The Battle of Vieques

The Battle of Vieques

Puerto Ricans’ opposition to the Navy’s suffocating presence had been brewing long before the sit-in.


Forty-six years after Lolita Lebrón and fellow Puerto Rican nationalists shot up the House of Representatives, wounding five members in a desperate act of defiance, Lebrón, along with Puerto Rican members of Congress Luis Gutiérrez and Nydia Velázquez, were arrested for an act of nonviolent resistance against the federal government. On May 4, 300 US Marshals and FBI agents cleared about 200 demonstrators from a Navy bombing range on the embattled island of Vieques. “Puerto Rico has been invaded again,” said New York City Councilman José Rivera as he was led away. For Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland, this was just another display of nineteenth-century gunboat diplomacy.

President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno were pleased that the removal played out nothing like the Elián-retrieval horror show, but the Vieques issue will not die out like a trash-can fire on a Little Havana boulevard. Puerto Ricans’ opposition to the Navy’s ecologically harmful, suffocating presence had been brewing long before the yearlong sit-in on Vieques, triggered by last April’s bombing run that killed private security guard David Sanes. In 1989 I observed it firsthand during a reporting trip when I heard and felt the Navy’s thundering assault on the beaches of Vieques.

The President’s Vieques strategy appears to be dictated by a need to placate the military lobby. His plan, negotiated in conjunction with Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rosselló, provides for an immediate $40 million boost to the Vieques economy and the resumption of limited Navy training using “dummy bombs”–which occurred a few days after the FBI action. A referendum, to be scheduled at the whim of the Navy, would allow the residents of Vieques to vote on whether the Navy should pull out entirely after three years; a vote to retain the Navy would garner the island another $50 million in aid. This combined stalling tactic and overt bribe might pave the way for the Navy to resume its flouting of agreements, as it did when it ignored a 1983 accord to improve the local economy.

Rosselló’s complicity with this agreement has turned Puerto Ricans solidly against the pro-statehood politics of his New Progressive Party. The day after the removal of the protesters, Rosselló activated units of the National Guard, and an angry crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators forced the cancellation of a ceremony at a renovated federal building in Old San Juan. The demonstrators smashed the windshield of pro-statehood former Governor Luis Ferré’s car as he tried to drive through them. Rosselló’s party is absorbing a blow it will probably not recover from in this year’s gubernatorial elections, and the Independence Party, whose leader, Rubén Berríos, was virtually canonized as the patron saint of the Vieques squatters, will score some gains. But the big winner will probably be the status quo Commonwealth Party, which has always absorbed voters with nationalistic sentiments who are not ready for the left-leaning independentistas.

But while the Vieques fallout will likely only signal another change in power on the island in what is essentially a two-party system, its effect on mainland Puerto Ricans could be significant. When she was arrested, Representative Velázquez predicted that New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 11 would become a massive rally supporting the Navy’s removal from Vieques. The outrage demonstrated by Velázquez, Gutiérrez and Representative José Serrano, who was arrested at a Washington protest on May 4, may inspire a community of voters to become energized as never before. Senate candidate Hillary Clinton has called for an immediate and permanent end to the bombing. Presidential candidate Al Gore has issued only nebulous statements against the bombing while expressing support for the Clinton-Rosselló agreement, which is tied to the dubious referendum proposal.

Far from being resolved, the Vieques problem is just beginning to get serious. With the possibility of protesters still hidden deep inside the tangled brush of the Navy range and the vow of a coalition of clerical, union and Vieques activists to return to the protest site, Washington’s only choice is increasing militarization of the island, which will bring more resentment. Vieques fishermen, the bulwark of the island’s economy, have been denied access to lobster traps set offshore of Navy firing ranges.

President Clinton and Governor Rosselló, who claimed to support the people of Vieques, have betrayed Puerto Ricans by allowing bombing to resume. It is increasingly clear to Puerto Ricans on the island and on the mainland that the yearlong sit-in on Vieques was the referendum, and it is time for the United States to cease its duplicitous attempts at “fairness” and remove the Navy from Vieques once and for all.

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