Two bright young students from the University of Puerto Rico came to see us, eager to share their concerns. One, Sylvia Maldonado, was majoring in sociology. The other, Orlando Fernández, was a student of philosophy. Refusing to be shut in by the narrow world of academics, and courageously speaking out despite the threat of surveillance and harassment, they were providing leadership in building an awareness on campus of the colonial situation.
Their opposition to the militarization of Puerto Rico was not necessarily from a pacifist position, but rather from a realization of how Puerto Ricans are being victimized by our military. Their concern was for the increased activity in the seven United States military bases, which they felt threatened their safety. They foresaw that Puerto Rico could become a target in the event of a nuclear war because of the storage of nuclear weapons there, or a possible victim in the event of a nuclear accident. They saw campus recruitment as a means of preparing Puerto Rico for military intervention in Central America. Unfortunately, the Solomon Act was forcing young people to register for the draft.
Sylvia was one of the organizers of Estudiantes Alertas de Peligro Nuclear en Puerto Rico, founded in August of 1984. Leading up to this was the nuclear research carried out by a special commission of the Puerto Rican Bar Association. Published by the Association, it led to a resolution opposing nuclear weapons in Puerto Rico, and a basis of information for the campus organization. Its massive research of some fifty-six pages was picked up by religious organizations and a branch of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Campus organizations are particularly concerned over the threat of United States military invasion of Nicaragua. They see the aftereffects of the Vietnam War, with a third of the Puerto Rican population affected in some way: a thousand dead, the veterans hospital filled with the wounded, loss of relatives, mental problems. They see evidence that Puerto Ricans are already playing active roles in the United States military in Honduras.
The Student General Council, the largest student organization, responded to the threat by placing tables on campus carrying information on Nicaragua. "Voices for Peace" leaflets were distributed for signatures to be sent to the United Nations, an activity sparked by Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and George Wald.
On August 30, 1985, 300 FBI agents descended on Puerto Rico, arresting thirteen independentistas there, one in Mexico and one in the United States.
I didn't recognize any of the names of those arrested, but among the forty or so homes that were searched was that of Sylvia. I wrote asking her for a description of the search. My translation of her reply is as follows:
"At 6:05 Friday, August 30, a disturbance of cries and noise in the hallway of our apartment awoke me. My mother came out of the bathroom and saw armed men, camouflaged, with bullet- proof vests, pointing large weapons at her. They told her to put her hands on her head and if she moved, they would shoot. They asked her if there was anyone else in the house. She replied that her two daughters, my sister and myself, were there. She told the men that they were in their bedrooms. They opened the doors violently and made us go out. Nor did they let us get dressed. They lined us all up in the hall with our hands on our heads and took us into the living room, where they registered us. Then they commanded us to sit down.
"Some began to ask questions of my mother while others searched the house. I asked for the identification of the agent who was directing. He showed it to me from a distance, but didn't let me see his name. I asked for permission to get dressed, which he said I could, but under supervision.
"Then they told us that we had to leave because they had an order to search the apartment. We decided that we wanted to stay. We asked if we could call our lawyer. The agent in charge asked us who our lawyer was. We told him that our father was, who lived next door. He said very disrespectfully, 'Ah, that lawyer! But the same thing is happening to him.' We asked if we could call him. He told us we could. We then asked my father, Roberto Maldonado, if we had to leave the house. He told us that legally we didn't have to, that we could stay in order to prevent their later claiming that they found something that wasn't there." (Sylvia's father was later arrested on March 21, 1986.)
"We asked the agent for the search warrant and he replied that it had not yet arrived. We told the agent that we were told we could stay in the house. He replied that it didn't matter what our lawyer told us, we had to leave. He cut off our telephone connection. We insisted on staying, but they threatened us with large weapons. They told us that if we did not leave they would arrest us and take us to court. I thought that my life was in danger. We left. They wouldn't let my mother take her purse or her keys.
"I had to go down with the agents so that they could register our car. I then went to the neighbors' house and explained to them what was happening. I returned to my apartment to tell the agents that what they were doing was illegal and that I had the right to remain there. A Puerto Rican agent said to me, 'It is illegal, so what! Now go away.' I asked him his name, but he didn't want to tell me. I made note of their physical descriptions and left.
"I went to the house of my father and his wife Coquí Santaliz, a well known author. They were going through the same situation, but in a more violent form. Coquí came out of the bedroom after hearing all the noise. One of the FBI agents, who carried a large weapon, was trembling while forcing her to lie on the floor. My father tried to calm him because he could have killed her.
"They were in our house until 6:00 p.m. When we returned, they had taken materials of Students Alert to Nuclear Danger in Puerto Rico; a big cloth map of points in which were located places in Puerto Rico related to nuclear weapons; a cloth map on which were visualized the difference between the power of the nuclear explosives [dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki], and the equivalent in the nuclear weapons of today; names and addresses of students with whom the anti- nuclear group had contact; a directory of anti-nuclear and pro-peace organizations with whom the `Alert' had contact; the money of the group, and other things.
"Of my personal things, they took all the savings books, credit cards, $360 in travelers checks, all the cash, an address book of friends in different parts of the world. They also took, among other things: books, two typewriters, writings, the manuscript of an unpublished novel, pictures from all over the island Coquí had taken for her newspaper articles and which were an historical file, everything in the darkroom, including unexposed film.
"As coordinator of the `Alert' group I want to denounce the illegal search of my home and of my family without search warrants or arrest warrants.
"I wonder if the anti-nuclear struggle in Puerto Rico is illegal. If not, why did they take materials from our groups? The only thing that occurs to me is that the United States government is afraid of the anti-nuclear struggle because they are promoting every day the creation of more nuclear weapons.
"My father, Roberto José Maldonado, is president of the Puerto Rican Human Rights Institute. After the August 30 arrests, the Institute became involved in defending and helping the arrested and their families. For years my father had defended people whose human rights were violated. He defended successfully over 3,000 youngsters who refused to serve for the U.S. in Vietnam during the sixties and seventies. At the moment of his arrest, the Institute was organizing conferences, forums and activities for human rights.
"Today [early 1987]," Sylvia added, "the materials taken by the FBI had still not been returned, neither mine nor Coquí's."
Now graduated from UPR, Sylvia works full time at the Caribbean Project for Justice and Peace. Part of her work, she writes, is to give speeches. She is also in charge of the Documentation Center.
Though Sylvia's parents are pro-independence, she is the only activist of the family. Too young to have had personal contact with Albizu Campos, she feels strongly the inspiration of his spirit and his teachings.