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).
There were also lawsuits against the Navy by people like high-profile environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. and the arrests of more than 180 protesters in Vieques, including Sharpton and three New York Puerto Rican politicos. There was even a virtual protest that tied up the Navy’s website for a while. The Vieques issue has gone mainstream.
Besides bringing environmental and health problems to Vieques, the Navy’s presence has been an assault on democracy. The Navy has reneged on a succession of agreements it made with Puerto Rico to respect the environment and economy of Vieques and reinvest in its development. The treatment of the many protesters by Navy personnel has also brought criticism about the abuse of their rights, especially after prominent Puerto Rican officials and members of Congress were physically intimidated by the Navy, with unnecessary body searches and manhandling.
Another issue is the strong nexus between the US military and the federal judiciary in Puerto Rico, a politically unhealthy alliance that is probably more responsible than anything else for the inappropriate sentences given to many of those who practiced civil disobedience on Vieques. The federal judge meting out these harsh sentences, who is presiding over one of the major environmental and civil rights suits on Vieques, is Chief Justice Hector Laffitte, who represented the police officers who murdered Puerto Rican independentistas in the notorious Cerro Maravilla case in 1980. There has been widespread speculation about possible ties between him and the Navy, especially after his overriding of the established federal lottery system for assigning cases so that he could personally dispose of the ones concerning Vieques.
Bush’s decision to stop the bombing by 2003 was an obvious concession to the fact that the people of Vieques would choose to do this anyway in the referendum. By eliminating the embarrassment of losing in a popular vote among the more than 9,000 residents of Vieques, Bush could save face and have the bonus of looking as though he was being responsive to the growing “Latino vote.” The hard right in Congress and the media criticized him, however, for compromising US military readiness, while everyone else, including the odd duo of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Governor Pataki, felt it was too little, too late, and called for the Navy’s immediate withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the President’s political expediency on this issue resulted in his undermining of the Navy’s complaints about the lack of alternative training sites, which was the only compelling basis it had for arguing that it needed to remain in Vieques. Now that the Navy has resumed its bombing of the island, leading to further protests, we will soon see whether the contradictions of colonial administration in a postcolonial world will come home to roost. But whatever the outcome, it is clear that Vieques has become yet another symbol that the costs of empire may be too high even for the powerful in this new century.