by Nelson A. Denis
The NiLP Report (November 3, 2016)
Last week, the Puerto Rican Studies Association awarded the Frank Bonilla Award to my book War Against All Puerto Ricans.
Immediately two history professors resigned from the PRSA, and demanded the resignation of the entire PRSA executive board!
I found this hysteria quite interesting, and so I researched it.
The two professors – Harry Franqui-Rivera and Geoff Burrows – claim that I “plagiarize, misquote, mislead and outright lie” in my book.
Harry and Geoff also feel that War Against All Puerto Ricans “jeopardizes the integrity of Puerto Rican scholars.”
To top it off, they accuse me of rabid anti-Semitism, due to a joke I recited while accepting the book award.
All of this requires a response and an analysis of their motives.
The McCarthy School of Scholarly Discourse
The charges of Harry and Geoff were not substantiated. They were not documented. They were not even identified. They provided no examples of their so-called “charges,” not even one.
A Ph.D. does not entitle you to look ridiculous…someone should explain this to Harry and Geoff.
Last year, another “historian” attempted to discredit the book – but at least he itemized his insults, to which I repeatedly responded and in detail.
I encourage the members of PRSA to read these responses.
In the case of Harry and Geoff, information might be futile. They seem to prefer the McCarthy approach: no facts, no specifics, just make the accusation.
They didn’t even bother to visit the two-hour workshop that the PRSA scheduled for the book, where they could present their alleged concerns.
A strange approach for two “historians.”
What Were the Motives?
The specious “charges” against my book created a glaring question . . . Why would two men with Ph.D.s after their name, attempt such a transparent and unfounded attack? Why would they expose themselves to career scrutiny and . . . Ultimately, to ridicule?
To answer these questions, I suffered the torture of reading their doctoral dissertations.
Buchipluma from Burrows
Eructed in 2014, Geoff’s opus alleges that the 1935 Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration created a magnanimous wave of “federal reconstruction” in Puerto Rico, which had a “transformative effect” on its politics, and on “the meaning of US citizenship for Puerto Ricans in the 20th century and beyond.”
Geoff further claims that between 1935 and 1943, the PRRA moved to “assure local control of the island’s resources regardless of current or future political status.”
Unfortunately, Geoff is flat wrong. The recent imposition of a US Financial Control Board (FCB), with immediate jurisdiction over the Commonwealth government and 25 state agencies, exposes the mockery of “local control over the island’s resources.”
Geoff repeatedly cites James L. Dietz, one of the leading economic historians of 20th century Puerto Rico. Yet, according to Dietz, the PRRA was riddled with failure. It had a “dilution of funds,” many of its programs were “experimental” and later abandoned, it did nothing to enforce the 500-acre law, and when PRRA was de-funded by Congress in 1941, it had spent $72 million but left “no permanent legacy.” (James L. Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico, Princeton University Press, 1986, pp. 154-158)
The real infrastructure investment during this period – which Geoff completely missed – was the $112 million in construction contracts on 771 military sites throughout the island from 1935 to 1943. This $112 million was “exclusive of fee and the cost of excess material.”
Almost every contractor on these “cost-plus” military projects, and 90 percent of the workers were from the US.
I provided a full-page footnote on this in War Against All Puerto Ricans (pp. 286-287), with multiple citations for the precise government documents . . . But Geoff must have missed them.
Geoff also missed José Trías Monge’s analysis of the PRRA, which was “jealously run from Washington to the last detail,” leaving only “vast slums and misery” throughout the island. (José Trías Monge, Puerto Rico: Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World, Yale University Press, 1997, pp. 96-98).
He missed the entirety of the Jones Act of 1920 – which dictates all shipping policy on the island, raises consumer prices by 15-20%, and costs Puerto Rico billions of dollars per year.
Geoff claims that during the Piñero administration, Puerto Rico “successfully lobbied the US Congress for greater political autonomy.” But he forgets that Gov. Jesus T. Piñero enacted Public Law 53: which made it a felony to utter one word against the United States, to sing La Borinqueña, or own a Puerto Rican flag.
He brands Pedro Albizu Campos as an extremely violent and bitter man, who “glorified Spanish rule” and injected “fascist symbolism” into the Nationalist Party.
He puts quotation marks around the word “colony” and “colonialism” when referring to Puerto Rico.
Geoff got away with all this in 2014 . And now in 2016, after the Obama administration argued and the Supreme Court agreed that Puerto Rico is a “territorial possession” of the US, and as Puerto Rico hurtles toward a humanitarian and colonial crisis, Geoff’s skewed “history” and academic paternalism are wearing a bit thin.
The War Against All Puerto Ricans exposes his fatuous “history.” No wonder he feels defensive.
The Many Sides of Harry
Harry Franqui-Rivera needs to find a backbone.
His 2010 doctoral dissertation argued that Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status “offered a high degree of sovereignty . . . A respite to a people that had been fighting for a change in their colonial status.”
