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Other nations also pay the U.S. to train in the area, making Vieques a kind of rent-a-target. Related Gully Stories

Vieques and Miami:
The perils of swallowing nations.

In Depth Puerto Rico
The Gully's complete coverage.


Puerto Rico Under Fire

by Toby Eglund

MAY 3, 2000. Three U.S. Navy warships carrying more than 1,000 Marines lurk off the coast of Puerto Rico's Vieques island. They are waiting for the FBI to oust some 300 protesters in and around the Navy's bombing ranges.

The year-long encampments committed to closing down the ranges and evicting the military began when two errant 500-pound bombs dropped by a U.S. Marine Corps jet killed the civilian David Sanes Rodriguez on April 19, 1999. About 50 protesters are now in the bombing range itself, while about 250 others, occupy the surroundings. The protesters, holed up in a total of 14 encampments, include clergy, U.S. lawmakers, and Puerto Rican nationalists.

The larger issues raised by the Pentagon's stubborn demand to bomb Vieques is Puerto Rico's status vis-a-vis the United States, and why the U.S. is still exercising what amounts to the conquerors' droit du seigneur.

The Pentagon and the Protesters.
mapThe U.S. Navy occupies two-thirds of the 52-square-mile island (1/3 at each end sandwiching 9,300 civilians between) and has conducted live-fire training there since 1941 when it expropriated the land from residents. The militaries of other nations also pay the U.S. to train in the area, making Vieques a kind of rent-a-target. Exercises were suspended a year ago when the encampments began.

In January, President Clinton proposed a multi-million dollar plan to compensate Puerto Rico for the use of Vieques. Despite protests across Puerto Rico, Governor Pedro Rossello accepted a $40 million "Vieques development" deal in exchange for the resumption of bombing with dummy bombs and his help in evicting Puerto Rican protesters. In addition, Rosello agreed to hold a referendum on Vieques within two years. If the islanders consent to the resumption of live-fire training, Rosello will receive an additional $50 million also earmarked for Vieques.

Protesters assert that the bombing and military maneuvers on Vieques are a danger to its residents. People have died from mistargetted shells. The bombardments have destroyed the ecosystem of the island, and the reefs around it. The habitats of fish are disappearing along with the island's traditional livelihood.

Vieques' fishermen unfortunate enough to stray a few yards into "military" waters, find themselves with rifles in their faces. Residents also have an incidence of cancer 27% higher than the rest of the country, as well as higher rates of birth defects, skin diseases, asthma and other respiratory diseases. The Navy's presence has also worsened unemployment, by preventing the development of tourism there, an important source of jobs elsewhere in Puerto Rico.

The Pentagon counters by saying that Vieques is "irreplaceable" and "vital" for its military exercises. But while it stands to reason that if you're going to have a military, it should be properly trained, even the Defense Department under President Ford acknowledged, in the mid-70's, that there were other similar, and uninhabited islands that could be used.

So the question again becomes--why Vieques?

Puerto Rico's Colonial History: The Lion and the Eagle.
San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of the biggest and best natural harbors in the Caribbean, was for centuries a strategic port for ships going back and forth to Spain's gloriously golden Latin American colonies. Even when the flow of gold and silver slowed to a mere trickle, Puerto Rico was still a profitable agricultural center, growing sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee.

mckinley stampSpain had just granted Puerto Rico autonomy in 1898 after five centuries of colonialism, when the United States "liberated" the island during the Spanish-American War. The U.S., under President William McKinley, quickly established its own colonial authority. Military bases were built. A series of governors from the U.S. mainland were put into place. For decades it was forbidden to teach Spanish. English was imposed as the official language. Nationalist revolts were harshly put down.

The island was given some trappings of democracy in 1917 when Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship, though they weren't allowed to elect their own governor until 1948, in the person of Luis Muñoz Marin. In 1952, an agreement was negotiated with the U.S., which seemingly reorganized Puerto Rico into a new and improved Commonwealth associated with the United States.

There's doubt, however, that the agreement transformed the island into a functional democracy. Until 1987, with either the passive blessing or active encouragement of the United States, Puerto Rico's infamous Police Intelligence Unit maintained a vast network of East German-style informers which targetted pro-independence suporters. These were then routinely denied employment, or arrested and imprisoned unlawfully. Documents show children as young as seven were asked to inform on their parents.

In addition, the U.S. government waged a decades-long secret war against the supporters of independence, mostly via the FBI's COINTELPRO, a counter-intelligence program .

U.S. Colonialism Alive and Well in the Millenium.
Now, in the year 2000, Puerto Ricans still do not have the full privileges of citizenship. They cannot vote for U.S. President. Their one representative to the U.S. House of Representatives can speak but not vote. And despite periodic referendums on the island supposedly to determine the nation's future, the outcome is non-binding. Only the U.S. Congress has the power to change Puerto Rico's status.

Simply put, the island is still a colony of the United States. The United Nations agrees. Since 1991, after reviewing all relevant treaties and agreements, the United Nations has repeatedly acted to "reaffirm the inalienable right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination" and recommended that the U.S. officially decolonize Puerto Rico, and allow that nation to decide its own future.

As they are, the referendums raise more questions than they answer. While Puerto Ricans have consistently voted, by greater and lesser margins, to maintain the status quo, with a preference for statehood a close second, their full options have never been seriously explored.

The U.S. has supressed the independence movement, partly via harrassment from the Police Intelligence Unit, partly by frightening Puerto Ricans with the specters of impoverished, violent Haiti and communist, authoritarian Cuba. No one in Puerto Rico, and certainly not the U.S., has proposed a viable plan for a gradual transition into a democratic, financially stable independence. Neither has the possibility of a more equitable, voluntary annexation been sufficiently explored.

Don't expect political innovation soon.
The case of Vieques reveals how much the U.S. benefits from the status quo. Countless U.S. citizens have fought and won against corporations planning to dump toxic waste in their neighborhoods. Though U.S. racism would still not put Vieques on par with Martha's Vineyard, it's likely that as full U.S. citizens Viequenses would have greater resources to protest this continual siege.

Even if Puerto Rico were a sovereign nation, with a Caribbean democracy riddled with U.S. yes-men corrupted by a century of political, legal, and economic colonialism, the U.S. would have to jump through far more, and more expensive hoops.

I can't help but wonder that if taxation without representation was enough to spark a tea party, what is warranted when you're being bombed without representation? Surely more than the Pentagon's scorn, and a few million dollars.

Related links:

For the FBI's secret war against Puerto Rican dissent, see Ward Churchill's and Jim Vander Wall's The COINTELPRO Papers.

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

For Complete Coverage Puerto Rico

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