President Biden visited San Juan, Puerto Rico on Monday, promising a “supercharged effort” to build a modernized power grid on the commonwealth island, which was battered by Hurricane Fiona last month. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Puerto Rico Has Stories to Tell,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored the history of governmental and cultural interplay between the mainland United States and Puerto Rico, from the Insular Cases of the early 1900s to the mournful tones of Rafael Hernández-Marin’s Harlem-penned “Lamento Borincano.” A particularly tense moment in Puerto Rican political history came in the early 1970s, when resentment of U.S. Navy testing sparked a reckoning over colonialism and military might. 

Culebra is a 2,000-acre island eleven miles off to the East of the main Puerto Rican island, but is a part of the commonwealth. A significant portion of the island had been used since shortly after the Spanish-American War as a ship-to-shore gunnery target for American ships, who beginning in the 1940s were stationed at the nearby Roosevelt Roads Naval Station.

During the 1960s, naval exercises targeting Culebra intensified. Former New York Representative Jack Davies – by the early 1970s a journalist in San Juan – wrote a freelance feature in the New York Times entitled, “Culebra, Where It’s Always the Fourth of July.” Davis wrote of the climate on the island: “Jets zoomed, bombs burst and shells struck the island night and day, sometimes seven days a week.” A 12-year-old boy was killed in an accident. Nine Navy soldiers also died in a war exercise gone awry. 

A 74-year-old Culebra resident named Claro Feliciano told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1970, “The Navy is a ghost. It is in the water, in the air, in the land, but we cannot speak with it. It is not in contact with this village or people.”

In the early 1970s, about 730 people lived on the island. In the late 1960s, the Navy tried to buy Culebra from Puerto Rico, in a bid to expand their weapons training. The island’s inhabitants, the Culebrenses, fiercely objected and began to organize, working with the Puerto Rican government and Richard Copaken, a young defense attorney at the New York firm of Covington & Burling who agreed to represent the Culebrenses pro bono

Puerto Rican Governor Luis A. Ferré, whose New Progressive Party generally overlapped with mainland pro-business Republicans, warned President Nixon in a letter that Culebra was going to be a serious issue: “Puerto Ricans universally see in the Culebra question an issue of colonialism. So apparently do the citizens of Central and South American countries.”

Congress first voted on the Culebra issue in September 1970, initially pursuing a plan for a complete Navy departure from the island. Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson was the fiercest voice in the Senate for ending U.S. presence in Culebra. A powerful member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jackson passionately denounced the testing: “What is at stake is something more than the Navy’s use of a training facility. In fact, what is at stake is the quality of life on Culebra and the Navy’s right to decide how far it can go in affecting the lives and well-being of the people who live there.” 

Navy Secretary John R. Chafee, however, convinced legislators to simply vote for a reduction, using Soviet naval gains in the Mediterranean as evidence of “the need for the highest state of fleet readiness.” Congress agreed instead to a one-third decrease in the area of Culebra on which the Navy would test and to continue looking for an alternative testing site. 

Governor Ferré, an advocate of Puerto Rican statehood who generally moved in lockstep with the United States, signed on to the compromise. So did Rafael Hernández-Colon, the comparatively progressive and youthful President of the Puerto Rican Senate, a proponent of continuing commonwealth status, and a member of the Democratic Party-aligned Popular Democratic Party. The Puerto Rican Independence Party leader Rubén Berríos – totally opposed to further American military or political occupation – rejected the deal out of hand. 

Secretary Chafee traveled to Puerto Rico to sign the agreement on January 11th, 1971. Mayor Ramon Feliciano of Dewey, Culebra’s village, called the agreement “an act of justice on the part of the Navy.” Feliciano did highlight, however, that he expected the Navy to fully withdraw within about three years. When Secretary Chafee left the signing ceremony, he confronted a young protester from Culebra holding a rusty shell he claimed to have recovered from the beach. “Hello,” Secretary Chafee said. “I can’t return the greeting after what you did here today,” the youth responded. 

The tension was a sign of things to come. As Chafee organized the settlement, Berríos was joining forces with a grassroots movement of Culebra residents and radical American mainland forces. An ad hoc pacifistic Quaker group from the Northeast called A Quaker Action Group teamed up with  a Connecticut-based group called the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action, with Culebrenses, and with independence-minded Berríos allies. 

