Towards a Culture of Peace in Puerto Rico

Anita Yudkin, Ph.D.[1]


UNESCO Chair for Peace Education

University of Puerto Rico



Towards a Culture of Peace in Puerto Rico[2]


The University of Puerto Rico joined the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chair Program in 1996, establishing the UNESCO Chair for Peace Education.  From its inception, the Chair has been conceptualized as an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary project for the organization of academic activities for peace education.  During the past six years the UNESCO Chair has provided an unprecedented opportunity for the development of such activities giving way to the generation of ideas, questions, research, and action for a culture of peace in Puerto Rico.  The purpose of this paper is to share the Chair’s trajectory towards a culture of peace, exemplified by some of its key activities, as these illustrate the importance of working for global ideas, as these are interpreted and generated in a particular cultural, social, economic and political context – in this case that of Puerto Rico.

UNESCO Chair organization, and goals

The UNESCO Chair for Peace Education constitutes a pioneering effort in peace education at the higher education level in Puerto Rico.  We aim to promote an education for peace, and the values that orient this philosophy, by means of activities directed at the university community, and from the university to the wider community it serves.  Our activities have included: the UNESCO Chair for Peace Education Lecture, a variety of forums and seminars, the creation and presentation of educational materials and publications, as well as research and creative projects.  In developing an education for peace, we have collaborated with several organizations with a trajectory of peace and human rights education in Puerto Rico.  We have built upon their work, and contributed to it as well.  Over the past years, we have established the following goals:

·       Promote reflection and action towards a culture of peace.

·       Join efforts with other university units and community organizations in peace education and a culture of peace in Puerto Rico.

·       Collaborate with UNESCO chairs and networks in the field of peace education.

·       Participate in UNESCO initiatives related to peace education and a culture of peace.

·       Identify and develop curricular changes directed to the configuration of a curriculum for peace.

·       Promote substantive transformation in the University culture aimed at creating a culture of peace.

·       Facilitate research, creative and action projects that favor the construction of a culture of peace.


The UNESCO Chair for Peace Education at the University of Puerto Rico is organized as a working committee composed of faculty members, counselors, administrative personnel and students from several faculties including education, social sciences, communication, and general studies. The group’s diversity provides a richness of talent and ideas, as well as a broad spectrum of fields for action.  The committee has a coordinator with academic background in the area of education for peace.  The activities are generated in collaboration with the Dean of Academic Affairs and the University’s Chancellor.  In the past year, the UNESCO Chair has affiliated to the Faculty of Education, while formalizing ties with the General Studies and Communication faculties as Associate Faculties.  The UNESCO Chair for Peace Education is thus an important project for the University serving various faculties and receiving full support from the University’s administration and structure for an education for peace in Puerto Rico. 

Themes in Educating for Peace in the Puerto Rican context

            Daring to teach

From our inaugural activity, we have sought to bring an education for peace that is relevant to Puerto Rican society.  The First UNESCO Chair for Peace Education Lecture was awarded to a fellow university professor, and distinguished Jesuit historian, Fernando Picó S.J. for his project providing university education to a population very rarely remembered - the imprisoned population.  We titled this lecture, De la Universidad a la cárcel: historia de un atrevimiento (From the University to Jail: The Story of Someone who Dared). [3]  It was offered by Dr. Picó with the collaboration of two inmates who shared their stories of grief, growth, and learning. In a society characterized by poverty, a high crime rate, and a large imprisoned population, Dr. Picó’s  project is exemplary as a peace education an action alternative to the structures of violence that characterize the life of inmates both before and after their imprisonment.

            Lessons from survivors of torture

As a result of our collaboration with the Puerto Rico and United States Sections of Amnesty International, the Second UNESCO Chair for Peace Education Lecture was awarded to Dr. Antonio Martínez.  Dr. Martínez, a Puerto Rican clinical psychologist  with residence in Chicago, has for years worked with survivors of torture.  In his lecture Hacia una visión sistémica de los derechos humanos y sus implicaciones para la paz [4] (Towards a systemic vision of human rights and its implications for peace) he shared the stories of healing of courageous survivors who recuperate their capacity for action and participation after horrendous experiences of torture in oppressive regimes.  Links were drawn between the violations of human rights of torture victims and violations of civil and human rights in the Puerto Rican context.  A new perspective was provided for understanding the violation of rights of poor communities, of inmates, of people of color, as these relate to broader issues in the promotion and protection of human rights exemplified by survivors of torture. 

