Palestinian Studies

2023 Workshop

Sara Awartani

Collegiate Fellow & Assistant Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Weaponizing Solidarity: Puerto Rico, Palestine, and Counterterrorism in the Late Cold War

In response to emergent global solidarity movements for Palestinian liberation, a rich body of  scholarship has emerged that more thoroughly examines the internationalization of the Palestinian  struggle at the height of the decolonization movements that swept the Third World. One overlooked  example of the global reach of the Palestine cause is the Puerto Rican independence movement,  particularly a clandestine group of Puerto Rican radicals in Chicago committed to revolutionary  armed struggle. Scholars have also paid scant attention to the place of Puerto Rico—the largest of  the “not quite domestic, not quite foreign” U.S. territories in Israel’s efforts to combat international  support for the Palestinian national movement by establishing close military, economic, and  agricultural alliances with the decolonizing world. This strategy proved crucial for Israel’s  international understanding. And it had significant implications for how the U.S. policed the Puerto  Rican independence movement. 

While the Puerto Rican independence movement wedded its rejection of U.S. colonialism in Puerto  Rico to the Palestinian struggle, those very solidarities would also become weaponized in the United  States’ emerging fight against international terrorism. This paper tackles a crucial historical irony: beyond some localized organizing in Chicago, connections between Puerto Ricans and Palestinians  were largely inspirational and figurative. The archive reveals few, if any, accounts of Chicago’s Puerto  Rican radicals traversing the physical borders of the United States despite how widely—and wildly— they imagined their affiliations with their Palestinian revolutionary comrades. There were very little  material connections—at least not in the way that leaders of the Black Panther Party visited the PLO  headquarters in Algeria and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, or the way that members of the Japanese Red Army helped carry out the Lod Airport attack in 1972. 

And yet despite this absence of material connections, this paper will demonstrate how U.S. fears of  Puerto Rican militancy, particularly its visions of solidarity with Palestine, fueled the expansion of  domestic policing and counterterrorism policies in the 1980s. According to American  policymakers—largely conservative but spanning across the political aisle—the emerging problem  of international terrorism not only exploited the limits of “democratic principles,” like the right to  privacy and freedom of association. It also demonstrated the ineffectiveness of global governing  bodies like the United Nations, comprised as they were by “a rather large number” of countries who  obtained “their independence from ‘colonialism’ through terrorist and guerilla warfare.”  Throughout policy proposals, legislative debates, academic journals, and news reports, the United  States’ ill-preparedness against terrorist threats was narrated repeatedly through its inability to police  Puerto Rican radicals. These fears would operate in lockstep with demands for more expansive anti terrorism legislation which, under President Ronald Reagan, also ushered in a cohesive program of  repression against domestic social movements. The United States had no “apparent immunity” to  international terrorism, policymakers argued. Whether from direct support or through the loopholes  Puerto Rican radicals exposed, international terrorism—most oftentimes assumed to be Palestinian  but also Cuban or Soviet—would reach the United States.

Sara Awartani is an LSA Collegiate Fellow and assistant professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. An interdisciplinary historian, her research, publications, and teaching focuses on twentieth-century U.S. social movements, interracial solidarities, policing, and the United States in the world, with special attention to Latinx and Arab American radicalisms. Her first book project, Solidarities of Liberation, Visions of Empire: Puerto Rico, Palestine, and American Global Power (under contract with University of North Carolina Press) chronicles a globally expansive story of Palestine liberation, Puerto Rican radicalism, and the United States' efforts to weaponize and police those freedom dreams.