Report — From the February 2018 issue

Before the Deluge

How Washington sealed Puerto Rico’s fate

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The Caribbean Sea is prone to storms, and even so the devastation left by Maria was extreme. “It’s the worst hurricane Puerto Rico has seen,” Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the press. In the immediate aftermath, the entire population was without power, and many had no water to drink. A destroyed cellular network left most people without the ability to call for help. As rivers swelled, scores of villagers were trapped by washed-out bridges, and travel across the island was all but impossible. Its lush carpet of vegetation was entirely denuded, and trees were strewn like matchsticks.

A fallen tree on a power line, Orocovis

Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, describes a phenomenon that she calls disaster capitalism, or the exploitation by private interests of major social and economic crises, such as those brought on by conflict or natural disaster. One of the markers of disaster capitalism — seen, for example, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — is the diversion of taxpayer funds to private interests, which depends on a populace too vulnerable to put up resistance. Post-Maria, Puerto Rico looked familiar in this way. Yet here, of course, the disaster long predated the storm. What primed the island for the kinds of austerity measures already in motion were decades of repression so encompassing as to be an assault on society of hurricane proportions.

From the moment it took control, the United States installed corrupt governors who considered Puerto Ricans nothing more than savages; the island was essentially treated as a labor colony whose agricultural resources, particularly sugarcane, were to be tapped for the enrichment of mainlanders. By the Thirties, a nationalist movement had developed, with labor rights as its central platform. The FBI monitored budding independence efforts, but it wasn’t until 1934, when the entire sugar workforce went on strike and shut down production for a month, that federal law enforcement took a keen interest in the “radical” element.

The room in the General Archives building in San Juan where declassified intelligence dossiers, known as carpetas, are stored

A key artifact of the antirevolutionary operations was the creation, by FBI agents and Puerto Rican police, of nearly two million pages of intelligence dossiers, known as carpetas, that documented the lives of private citizens. At the height of the program, during the Sixties and Seventies, almost everyone was either under surveillance or closely connected to someone on the police’s radar. While I was in San Juan, I visited a bunker-style concrete basement in the General Archives building, where many of the remaining carpetas, which were declassified starting in 1998, are now housed. They are stored in a dimly lit room, packed into rows of metal filing cabinets. Opening random drawers, I found pictures of banal scenes — people shopping, driving, walking down the street — and images of graduations, funerals, and weddings. There were also photos of peaceful university protests on which certain faces had been circled in ballpoint pen and assigned a number, with the corresponding name written on the back.

The carpeta on Providencia Trabal, known as “Pupa,” a leader in the independence movement.

While the FBI kept tabs on civilians, some agents did monitor actual radicals. They focused on the Boricua Popular Army, known as Los Macheteros. In the Seventies and Eighties, Los Macheteros carried out bombings in San Juan, first of an electrical power station and later of a National Guard air base; a few Navy sailors were killed. In all, the group was responsible for dozens of attacks, which they justified as retribution for law enforcement brutality against protesters — most notably the 1978 Cerro Maravilla murders, in which two unarmed activists were ambushed and shot by police. The most brazen act of Los Macheteros, perhaps, took place on mainland soil one morning in 1983: a small group robbed a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford, Connecticut, taking $7.2 million, at the time the largest heist in US history.

A document from the carpeta on Rafael Cancel Miranda, who served twenty-five years in prison for shooting at lawmakers in the US Capitol in 1954. He was pardoned by President Jimmy Carter.

After I left the archives, I went to see Juan Segarra Palmer, an orchestrator of the Wells Fargo plot. We met over coffee in a gated community near one of the island’s pristine white-sand beaches. Segarra Palmer, who speaks with quiet authority, is sixty-seven; he wears wire-rimmed glasses and has a neatly trimmed beard. His family was wealthy enough to send him to be educated Stateside, at Phillips Academy Andover and Harvard. He returned home in the Seventies. “During those years, there was a lot of union activity, a lot of organizing activity, a lot of environmental issues,” Segarra Palmer said. “I participated in the protests and got beaten up and arrested. I have no problem saying I opposed US colonialism.” He told me it was widely known that surveillance photos taken by law enforcement during those protests were distributed to HR departments at large companies, to prevent demonstrators from finding work. (In the late Nineties, the Puerto Rican government issued an apology for the practice and set up a fund to compensate people who had been rendered unemployable.)

Books listing individuals under surveillance distributed to regional police departments.

Segarra Palmer was sentenced to fifty-five years for his participation in the Wells Fargo robbery. He served nineteen, thanks to a granting of clemency by President Clinton, and was released in 2004. “I got out of prison with a few hundred bucks to my name, and I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone,” he told me. His activism diminished; he found work as a translator. He is like most of his cohort — when I spoke with other activists from his era, I heard similar stories of dwindling resistance.

Cabinets containing carpetas.

The children of that generation received the message. “Repression has taken its toll here,” Segarra Palmer explained. “There’s a general sense that if you oppose the system, you’re not going to get hired and you’re not going to get a job. That’s the legacy of the carpetas. Not so much that you’re necessarily going to go to jail but that you’re going to be blacklisted.”

As a result, a sense of political apathy settled over the population. When I asked Leff about what remains of anticolonial groups today, he said, “We don’t have the same concerns as the large structural organization of the past.” Rather than disrupt revolutionary plots, the sheer volume and force of police presence sapped the populace of the capacity to fight for itself — to make the noise of a democracy.

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’s article “Beyond the Broken Window” appeared in the May 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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