US President Harry Truman.
President Harry Truman terms the Atlantic pact a “shield against aggression” in a speech just before foreign ministers of 12 nations signed the historic document, in Washington D.C, April 4, 1949. (AP Photo, File)

This Friday, November 1, marks the 63rd anniversary of the 1950 assassination attempt on President Harry Truman by two Puerto Rican nationalists: Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola. Their goal was to call attention to the Puerto Rican independence movement and, although it ultimately failed, this attempt serves as a stark reminder of how volatile Puerto Rico’s relations with the mainland were at the time.

Times have certainly changed since 1950, but occasional tensions (such as the controversy over Vieques Island) remain, and independence is still viewed sympathetically by many Puerto Ricans.

The history

In 1950, the White House was undergoing renovations (1948-1952) and President Truman lived in the Blair House (known as the President’s Guest House, this building is located across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue). On that fateful November morning 63 years ago, Collazo and Torresola approached the building from two different directions but were repelled by policemen and security agents. Due to the ensuing firefight the nationalists were not able to enter the Blair House.

The incident resulted in the death of one policeman, with two others wounded. As for the nationalists, Torresola was fatally shot in the head, while Collazo was shot in the chest but survived.

Oscar Collazo was put on trial and sentenced to death, but in 1952 Truman converted the sentence to life imprisonment. In September 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted the life sentence, and the Puerto Rican was freed. Collazo died in Puerto Rico at the age of 80 on February 1994.

PR – Mainland relations then and now

The website of the Harry S. Truman library and museum summarizes Collazo’s and Torresola’s intentions: “They thought the assassination would call attention to Puerto Rico and advance the cause of Puerto Rican independence.” This statement, while true, fails to fully address the tensions between the Caribbean island and the rest of the U.S. at the time.

Due to space limitations, it is impossible to properly analyze this complex historical relationship. Suffice it to say that there was, and still remains, conflicting views regarding the kind of relationship Puerto Ricans would like to see their island have with the U.S.

Several bloody incidents in recent history that exemplify these diverging points of view. Most notable is the Ponce Massacre. On March 21, 1937, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party organized a peaceful protest to commemorate the abolition of slavery on the island in 1873. However, the protest quickly turned violent when police forces cracked down on the march, resulting in the death of 19 Puerto Ricans with hundreds more wounded.

The Hays Commission (named after the lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays), ultimately found the U.S.-appointed governor Blanton Winship responsible for the massacre.

Moreover, the timing of Truman’s assassination attempt by the two Puerto Rican nationalists is noteworthy. This incident occurred only days after the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party started its October 1950 Revolution, attempting to create an independent republic.

To be fair, it would be wrong to simply view Puerto Rico-mainland relations through the prism of independence issues. Other factors that need to be taken into account for such a discussion include the current trade of goods and services, investment by mainland companies in Puerto Rico, as well as the movement of individuals, including the migration of Puerto Ricans to major metropolitan areas in the mainland.

Nevertheless, there have been more recent sources of tension. Most notably is the case of Vieques Island (part of Puerto Rico), on which the U.S. Navy carried out military exercises and stored weapons in an ammo depot from the 1940s until 2003. Puerto Ricans have long protested that there is still plenty of explosive ordinance in that territory and its immediate waters.

Moreover, there is valid concern regarding the health effects of the Navy’s operations in the island, as cancer rates in Vieques are alarmingly high. In addition, there is also the ecological disaster caused by decades of live-fire exercises. “At $180 million so far, the cleanup is already the most expensive in military history,” stated a May 2013 Daily News article.

Puerto Rico Elections
People ride atop a vehicle waving a Puerto Rican flag during elections in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Puerto Ricans are electing a governor as the U.S. island territory does not get a vote in the U.S. presidential election. But they are also casting ballots in a referendum that asks voters if they want to change the relationship to the United States. A second question gives voters three alternatives: become the 51st U.S. state, independence, or sovereign free association, a designation that would give more autonomy. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

The 2012 referendum

Certainly, Puerto Rican feelings towards the island’s legal relationship with the rest of the U.S. (it currently is an associated state) have improved over the past decades. Most notably, during Election Day in November 2012, as the U.S. re-elected President Obama, Puerto Rico had a nonbinding, but very significant, referendum.

As CNN explains, “First, by a 54% to 46% margin, voters rejected their current status as a U.S. commonwealth. In a separate question, 61% chose statehood as the alternative, compared with 33% for the semi-autonomous ‘sovereign free association” and 6% for outright independence.’”

Nevertheless, it should be stressed that this referendum has been marred by controversy due to the methodology used to interpret the data, including the fact that the results do not show that nearly half a million voted blank on the referendum’s second question. Hence, critics of the referendum argue that the 61% rate does not necessarily mean that 61% of all voters voted in favor of statehood.

Nevertheless, the referendum’s results are important, as previous referenda to determine if Puerto Ricans wanted their homeland to attain statehood failed in 1967, 1993 and, most recently, in 1998.

The November 1950 assassination attempt on President Truman is one of the most extreme examples of radical Puerto Ricans attempting to bring about political change in their island. Hopefully, such transformations will only happen through elections and other non-violent initiatives.

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