“Porto Ricans are a heterogenous mass of mongrels incapable of self-government… savages addicted to head-hunting and cannibalism.”
– Senator William B. Bate (D-Tennessee)
“The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact. By virtue of our superiority of race, it already is ours morally.”
– President William Howard Taft
On May 12, 1898, twelve US Navy ships bombarded San Juan for three hours. The sky turned black with cannon smoke. Homes were hit. Streets were torn. El Morro lighthouse and La Iglesia de San José, a 16th century church, were shelled repeatedly. Thirty thousand people fled the town in abject terror.
A few weeks later, planting his flag in the Ponce town square, US commander Gen. Nelson A. Miles, declared that:
“The chief object of the American military forces will be…to give to the people of your beautiful island the largest measure of liberties consistent with military occupation.
We have not come to make war against a people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but on the contrary, to bring you protection, to promote your prosperity, to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government…and to give the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.”
The “blessings” and “advantages” were few. Instead, immediately after the US invasion of 1898, a wave of carpetbaggers swarmed over the island like a plague of locusts. Within forty years, they picked her clean of her natural resources. Any Puerto Rican who opposed this too vigorously was shot, imprisoned, or simply “disappeared.”
Every few years, the US government sent four men to ensure this colonial relationship: the Chief Auditor of the island, the Treasurer, the Chief of Police, and the Governor.
The Governor had the greatest authority, since he could hire and fire the other three.
Let us examine two of those governors.
CHARLES HERBERT ALLEN – the sugar king (1900-01)
Charles Herbert Allen was the first civilian governor of Puerto Rico (1900-1901). Though he never served in the military, he loved to dress in military regalia and have people address him as “Colonel.”
Allen arrived on the island like a Roman conqueror with a naval cannon salute, the Eleventh United States Infantry Band blaring in front of him, and hundreds of armed men marching behind him.
It was a rainy, nebulous day – unusually dark for the island of Puerto Rico.
An assistant held an umbrella over Allen’s head, as he marched through the heart of San Juan, and into the governor’s mansion.
The mansion was gift-wrapped. Allen delivered his inaugural address behind the largest, most imperial flags that Puerto Ricans had ever seen.
Gov. Allen wasted no time. He immediately created a budget for the entire island – within a matter of weeks, and with little consultation or oversight. This “dark room budget” had its uses.
By raising property taxes, withholding municipal and agricultural loans, and freezing all building repair and school construction funds, Allen raided the island treasury and re-directed its budget to subsidies for U.S.-owned farm syndicates, no-bid contracts for U.S. businessmen, and roads built by agents from his father’s Massachusetts lumber business (Otis Allen Lumber), at double the old costs.
Through his dark room budget, Allen also created new agencies, offices and salary lines – all filled by U.S. bureaucrats. By the time Allen left in 1901, nearly all of the governor’s 11-member Executive Council were U.S. expatriates and half the appointive offices in the government of Puerto Rico had been given to visiting Americans, 626 of them at top salaries.
But Allen developed a larger plan. Throughout his “First Annual Report” to U.S. President McKinley, there are clear indications of where Allen was headed:
“The soil of this island is remarkably productive…as rich as the delta of the Mississippi or the valley of the Nile.”
“With American capital and American energies, the labor of the natives can be utilized to the lasting benefit of all parties.”
“Porto Rico is really the ‘rich gate’ to future wealth… by that indomitable thrift and industry which have always marked the pathway of the Anglo-Saxon.”
“The yield of sugar per acre is greater than in any other country in the world.”
“A large acreage of lands, which are now devoted to pasturage, could be devoted to the culture of sugar cane.”
“The cost of sugar production is $10 per ton cheaper than in Java, $11 cheaper than in Hawaii, $12 cheaper than in Cuba, $17 cheaper than in Egypt, $19 cheaper than in the British West Indies, and $47 cheaper than in Louisiana and Texas.”
This was no mere “First Annual Report” to the President. It was a business plan for a sugar empire, and Allen quickly staked his claim. A few weeks after handing in this report, on September 15, 1901, Allen resigned as governor and headed straight to Wall Street, where he joined the House of Morgan as vice-president of both the Morgan Trust Company, and the Guaranty Trust Company of New York.
Allen built the largest sugar syndicate in the world, and his hundreds of political appointees in Puerto Rico provided him with land grants, tax subsidies, water rights, railroad easements, foreclosure sales and favorable tariffs.
By 1907 Allen’s syndicate, the American Sugar Refining Company, owned or controlled 98% of the sugar processing capacity in the United States and was known as the Sugar Trust. By 1910 Allen was Treasurer of the American Sugar Refining Company, by 1913 he was its President, and by 1915 he sat on its Board of Directors.
