goes ahead with
move U.S. Army units of the Southern Command from Panama to Puerto Rico.
The Macheteros set off several bombs against U.S. banks and other targets
1970s and '80s, and took credit for the 1983 robbery of $7 million from a Wells
Fargo armored truck in Hartford, Conn. Ojeda was awaiting trial in the Wells
Fargo case when he jumped bail in 1990.
More recently, police believe the Macheteros were behind the theft in May
bronze plaque marking the spot on Puerto Rico's southern coast where U.S.
troops landed 100 years ago during the Spanish-American War.
Puerto Ricans, who voted to become a U.S. commonwealth in 1952, are U.S.
citizens but field their own Olympic teams. They pay no federal taxes, but have no
voting representatives in the U.S. Congress.
Advocates of full independence have never won more than a small percentage
votes. Meanwhile, statehood and commonwealth supporters have been
deadlocked for the past 46 years over what Puerto Ricans call their ``status''
Rossello and his pro-statehood New Progressive Party sparked the latest
acrid debate by pushing for U.S. legislation that would give legal standing to the
result of a new plebiscite on the status issue.
Then he rankled national pride by proposing to sell the telephone company,
the least efficient in the United States but a symbol of autonomy for many Puerto
Telephone company workers went on a long strike this summer, marred by
of violent incidents, to protest the sale. But Rossello stuck to his guns and the $1.9
billion sale to a consortium headed by GTE is awaiting approval of the Federal
``He is pushing and pushing, but we say that the governor should not sell
that belongs to the people,'' said Lebron, who served 25 years in prison for the
attack on Congress.
She no longer favors violence, she said, but remains an impassioned advocate
independence and does not find fault with those who would use guns or bombs.
``One hundred years after the United States occupied us, my country is
So all liberation strategies that are accepted by international right are reasonable,''
she said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the status debate appears as convoluted and logjammed as ever.
Rossello's party recently pushed a bill through the Puerto Rican legislature
for a plebiscite on the status issue on Dec. 13, the fourth since 1961.
The ballot will avoid labels but contain brief descriptions of four ``options''
amount to: statehood, independence, commonwealth and a slightly looser version
of commonwealth sometimes called ``free association.''
Commonwealth advocates have vowed a legal challenge against the plebiscite.
even if it passes a legal test, the vote would amount to little more than a public
opinion poll unless the U.S. Congress steps in.
Bills in Congress
The House of Representatives approved a bill in March that for the first
would bind Congress to act on the results of any plebiscite by setting a clear path
But the Senate has refused to approve the bill by Rep. Don Young, an Alaska
Republican, and opponents are expected to submit a watered-down version of the
Young bill next month.
``The House bill has a higher level of commitments that is scaled back
Senate bill, which instead emphasizes the discretionary nature of the process,'' said
Manase Mansur, GOP advisor on insular and international affairs to the House
Committee on Resources, which handles territorial issues.
If Congress adopts a strong version of the Young bill before the U.S. election
November, it will give some teeth to the December vote. But if Congress can't
agree on a compromise, the Young initiative dies and must be started again by the
Even if Congress approves, the status debate is unlikely to be settled
so easily in a
nation that has so deeply mixed Puerto Rican and U.S. cultures, English and
Spanish, plantains and McDonald's.
One recent poll on the status issue showed independence advocates still
with 4 percent and the rest virtually deadlocked -- 40.9 percent in favor of
becoming the 51st state, 40.4 percent in favor of staying a commonwealth.