Latinx Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15. In Connecticut, more than half of our Latinx population is Puerto Rican, and we are home to the sixth largest Puerto Rican population in the fifty states. No state has a higher percentage of Puerto Ricans in their total population than Connecticut — roughly one out of every twelve CT residents (8.5%) can claim Puerto Rican heritage as of 2020. Due to the strong connections between so many Connecticut residents and Puerto Rico, this week we examine the story of the successful campaign at Culebra won by a coalition of Puerto Rican and mainland American activists including New England Committee for Nonviolent Action members (CNVA, predecessors of VPT).
[Read The Recolonization of Puerto Rico, Part 1 here: https://www.facebook.com/VoluntownPeaceTrust/posts/2012501098900215]
The relationship between Puerto Ricans and mainland Americans was in part responsible for building up the campaign that successfully ousted the US Navy from the Puerto Rican island of Culebra in the early 1970s. Local resistance to the US Navy takeover of Culebra Island in Puerto Rico began shortly after the United States recolonized the nation from the Spanish Empire in 1898, but in the aftermath of the rapid US invasion, the Culebrans alone could not keep the US Navy out. Instead, the US Navy evicted all of the residents of the biggest town on the island, leveled the town, and built a naval base upon the ruin. By the time the United States joined WWII, the federal government claimed exclusive rights to the air space of Culebra as far out as 3 miles from the coastline, and had sights on converting the entire 10 square mile island into a military base. By 1950 the US Navy controlled ⅓ of the island, the civilian population had dropped from 4000 residents in 1900 to just 580 residents, and the small island was covered in bomb craters. Decades of live training exercises and weapons tests littered the island and surrounding waters with unexploded bombs, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals. In the early 1950s, the US Navy attempted to evict the remainder of Culebra’s civilian residents, but was blocked by the Puerto Rican government on constitutional grounds.
Less than two decades later in 1970, the US Navy attempted the mass eviction again, but this time they faced intense popular opposition and unwanted scrutiny by the press both in Puerto Rico and on the US mainland. As local Culebrans began to stage public demonstrations and nonviolent direct actions against the US Navy, a diverse coalition of allies began to form on both sides of the Caribbean: the Puerto Rican Senate urged President Nixon to reconsider the US military’s plans, the Puerto Rican Independence Party occupied San Juan naval base with 600 protesters for three days, and groups like the Rescue Culebra Committee (RCC) and the Clergy Committee to Rescue Culebra (CCRC) formed to coordinate support from the US mainland.
One mainland ally organization, A Quaker Action Group (AQAG), originally formed in 1966 to “apply nonviolent direct action as a witness against the war in Vietnam” and soon found themselves involved in the Culebra campaign as an extension of their antiwar work. Several CNVA members participated in the campaign under the AQAG banner including New England CNVA cofounder Bob Swann.
Many of these allies from the US mainland went to Culebra to join direct action efforts there. In January 1971, the Puerto Rican protesters and their allies from RCC, CCRC, and AQAG gathered on Flamingo Beach, a US Navy bombing range. As a former home builder for Frank Lloyd Wright, Bob Swann volunteered his skills for an ambitious project: to design and build a chapel on the beach over the site of an older church that the military had previously destroyed, all while being monitored and blockaded by the US Navy. They completed the chapel after just three days and AQAG members led worship services to disrupt Operation Springboard, a massive military training exercise involving eight countries. When US Marines deployed tear gas against the protesters, demolished the new chapel, and had over a dozen people arrested and jailed (including Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Ángel Berríos Martínez), students at the University of Puerto Rico rebelled and joined 1000 other allies to protest the sentencing and hold daily vigils at the jail.
Soon after the arrests were made, the US Navy agreed to relocate to another island by 1975 with the signing of the Culebra Agreement. Within a year, however, the US military’s duplicity was revealed when US Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird voiced intentions to keep using the military base on the island until at least 1985, if not indefinitely. The revelation was an insult to Puerto Ricans all over and sparked even more protests in Puerto Rico and the mainland US. Activists on the mainland built replicas of the demolished chapel in front of the Pentagon and several of the embassies of nations involved in Operation Springboard. In Puerto Rico, rival political parties united to oppose the US Navy’s true plans for Culebra. On the island of Culebra itself, someone put a cross on the fence blocking protesters from the original chapel location with the slogan “You tore down a chapel but you can’t destroy the spirit that builds it ever again.”
Due to the sustained pressure on the US Navy from all sides in Puerto Rico and in D.C., President Richard Nixon finally declared in 1974 that the federal government would comply with the original Culebra Agreement and cease all military operations on the island by the end of 1975. While the US government’s clean-up of the toxic chemicals and unexploded ordnance on Culebra has been extremely slow, and while it is also true that the US military simply moved their Culebra operations to Vieques, another small Puerto Rican island, the success at Culebra proved to Puerto Ricans all over that they could successfully organize themselves to challenge their colonizers. Primarily using nonviolent direct action and the strategic use of ally groups, the Culebra campaign kicked out the most powerful military in the world.
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Balderston, Daniel. “Culebra Action 1971.” [PDF]. https://d-scholarship.pitt.edu/20357/1/Culebra_Action_1971.pdf
“Puerto Ricans expel United States Navy from Culebra Island, 1970-1974.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. [Accessed 28 September 2021]. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/puerto-ricans-expel-united-states-navy-culebra-island-1970-1974
Swann, Marj. “Culebra Action.” Direct Action for a Nonviolent World. 17 Feb. 1971.
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