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Unanimity in Washington today spells betrayal and broken promises for Vieques down the pike.

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Vieques: The Rock
and the Hard Place

by Kelly Cogswell

MAY 23, 2000. A few weeks from now, the United States Senate is expected to approve the return to Puerto Rico of 8,000 acres of land in the western part of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which the U.S. Navy has controlled since World War II. The House approved the land transfer deal last week by a whooping 353 to 63 vote, something which must have made many a China-trade advocate salivate with envy.

The land transfer is half of the Clinton Administration's iron carrot to break the back of the nettlesome Vieques Navy Out movement. The other half carrot is a $40 million grant now, with another $50 million to be thrown in later if the Viequenses vote in a Navy-run referendum to let the Navy stay forever and resume live bombing. Since it resumed bombing in its Vieques range, after evicting some 200 protesters on May 4, the Navy has been using 40-pound, concrete-filled dummies which can explode any of the abundant unexploded bombs that litter their practice area.

Congress sure knows a good deal when it sees one. This one must have been irresistible, for Congress to have suspended its I Hate Bill mantra long enough for the Vieques half-carrot to sail through. Such sweet unanimity in Washington today spells betrayal and broken promises for Vieques down the pike. It's happened before.

In 1983, the U.S. Navy and the government of Puerto Rico signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Vieques that committed the Navy to use inert bombs, improve its abysmal environmental record, and provide funds for health and environmental studies, as well as for economic development for the 52-square-mile island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, two-thirds occupied by the Navy.

An importantly named Vieques Economic Development Corporation (VEDCO) was then created with the measly $200,000 a year the Department of Defense coughed up to grease the agreement. VEDCO quickly frittered away all its money in office expenses (as in kick in) and travel expenses for DOD—that's Department of Defense to you—consultants (as in kick back). Nothing like a nice Caribbean beach interlude after all those dreary months trying to figure out how many more $40 screwdrivers the Army can swallow.

Needless to say, the Navy complied with none of the environmental guidelines it had signed and lost no time in resuming the use of live ammunition on Vieques, even testing napalm, depleted uranium and other chemical weapons.

The Carrot.
As to the 8,000 acres of land, not a single acre goes to the people of Vieques. The whole lot goes to the "Government of Puerto Rico for the benefit of the municipality of Vieques as determined by the Planning Board of the Government of Puerto Rico..." In other words, to the, by all accounts, corrupt administration in San Juan, which also gets the $40 million play money.

"Who is to say how this money would be spent and what would be done with the land?" bemoaned The Vieques Times in an editorial last March, after noting that the projects outlined by Defense Secretary Cohen appeared to be a copy of the now defunct VEDCO's undelivered projects of the early 1980's.

The answer to the land use question may be found in tiny Culebra. In 1989, when the U.S. Navy left that other Puerto Rican island after similar protests from residents and environmentalists, the government in San Juan sold the land to outside speculators who threw up a gaggle of ill-considered, environmentally-noxious hotels.

The Vieques activists are now caught between the rock of U.S. military might, and the hard place of an entrenchedly corrupt Puerto Rican government thirsting for federal cash and alluring beachfront property.

The Stick.
True to historical form, the government in San Juan may have already begun to resort to violence to protect its interests. Not just pork barrel interests, but its main interest, its very raison d'etre: to remain the privileged, indispensable intermediary between Washington and the people of Puerto Rico.

rabinOn Vieques, the night before the House vote, on May 18, a Navy vehicle reportedly bumped the fender of a jeep carrying Robert Rabin, a leader of the activist Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, heading North on the same road near the Navy's Camp Garcia.

According to eyewitnesses, after Rabin's jeep was hit, four of the Puerto Rican policemen who had been standing in front of the Camp's gate, ran to the jeep, pulled him out, and proceeded to beat him with their nightsticks.

The police eventually took Rabin to the local hospital, but later had to fly him to the emergency room of San Pablo hospital in Fajardo, on the main island. Meanwhile, in San Juan, Puerto Rico Police Chief Pedro Toledo claimed that Rabin had "provoked" his own beating.

