Vieques Si! Yanqui No?

Vieques Si! Yanqui No?

Puerto Ricans of all stripes question the Navy's presence there.


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.

Military politics is not peripheral in Puerto Rico. The island was originally annexed in 1898 for strategic reasons. Puerto Ricans, unrepresented in Congress, have always been well represented in the uniforms of the United States armed forces, and the whole question of citizenship without statehood is closely bound up with that fact. (The antidraft movement during the Vietnam years was especially intense on the island for just that reason.) The military-industrial complex throws a lengthy shadow here, both as employer and as provider of subsidies. It has also long been a political arbiter.

The leading San Juan columnist, Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, created quite a sensation recently when he published some still-secret War Department documents from the 1940s, a time when the independence movement seemed more of a threat. In 1943 the War Department told Congress that it found it "impossible to acquiesce in the premise that Puerto Rico can be given sovereignty status." Two years later, the department insisted that any bill relating to the status of the island "should be modified so as to provide [that]…the US government shall retain exclusive military jurisdiction over the island of Puerto Rico, regardless of the form of provisional or commonwealth government set up for transitional purposes." It also stipulated that "the United States may, by presidential proclamation, exercise the right to intervene in any manner necessary for the preservation of the government of Puerto Rico and for the maintenance of the government as provided by the Constitution thereof."

In effect this means that the "commonwealth" status quo of the past half-century has been a military device for keeping Puerto Rican politics in a state of suspended animation. Thus the slogan Fuera la Marina, even when uttered on the small island of Vieques off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, has much more considerable implications than at first appear.

Bush, of course, probably owes his election to the creative counting of absentee military ballots in Florida. (See the New York Times of July 15.) And few Presidents have been more anxious to propitiate the military-industrial nexus. But Bush has also staked quite some part of his presidency, and of his hope for re-election, on "making nice" with Hispanic America. When asked about the Vieques protests he replied in conciliatory tones about "our friends and neighbors who don't want us," for all the world as if Puerto Rico really was a nearby independent state. But it isn't; it has neither the rights nor the duties of a sovereign state or a state of the Union. The nonviolent movement against the Navy has, as Passalacqua later put it to me, offered a safe and patriotic yet extremely subversive challenge to this condition of suspended animation. Perhaps, after all, that is a little provincial and backyardish, but then the power of the powerless is often exercised by indirect means.

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