The Yankee War Machine in Puerto Rico

Revolutionary Worker #963, June 28, 1998

On July 25, 1898, U.S. troops landed in the southern Puerto Rican port of Guánica and occupied the island. They never left.1

For a century, the land and labor of Puerto Rico's people have been robbed to enrich American corporations, while the U.S. war machine dug its claws deep into Puerto Rico and the neighboring islands.

The U.S. invaders turned Puerto Rico into a military watchtower for their empire. Over a century, Puerto Rican soil has been used as a staging area for U.S. invasions, a listening post for their spies, a training school for their death squads, a target zone for testing their weapons and a command post for their nuclear war-fighting forces.

Today, in 1998, the U.S. has over 20 active military installations in Puerto Rico and the small neighboring island of Vieques. They are strung along the whole coastal edge of Puerto Rico and occupy over 10 percent of its land. Vieques has been virtually taken over, and about 75 percent of its land is used for bases, munitions storage, and the mass destruction of weapons testing.

These are U.S. forces that came through invasion. They stayed without permission. They have enforced their presence through the brutal suppression of movements for Puerto Rican independence. And throughout this century of occupation, U.S. bases on Puerto Rico have been staging grounds for invasions and threats against the people living on islands and coastal areas all around Puerto Rico. And yet, using classic doublethink, the U.S. authorities try to insist that all these installations are for the "common defense" of the United States and Puerto Rico.

The military occupation and use of Puerto Rico is a story of the aggressions, arrogance and ambitions of U.S. imperialism.

Forward Base for the Empire

"The Monroe Doctrine should not be confused with Pan Americanism... In its advocacy of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States considers its own interests. The integrity of other nations is an incident, not an end."

Robert Lansing,
Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State, 1915

In 1898 when U.S. troops landed in Puerto Rico, the U.S. government was also occupying Cuba in the Caribbean and the Philippine Islands in the western Pacific. The Monroe Doctrine had claimed the whole Western Hemisphere as a U.S. "sphere of interest." And after 1898 the U.S. ruling class wasted no time in their plans to dominate the islands, coasts and peoples of the Caribbean Sea.

The U.S. immediately started using the eastern waters of Puerto Rico for regular war maneuvers of their new "iron navy." In 1904 they moved out the people of San Ildefonso on the island's eastern coast--and took their land for a new naval station, Roosevelt Roads. The nearby island of Culebra was used as a base, during 1903 and 1904, for sending the U.S. Caribbean Squadron to threaten Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and to steal Panama from Colombia.

This became a pattern over the next century: Puerto Rican people were forced from their farmland and communities by the U.S. war machine, while the territory of Puerto Rico was used to stage aggression against the people of the whole region. The island's youth were themselves dragged into the military--to kill and die in many of the U.S. wars.

Puerto Rican bases played a key role when the U.S. occupied Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1917. The island was viewed as a Caribbean "Gibraltar" enforcing U.S. control of sea lanes and the entrance to the Panama Canal, which was built on land the U.S. stole from Colombia. Puerto Rico's "strategic value" had become so important to the U.S. empire, that in 1917 the federal government imposed U.S. citizenship on the Puerto Rican people (against the unanimous wishes of the island's assembly). The U.S. intended to never let the island go.

In 1938, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt watched as U.S. Navy planes carried out a mock bombing of San Juan. He was preparing to confront imperialist rivals in World War 2 and wanted a base on Puerto Rico's eastern coast patterned after U.S. naval facilities in Hawaii--he called for a "Pearl Harbor of the Caribbean." The plan was to build a base big enough to house the entire British navy, in case Nazi Germany successfully invaded Britain.

Britain was never occupied--but even more of Puerto Rico was. The U.S. Navy simply seized another 7,000 acres on the main island of Puerto Rico and 29,000 acres on the nearby island of Vieques--to build Roosevelt Roads into the largest naval base in the world. Camp Garcia was set up in Vieques, becoming a training base for the Marine Corps.