When THE GULLY asked Rabin if he thought the incident was planned, he said he didn't think so. "But," he added, "there's no doubt they [the Puerto Rican police] have been sent here maybe hoping for that moment. [Puerto Rico Governor] Rosello will encourage anything that will discourage our struggle in Vieques. He'll do it via his Chief of Police, Pedro Toledo."

Rabin was clearly worried about the possibility of confrontations between Puerto Rican protesters and police, and their potential to shift the focus of the Vieques movement away from the Navy. "Our struggle here is not with the Puerto Rican police, but against the U.S. Navy and their activity. We will continue to use peaceful means, and will not be diverted from that by the Puerto Rican police or by the military," he said.

He seemed particularly anxious about defusing any ill-feelings against the Puerto Rican police that his beating may have triggered among the Vieques population. "I absolutely forgive those who have beat me, and will forgive them again if they do it again," he said, adding that a year ago, before his life changing experience with civil disobedience, he would not have been able to be that forgiving.

"I don't believe they're responsible, those who beat me," he concluded, "but that they are also victims of oppression."

Trial by Fire.
It's likely that the peaceful resolve of Rabin and his fellow Vieques activists will be tested in more than one way. Along with working to evict the Navy, they have been trying to have an input in the land use issue, but so far the government in San Juan appears to be ignoring them.

"We've been working on that issue, on the need to have community participation at all levels. We don't want the 'Culebrization' of Vieques, where the land released by the Navy ends up in the hands of private speculators. We also dont want that land given to the [U.S.] Department of the Interior," Rabin said.

Working closely with the Puerto Rican Bar Association and a distinguished group of Puerto Rican economic development and planning experts who are acting as unpaid advisors, the activists have proposed the establishment of a Vieques Community Land Trust to manage the lands transferred by the Navy. The Trust would be run by the people of Vieques themselves with the help of specialists in sustainable and environmentally-friendly economic development.

When asked what the chances of success were for the Trust, Rabin admitted without discouragement, "We know that the government of Puerto Rico is very corrupt, and that hotel developers have a lot of money to bribe and buy politicians."

Although Clinton has turned up the heat on the Vieques protesters by increasing penalties for trespassing to include a $250,000 fine and up to a decade in prison, Rabin said that activists "will continue entering the Navy's restricted zone in groups of different sizes, including larger groups".

An Unlikely Ally.
berriosOn Friday May 12, Vieques activists found an unlikely ally in U.S. District Judge Carmen Consuelo Vargas de Cerezo who, in an unprecedented act, recused herself from presiding at the trial of Puerto Rico Independence Party President Ruben Berrios who had been arrested when he re-entered the restricted zone.

Berrios, who had camped there for a whole year until he was kicked out during the May 4 mass eviction, was clearly seeking to be the first test case under the draconian Clinton edict. (He is currently in Europe trying to drum up support for Vieques among his Socialist International friends in power in Britain, France, Portugal and other points.)

Judge Vargas de Cerezo, the former chief federal judge in Puerto Rico, was quoted in the San Juan daily El Nuevo Dia as saying in Spanish, in relation to the Berrios case, "Vieques is a silent prayer for peace and renewal before the Holy Sacrament. So it has been, will be, and will continue to be. The undersigned recuses herself from any participation in this case."

That Vargas de Cerezo recused herself, invoking moral powers higher than imposed U.S. law, signals that neither the U.S., nor its Puerto Rico intermediaries—whether its Rosello's pro-statehood party or the pro-commonwealth (status quo) party—can count on the blind eyes even of its own traditional supporters.

Amazingly, after decades of division, Puerto Ricans who want their country to become a state of the U.S., those who want it to remain a U.S. territory as it is now, and those who advocate independence, are working together to free Vieques.

This, the ability to work together for the common good of their nation, may be the gift of Vieques to Puerto Rico. The longer the Navy occupation of Vieques drags on, the deeper and more far-reaching this gift will be. Whether the Navy leaves Vieques today or three years from now, Puerto Rico, and Vieques with it, will be the winners.

Related links:

Vieques, Puerto Rico - Looking Forward: A Development Strategy for the Naval Ammunition Facility.

For basic facts about Puerto Rico go to the CIA Factbook.

For up-to-the-minute info on Vieques protests go to Vieques Libre.

For Complete Coverage Puerto Rico


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