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xa1Ni una bomba mxe1s! U.S. Navy Out of Vieques!
On April 19, 1999, the practice bombings that the U.S. Navy has conducted on training camps in the small Puerto Rican Island of Vieques since 1941 killed, civilian security guard David Sanes. This incident sparked a series of protests in Vieques and in the main island of Puerto Rico. The protests were followed by the occupation of the Live Impact Area (LIA) by grassroots organizations committed to taking back their island and preventing the U.S. Navy from conducting further bombings. The LIA, located in the eastern part of the island, is where the Navy has regularly conducted target practice with live ammunition. So far, the acts of civil disobedienceblocking the entrance to military installations, setting up camps in the LIA as human shields to prevent further bombings, and all-night vigilshave kept the U.S. Navy from conducting target practice in Vieques for the last 12 months. Currently there are 12 civil disobedience camps set up in the LIA, and 2 camps set up in front of the gates leading to Camp García, each housing more than 100 protesters. Several fishing cooperatives, the Teachers Association, University of Puerto Rico students, trade unions, the Catholic Archdioceses of Caguas, a coalition of evangelical churches, and the Independence Party maintain civil disobedience camps in the LIA. The All Puerto Rico with Vieques and the Peace and Justice camps are located in the civilian sector of the island. The former group maintains another camp in the LIA while the latter coordinates popular assemblies, all-night vigils, and cultural activities.
For decades fisherpeople have complained about unexploded shells in the coastal waters. On October 24, 1993 a Navy pilot missed the target by 10 miles and dropped 500-pound bombs within a mile of the heavily populated town of Isabel Segunda. Some of the bombs failed to explode and were never found. As recently as last year flying bullets fired by Navy troops shattered the windshields of Santa María public school buses. Less than 60 civilians work for the Navy on this island that suffers from 50 percent unemployment, has one of the highest incidences of infant mortality, and has the highest incidence of cancer in the Caribbean affecting almost three-quarters of the population. Many believe that the U.S. Navys use of live ammunition, depleted uranium, napalm, and other illegal chemicals, as part of their target practice, is directly responsible for this elevated incidence of cancer in the island. According to the U.S. Navy, however, the health of the residents of Vieques and the destruction of the island are an acceptable price to pay to ensure that the U.S. can impose its military might on wayward Third World countries. Training in Vieques was essential to the military aggressions against Guatemala in 1954; Cuba, in 1961; Santo Domingo in 1965; Chile in 1973; Granada in 1983; Panama in 1989; and in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Vieques was essential in conducting imperialist wars in Southeast Asia, and now that plans to intervene militarily in Colombia are underway, Vieques assumes renewed significance.
The incident that killed the security guard and wounded four other people is but the most recent in a long litany of abuses committed by the U.S. Navy. According to Roberto Rabin of the Vieques Historical Archives, the unilateral expropriation of three-quarters of the islands best land and the eviction of thousands of people caused a profound economic crisis and massive protests during the summer of 1943. Further protests in 1947 were fueled by U.S. Navy plans to take total control of Vieques and move the population to another island. That approach resurfaced in 1961 when President Kennedy proposed the total expropriation of Vieques and Culebras, another Puerto Rican island used by the Navy to conduct military maneuvers, but militant popular opposition derailed those plans. As early as 1948 Nationalist leader Albizu Campus denounced the environmental destruction wrought by the bombings. Since then opposition to the Navys presence has been constant. Fisherpeople have regularly blocked naval military maneuvers and protesters have blocked the entrance to military bases in Vieques and in Puerto Rico.
The people of Vieques have also organized several successful campaigns to reclaim land stolen by the U.S. Navy. Between 1974 and 1976 local residents occupied the northern section of the island now known as Villa Borinquen. In spite of arrests and court cases residents succeeded in reclaiming that land back for Puerto Rico. In 1975 the U.S. Navy was forced out of Culebras, and in 1989 hundreds of Vieques residents occupied land in the southeastern part of the island known as Jagüeyes, which had been expropriated by the Navy in 1941. In 1993 the Committee to Rescue and Develop Vieques (Comité Pro-Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques) was organized to coordinate the struggle to reclaim expropriated land, to promote economic development, and to demand that the U.S. Navy leave Vieques. This organization has lobbied Congress and has submitted thousands of signatures demanding the closure of the military bases. It has also made official depositions documenting the many abuses committed by the Navy, which, in addition to destroying the island, has directly and indirectly blocked economic development in Vieques.
Support for civil disobedience in Vieques has spread to the main island of Puerto Rico. On July 4, 1999 more than 50,000 demonstrated in front of the U.S. Navy base Roosevelt Roads, demanding that the Navy leave Vieques. Leaders of the three main political parties expressed support for the people of Vieques. In December, Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) senator Rubén Berríos, who went to Vieques in May 1999 to join civil disobedience efforts, resigned the position he had held in the senate since 1993 to commit more fully to resistance in Vieques. The overwhelming support for the people of Vieques forced Governor Roselló, a member of the annexationist pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP), to publicly criticize the Navy. Behind closed doors, however, he negotiated a proposal with President Clinton, made public December 3, to continue training in Vieques for five more years. This agreement was made without the participation of the people of Vieques and added insult to injury by making departure of the U.S. Navy contingent on a Navy-sponsored referendum to be held in 2002. The people of Vieques vowed to continue resistance and civil disobedience until the Navy leaves for good.