At the time of this lecture, Amnesty International was leading a campaign celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--Your signature is your voice.  For a couple of weeks, information about the Declaration was made available to the University community, as individuals committed their support for the Declaration.  In a nation with no official participation in international forums like the United Nations, gaining knowledge of international treaties such as the Declaration, and participating in an international initiative for human rights, is much more than a symbolic gesture. The Second UNESCO conference provided for the dissemination of global issues in human rights and for the integration of our initiatives into the global defense of human rights.

Education for peace and transformation

Along this line of bringing global concerns to our shores, the UNESCO Chair invited the Chancellor of the University for Peace, Francisco Barahona to deliver the yearly conference of the Faculty of General Studies, in September 1998.  Dr. Barahona spoke about peace education as a tool for transforming reality.[5]  In his words:

Education for peace is not one more discipline; it should be inspired in the belief that every human being plays a transcendental role in society, that we all have rights, but are obliged to fulfill our duties.  The values of society, its aspirations, its realities, should be the focus of attention of general education, so that it may be based on love and the respect for justice and peace.


Addressing the student audience, Dr. Barahona encouraged them to be bearers of knowledge and new ways of perceiving reality while working towards a realizable utopia – from a culture of violence towards a culture of peace.

            Painting possibilities

My experience was fabulous; to be able to share with other students was great since we shared opinions and were always together.  At first I though this was stupid, I was always saying “I don’t know how to draw”, but in time I realized that nobody is born knowing, that I could learn, and that was the best of all.  I learned to mix colors, to work in a group, and many other things.  When the mural was finished, I could not believe that I had participated in accomplishing it.[6]


Yakenia, a sixteen year old student from José Celso Barbosa School, spoke these words in her evaluation of painting a collective mural in the context of Iberoamérica Pinta.  Sponsored by UNESCO, the exhibition Iberoamérica Pinta  was displayed at the Museo de las Américas  in San Juan, in November, 1998.  This cultural integration project brought paintings from different parts of Latin America, Spain and Portugal in an attempt to make art accessible to all.  The UNESCO Chair for Peace Education organized a series of four educational-cultural workshops directed at children and youth to accompany this exhibit: 1) Collective mural about violence, peace and consensus, 2) Recognizing our rights and responsibilities we build a culture of peace, 3) Cooperative games as tools for peace, 4) Bomba and plena with Paracumbé.  The workshops provided for artistic-musical development and expression, in the exploration of topics related to human rights and peace, of children and youth participating in special arts projects in public schools and the municipality of San Juan. 

Vieques as example

In April 1999, Puerto Rican society was shaken by the death of David Sanes, a civilian guard working in the United States Navy target practice area in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. [7]  After sixty years of control over two thirds of the land by the U.S. Navy, Sanes’ death precipitated an unprecedented consensus involving religious, political and civil society sectors calling for the immediate cease fire in Vieques.  A Special Commission composed of leaders from the three political parties, the Archbishop of San Juan, the mayor of Vieques, a viequense fisherman, and members of the business community, was appointed to study the impact of military practice on the island of Vieques and its population.  In June 1999, this Commission concluded that the activities of the United States Navy constitute a violation of the rights to life, liberty, and prosperity of the people of Vieques as they have had a devastating impact on the economy, environment, and quality of life.  The Commission recommended the immediate and permanent cease of all military activity in Vieques, and the return of all land for the enjoyment of its people. 

