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Polite direct action and civil disobedience lack the raw drama needed to propel the Vieques movement into the American psyche.

Related Gully Coverage

Puerto Rico at the Crossroads
Our complete articles.

vieques arrest in d.c.

Paz para Vieques, White House demonstration.

Vieques Movement:
Little Engine That Could,
or Dead Horse?

by Kelly Cogswell

SEPTEMBER 27, 2000. While President Clinton busied himself in Pittsburgh discussing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, seventy-five people were arrested in front of the White House Friday afternoon, protesting the ongoing U.S. Navy presence on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The demonstration, attended by several hundred supporters, was only the latest to demand that the Navy suspend target practice and withdraw completely from the island, most of which the Navy summarily appropriated in 1941.

Protests began in April 1999 after an errant Marine bomb killed David Sanes, a civilian security guard. Sanes' death highlighted not only the immediate dangers of bombs to the island's nearby inhabitants, but their impact on the environment, the long-term health of residents (some bombs included napalm and depleted uranium), and the local economy.

No Dalai Lama Here
In the last year and a half, Vieques activists have established encampments, made numerous symbolic, and arrestable, entries into the bombing range, marched many miles, suffered through hunger strikes and prison detentions, and held countless actions. At last month's Democratic National Convention, as New York, Puerto Rico-born Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez spoke, calling for the bombing to stop in Vieques, the New York delegation raised 300 signs that read "Peace for Vieques."

The response of Jeffrey Farrow, in charge of Puerto Rico affairs at the White House, is worth noting for its predictability. According to the San Juan daily El Nuevo Dia, Farrow jumped over four rows of seats to demand that Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer help end the display of Vieques signs, while the TV cameras focused on the New York delegation.

When that didn't work, Farrow reportedly recruited several huge white men from New Hampshire to stand right in front of the New York delegation in order to block the signs from the TV cameras, thereby inciting a scuffle for product placement.

All these events, however, all these marches, arrests, hunger strikes, national fisticuffs, have created less outrage for the Vieques and Puerto Rican plight in the United States, than the Dalai Lama's exclusion from the recent United Nations World Summit in New York.

Uphill Battle
While support for Vieques has grown all over Puerto Rico, in the United States the issue seems to disappear as untraceably as a Mafia Victim into New York City's East River. Why?

Most obviously it's because Puerto Rico is a stealth colony of the United States. Invisible and unknown to most Americans, it holds no swing votes in the upcoming Presidential election to incite even temporary candidate pandering. Neither does Puerto Rico have its own Senators and Representatives with influence to trade in Washington.

puerto rico radarThe question of Vieques and Puerto Rico is not on the radar screen of the cool anti-globalizers. Neither has it attracted much attention from the tattered remains of the traditionally anti-imperialist, mostly white, Left. One reason for Puerto Rico's invisibility in the American psyche is that it brings out more complicated emotions than conveniently remote Tibet and sexy, sanitized global trade and environmental issues.

After all, Americans only have themselves to hold accountable for Puerto Rico, not some far off power like China, or an evil corporate conglomerate. That fact, should an American even happen to know it, creates the same queasy sour stomach, and sudden amnesia that the word 'racism' creates.

There's also the problem that polite direct action and civil disobedience lack the raw drama needed to propel the Vieques movement into the American psyche, especially when most of the actions are in Puerto Rico. In the metropolis, in particular, actions must be increasingly bold and inventive to get attention from the jaded post-ACT UP, post-Seattle media.

The action at the Democratic National Convention was a far cry from the disruption threatened earlier by some activists, maybe because most of the Puerto Rican politicians in the United States are Democrats. The showing was relatively modest at the White House demo and at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City.

Ending Invisibility
To get the Navy out of Vieques, activists will soon have to openly address the underlying problem: that of Puerto Rico's colonial status and its attendant invisibility, both to Americans and to the many people on the island who are in colonial self-denial.

This means, among other things, persuading the U.S. Congress, the only legal body with the power to change Puerto Rico's status, that it is immoral and not in this nation's best interests to keep Puerto Rico as a colony, and that decolonization either as a state or independent nation is imperative.

To pressure Congress, Vieques activists will have to find allies, not only among Puerto Ricans, the United Nations, and Okinawans, but in the same powerful force that demanded an end to Clinton's impeachment process. That's right, the vastly underrated and unmotivated American public.

We, the people, do have votes, and email, and can sometimes, maybe, be persuaded to use them in the name of decency and democracy. Especially when we feel our self-interest threatened, including the righteous image most of us have of ourselves, and our America. Convincing Middle America that Puerto Rico is a colony, and that it should be let go—to statehood or independence—is a hard, but not impossible sell.

toilet paperSure, Clinton's Presidential Directive promises a referendum in Vieques, eventually, and promises the Navy will leave if the people of Vieques vote to evict them—but similar Directives in the past have been used as toilet paper. They aren't legally binding, and without public opinion on the side of Puerto Rico, another president can ignore the Directive, or dump it altogether.

Which is what the Navy wants. Not only do they continue to lobby Congress to approve the use of live ammunition without Vieques approval, they tried (and failed) to push their way into Vieques' long term developmental planning.

Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez thinks the Navy won't leave in three years even if a Vieques referendum tells them to, and that only intense and sustained pressure may force them to leave in five, as per Clinton's Directive. "People should be vigilant, because we know that politicians do not always keep their word," he said alluding to the next President of the U.S.

Stirring the Pot
Stirring the colonial status pot is, of course, a risky business. Activists who have seen the Vieques issue mobilize and unify the Puerto Rican people for the first time in years, will be reluctant to openly introduce the worm-opening colonial issue that may polarize them once again into discrete warring partisans of statehood, commonwealth, or independence.

Pro-independence forces, in particular, may lose the subliminal mileage they've been getting from the Vieques conflict if they press now for action on the colonial status, or even stress the issue too much in the Vieques context. They know that every Navy faux-pas, every U.S. stonewalling effort on Vieques reveals Puerto Rico's second class status to Puerto Ricans themselves. And that an unresolved Vieques could also undermine the credibility of the current Commonwealth (stealth colony) arrangement, which is the main obstacle to Puerto Rican self-determination.

dead horseInevitably, however, the dangers of the Vieques conflict dragging on will outweigh the moral and political benefits. At some point, activists will hit a glass ceiling. Maintaining the current strategy will cease to have a cumulative effect. A new march will not generate action, but boredom and fatigue. More of the same will be less. The dead beaten horse effect.

Eventually Puerto Ricans will want more than the warm glow of unified action in the face of the oppressor—they'll want results, real, substantial, tangible results. No more bombs, Navy out, a date for a referendum on Vieques, or at least a sense that things are moving up North. If they don't get something, people may well end more demoralized and divided than before. The Navy, which is waging a war of attrition (and bribes), is counting on it.

Vieques activists may soon find out that to keep their momentum at home they will have to break into Middle America's placid living rooms. No small feat given the colonial isolation and relative marginalization of Puerto Rico and most Puerto Ricans everywhere.

Related links:

For info on Vieques protests check out the archives link at the very bottom of the page at Vieques Libre.

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