The U.S. military intended to simply evict the inhabitants of Vieques, a 20-mile-long island seven miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. Starting in the 1950s, they used this beautiful island as their firing range--testing bombs, missiles and artillery, and training their troops to use them.

Intervention Staging Grounds

"Puerto Rico is the major naval and staging base for conducting training, fleet deployments to the region, and testing weapons ranges. It also provides port, airfield, and logistics facilities to support naval operations during contingencies. Roosevelt Roads is a training ground for surrogate security forces from Central America and the Caribbean and also serves as a base for military interventions in these same regions."

Humberto García Muñiz,
"U.S. Military Installations in Puerto Rico:
Controlling the Caribbean"

In 1954, bases in Puerto Rico played a key role in the U.S. destabilization of the government of Guatemala. The CIA set up shop and used the island as a key command post for its covert activities in Latin America. In the 1960s, Puerto Rico became a military and intelligence nerve center for U.S. counterinsurgency against rising anti-U.S. forces throughout Latin America. After 1959, Cuba faced U.S. naval blockades, espionage overflights, threats of invasion, and countless covert actions--and Puerto Rico was a key base for that intense campaign.

Meanwhile the U.S. directed brutal FBI campaigns against the Puerto Rican people themselves--hoping to suppress their struggle for independence and freedom.

When the U.S. invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 to suppress a popular uprising, Puerto Rican bases were used as the staging area for the massive military airlift. When a powerful mass movement threatened the government of Trinidad in 1970, dozens of U.S. naval ships were kept on alert in U.S. bases in Puerto Rico--prepared to attack the people of Trinidad.

During the 1980s, Puerto Rico underwent an unprecedented militarization as the Reagan administration expanded its nuclear war-fighting preparations and engaged in repeated interventions throughout the region. Numerous belligerent U.S. naval incursions into Nicaraguan waters during the 1980s started from Roosevelt Roads and Vieques.

In 1981, the Revolutionary Worker exposed secret U.S. maneuvers that year on the island of Vieques. Operation Universal Trek started on July 12 and involved about 20,000 troops, ships and helicopters from the U.S., Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, Holland and other countries. There was "invasion practice" on the beaches, using inland zones for helicopter drops. And 2,500 U.S. troops were parachuted into civilian areas of the island supposedly "to practice recapturing key U.S. facilities." It is now known that these maneuvers were the rehearsal for the 1983 invasion of Grenada. And when that invasion actually happened, the troops embarked from staging points on the beaches of Vieques.

The U.S. Navy's annual maneuvers called Ocean Venture 86, involving 20,000 troops in 1986, practiced six different scenarios for U.S. interventions. At the time, Puerto Rican activists revealed that one of the war simulations practiced the following scenario: "Puerto Rican agricultural production is at a standstill. Thousands are out of work. A band of radicals is attempting to take control of the country. The Puerto Rican government has asked the U.S. for help in destroying these troublemakers."

U.S. bases in Puerto Rico have also been key in training the operatives of the U.S. empire--killers, informants, and torturers. Until 1985, the U.S. stationed its School of the Americas in Puerto Rico, training officers from Latin American armies in counterinsurgency, coup-making and death squad activity. In 1984, Alvaro Magaña, then president of El Salvador, revealed that the FBI was conducting a month-long training school on Roosevelt Roads for the police of El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Honduras and Puerto Rico.

At Camp Santiago, the U.S. Army now holds annual exercises to train and indoctrinate officers and troops of the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Barbados. The Army National Guard of Puerto Rico has also trained officers of the Uruguayan police.

Fort Buchanan and
the National Guard

The Pentagon set up Fort Buchanan in the heart of Puerto Rico's capital city, San Juan--and openly admits that it is not for "external operations." They describe this base as a deterrent "to any aggressive action or civil disorder from enemies of the government." Fort Buchanan, they say, is there "in case of sabotage, subversive actions, and open aggression by anti-government groups in the San Juan area." In other words, it is aimed at the Puerto Rican people.

