The smiling, dignified appearance of Carlos Vélez Rieckehoff was a welcome sight, as we arrived in 1979 at the San Juan airport for our second visit to Puerto Rico. As acting president of the Nationalist Party while Jacinto Rivera was in Spain, he had attended the 1979 International Conference in Support of Independence for Puerto Rico held in Mexico City. We had told him then of our intentions of spending two weeks in Puerto Rico, and he had offered to meet us there. Fair- complexioned, with set jaw and blue eyes, he appeared Germanic as his name would indicate. After a warm welcome, he drove us to his daughter's home and then to the tomb of our beloved Don Pedro.
We were later to visit with Carlos and his wife Luisa Guadalupe de Vélez in their spacious home at Vieques. Luisa had been born in Vieques, the "baby island" of Puerto Rico. One of ten children, she had grown up on a four-acre homestead. Sweet potatoes, yucca, corn, goats, a cow and chickens provided for most of the family's needs. If still hungry after a frugal meal, the children's father would take them to a coconut grove to fill up on the sweet milk and meat of the coconut. The fertile land was rich with groves of pineapple, sugar cane, herds of cattle, an abundance of fish. Jobs were readily available. Luisa's father earned his livelihood as a carpenter, and her mother, as a dressmaker.
Soon after the marriage of Carlos and Luisa, however, in 1941 the United States Navy took possession of three-fourths of the twenty-mile-long island. Families were paid a pittance for their homes and given twenty-four hours to evacuate. Carlos was forced to leave his job working on a 600-acre sugar cane ranch, and seek employment in New York City. He drove a truck, worked as a night watchman, whatever work he could pick up. Luisa found work in a factory. Those remaining in Vieques suffered the indignity of no longer being able to provide for their needs and at present about sixty percent of the families are on food stamps.
Prior to his marriage, Carlos had become involved in the Nationalist Party. A pamphlet given him by a fifteen-year-old boy had fired his interest in the independence movement. In the 1930s he served as president of the New York chapter of the Nationalist Party.
Upon returning to Puerto Rico, he had the opportunity to get to know Albizu Campos, taking long walks with him in the outskirts of Caguas. At that time, Don Pedro was living with his wife and three children in a simple house of wood and zinc, furnished only with the barest of essentials. Carlos relates visiting with him one day on his front porch. When a beggar passed by, Don Pedro searched his pockets for a coin. "Carlos, see what you have," he pleaded. Carlos came up with his last dime to the relief of Don Pedro, who could not bear to see anyone in need denied help.
Carlos also tells of a scrape he got himself into in a patriotic attempt to seize a Puerto Rican flag from an organization he felt was not in genuine sympathy with what the flag stood for. As police closed in, he barely escaped with his life.
From Don Pedro he had learned pride in his heritage and willingness to sacrifice his life and safety, if necessary, for the cause of independence. He had a chance to prove himself later when, in the 1950s, Nationalist meetings were outlawed. Refusing to deny his affiliation with the Nationalist Party, Carlos was arrested, along with Don Pedro and other Nationalists, to serve three years in prison.
In 1980 he presented a fervent plea to a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives investigating the situation in Vieques. He told them of how his ancestors, wife and children were all natives of Vieques, how he had passed most of his life there, and how the people of Vieques have lost much of their land through the occupation by the Navy.
He pleaded not only for the return of Vieques to the people, but for recognition that the very seizure of Puerto Rico through the Treaty of Paris was null, since Puerto Rico had already been granted autonomy from Spain. He compared the invasion of Puerto Rico to the attempt of Russia to take over Finland in the 19th century. An international conference examining the issue had determined that "the rights of a country to national liberty is free from war conquests and diplomatic treaties."
"In addition to the material damage that the Navy has caused the geography of Vieques," Vélez declared, "it is depressing that an island endowed with singular beauty by the Creator is used as a training school to teach men to kill their fellow creatures. This act alone is contrary to the rules of Nature and Christian Humanism."
Gently asserting that he could never willingly take a human life, he recognizes the possibility that liberation might have to come about through force of arms.