For the first time in Puerto Rico’s recent history there was a reason powerful enough to rally people to work for justice over ideological, political, religious, and social lines.  The government of Puerto Rico adopted the Commission’s recommendations as public policy.  A series of civil disobedience camps were established within Navy controlled land so as to deter military practice.  The UNESCO Chair for Peace Education, like many other universities and organizations, assumed the struggle for peace in Vieques, supporting the cry of its people for “the four Ds”: demilitarization, devolution of lands, decontamination, and development.[8]

In September 1999, The UNESCO Chair for Peace Education hosted the forum, La Experiencia de la Comisión Especial de Vieques: Un Ejemplo para la Historia, where the members of this Special Commission talked about the process of reaching their conclusions and recommendations in a historical consensus.  Transmitted live by the University radio station, this forum was the only activity realized by the members of the Commission where their ideas, difficulties, and accomplishments were shared publicly.

The Third UNESCO Peace Education Lecture was then awarded to the people of Vieques, for their exemplary struggle against sixty years of military violence and destruction.  Three viequense community leaders offered the conference De Vieques a la Universidad: Lecciones y Necesidades del Pueblo de Vieques en su Lucha por la Paz y el Desarrollo (From Vieques to the University: Lessons and Needs of the People of Vieques in their Struggle for Peace and Development)[9].  We heard Robert Rabin, Miriam Sobá, and Carlos Zenón describe the story of the struggle for peace in Vieques through their life experiences.   The experiences of an historian, a teacher, and a fisherman who have suffered the displacement, loss, sickness and poverty of the people of Vieques.  Yet they have also grown in faith, organization, resistance and struggle for the devolution of their land and its demilitarization.

In a recent article, our colleague José L. Méndez elaborates on the importance of Vieques in changing the political culture in Puerto Rico while providing a space  for civil society over the predominance of political parties in every aspect of society. [10]   He also notes that over the past years, as Vieques has become a symbol of unity and solidarity in Puerto Rico, it has also become an “international symbol in the construction of a culture of peace”.  Many prominent figures and hundreds of people around the world have become aware of the situation of Vieques and work in different places and capacities for the retrieval of the United States Navy.

            Puerto Rican Agenda for a Culture of Peace

Inspired by the International Year for a Culture of Peace declared by the United Nations, and taking the Manifesto 2000 by Noble Peace Laureates as a starting point, we generated our own Puerto Rican Agenda for a Culture of Peace in the year 2000.[11]  This agenda proposes a series of objectives we understand are crucial starting points for a culture of peace in Puerto Rico.  These objectives are:

·       LIFE WITH DIGNITY FOR ALL.  A commitment to the right of every Puerto Rican to a dignified life.  This includes working towards a just society with guaranteed education, work and the enjoyment of life.

·       REJECT VIOLENCE.  The rejection of violence in all its manifestations – structural, social, interpersonal.  Especially when used against  those who are marginalized and excluded. The rejection of violence as an instrument to solve social, political and family conflicts.  The use of dialogue and consensus in our political and collective lives.

·       NEW POLITICAL CULTURE.  To combat tribalism, corruption and abuse of power in party politics and public policy in Puerto Rico.  To promote a political culture based on generosity, dialogue, and serious analysis of the problems we face, seeking to join efforts in those matters that divide us as a people. 

·       LISTENING FOR UNDERSTANDING. Practice the habit of serious listening, attempting to comprehend all messages, especially those we disagree with, so as to find common ground, to minimize divergence, and establish understanding in situations of conflict.

·       PRESERVE OUR NATURAL RESOURCES.  Defend and preserve our natural resources and the diversity of life in our planet, promoting a rational and sustainable economic development.

·       SOLIDARITY AND PARTICIPATION.  To combat  the vision of life in society  as a struggle of all against all.  Based on solidarity, to defend instead the full participation of all citizens in public and social life.  To condemn discrimination by origin, race, sex, social class, handicap, ideology, moral, philosophic and religious ideas.

·       VIEQUES AS SYMBOL OF PEACE.  To make Vieques into an international symbol of peace.  To liberate her of military destruction and ecological damage while recuperating her territory for sustainable development.

·       COMMUNICATION BETWEEN PUERTO RICANS.  To encourage solidarity and communication between Puerto Ricans from the island of Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican communities in the United States.  To promote a culture of peace with them and other sectors of society.