By 1930, 45 percent of all the arable land in Puerto Rico had been converted into sugar plantations owned by Charles Herbert Allen and US banking syndicates. These syndicates also owned the insular postal system, the entire coastal railroad, and the San Juan international seaport.
To put it plainly: as the first civilian governor of Puerto Rico, Charles H. Allen used his governorship to acquire an international sugar empire, and a controlling interest over the entire Puerto Rican economy.
You may have heard of Charles Allen’s sugar empire. Today, it is known as Domino Sugar.
GENERAL BLANTON WINSHIP – the enforcer (1934-39)
Within a few years, Puerto Ricans began to question the benevolence of their neighbor from the north. They began to wonder how they’d lost ownership of their own land, to giant sugar cane centrales that were wholly owned by US banking interests. They questioned how they could work 12 hours a day, 60 hours a week, and yet their families were still starving.
In 1929, one writer stated it very clearly:
“Puerto Rico has become a land of beggars and millionaires, of flattering statistics and distressing realities. More and more it becomes a factory worked by peons, fought over by lawyers, bossed by absent industrialists, and clerked by politicians. It is now Uncle Sam’s second-largest sweatshop.”
The situation became so desperate that, in 1934, the entire island went on a massive agricultural strike. The workers all refused to work 12 hours a day, for the starvation wages of 4 cents per hour, 45 cents per day.
The US corporations became so alarmed that they formed the Citizens Committee of One Thousand for the Preservation of Peace and Order, and cabled President Roosevelt that “A state of actual anarchy exists. Towns in state of siege, police impotent, business paralyzed.” Roosevelt responded by appointing a US Army general from Macon, Georgia as the next governor of Puerto Rico: General Blanton Winship.
A MILITARIZED POLICE FORCE
From the moment he arrived, General Winship proceeded to militarize the entire island. He urged the building of a $4 million naval air base on the island, whose cost ultimately ballooned to $112,570,000. He created new, vigorous police training camps and spent his weekends touring them, along with every US military installation.
He added hundreds of men to the insular police force, equipping each unit with machine guns, tear gas, and riot control equipment. He also established a Tommy gun training program for members of the Insular Police force.
The General did not know much about economics or legislative procedure – in fact, his only major legislative proposals were more gardens throughout Puerto Rico, and the death penalty for Puerto Ricans.
But Winship understood power, force and fear. This was the man that Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent to solve “the Puerto Rican problem.” He was not sent to negotiate. He was sent to crush labor strikes, subdue Nationalists, and kill them if necessary. It didn’t take long for this to happen.
THE RIO PIEDRAS MASSACRE
On October 24, 1935, General Winship’s police surrounded the University of Puerto Rico campus in Rio Piedras to ensure a “peaceful” student meeting – but instead of maintaining “peace,” they shot and killed three Nationalists. They also killed a man named Juan Muñoz Jiménez, who was out buying a lottery ticket.
Four days after the massacre, Winship’s Chief of Police declared to several island newspapers that, if the political agitation continued, he was ready to wage:
“war to the death against all Puerto Ricans.”
ELIAS BEAUCHAMP and HIRAM ROSADO
On February 23, 1936, two Nationalists named Hiram Rosado and Elias Beauchamp were arrested, dragged into the San Juan District Station, and shot within one hour.
A photo of Hiram Rosado, dead in the police station, appeared in the newspapers.
According to these papers, when Gov. Winship’s policemen drew their guns to execute him, Rosado stated, “Disparen pare que vean como muere un hombre.” (“Go ahead and shoot. Then you’ll see how a man dies.”)
On that same night of February 23rd two more Nationalists, Angel Mario Martinez and Pedro Crespo, were shot and killed by police in the town of Utuado.
The next day, from all over the island, thousands of mourners flocked into San Juan in a massive outpouring of grief and support. Winship tried to stop the marchers, but there were simply too many of them.
At the funeral services for Rosado and Beauchamp, Nationalist Party President Albizu Campos declared:
“The murder at Rio Piedras was his work… General Blanton Winship, who occupies La Fortaleza. Cold-blooded murder, to perpetuate murder as a method of government, is being carried out by the entire police force.”
Immediately after the assassination of the four Nationalists (Beauchamp, Rosado, Martinez and Crespo) General Winship unleashed a reign of terror throughout the island. On February 25, 1936, he convened a press conference and demanded the death penalty in Puerto Rico.
“I have recommended the passage of a death penalty to the legislature of Puerto Rico. This is absolutely necessary, in order to combat the wave of criminality on this island… I will enforce law and order in Puerto Rico no matter what the cost.”