One of A Quaker Action Group’s leaders was Daniel Balderston, an 18-year-old who left Haverford College to join the pacifist movement. Balderston revealed in a prison letter to the pacifist journal WIN that the action was not only an attempt to liberate Culebra, but to make a statement against American military power. “Culebra was an anti-Vietnam War demonstration by other means.” 

The centerpiece of the direct action was the construction of a small chapel inside the outer fence of the Culebra range. The groups built the chapel on January 18th, and the structure first came down on January 29th. The protestors blamed the Navy, while the Navy blamed the weather. “Of course they accused the Navy of knocking it down,” a Lieutenant told the New York Times, “but it was a 22-knot wind that night.” Balderston disagreed in his letter: “Two Culebrenses standing outside the fence heard a motor as of a jeep, a crash of the building collapsing, and men laughing.”  

During the first week of February 1971, 50 combat-trained Marines arrived to defend the range from the action group. The Marines removed the chapel on February 7th, allegedly beating a Culebrensen who tried to enter. The following day, 30 protestors charged the perimeter fence. A contingent of locals threw rocks and molotov cocktails, badly burning one Marine. The troops responded with tear gas canisters. Balderston and several other action leaders spent several months in San Juan prisons.

After the popular demonstrations of 1971, Nixon Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird agreed in principle to push the Navy toward leaving the island by 1975. Laird kept to this course until late 1972, when he was swayed back toward staying on Culebra by an internal memo by Major General Alexander Haig – who would later become President Reagan’s Secretary of State – arguing that Culebra was by far the most convenient location for the testing. 

Laird, however, kept quiet for several months. In November 1972, Governor Ferré faced a challenge from the former Speaker, Rafael Hernández-Colon. Both candidates made closing Culebra central to their platforms, although Hernández-Colon was more aggressive. 

Losing Nixon administration support for the closure would have been disastrous for their ally Ferré. Defense Secretary Laird even wrote to the Puerto Rican leader on the eve of the contest to reaffirm his commitment to closing the base. Despite Laird’s maneuvering, Hernández-Colon won the governorship. 

After the election, however, Laird reneged on the promise, arguing that the Navy should be permitted to continue testing on Culebra until 1985. Although Laird’s successor Elliot Richardson supported closing the base by July 1975, the Navy brass continually resisted. 

Meanwhile, Copaken, the pro bono lawyer for the Culebrenses, continued to work tirelessly to get the story out to the national media and to secure legal recourse for residents. He even endeavored to use the Endangered Species Act – passed in 1973 – to argue that the shelling caused illegal peril for the hawksbill turtles on the island. 

In May 1974, renewed negotiations between the Navy and Governor Hernández-Colon broke down. The cause, the Department of Defense said, was the upcoming United Nations Law of the Seas Conference in Caracas, Venezuela; some of the alternate sites carried the potential to cause controversy with Latin American nations due to their proximity to popular shipping lanes. 

This Navy explanation, however, would be the last. On June 5th, 1974, prodded in large part by Senator Jackson’s continued attention to the issue and his successful support for a $12 million appropriation to get off the island, the Senate voted 82-0 to end the Navy’s presence on Culebra. President Nixon signed Executive Order 11673 on June 22nd 1974, ordering all weapons testing in Culebra’s vicinity to cease by the end of 1975. In July 1975, President Ford bumped up the last day to September 30th, 1975. 

Three weeks later, on October 19th, 1975, Senator Jackson, Governor Hernández-Colon, and Mayor Feliciano joined in a celebration on Culebra to mark the end of the Naval tests. 

“Culebra was a symbol of an older day—a day when the Federal Government was not responsive to the views and aspirations of local citizens,” said Jackson amid dancing in the town plaza and a beach picnic. “Culebra is a symbol of a new day. In the future, national decisions which affect the commonwealth will not be made until the views of the Puerto Rican people will have first been heard.” 

Jackson’s statement was a bit premature; naval testing at another nearby Puerto Rican island, Vieques, increased after the closure, leading to local resentments that boiled over in protests in the late 1990s. Even so, the struggle of politicians, activists, and lawyers to bring peace to Culebra shows the effort necessary to protect Puerto Rico from future calamities and to more fully consider the island in all aspects of American life. 

For more on Culebra, read lawyer Richard Copaken’s 2008 memoir, Target Culebra

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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