This Fort administers many of the U.S. military programs that weave their way into Puerto Rican life and politics: Its operatives maintain close ties to thousands of Puerto Ricans who served within the U.S. military. They oversee the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) that infiltrates Puerto Rican schools and colleges. Such networks are manipulated in the hopes of encouraging pro-imperialist politics among the masses and military recruitment among the youth.

Fort Buchanan plays an important role in overseeing the National Guard, the armed force assigned to enforcing U.S. domination within the island.

In October 1950, when Puerto Rican people rose up in the armed rebellion of Jayuya, they were bombed by planes of the National Guard, directed by U.S. commanders and accompanied by U.S. pilots. And when the revolutionaries were captured in nearby Utuado, they were executed in cold blood by National Guard and U.S. army soldiers. This same National Guard has been used repeatedly against striking workers. And, in 1993, troops of this National Guard were sent to occupy public housing projects in Puerto Rico. This crude use of military force against the proletarian people of the island was carried out in the name of the "war on drugs."

Nuclear War-fighting from Rosey Roads

U.S. bases in Puerto Rico have been deeply involved in preparation for nuclear war-fighting. It is not known if the U.S. routinely stations nuclear weapons on the island. But it has been documented that the U.S. bases on Puerto Rico serve as "hosts" for a nuclear weapons "infrastructure." Researcher William Arkin documented in the 1980s that "there is evidence of the U.S. intention to bring nuclear weapons into Puerto Rico in crisis or during wartime."

Five military communications facilities in Puerto Rico have nuclear weapons functions, particularly in the use of very low frequency radio transmissions for submarines. A "Mystic Star" transmitter at Fort Allen and a receiver at Salina are used for the communications of airborne command posts (including the Presidential Air Force One) and would transmit wartime orders to fire nuclear weapons. In case of the destruction of U.S. bases on the mainland, Roosevelt Roads has been designated as an alternative command center for missile submarines in the Atlantic. In short, Puerto Rico has been integrated into Pentagon plans for nuclear war-fighting and, as a result, has become a key target for any nuclear rival.

This is particularly revealing, given that the U.S. is now protesting the "proliferation" of nuclear weapons in the Third World. The U.S. has brazenly brought nuclear threats into the third world, and Puerto Rico is only one example. William Arkin documented that U.S. nuclear policy in Puerto Rico violated the U.S. signature on the Treaty of Tlatelolco--an agreement forbidding nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Craters of Vieques

"Only in the Roosevelt Roads complex can we train, simultaneously in all varieties of missile firings, air-to-ground ordinance, surface gunfire support, underwater, surface and air launched torpedo firing, submarine calibrations, amphibious operations, and electronic warfare. All this...makes the complex our university of the sea for training our Atlantic Fleet and allied navies."

Rear Admiral Arthur Knoizen, Congress 1980

"At night, ships firing from as much as 18 or 20 miles at sea sounded like thunder. They aimed for a bullseye at the tip of Vieques, and they used a mix of live and dummy ammunition--an average of 3,400 bombs a month. The bombs fell on islands that are as splendid as any in the Caribbean. The ocean is always warm and blue and always surrounded by red, pink, yellow and white flowers of remarkable variety. In Vieques, you can lie on a two-mile stretch of beach any day of the week, see no one and feel overwhelmed by the mountainous backdrop that towers over the Caribbean."

Ronald Fernandez,
The Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico

"They practice there just as if it was a war. And it is a war against us."

Anti-Navy activist on Vieques

In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy moved key naval war training facilities from the U.S. eastern coast to the colonial territory of Puerto Rico. Roosevelt Roads and the nearby island of Vieques were turned into "one of the most exclusive and sophisticated control centers for weapons training in the world"--the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility (AFWTF). Vieques and nearby Culebra are called the "Inner Range"--and used as the targets for massive bombing runs and artillery barrages. Radiating out from those bases are 194,000 square miles of sea that the U.S. Navy calls the "Outer Range"--U.S. imperialism's university of naval warfare. Under the surface, the U.S. Navy has staked out its "Underwater Range"--the main U.S. submarine practice field in the Atlantic.