The largest protest against the presence of the U.S. Navy took place February 21, 2000 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when a demonstration called by several religious leaders brought 150,000 protesters demanding Peace for Vieques. Some of these religious leaders have vowed to join civil disobedience protesters in Vieques and to be arrested if necessary. The PNP boycotted the protest and governor Roselló denounced protesters as anti-American. Resident Commissioner Romero Barceló, who as governor was responsible for a previous agreement with the Navy in 1983, went as far as labeling the religious leadership separatist. Barceló complained that the protest alienated our friends in Washington and demanded the arrest of those occupying the Live Impact Areas. The agreement signed by Barceló in 1983 settled several legal suits against the Navy in exchange for job development and environmental protection of the island, which never materialized. The Navys lack of compliance further alienated the people of Vieques and now understandingly fuels distrust of the Navys intentions and promises.
Meanwhile, target practices scheduled to resume in December were postponed until February, then March, and then again in April. Groups opposing the Navy have called those postponements a partial success even if Governor Roselló has taken credit for his administrative efforts, conveniently forgetting that no colonial power ever negotiates its departure, but must be forced out. When the Navy cancelled military maneuvers scheduled for May, Rosello maintained a discreet silence.
The struggle of the people of Vieques is significant because it highlights the conflict underlying the political relationship between the imperial power, the United States, and its colony, Puerto Rico, an economically and politically dependent society. The facade of Commonwealth status with an elected governor cannot hide the undemocratic nature of that relationship made all the more onerous by the abuses heaped on the people of Vieques. What has unified the different sectors of society, however, is the realization that regardless of Puerto Ricos political status the people of Vieques have deeply felt grievances in need of redress. The present status hasnt served well the people of Vieques or Puerto Rico, while statehood still leaves the islands vulnerable to national security imperatives.
The experience of other minority communities in the United States confronting U.S. government neglect or complicity regarding issues of environmental racism should be a warning to Puerto Rican activists. African American communities such as Warren County in North Carolina, the Altgeld Gardens in Chicago, or the notorious Cancer Alley in Louisiana had to fight long arduous battles to get rid of environmental hazards. Similarly, the experience of Native Americans fighting for the return of land expropriated by the U.S. government should inform Puerto Rican activists what to expect in negotiation with the U.S. military. Currently the Shoshone of western Nevada are occupying land taken from them 150 years ago. The U.S. governments strategy of arresting trespassers and promising a monetary settlement has so far failed to undermine the just claim of the Shoshone. Likewise, Clintons promise of a $40 million economic package for Vieques in exchange for continuing military operation only outraged the dignity of most Puerto Ricans.
The still untried and much yearned for independence for Puerto Rico is not without perils. There are many independent countries that seem incapable of resisting the imposition of U.S. military bases in their territory, as the case of Guantanamo in Cuba, Honduras, or Panama amply demonstrate. Further, the Independence Party and to some degree the Socialist Party have been unable to develop a political and economic strategy that guarantees social justice for the majority of Puerto Ricans. An independent Puerto Rico in the hands of the local elite or national bourgeoisie does not bode well for the Puerto Rican working class, the urban poor, or the disenfranchised.
Regardless of political status the people of Vieques know that they must continue fighting for their survival and more and more people in Puerto Rico are taking their side. The struggle of Vieques is also receiving expressions of solidarity from Puerto Rican communities in the Unites States and abroad. Communities around the world fighting to remove U.S. military bases from their territories, such as Okinawa, Hawaii, and Scotland, have conducted activities in solidarity with Vieques.
On Thursday May 4, 2000, just two weeks after the people of Vieques commemorated one year of resistance to U.S. Navy presence in the island 300 federal marshals arrested and evicted protesters blocking Camp Garcias main gate as well as those occupying the Live Impact Area. The arrested included local activists, university students, trade unionists, fishermen, many religious leaders and artists. The evictions, however, were not complete. A small group of protesters are hiding in the Live Impact Area and have vowed to remain there until the U.S. Navy leaves or they are captured.
The arrests and evictions, widely reported by national and international news agencies, elicited a wave of protests in Vieques and in Puerto Rico. Immediately following the arrests there were demonstrations in the public square and in front of the navy base Roosevelt Road were those arrested were taken. Municipal workers in the district of Carolina protested the visit of Governor Roselló, and a large crowd congregated in front of Fort Buchanan in Guaynabo. University of Puerto Rico students, who had vowed to go on strike if there were any arrest in Vieques, paralyzed classes and clashed with mounted police when they joined demonstrators at Fort Buchanan. Not to be outdone the electrical workers union, UTIER, which had supported the resistance in Vieques, called for work stoppages in Puerto Rico.
U.S. supporters of civil disobedience in Vieques, including many Puerto Rican communities in this country, conducted protests in front of federal installations the day following the arrests. There were protest all through the East Coast from Orlando, Florida to Montpellier in Vermont and also in Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota and as far as Honolulu. More than 2000 people marched in front of the White House protesting the arrests and evictions in Vieques, and there were solidarity events held in Seoul, South Korea and in Toronto, Canada.
In Boston 150 people demonstrated in City Hall Plaza in front of the Federal Building. The organizers of the protest, Latinos and Latinas for Social Change set up a symbolic tent and several members of the group have vowed to camp in the plaza in solidarity with the people of Vieques until they are arrested or evicted. As of this writing they have camped undisturbed for three days.
This level of activities following the arrests may signal not the end of the struggle to expel the U.S. Navy out of Vieques but the beginning of another chapter in the struggle against U.S. intervention in Latin America. Z
Carlos Suárez- Boulangger is a political activist, writer and translator living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.