Winship grew bolder. He prohibited all public demonstrations, including speeches at funerals. He declared martial law in random areas – the police would lay siege to those areas, conduct warrantless searches, break into people’s homes, and prevent other residents from entering or leaving the zone.
Despite this police repression, or perhaps because of it, groups of students began to lower the American flag from public schools, and to raise the Puerto Rican flag instead. At the Central High School in San Juan, the police arrested four students “standing guard” over their island’s flag.
With the appointment of Gen. Blanton Winship as governor of Puerto Rico, President Roosevelt had gotten his expected result: the complete militarization of Puerto Rico, and the establishment of a police state.
Then came the Ponce Massacre.
THE PONCE MASSACRE
The Ponce Massacre occurred on Palm Sunday in 1937. Here is a diagram of the event.
Winship’s policemen clearly encircled the unarmed men, women and children. In the upper right of the photo, we see the machine gunners marching down Calle Marina. In the bottom half of the photo, policemen block the entire street. From left to right the police are all drawing, pointing or firing their weapons. In the lower left civilians are trying to run away, with policemen right behind them. A cloud of gun smoke billows over their heads.
Within minutes, the street was filled with broken bodies and blood – 17 men, women and children murdered in broad daylight. Dozens maimed for life. Over 200 wounded. These policemen were all acting under the orders of Police Chief, who reported directly to General Blanton Winship.
To add insult to injury, Winship then tried to frame the victims; he forced the Ponce District Attorney to create false evidence and testimony, so that the Nationalists could be imprisoned for murdering…themselves.
If it weren’t for the photo you’ve just seen, General Winship would have gotten away with it.
A TIME TO CELEBRATE
One year after the Ponce Massacre, Winship decided to stage a massive military demonstration – precisely in Ponce, the town where he’d orchestrated the Ponce Massacre. The reviewing stand was in Plaza Degetau, just two blocks from the site of the massacre, where the bullet holes still pockmarked the battered buildings. Winship chose this location to “send a message” to Puerto Ricans, regardless of the personal anguish it might inflict.
Finally on May 11, 1939, Congressman Vito Marcantonio shouted a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives which listed, in great detail:
“The tyrannical acts of the Governor in depriving the people of Puerto Rico of their civil rights, the corruption and rackets that existed and were made possible only by the indulgence of the Governor, and the extraordinary waste of the people’s money.”
The very next day, FDR removed Winship from the governorship of Puerto Rico.
A PARTING GIFT TO THE ISLAND
Immediately after leaving the governor’s mansion, Winship became a lobbyist for the US corporations and sugar syndicates that owned the economy of Puerto Rico. His job was to persuade the US Congress to exempt Puerto Rico from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act; and he was performing brilliantly until Congressman Marcantonio fired another fusillade in the U.S. House:
“(I)n keeping with his five years of terror in Puerto Rico, he acted the part of the slimy lobbyist, and fought by means fair and foul to have the wage-and-hour law amended so that the sugar companies could pay 12 ½ cents instead of 25 cents an hour, and thereby gain $5,000,000 a year…so that the system of abysmal wage slavery could be perpetuated in Puerto Rico. Up to the very closing days of Congress this kicked-out Governor fought to have Puerto Rican workers removed from the protection of the wage-and-hour law.”
Winship was defeated. The workers got their 25 cents an hour – but the general was never indicted for his deadly actions in Puerto Rico. He was given a comfortable command during World War II, and finished his career as the oldest active soldier in the US military. He even prosecuted Nazi war criminals at the
Nuremberg Trials, for their crimes against humanity.
Winship was walking tall, waving documents, pointing fingers, trying other people for their crimes against humanity. This was ethical and righteous…because his crimes were committed in Puerto Rico, and therefore they didn’t count.
The hypocrisy of sending Blanton Winship to prosecute Nazi war criminals, was a fitting coda to the symphony of sleaze and slaughter that the US bestowed on Puerto Rico in the name of good government.
Charles Herbert Allen wired the Puerto Rican economy.
Blanton Winship terrorized any Puerto Ricans who complained about it.
Other governors sent by the US were nearly as disastrous – E. Montgomery Reily, Robert Gore, Regis Post – a cavalcade of carpetbaggers, all treating Puerto Rico like the wild, wild west: a place to get rich quick, shoot the natives if necessary, then hurry back to Christian civilization.
The formula worked for many decades. As Calvin Coolidge said, the business of America is business.
For a blow-by-blow description of how these governors ruled over the island, and lined their pockets while doing it, please read…