Isabel Segunda, Vieques, Puerto Rico
In this smallest of small towns one could get the impression that there was something parochial–something "not in my backyard"–about the campaign to expel the United States Navy. But to be present on the day of the referendum was to see a kind of historical revenge being enacted, as well as the rebirth of a latent national consciousness. The mayor of Vieques, Damaso Serrano, remembers seeing a boyhood friend being shot dead for crossing the wire around the base. Other local veterans have never forgiven the expulsion of their families and the demolition of their old homes. But it is not, in general, motives of resentment that animate the voters. I did a stop-by at the headquarters of "Option Two," the movement for the immediate cessation of the Navy's presence and practices on the island. The preponderance of activists was female, from a variety of political backgrounds, concerned certainly with the recent death of a civilian on the firing range but much more preoccupied with terms like "dignity" and "recognition." One of them, a beaming veteran, told me that she'd been to Washington for the celebrations in 1976 to call for "a bicentennial without colonies."
The Option Two majority–some 68 percent, as it turns out–seem to see this more as a chance to make themselves felt in Washington again. The opposition 30 percent are likewise fond of citing broader issues. The choice, they say, is between Americanization and "Fidelization." (The Cuban exile community in Puerto Rico, with some help from Miami, was extremely active in framing the question in this way.) And this minority, bear in mind, took a firm stand in favor of keeping the Navy presence indefinitely and allowing live-fire exercises. The only option that nobody chose was the Bush Administration's too-little-too-late proposal of dummy-ammunition testing accompanied by a phased withdrawal. (The Republican and Democratic hawks in Congress don't think much of it, either.) Had the vote been islandwide, it is extremely improbable that the pro-Navy forces would have got as much as 30 percent. Vieques depends very heavily for jobs on the Navy, and the Navy had recently been extremely punctilious about remembering to pay compensation to local fishermen for time and earnings lost during exercises. Neither in San Juan nor in the largely black town of Loiza did I see more than the occasional pro-Navy bumper sticker or window display, whereas signs reading paz para vieques or no una bomba más or, more bluntly, fuera la marina (Navy Get Out!) were everywhere to be seen. (And Loiza seemed to me significant because blacks in Puerto Rico have historically supported statehood over independence.)
Indeed, the largest single bloc of Puerto Ricans of all stripes still do prefer statehood to independence. But of what value is that, when the United States itself makes it so abundantly clear that it doesn't want Puerto Rico as a state? The other alternative–an enhanced form of "commonwealth" or colonial status–is exactly what is being eroded by the Vieques confrontation and by the refusal of Congress to allow a binding vote on the island's future.