·       WORK WITH OTHERS TOWARDS THESE GOALS.  To join efforts with other universities, educational institutions, and organizations to make these objectives a reality.


Solidarity and commitment

Taking our agenda seriously, we recognized the solidarity and commitment of three Puerto Rican members of the US Congress honoring them with the Fourth UNESCO Peace Education Lecture.  Luis Gutiérrez, Nydia Velázquez, and José Serrano are three Puerto Ricans elected to Congress by the communities in which they live in the United States.  They have consistently worked in defense of the civil rights of their constituents, and served as liaisons and spokespersons for the Puerto Rican community in the United States and in Puerto Rico.  They rose and stood firm in defending the people of Vieques’ right to peace; they defended it in Congress, and personally engaged in civil disobedience in Vieques and in Washington, D.C.  Rep. Luis Gutiérrez delivered the address, the day before he had to appear in US Federal Court in Puerto Rico to face charges for trespassing Navy controlled land in Vieques.

Congressman Gutiérrez spoke about what constitutes Puerto Ricans into a nation, and to the colonial characteristics of this shared nation.  He described the Puerto Rican migration to the United States and the conditions contributing to the development of our common ethnicity and identity as a nation.  Economic issues, the liberation of Puerto Rican political prisoners, and Vieques are just some of the themes uniting us as a people.  Why the almost unanimous cry for action in favor of Vieques?  Gutiérrez words:

Being our community one of migrant workers, of people who have felt oppression, rejection, discrimination, and abuse in their own flesh; the people of our barrios, they understand very well the struggle for peace.  Peace is not submission, it is not silence and passivity before the injustice of the powerful.  This is not peace. . . .   That there is no peace without justice . . .is a truth the people of our barrios have learned through sacrifice, violence and experience.  This is why when the suffered people of Vieques told the U.S Navy and the world “basta ya!”, our people in the U.S. immediately understood and gave us, their elected officials, a clear mandate to transmit through our humble actions the infinite solidarity in our hearts and souls for the people of Vieques.[12]


Working for peace after September 11, 2001

            The attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent spiraling threats and acts of war, brought a sense of urgency to our work for peace.  We joined the worldwide outcry condemning the attacks while standing by many intellectuals and Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in their call for restraint and reflection.  We made an urgent call for peace[13] in which we censored the attacks, yet called for clear thinking and nonviolent action for justice instead of revenge.[14] The Struggle for Peace in the New International Scenario was the theme of our next forum.  Starting with a broad description of the new scenario and what it means for the struggle for peace globally, the forum focused on the implications for civil rights in Puerto Rico, and for the demilitarization of  Vieques.  As a territory of the United States, and being U.S. citizens, U.S. laws like the “U.S Patriot Act” are applied to Puerto Rico.  The law was critically analyzed in its impact upon our civil liberties, and possibilities for peaceful action.  José Paralitici, spokesperson for Todo Puerto Rico con Vieques[15], analyzed the historical juncture in its implications for the struggle to rid Vieques of military presence.  Always firm, he drew lines of action, concentrating on the importance of working within the United States for peace in Vieques. 

Historical struggles have never been easy or solved in a short amount of time.  All struggles -- some more, some less -- have had their hurdles.  Definitely, in the case of Vieques we have had them, and undoubtedly September 11 hit us hard. . . .From our point of view, we understood that standing tall and with the immense dignity representative of those who fight for justice of a suffered people, and without lowering our heads, we had to have a presence and pressure in the United States, and specifically in New York, place of the tragedy of September 11th. . . . The  case of Vieques is a claim for human rights, but it is also a political claim.  It is the United States government  who will determine how and where the Navy will leave.  Our role is to influence where the decisional power lays, to the maximum of our capacities.[16]


Reaching beyond our campus and shores

From our inaugural lecture, we have sought to reach a wide audience in Puerto Rico by means of the University radio station and the local press.  As we have published our yearly lecture, we have also mailed these to libraries and organizations in Puerto Rico, and to UNESCO Chairs in the area of peace education.   

The creation of our web page  ( however, is one of our most important accomplishments.  The page provides a much powerful tool for the communication of our ideas and educational materials, allowing for distribution to a wide audience and the electronic exchange of ideas with collaborators from academic and non-academic forums. 

