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 disobedience—blocking
the entrance to military installations, setting up camps in the LIA as human
shields to prevent further bombings, and all-night vigils—have 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. Navy’s 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 island’s 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 Navy’s 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
Navy’s lack of compliance further alienated the people of Vieques and
now understandingly fuels distrust of the Navy’s 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 Rico’s political status the people of Vieques have deeply felt
grievances in need of redress. The present status hasn’t 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. government’s strategy of
arresting “trespassers” and promising a monetary settlement has
so far failed to undermine the just claim of the Shoshone. Likewise, Clinton’s
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
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 Garcia’s 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.