Juan Mari Brás
The brilliant oratory of Juan Mari Brás resounded throughout the assembly hall of the El Prado Hotel, Mexico City. It was the Second International Conference in Solidarity with the Independence of Puerto Rico. He spoke against a backdrop of portraits of three Latin American heroes of liberation—Albizu Campos of Puerto Rico, José Morelos of Mexico, and Simón Bolívar of Venezuela. Four hundred delegates and hundreds of observers testified to their support of the transference of all governing powers to the people of Puerto Rico.
It was a momentous occasion in the year 1979. The four Nationalists who had suffered imprisonment for twenty-five years had just been released. Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel, Irvin Flores, and Oscar Collazo were welcomed to the platform as national heroes. A Sandinista in military uniform received thunderous applause as he told of the recent victory of the Nicaraguan people over Somoza.
Several years later my husband and I were to meet with Mari Brás in his office in San Juan. By then he had resigned as Secretary-general of the Socialist Party (PSP), had resumed his private law practice, and was involved in efforts to unify the independence movement.
A giant of a man, physically and intellectually, he received us with quiet modesty. I apologized for not having read his book, just off the press: El Independentismo en Puerto Rico: Su Pasado, Su Presente, Su Porvenir. It was not as yet in stock in the university bookstores. Asking me if I read Spanish, he reached in a drawer of his desk and pulled out a copy. He inscribed it to us as "buenos amigos de nuestro lucha de independencia, con la gratitude y afecto de J. Mari Brás." (good friends of our struggle for independence, with the gratitude and affection of J. Mari Brás.)
He told us of how his father had been an independentista within the Liberal Party. At the age of fifteen, while in high school, he began to develop his own political awareness. The 1943 Tydings Bill for independence was introduced in the United States Congress at that time. A friend of the slain Col. Riggs, Tydings framed the bill in such a way that it would have brought financial ruin to Puerto Rico. This stirred up a great deal of controversy in Puerto Rico, particularly among the students. Mari Brás joined the National Association of Youth for Independence, soon becoming its president.
By 1947, he was at the University of Puerto Rico to welcome the return of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos to Puerto Rico, following his imprisonment in Atlanta, Georgia. The Puerto Rican flag was raised by exuberant students. But the chancellor of the university denied Albizu the right to speak to the students. A student strike ensued. Mari Brás was expelled. He finished his B.A. requirements at Lakeland, Florida.
In his history of the independence movement, Mari Brás praises Albizu Campos as the most significant leader in Puerto Rican history. "Albizu," he writes, "was a living legend who inspired the initiation of many of us in the patriotic struggle and induced us to persevere and deepen our commitment." Despite his becoming a socialist, he never changed his views on Albizu.
Because of his expulsion from UPR, he was refused admission by ten or fifteen colleges. George Washington University, in Washington D.C., finally accepted him for law studies. He was in Washington during the attack on Blair House by Oscar Collazo. He was arrested and questioned by the FBI. He did not know Collazo at the time, but was held by the FBI for several hours simply for being an independentista. Other Puerto Ricans were held for months with no charge other than having been present at a discourse in favor of independence. As a result, he was dismissed from the university. He completed his studies at American University, also in Washington, D.C.
He passed the Puerto Rican Bar in 1954, specializing in constitutional and labor law, and salary claims. He founded the Socialist Party of Puerto Rico, which evolved out of the MPI (Pro- Independence Movement), and became its secretary-general.
In 1976, his son was assassinated. Responsible for the homicide was an insane man he believed to have been programed by the FBI. Despite the man's insanity, he was convicted of second-degree murder, so as to avoid further investigation.
In seeking out the FBI records on him, Mari Brás was given only thirty-eight of the seventy- nine volumes. Being tailed by the FBI in no way curtails his activities as he travels to Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and the United States to further the cause of independence. I asked him if he was still subject to harassment. "They took my son," he replied sorrowfully. "What more can they do to me?"
In his survey of the independence movement, Mari Brás summarizes his expectations for independence. He sees hope in the United Nations, with its resolution 1514 (XVI), called the "Magna Carta" of decolonization, and subsequent resolutions since 1972. He has made his appeal in hearings before the Decolonization Committee. He sees hope in support by the international community, especially the non-aligned countries. He sees hope also in the strengthening of the labor movement, and in such organizations as CEREP (Center of Studies of Puerto Rican Reality), CUCRE (Committee Against Repression), the Industrial Mission, the Center of Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, the Project for Justice and Peace in the Caribbean (American Friends Service Committee), and the periodical Claridad for its work in educating the public.
He sees the importance of keeping alive both the movement for armed struggle, in its opposition to U.S. military control, and the electoral movement, which has had some success through PIP. He warns Puerto Ricans that "the Yankees would like to see us docile."
Following the arrest of the thirteen independentistas on August 30, 1985, Mari Brás visited with them in New York. He marveled at their firmness of spirit, their sense of humor despite all odds. He feels with their imprisonment "a new dawning of the indestructible patriotic and revolutionary struggle of the Puerto Rican people," and that they help make possible "the widest union of Puerto Ricans in their struggle for liberty."
In his testimony in the Decolonization Committee hearings of 1986, Mari Brás represented the Committee of Puerto Rico in the United States. This was the first year that a representative of Cuba presided at the hearings. Cuba has always been supportive of the cause of independence, finding in Puerto Rico a "common history of struggle and hope." The terms of this year's resolution were drafted by the patient cooperation of Cuba and Venezuela and diverse political sectors of Puerto Rico, he explained. They included a process for instigating a constitutional convention to negotiate with the United States government for the decolonization of Puerto Rico.
"Only through a great unified movement looking beyond political and ideological differences," he concluded in talking with us, "can the prevalent fears of hunger and persecution be overcome for the eventual liberation of Puerto Rico, breaking through domination by the greatest imperialist power of our age."