Ramón Emeterio Alacán Betances
Ramón Emeterio Betances is recognized as the “Father of the Puerto Rican Nation” for his lifelong involvement in the pursuit of liberty and his leadership in the struggle that led to the Grito de Lares (September 23, 1868), the first quest for Puerto Rican Independence.
Betances was a man for all ages, gifted with exceptional virtues, a doctor trained in France who made significant contributions to science and surgery, a writer and romantic, a statesman, and ideologist of the most progressive thought and vision, a humanitarian and charismatic figure ahead of his time, an abolitionist, a revolutionary who conspired throughout his life for the rights of the less privileged against abusive governments.
Betances was born in the town of Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico on April 8, 1827, when Spain ruled over the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic), and Cuba. The only son born to a Hispaniola merchant, Felipe Betanzos ( later changed to Betances) Ponce and María del Carmen Alacán de Montalvo. As was used at the time, he adopted the surname of both parents.
He received his early education in his father’s library, the largest in Cabo Rojo, and later with special tutors. He went on to formal education in France, where he studied medicine and became a doctor. Betances graduated and returned to Puerto Rico in 1856 to help fight a cholera epidemic that was ravaging the island. Along with another doctor, José Francisco Basora, the two dedicated themselves to saving the lives of Puerto Ricans, often giving them preference over Spanish-born soldiers occupying the island.
Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and, moved by the slavery, he saw on the Island, on his return to Puerto he created a secret abolitionist society along with Dr. Basora and an attorney, Segundo Ruiz Belvis. The secret society gave money to slaves to buy freedom for their children. Because of his abolitionist activities, he was forced to flee to France in 1857, the first of many exiles in his life.
Betances returned to Puerto Rico in 1859, where he opened a surgery practice in the western town of Mayagüez, introducing in the island the first surgical procedures using chloroform. Soon he was treating the poor of Mayagüez on a pro bono basis. In 1865 he labored for the creation of a city hospital, dedicated to treating the poor. For his altruism on behalf of the poor, he became known as “The Doctor of the Poor.”
Throughout his life, Betances's dominant and constant concern was the struggle for Puerto Rican independence from Spain. From 1862 through 1868, Spanish authorities forced Betances into exiles several times to the neighboring islands of Saint Thomas, the Dominican Republic, and to New York City.
At all of these places he raised funds and continued to organize an armed revolt against Spanish rule. His efforts came to a head in 1868 with an armed insurrection of several hundred poorly trained and scarcely armed men, took over the town of Lares, and for the first time proclaimed an independent Puerto Rican nation. This became known as the “El Grito de Lares,” for which Betances is revered as the “Father of the Nation.” The insurrection, known to the militia by informants, was soon quelled by better armed and trained Spanish soldiers.
Following the failure of the Lares revolt, Betances went into exile in New York City in 1869 and continued his efforts for Puerto Rican independence. Later he became involved in the Cuban Revolutionary Junta, which was organizing an armed struggle to free Cuba of Spanish rule.
Betances proposed a united Antillian Confederation that would include Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico free of Spanish rule, in the newspaper “La Revolución.”
In 1873, Betances early efforts as an abolitionist were vindicated when slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico, to his great delight.
Betances and his common-law wife, Simplicia Isolina Jiménez Carlo, moved to France in 1872 where he set up a medical practice while continuing in his efforts for Puerto Rican and Antillean freedom. He soon became the official diplomatic representative to France of the liberal Dominican Republic government.
While in France, he continued to raise funds and support for the Cuban insurgency. He was friends with Cuban revolutionary leaders José Martí and Máximo Gómez. Martí asked Betances to be the leader of the Cuban revolutionaries in France. After Martí’s death in 1895, Betances continued to work with Marti’s successor, Tomás Estrada Palma. He was granted diplomatic credentials to represent the Cuban rebels in exile and continued to raise funds for the insurgency.
In 1897, Betances returned briefly to New York; working with a wealthy landowner, Antonio Mattei Lluveras, and members of the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Committee. They planned another armed confrontation. Betances directed this second revolt which took place in the town of Yauco and became known as “La Intentona de Yauco.” The revolt was soon squashed by Spanish authorities.
Following the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, and the outbreak of the Spanish American War, Betances feared that the United States would intervene and occupy Puerto Rico once Spain was defeated. He used his political influence to lobby against the United States occupation of Puerto Rico, declaring “I don’t want a colony status, neither
with Spain nor with the United States.” Further evidence of being a true visionary.
Ramón Emeterio Betances died on September 16, 1898, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, succumbing to uremia. His body was cremated and his wish to have his ashes returned to Puerto Rico was finally fulfilled in 1920. His remains are buried in the cemetery of his hometown, Cabo Rojo. His exceptional life goes beyond boundaries and he endures as an inspiration.
Ramon Emeterio Betance is one of the most important figures in the history of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Called by many “the father of the Puerto Rican homeland,” he was instrumental in the Puerto Rican abolition movement in the 19th century, one of the intellectual leaders of the pro-independence movement and the 1868 rebellion known as the the Lares Uprising (El Grito de Lares), as well as being key in the independence movements of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He trained as a physician and surgeon in Paris, selflessly offering his help to the poor, for which he was also called the “Father of the Poor”. Betances was also a journalist, essayist, poet, novelist and ambassador of Puerto Rico in all but title.