Thoughts on the Future

At the present time, our goal is to continue developing our Puerto Rican Agenda for a Culture of Peace.  Our agenda is dynamic and provides for change.  We will generate activities for a culture of peace in Puerto Rico and globally as we face new issues and historical circumstances in this road towards peace.  We are satisfied with the steps taken so far, but understand there is much more to be walked to transform structures and cultures of violence to structures and cultures of peace, within the University, in our island-nation, and worldwide.  Some areas we will focus on in the immediate future include: political culture and violence, strategies for dealing with everyday violence, the role of the media in promoting a culture of war or a culture of peace, and the conceptualization, development and implementation of curriculum initiatives in peace education.  We also deem important to broaden our commitment to global efforts aimed at undermining cultures of violence and promoting cultures of peace.  Our presence in this UNESCO Chairs World Forum is a concrete step in that direction.



[1] Anita Yudkin is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Foundations, Faculty of Education, University of  Puerto Rico.  She has served as coordinator of the UNESCO Chair for Peace Education since 1999.

[2] Paper prepared for UNESCO/UNITWIN Chairs Forum - November 13-15, 2002 - Paris, France.

[3] Fernando Picó, De la universidad a la cárcel: Historia de un atrevimiento.  Universidad de Puerto Rico: Cätedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, 1999.  Available at:

[4] Antonio Martínez, Hacia una visión sistémica de los derechos humanos y sus implicaciones para la paz. Universidad de Puerto Rico: Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, 2001.  Available at:

[5] Francisco Barahona, La educación para la paz: Un instrumento pedagógico para la transformación de la realidad.  XI Lección Inaugural de la Facultad de Estudios Generales de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 10 de septiembre de 1998.  My translation.  Available at:

[6] Yakenia Flores in Anaida Pascual Morán, Resumen y evaluación del proyecto Violencia, paz y consenso para la Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, marzo de 1999. My translation.

[7] For  information on Vieques, focusing on its recent history see: Lisa Mullennaux, Ni una bomba más! Vieques vs. U.S. Navy.  USA: Penington Press, 2000; Mario Murillo, Islands of Resistance: Vieques, Puerto Rico and U.S. Policy.  New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001; Katherine McCaffrey, Military Power and Popular Protest: The U.S. Navy in Puerto Rico.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002;  Edgardo Pérez Viera (Ed.)  Victoria de un pueblo: Crónica del grito de Vieques.  San Juan, Puerto Rico: Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe & Editorial Cultural, 2002.  You may also visit the following websites:;;

[8] See Pronunciamiento a favor de la paz para Vieques, Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, mayo de 2001.  Available at:

[9] Robert Rabin, Miriam Sobá & Carlos Zenón,  De Vieques a la universidad: Lecciones y necesidades del pueblo de Vieques en su lucha por la paz y el desarrollo.  Universidad de Puerto Rico: Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, in press.  Will soon be available at:

[10] José L. Méndez, Puerto Rico: Vanguardia international de la cultura de paz.  El  Sol, marzo, 2002, pp. 13-14.

[11] Agenda puertorriqueña para una cultura de paz.  Universidad de Puerto Rico: Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, 2000. Available at:

[12] Luis Gutiérrez, Solidaridad y paz: Compromiso de los congresistas puertorriqueños.  Universidad de Puerto Rico: Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, in process of publication.  My translation.

[13] Llamado urgente por la paz. Universidad de Puerto Rico: Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, 26 de septiembre de 2001. Available at:

[14] We also generated La guerra no es un show. Universidad de Puerto Rico: Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, noviembre de 2001.. A hand out providing internet addresses for alternative visions to war as the only and glamorous solution to this conflict.  Available at:

[15] Todo Puerto Rico con Vieques is an NGO organized in 1999 with the purpose of uniting efforts from civil society in the struggle for peace in Vieques. 

[16] José Paralitici, La lucha por la paz en Vieques en la nueva coyuntura internacional, Foro de la Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, Universidad de Puerto Rico, 26 de febrero de 2002.