Puerto Rico’s lessons in revolutionary campaigning

“Pacifists protest Navy target practice,” Culebra, Puerto Rico, 1971. By Bill Wingell, via photo.net

Radical activists often face a dilemma about how to relate to campaigns. Campaigns focus on relatively short-term and winnable goals rather than the fundamental change that we radicals long for. Sometimes we choose to hold ourselves aloof because we can see that stopping a particular environmental danger or human rights abuse doesn’t necessarily open the door to deeper change. In doing so, we run the risk of marginalizing ourselves and become a “voice crying in the wilderness,” distant from the people who must be convinced to struggle for more fundamental change.

An encounter in Puerto Rico back in 1971 woke me up, however, to how a campaign can turn into a breakthrough for activists practicing the art of revolution.

A U.S.-based organization I worked for was asked to join the fight to stop the U.S. Navy from bombing the inhabited Puerto Rican island of Culebra for target practice. Our group jumped in as one of the partners in supporting the 600 Culebrans who dared to challenge the U.S. empire.

One of the other partners was the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), a socialist organization fighting for independence. After a meeting in San Juan, I had a one-on-one conversation with the PIP’s president, University of Puerto Rico law professor Ruben Berrios. I took a risk in offering him a comradely challenge.

“Wouldn’t it be better, since the PIP is an independence movement, to stay away from the Culebrans’ struggle rather than ‘contaminate it’ with your radicalism?” I asked. “Aren’t you making it less likely that they will win because you are joining their campaign?”

“On the contrary,” he replied. “What the governments of both Puerto Rico and the U.S. observe is a specific, concrete struggle for reform: a Navy departure from Culebra. They also see a socialist independence movement saying to our people, ‘The people and ecology of the island suffer because we don’t run our own affairs. If we Puerto Ricans were independent, the U.S. Navy would not shoot at Culebra!’

“Because we argue the issue in that way (even though the Culebran people do not), the longer the U.S. insists on endangering Culebra the more Puerto Ricans will agree with our point of view and strengthen the cause of independence. Above all, the U.S. doesn’t want the independence feeling to grow. So the PIP’s participation in the campaign gives the U.S. added reason to change and give the Culebrans what they want.”

I got it. The PIP strategy was an example of how radical participation in a single-issue campaign can hasten the achievement of the campaign goal at the same time as it builds strength for the revolutionary cause. I saw the integrity of it; the PIP wasn’t “using” the campaign for its own gain while sacrificing the interests of the Culebran people, as I had feared. Instead, the PIP created a win/win: advance the reform while advancing support for revolution.

Not long after the campaign began committing civil disobedience on the beach most often used for bombing and shelling practice — Ruben Berrios and our Quaker volunteers were among those arrested — the U.S. gave Culebra back to the people.

The Navy had to content itself with Vieques, another inhabited Puerto Rican island that it used for target practice. The subsequent Vieques campaigns, furthermore, underline Berrios’ point.

The 1977–83 campaign was unable to use Berrios’ strategy that was so successful in Culebra. The Vieques struggle brought a variety of political parties into the fray, vying among themselves to emphasize the independence issue. With the more revolutionary perspective heightened, Vieques residents divided on linking their campaign to the wider fight for independence. Another factor for the people who lived on Vieques was that the campaign didn’t stay united about nonviolent struggle, as it had on Culebra with the PIP.

That first Vieques campaign carried out some powerful nonviolent action both on land and at sea, including “fish-ins.” As the campaign escalated, however, public burning of an American flag heightened the division and was followed by an attack on a Navy bus that killed two sailors and wounded ten others. In the new political environment created by the violence, the media began to red-bait the non-Vieques independentistas, adding to the division that already existed within the campaign. The campaign was unable to unite and regain the momentum it had while using a completely nonviolent strategy, and was shut down by effective counter-moves by the Puerto Rican governor, backed by the U.S. military.

Fortunately, the failure of the 1977–83 campaign did not lead the 10,000 people of Vieques to give up hope, although it certainly delayed their victory. A decade and a half later, a new configuration of forces designed a clearly nonviolent campaign. The forces included the Vieques Women’s Alliance (one example of many in which women stepped up to put a movement on the right track) and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party as well as the PIP.

The 1999 campaign is worth considering if only to be inspired by the range of nonviolent actions and the breadth of support: environmentalists, the Catholic church, the Dalai Lama, Rigoberta Menchu, Jesse Jackson, Ricky Martin and other celebrities. The Federation of Teachers provided education and literature on civil disobedience and the Bar Association offered free legal advice to those arrested. The Puerto Rican diaspora mobilized in the U.S. In San Juan, 150,000 marched on behalf of “Peace for Vieques.”

President Bill Clinton offered $90 million to the people of Vieques to stop, but a large majority turned him down. Under mounting pressure and the increasing persuasiveness of the independentistas’ case, the U.S. caved. In 2003, the Navy land was handed over to the Department of Interior for building a wildlife refuge.

From these Puerto Rican cases, we see how radicals can join campaigns and create a win-win situation for themselves and their allies. We also see an often-overlooked advantage of campaigning: It invites people into a learning curve. When activists state a specific, limited and achievable goal and then go ahead and achieve it — or don’t — we set up a situation for teachable moments. Everyone can review the campaign and evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and then do something different next time that might work better. And if we can’t learn how to win campaigns, we certainly can’t learn how to win a living revolution.

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