Rafael Cancel Miranda, Gunman in ’54 Attack on Congress, Dies at 89

Rafael Cancel Miranda, the last survivor among the four revolutionaries who shot up the United States Capitol on March 1, 1954, in the name of independence for Puerto Rico, died on Monday at his home in San Juan, the island’s capital. He was 89.

His family announced his death in a statement, which said he had been hospitalized for several weeks with multiple health problems.

Mr. Cancel Miranda, a hero to many who favor independence for Puerto Rico but a terrorist to many others, was 23 when he and three companions attacked the Capitol, spraying gunfire from the gallery into the House chamber and injuring five congressmen as 243 House members were debating a bill involving migrant workers from Mexico.

The four — the others were Lolita Lebrón, Irvin Flores Rodríguez and Andres Figueroa Cordero — were not satisfied with the agreement that had made Puerto Rico a United States commonwealth in 1952, believing that it was a sham and that the island essentially remained an occupied colony.

Ms. Lebrón waved a Puerto Rican flag briefly and shouted about independence as the attack unfolded and House members sought cover. The four were overpowered and arrested.

Although the scene was chaotic, Mr. Cancel Miranda, at least, was convinced that most of those injured “got hurt by my gun,” as he put it when he was freed in 1979.

“No congressman in particular was the target,” he said then. “It was just an effort to shoot up the place. If we aimed to kill, believe me, that would have happened.”

All four served lengthy prison sentences. During his incarceration, Mr. Cancel Miranda spent time in Alcatraz in San Francisco, Marion Penitentiary in Illinois and Leavenworth in Kansas — “the Harvard, Yale and Princeton of American prisons,” as he put it in a 1998 interview with The Houston Chronicle.

In 1977 President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentence of Mr. Figueroa Cordero, who had cancer and died in 1979. President Carter freed the other three in 1979, though they had never sought clemency, considering themselves political prisoners.

Mr. Cancel Miranda and the others returned to Puerto Rico to a cheering crowd. He continued to speak out about independence in subsequent decades and did not regret the passion he had brought to the cause as a youth.

“That youth is alive, with gray hair and six grandchildren,” he told The New York Times in 1990 in an interview in Puerto Rico. “If this is still a colony, why should I change?”

Rafael Cancel Miranda was born on July 18, 1930, in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, to Rafael Cancel Rodríguez, a businessman, and Rosa Miranda Pérez. Both parents were active in the nationalist movement. A formative moment for Rafael came in 1937, when his parents participated in a nationalist demonstration in the city of Ponce; police officers opened fire on the marchers, and about 20 were killed.

“My mother went there dressed in white and returned dressed in red,” he told the socialist weekly The Militant in 1998, “covered in the blood of the dead, whose bodies she had to crawl over as the bullets flew overhead.”

He often said that his first act of protest had come days later, when he refused to pledge allegiance to the American flag. He was sent home from school.

In 1949, Mr. Cancel Miranda drew a two-year prison sentence for refusing to be drafted into the United States military.

“To me, it didn’t make sense to be in the same army that invades your country and massacres your people,” he said. “If you’re going to fight, you should fight them.”

After his release, he spent time in Cuba, then settled in Brooklyn, where he worked at a shoe factory. There he met the other three people who would join in the Capitol attack.

Mr. Cancel Miranda’s job was supposed to be to act as just a scout, his son Rafael Cancel Vázquez said in a phone interview. Mr. Cancel Miranda had traveled to Washington and made maps that were to be used in the attack. But, his son said, his role was changed at the last minute, and he joined the other three on the mission.

The three men were sentenced to 75 years each; Ms. Lebrón to 50 years. At a later trial, six more years were added to those sentences when the four were convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the United States government, something Mr. Cancel Miranda found ridiculous.

“Can you imagine us thinking we could overthrow the U.S. government with little pistols?” he told The Militant. “I wish I could!”

He referred to the attack as “an armed demonstration.”

“We knew that if we went with signs, we weren’t going to get attention,” he said.

By 1977, four former governors of Puerto Rico were calling for the four to be freed. But among those who disagreed with Mr. Carter’s commutation was Puerto Rico’s governor at the time, Carlos Romero Barceló, who said the release would encourage terrorism and “constitute a menace to public safety.”

Mr. Flores Rodríguez died in 1994. Ms. Lebrón died in 2010. After he was freed, Mr. Cancel Miranda ran a family furniture store, which he had inherited from his father. He also wrote frequently, both essays and poetry. His latest book, a collection of thoughts, anecdotes and verses, was published just weeks ago, his son said.

In addition to his son Rafael, from his current marriage, Mr. Cancel Miranda’s survivors include his wife, María de los Ángeles Vázquez; two son from an earlier marriage; and a number of grandchildren.

In a 1997 interview with The Associated Press, Mr. Cancel Miranda said that the passage of years had changed his perspective, but not his commitment.

“I was more convinced about what I could affect when I was young,” he said. “But I am now more convinced that I was fighting for the right thing.”

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