Puerto Ricans this week registered to vote in greater numbers than ever before. The election for which they are preparing will take place on June 4, 1951; the issue will be whether or not the government of the island will draw up a constitution.
There would be nothing unusual about this registration were it not for the way a small group of fanatically nationalistic Puerto Ricans tried to disrupt it, and the spectacular manner in which they themselves were disrupted.
The Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico was formed in 1928, with a violent anti-American policy asserting that the U.S. has no legal claim to the island. Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard graduate and the present leader of the party, first drew attention to himself in 1931 by virtue of his revolutionary activities.
It was about a year after this that the party reached its peak in terms of voting power, polling about 2,000 votes in the elections of 1932. Since then, Albizu Campos has spent seven years in Atlanta Penitentiary and the party's strength has declined generally.
Two weeks ago came the worst outbreak of Puerto Rican Nationalist activities in decades. On Saturday, 111 prisoners escaped, many of them political; it was the largest jail break in Puerto Rican history. On Monday, an armed insurrection broke out in cities and towns all over the island, and by nightfall many towns were in rebel hands. But when the government reinforced its troops with tanks and planes on Tuesday, the revolt faded quickly, and by Tuesday night there was relative peace.
On Wednesday came the abortive attempt on the life of President Truman, in which one assailant and one White House guard were killed. This incident had immediate repercussions in Washington and San Juan. On the mainland, a grand jury was set on the track of Puerto Rican revolutionists who might be considered dangerous. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican police and troops rounded up Nationalist leaders, including Albizu Campos, whose home had already been under police siege for several days, and threw into prison all the Nationalists and Communists they could find.
No one is sure whether there is any real connection between these two groups. American Communist leaders expressed horror at the attempt to assassinate the President, but Pravda lauded this expression of the Puerto Ricans' desire for independence. Some observers have linked the Nationalist movement with the Peroniaton of Argentina, who recently sponsored a labor conference at which Puerto Rican delegates demanded immediate independence for their island.
Since President Truman took office, Puerto Rico has been moving toward self-government with increasing speed. In 1945, the President suggested to Congress that the island be allowed to choose its own form of government. He followed this up by appointing the first native governor, Jesus T. Pinero, in 1946. Luis Munoz Barin, the present governor, is the first one to have been elected, his moderate Popular Democratic Party having gained 61 percent of the vote in 1948.
The Popular Democrats want to solve some of the island's economic problems before trying to achieve political freedom. The fruitless coup, which may have been forced out prematurely by government discovery of arms in the Nationalists' possession, has not interfered with registration and may even have served to boost it. The greatest damage done is that more than 25 people died in the two-day war, and that the political maturity of Puerto Rico is now doubtful.