When George W. Bush announced from Sweden on June 14 that he planned to pull the US Navy out of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by 2003, it struck some as odd when he referred to the people of Vieques, all US citizens, as “our friends and neighbors” who “don’t want us there.” It was as though he was saying Puerto Rico is a foreign country.
In reality, Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. A consequence of this is the situation in Vieques, where the Navy has reigned over people who at another period in history were simply subjects. But the people of Puerto Rico are also human beings with a right to live and prosper that brute force cannot deny. And the fact that they are US citizens makes them more than just the President’s “friends and neighbors,” and connects their plight to the United States in a very direct way that the President cannot ignore.
The struggle to force the Navy out of Vieques, which goes back sixty years to when the Navy first took over most of the small island, has gathered steam since the accidental killing of a civilian Navy employee two years ago. Besides the environmental destruction and resulting health problems associated with the Navy’s presence, now there was an actual victim to mourn and organize around. The people of Vieques and Puerto Rico were outraged, and the consensus that emerged was dazzling for an island nation long divided about its political status.
The pro-statehood governor at the time, Pedro Rosselló, cut a highly unpopular deal with President Clinton to hold a referendum this November to ask the people of Vieques whether they want the Navy to leave by 2003. The action cost his party the gubernatorial race last year. Buttressed by protests on Vieques in the rest of Puerto Rico and by the stateside Puerto Rican community, the new pro-Commonwealth governor, Sila María Calderón, called for an earlier referendum, to be held at the end of July, and has led the movement to have the Navy leave Vieques immediately.
In addition to such opponents of the Navy bombings as Rubén Berríos Martínez, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, the move to oust the Navy has gained unlikely supporters such as singer Ricky Martin, boxer Felix Trinidad, actor Benicio del Toro and the new Miss Universe, Denise Quiñones August. Backing has also come from the African-American leadership, with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joining the protest, and from Republican New York Governor George Pataki, whom Calderón recently endorsed for re-election even though she’s a Democrat. Some of these unusual alliances result from politicians’ perception of the growing clout of Latino voters and some from Puerto Rico’s need for GOP support in Washington for federal funding for the island, which has no votes in Congress (it has a nonvoting resident commissioner in the House).