The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rafael Cancel Miranda, Puerto Rican nationalist who opened fire on U.S. Capitol, dies at 89

Police hold Rafael Cancel Miranda (center, wearing a necktie) and two other Puerto Rican nationalists after they opened fire on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954.
Police hold Rafael Cancel Miranda (center, wearing a necktie) and two other Puerto Rican nationalists after they opened fire on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1954. (AP)

Early in the afternoon of March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists smuggled pistols inside the U.S. Capitol, entered the visitors’ gallery at the House of Representatives and opened fire on the floor below, where more than 240 members of Congress were voting on an immigration bill.

As the attackers shouted slogans supporting Puerto Rican independence, attempted to unfurl a Puerto Rican flag and fired at random, some representatives believed that firecrackers had been set off. Speaker Joseph W. Martin Jr. (R-Mass.) declared the House in recess, apparently trying to maintain decorum, and took cover behind a marble pillar on the rostrum.

In the frantic minutes before the assailants were overpowered, they wounded five congressmen, all of whom survived. So, too, did the gunmen, the last of whom — Rafael Cancel Miranda — died March 2 at 89. Alternately labeled a terrorist and freedom fighter, he had devoted his life to the cause of Puerto Rican independence and spent a quarter-century behind bars before President Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence.

His death at home in San Juan, the U.S. territory’s capital, was reported by the newspaper El Nuevo Día and confirmed in a Facebook post by his son Rafael Cancel Vázquez, who did not cite a cause.

While Mr. Cancel Miranda faded from memory in Washington, where the Capitol is now heavily fortified with metal detectors and police officers, he acquired a near-mythical status in Puerto Rico. Appearing in his trademark white guayabera summer shirt, he became a fixture of political rallies, wrote books and refused to apologize for a mass shooting that Martin once called “the wildest scene in the entire history of Congress.”

In interviews, Mr. Cancel Miranda and his gun-wielding associates — Lolita Lebrón, Andrés Figueroa Cordero and Irvin Flores Rodríguez — said that they were fighting to free Puerto Ricans from the yoke of American co­lo­ni­al­ism. The island came under U.S. control after the Spanish-American War and became a commonwealth in 1952, although to Mr. Cancel Miranda and many others it never achieved true self-determination.

“We never controlled our own country,” he told the New York Times in 2016, as the independence movement sought to reassert itself in Puerto Rico. Earlier that year, Congress created a financial oversight panel to manage the island’s crippling debt, drawing accusations that “a dictatorship” was deciding its fate and leading Gov. Alejandro J. García Padilla to appear before a United Nations committee, where he effectively declared that Puerto Rico was still a U.S. colony.

Mr. Cancel Miranda, who stood more than 6 feet tall but was known by the diminutive nickname Pito, was immersed in the independence movement from a young age. The son of a businessman and fiery Nationalist Party leader, he spent two years in a Florida prison after refusing to join the Army and was said to have listened to radio reports from behind bars as anti-colonial revolts rocked Puerto Rico in 1950. Later that year, followers of Harvard-educated nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos tried to assassinate President Harry S. Truman.

Commonwealth status for the island soon followed, and in 1953 the United Nations removed Puerto Rico from its list of “non-self-governing territories.”

“That’s when the nationalists said, ‘We have to send a message,’ ” Mr. Cancel Miranda told the Times. “That was the reason for the attack on Congress.”

The shooting was reportedly orchestrated by Lebrón, who later said that she and her fellow attackers “went to die, not to kill.” A note found in her purse called her group’s actions “a cry for victory in our struggle for independence.” Mr. Cancel Miranda, who was by then living in Brooklyn, said that he had made his peace with death, and assumed he would never see his children again after buying a one-way train ticket to Washington.

After lunching at Union Station, he and his fellow assailants got lost, asked a pedestrian for directions and eventually made their way to the Capitol. A security guard asked if they were carrying cameras before allowing them into the House gallery, where they were seated near a group of sixth-grade students and soon began firing Lugers and an automatic pistol as Lebrón yelled, “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!”

A terrorist in the House: Inside the 1954 Capitol shooting

Roughly 16 shots were fired, according to a congressional history, before the attackers were subdued by a group including Rep. James E. Van Zandt (R-Pa.), then handcuffed and dragged before reporters on the Capitol steps.

“A few gangsters can’t break up the friendship of great nations,” Martin said the next day, as Puerto Rico’s governor repudiated the attack and politicians urged unity.

All five injured congressmen returned to the House, and the assailants received sentences that threatened to keep them behind bars until their deaths. Mr. Cancel Miranda, who said that most of the wounded “got hurt by my gun,” was sent to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay and later to prisons in Kansas and Illinois.

His sentence was commuted in 1979, along with those of Lebrón, Flores and Oscar Collazo, who had tried to assassinate Truman. (Figueroa Cordero had been released two years earlier after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.)

Newspaper accounts suggested their release was part of a prisoner swap for CIA agents jailed in Cuba — the Carter administration cited “humane considerations” — and the former prisoners embarked on a tour through the United States, appearing before crowds in Chicago and New York.

While the popularity of the nationalist movement diminished during his prison term, Mr. Cancel Miranda insisted that he would continue to back violent actions in support of independence if necessary.

“I’ll work for the revolution until I die,” he told The Washington Post after his release, “and if I’m lucky I may find a little time to sing to the children.”

Mr. Cancel Miranda was born in Mayagüez, on Puerto Rico’s western coast, on July 18, 1930. His mother died when he was a child, and his father ran a furniture store while periodically hosting Albizu Campos at the family home. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

On Facebook, Mr. Cancel Miranda’s son Rafael recalled once asking his father how he managed to get on the train to Washington, despite knowing he would likely be killed.

“The love, the love I feel for you, for your mom, for all Puerto Ricans,” Mr. Cancel Miranda replied. “Courage is born of love and I love my people. I am Puerto Rican and for you I give my life. I prefer to hug and recite verses, but if the moment requires bullets, I would do it again.”

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