The movement to end Navy exercises in Vieques, Puerto Rico, seemed poised for success. Then came Sept. 11.
by Kelly Cogswell
Suddenly, those who had protested for years from Vieques to San Juan, and Boston to Okinawa, the rich and the famous, and the poor and the incognito, seemed less eager to denounce the danger of the Navy's bombs and the 1999 death of civilian David Sanes, or decry Vieques' elevated cancer rates (which some scientists blame on live bombs comprised in part of depleted uranium and other experimental substances).
The Vieques activists called for a temporary moratorium on civil disobedience actions "in solidarity for the victims in New York and Washington D.C.," according to Robert Rabin, of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV). Part of a larger coalition, CRDV works to evict the Navy and develop sustainable economic projects for Vieques. No actions were carried out during the maneuvers there that month and in October.
When the bombing of Vieques resumed on April 1, a widely published Associated Press report dismissively declared, "the protest movement has lost vigor and support since Sept. 11... only a handful of demonstrators showed up [Monday] to protest new Navy training exercises." And "only about two dozen cars and fewer than 100 activists turned out Sunday for a car cavalcade."
Puerto Rican journalists didn't seem particularly optimistic about the movement's chances, either. Wednesday, El Nuevo Día, a San Juan daily, reported that Vieques activists were having trouble rounding up people willing to be arrested, though five women, including the Vice-President of Puerto Rico's Independence Party, were arrested Monday on the firing range. Thursday, three women and one man were arrested. One was the museum curator Petra Barreras, former director of El Museo del Barrio in New York.
High profile advocates are in short supply. Puerto Rico's current Governor, Sila Calderón, who was elected on a Navy Out, anti-corruption platform, now backs a Bush-endorsed plan for the Navy to leave by May 2003. Never mind that the deal is not legally binding, and has been further weakened by Congress's National Defense Authorization Bill for 2002, which puts a laundry list of conditions on the Navy's exit, including having an equivalent training location in hand prior to the closure. The bill also requires the Navy to keep rights to the island, even if it leaves.
While more than a hundred members of Congress have sent letters to Bush asking that bombing cease in Vieques, almost all of them, including New York's Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, voted for the aforementioned law, which essentially gives the military indefinite control of Vieques. And none of them are holding press conferences on Vieques' behalf, with the notable exception of Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Il.), who is due to meet with Calderón. New York City's Bronx Borough President, Adolfo Carrión, is also bucking the trend, announcing plans yesterday to pressure Bush for a legally binding deal.
"There's no doubt that Sept. 11 and the aftermath, the war posturing of the Bush administration, makes it very uncomfortable for anyone in the U.S. to say anything against anything military. There is a hyper-patriotism at work," said Robert Rabin.
With or without big name support, it's premature to ring the death knell for the Vieques movement. Anti-Navy protests have occurred intermittently since the U.S. summarily expropriated two-thirds of the island in 1941, and activists will probably keep at it until the Navy is gone. Even now, there remains a significant core of grassroots support both in Puerto Rico and abroad.
"We're still getting as much support from the church groups, unions, women's groups, student organizations. There's of course strong support in the Independence Party, and significant sections of the Governor's party [which favors the Commonwealth status quo]. Even within the pro-statehood party, the most pro-U.S. party on the island, there's support," said Rabin.
While anti-Navy activists were protesting in Vieques on Monday, a parallel demo in New York City attracted about 200 protesters. Demonstrations in Vieques and Puerto Rico proper, which began a week ago, no longer draw thousands, but still regularly attract hundreds. None of this has been reported in the English-speaking press.
In March, the American Association of Jurists (activist lawyers from the Americas) and the Puerto Rico Bar Association brought the Vieques cause before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. In December 2001, human rights commissioners attending the Sixth Congress of the Iberoamerican Federation of Ombudsmen approved a resolution demanding that the US Congress end military exercises in Vieques, clean the contaminated areas and return lands to the people of Vieques. Pro-Vieques activists are also picking up support from mainstream U.S. organizations like the American Nurses Association.
Gathering at a Forum at New York City's Hostos College, April 12-13, Vieques activists say they will try to reenergize national and international efforts using every peaceful tactic available, from civil disobedience to lobbying in Congress, and getting out the Hispanic vote in U.S. mid-term elections in November. In the last few days, their work has already been bolstered by solidarity demonstrations around the world, including in Rome and Hawaii.
It seems that Sept. 11 was less a knockout punch, than a temporary setback. Activists believe their grassroots support will recover and grow, simply because the people of Vieques deserve a voice in what happens to them.
And what they are saying is that they never consented to give up their land, their health, or their livelihoods to the U.S. Navy, and they want them back. They've said so repeatedly, in peaceful demonstrations and local referendums in which 70 percent of Vieques inhabitants voted for the immediate ejection of the Navy.
That's what will continue to get people like Karen Mejía out on the street. An immigrant from El Salvador, she joined the New York protest on Monday, "to support the will of the Puerto Rican people, and democracy. If they've decided by a referendum that there shouldn't be more bombings, then their will should be respected."
For up-to-the-minute info on Vieques protests go to Vieques Libre.
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