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Juan Mari Bras, Puerto Rican independence activist, dies at 82

September 10, 2010 |  2:04 pm

Bras Juan Mari Bras, 82, an elder statesman of Puerto Rico's independence movement who gave up U.S. citizenship in an act that inspired hundreds of other activists, died Friday at his home in the San Juan suburb of Rio Piedras. He had lung cancer and had recently taken a fall, said Elaine Mulet Hocking, a spokeswoman for his Hostosiano independence movement.

A writer and law professor, Mari Bras was deeply involved in the independence cause from his days as a teenage student activist in the 1940s. He founded the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and was a co-founder of the small but influential Independence Party.

He dedicated his later years to seeking unity among the various pro-independence factions in Puerto Rico, a U.S. Caribbean territory whose 4 million residents are American citizens but cannot vote for president.

Gov. Luis Fortuno, who represents the opposite end of Puerto Rico's political spectrum as leader of the pro-statehood party, issued a statement praising Mari Bras as a legendary leader who fought for his ideals.

In an effort to establish Puerto Ricans' separate national identity, Mari Bras traveled to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1994 and renounced his American citizenship while claiming the right to continue living in Puerto Rico. His actions inspired other "independentistas" to do the same.

The State Department initially approved Mari Bras' petition, but reversed its decision in 1998, the centennial year of the U.S. invasion that resulted in the seizure of Puerto Rico from Spain. U.S. officials told Mari Bras he was again a U.S. citizen because he hadn't registered as a resident alien.

As the result of legal challenges stemming from that case, the island government in 2007 issued its first certificate of Puerto Rican citizenship to Mari Bras. Some other islanders have also requested the document, which is valid as an ID on the island but not recognized as a travel document outside the island given that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Mari Bras also became the first Puerto Rican to lobby the United Nations for the island's independence in 1973, kicking off what has become a tradition at the U.N.’s special committee on decolonization.

The Independence Party typically receives less than 5% of the vote, with most islanders split between supporting statehood for Puerto Rico and the status quo as a U.S. commonwealth.

Mari Bras was born in the west-coast city of Mayaguez on Dec. 2, 1927, and graduated from American University Law School in Washington.

He is survived by his wife and five children. Another child, Santiago Mari Pesquera, was murdered in 1976 while Mari Bras was campaigning for governor on a Socialist Party ticket. The family has expressed suspicions that he was slain in reprisal for his father's political activism, but the case was never solved.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Jose Mari Bras in 2007. Credit: Thais Llorca / EPA