Vieques and its people have suffered hard from these war preparations. The U.S. Navy drove thousands of Viequenses from their homes, cane fields and fishing areas. Then it started pounding their island--demolishing coral reefs, lagoons, mangroves, beaches and fishing beds. Large parts of this beautiful island are pockmarked like the moon. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. sent pilots here to develop bombing skills for carpet bombing. Over 6,000 aircraft flew over 35,000 bombing runs on the island. And it was here that the military conducted massive testing of their notorious napalm--the jellied gasoline used against the Vietnamese people.

Cancer rates rose in the Vieques population starting in the late 1970s--so that most recent surveys show a cancer rate 26 percent above Puerto Rico as a whole. Many people blame this on toxic compounds which have traveled from the bombardments into the ground water.

The people of Vieques have fought against this occupation of their island and against U.S. domination of their country. Repeated mass struggles have confronted the U.S. authorities, exposed their crimes in Vieques, and rallied support all over Puerto Rico.

The response of the U.S. authorities has been to treat the people of Vieques as an enemy. In the 1970s, the chief of staff at Roosevelt Roads openly said that that the U.S. Navy had passed on the names of local activists to the FBI. One activist, Angel Rodríguez Cristóbal arrested for demonstrating on naval property in Vieques, was transferred to prison in Tallahassee, Florida where, it is reported, he was assassinated by the authorities. While this was going on, the U.S. military dropped 27,000 bombs on Vieques in just eight months of 1979.

In April 1989, Navy men and federal marshals attempted to evict a Vieques resident, Camelo Félix Matta, from his land. This led to the burning of two navy vehicles by about 100 angry viequenses. By late May, 300 families had taken over 880 acres of alleged Navy land.

More recently, the U.S. government has announced plans for a major new installation on Vieques, supposedly for their "war on drugs." It will be a "Relocatable Over the Horizon Radar" system (ROTHR) and would allow the U.S. imperialists to monitor aircraft as far south as Bolivia and Peru. People in Vieques and Puerto Rico are organizing to resist these new plans.

Military Reasons
for Continued Domination

"I can understand a certain amount of autonomy, but I cannot understand how you can reconcile complete independence of the island with the effective and necessary use of Puerto Rico for military control of the Caribbean."

Senator Taft during the 1940s discussion
of Puerto Rico's status

"I think the United States has to hold onto Puerto Rico for strategic reasons."

Henry Kissinger, 1981,
as global confrontation with the
Soviet Union was rapidly intensifying

"Puerto Rico is not a domestic, nor an international issue, but a geo-political bastion and military strategic point that is not negotiable."

Jean Kirkpatrick,
UN Ambassador for Reagan, 1980s

Puerto Rico's congressional-representative-without-a-vote Romero has described Puerto Rico as a "land super carrier" for the U.S. Navy.

When the U.S. ruling class debates its plans for the future "status" of Puerto Rico, the U.S. military planners openly say that Puerto Rico is too strategic to ever give up. They say they have spent $1.5 billion on the military infrastructure of the island, and that these installations are key to their military strategies for Latin America and the larger Atlantic Ocean. And that they do not intend to allow any future change in Puerto Rican "status," including any change to nominal independence, from interfering with their military use of these islands.

All of this reveals the cold imperialism of the U.S. "association" with Puerto Rico. It shows how real independence and self-determination for Puerto Rico can only come through a radical break with the United States and a defeat of its occupying military forces. And it reveals how important the struggle to liberate Puerto Rico is to the people of this whole hemisphere--and to a future free from U.S. threat and domination.


  • U.S. Military Installations in Puerto Rico: Controlling the Caribbean," Humberto García Muñiz, in Colonial Dilemma--Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Puerto Rico, edited by Edwin Meléndez and Edgardo Meléndez, South End Press, 1993
  • Doña Licha's Island--Modern Colonialism in Puerto Rico, Alfredo López, South End Press, 1987
  • Prisoners of Colonialism--The Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico, Ronald Fernandez, Common Courage Press, 1994

  • This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
    Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
    Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
    (The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)