Now in 2016, he writes the following: “Puerto Rico did not become sovereign or cease to be a colony in 1952.”
“Puerto Rico is a de jure colony of the United States. Puerto Rico’s current colonial arrangement is labeled ‘commonwealth’ . . . Yet, the reality is that Puerto Rico does not have political sovereignty.”
A central tenet of his Ph.D. thesis was that Puerto Ricans were not granted citizenship in 1917 via the Jones-Shafroth Act so that they could be drafted.
Now in 2016, he writes that “since World War I, when the U.S. mobilized Puerto Ricans en masse for the first time, they have been overrepresented in the military.”
Harry has assailed my book for being “overly respectful” of Pedro Albizu Campos, and written that “you have to wonder why he didn’t call his book Ode to Pedro Albizu Campos or The Second Coming.”
In keeping with his bi-polar world view, Harry has teamed up with another historian named Pedro Aponte-Vasquez . . . Who feels that I wasn’t respectful enough of Don Pedro. The intellectual dishonesty of this alliance does not trouble Harry, so long as it’s directed against War Against All Puerto Ricans.
Over the past year, whenever the mood strikes him, Harry has charged that I am “racist and condescending” to Puerto Ricans, that I am “a neophyte when it comes to history,” and that I “make Sarah Palin look coherent by comparison.”
Regarding “incoherence,” Harry should look in the mirror.
Regarding my “neophyte” status, he might read the article I published as the cover story of the Harvard Political Review, titled The Curious Constitution of Puerto Rico.
It is easy to find because it appears (in its entirety) in my book. It was written in 1975 and published in 1977 . . . while Harry was still in swaddling clothes, or perhaps not even born.
The Tragedy of All This
The intellectual dishonesty of Harry Franqui-Rivera and Geoff Burrows is plainly evident.
Their arrogant attempt to bully the executive board of PRSA, employing McCarthyist tactics and absurd charges of “anti-Semitism,” is also transparent.
Perhaps they’re used to bullying vulnerable undergraduates or mistaking their Ph.D. for a license to intimidate their peers. I am sure that the PRSA will deal with them appropriately.
But there is a greater and sadder dimension, to the hysteria of Harry and Geoff.
Both of them are educators in a position to shape our nation’s perception of Puerto Rico – both its history and its current crisis. At a time when Puerto Rico needs clear thinking, ethical behavior, and brave defenders, it is sad to see people like these, in any position of public influence.
Moving the Moral Compass
Next year – 2017 – will mark the 100th anniversary of Puerto Ricans as US citizens…and what have we to show for it?
Per capita income on the island is roughly $16,000 – less than half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the US.
Fatally inept US policies toward an island it never understood, have led to 1) the insolvency of Puerto Rico, 2) the plutocracy of a Financial Control Board, and 3) the colonial declaration, by the US Supreme Court, that Puerto Rico is a “territorial possession” of the US.
All over Puerto Rico, the same question that haunted Albizu Campos is now being asked: “If owning one man (slavery) makes you a scoundrel, then how does owning a nation (Puerto Rico) make you a colonial benefactor?”
That question can no longer be ignored.
In 1971, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee re-calibrated our nation’s moral compass with regard to Native Americans and their tragic history.
That same recalibration is long overdue for nine million Puerto Ricans, and the island which they call home. That is the purpose and goal of my book.
I thank the PRSA for recognizing this.
A Note to the NiLP
The NiLP recently stated that there was “backlash from the Puerto Rican left on the island.” I am happy to report that this is not so.
The PIP took War Against All Puerto Ricans on an eight-city tour throughout Puerto Rico.
Ruben Berríos, the President of the PIP, wrote a preface for the Spanish version of the book, Guerra Contra Todos los Puertorriqueños.
Quique Ayoroa, a life-long independentista, wrote a prologue for the same Spanish version.
Heriberto Marín Torres, who rebelled with Blanca Canales in Jayuya and went to prison together with Pedro Albizu Campos, made some suggestions which I incorporated into the Spanish version.
The PIP candidate for Governor, Maria de Lourdes Santiago, presented my book in Ponce.
Oscar López Rivera read the book in Terra Haute prison. He then shared it with other prisoners, praised it in the newspaper Claridad, and wrote a blurb for the Spanish version of the book.
A daughter of Pedro Albizu Campos – Laura Meneses Albizu Campos – and two of Don Pedro’s granddaughters spoke on behalf of the book, in one of our largest book events in Puerto Rico.
Aleida Centeno, the current president of the Nationalist Party, arranged a book event at the Ateneo Puertorriqueño which became standing room only.
Due to all this support from the Puerto Rican left, War Against All Puerto Ricans was the best-selling book in Puerto Rico in 2015-16. It even outsold Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Nelson A. Denis, the author of “The War Against All Puerto Ricans” (The Nation Books, 2014) served in 1997-2001 as a New York State Assemblyman representing East Harlem in Manhattan. 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 (NAHJ). For more information on Denis, visit his blog. He can be reached at [email protected].