Published in the Peace Newsletter, June 2000

Nonviolent Resistance to US Militarism on Vieques

by Andy Mager

During the past month the US media (and general public) suddenly discovered one of the most exciting nonviolent campaigns in recent years--the effort to evict the Navy from Vieques, Puerto Rico. Beginning in late April, the news was filled with reports that US forces were preparing to arrest nonviolent demonstrators on Vieques. This coverage continued through the May 4 eviction of over 200 activists.

Although the media coverage has slowed to a trickle since the major confrontation, activists have regrouped and continue their resistance. The US forces were successful in shutting down the public encampments and securing the two bases briefly, but they have been unable to prevent the ongoing return of demonstrators to the military areas.

The activists are prepared for a protracted struggle. In a recent update, organizer Robert Rabin wrote, "Our people are committed, more each day, to peaceful civil disobedience in defense of our right to life." On May 18, Rabin was the victim of a brutal assault by a special unit of the Puerto Rican police who have maintained a heavy handed presence on Vieques since early May.

During a visit to Vieques in March, I had the opportunity to visit the camp at the entrance to Camp Garcia (one of 14 camps scattered in various parts of the military areas) and meet some of those working to end the military domination of their island.

One such inspiring activist is Luisa Guadelupe who despite her 82 years of

age is a sprightly woman. She remembers Vieques before the US Navy came and evicted her family and thousands of others from their land 60 years ago. She vividly recalls the way her family of 16 was thrown off their land after receiving a scant 24 hours notice. "They came with a big truck and put all our belongings in the truck. They brought us to an acre of land, but didn’t give you a title--just in case they needed to move us again."

A 1947 Interior Department memo discussed plans to move the entire population of Vieques to the island of Santa Cruz. Fortunately, these plans were never carried out.

"It was during World War II and people didn’t have the intelligence or bravery to confront the military," she recalled. But Doña Luisa and her compatriots have matured over the years and just over a year ago took a stand to rid their beautiful island of the US military occupation and its accompanying bombing. She is clearly an inspiration to other protestors who see the fire in her eyes for justice.

Still A Beautiful Island

Vieques is a small island off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico. It is renowned for its lovely and secluded beaches, as well as one of the world’s three bioluminescent bays. The Navy controls both ends of the string bean shaped island, leaving only the center third for civilian use. The ongoing military exercises have been so intense that the island is reputed to have more craters per square mile than the moon.

This military onslaught has led to grave human and ecological consequences. Vieques has a 53% higher infant mortality rate than Puerto Rico and the highest cancer rate in all the Caribbean. A security guard I met at the ferry terminal described undiagnosable skin problems which she believes are related to the military contamination. In May 1999 the Navy admitted that it had fired depleted uranium shells on the eastern end of the island. Prevailing winds carry the uranium dust directly over civilian areas.

There have been sporadic campaigns by the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico to regain their land. However, they never achieved mass support and were quickly repressed. The people of Vieques particularly remember Angel Rodriguez Cristobal who was arrested with 20 others for protesting the military presence on their island in 1979. He was sentenced to six months in federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida and was brutally murdered in his cell.

Resistance Mounts

Everything changed on April 19, 1999 when David Sanes Rodriguez was killed and four others wounded during a US bombing exercise. His death ignited the long simmering resentment of the Viequenses. They organized quickly and set up a series of nonviolent encampments which prevented military exercises for over a year.

"Fuera La Marina de Vieques" (Navy Out of Vieques) has become a common refrain. On February 21, tens of thousands demonstrated in Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan. In early April over 2,000 people (of a total population of less than 10,000) participated in an anti-Navy motorcade on Vieques. Religious leaders on both islands have been nearly unanimous in their support for the demonstrations.

Angel DeLeon, a 6th grade school teacher, was inspired to take a semester off from school to work full-time at the encampment. A veteran of both the US Army and the Coast Guard, he was adamant that "we’re gonna stay here [at the encampment] until the Navy leaves." A veteran of the invasion of Grenada who taught Salvadoran soldiers at the School of the Americas, DeLeon now finds himself head to head with his former employer.

Despite attempts by law enforcement to provoke demonstrators, the activists have maintained their commitment to nonviolence. After the main police operation on May 4, the activists were taken to Roosevelt Roads military base on the main island. They refused to sign any agreements that they would not return to the base and were released without any charges being filed. A small number of demonstrators evaded the police and remained on the base.

Ten days later, nearly 60 people were arrested, including the former president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association and a former boxing champion. Puerto Rican Independence Party President Ruben Berrios has also been arrested as well as a number of religious leaders.

On December 12, US District Court Judge Carmen Consuelo Vargas de Cerezo recused herself from Berrios’ case, declaring, "Vieques is a silent prayer for

peace and renewal before the Holy Sacrament." In her statement she indicated strong support for the Vieques cause.

There has also been significant support for the protests among the Puerto Rican community in the US, as well as from some peace and justice organizations. Two US legislators of Puerto Rican ancestry were arrested on Vieques. Protests occurred in over a dozen US cities, including one the day after the military action, where seven activists were arrested for jumping onto the field at Yankee Stadium with Puerto Rican flags. Statements of support have been issued by the United Church of Christ and the National Association of Social Workers among others. The Springfield (MA) City Council passed a unanimous resolution calling "upon the United States Navy to relocate from the island of Vieques and return the land to the Municipality of Vieques for civilian uses."

The organizers continue to develop strategies for the next phase of their campaign. They wholeheartedly reject the agreement forced on Puerto Rico by President Clinton in February. This agreement, signed by Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello, extends the military occupation of Vieques for at least three more years. During that time the Navy agrees not to use live ammunition. Vieques will receive a miserly $40 million for economic development and a referendum will be held within the next two years to determine the ultimate fate of the bases.

Don't Vote--Leave

"There was no vote when the military took our land, so why do we need to vote to evict them?" asks organizer Angel DeLeon. He and others are concerned about the military’s ability to use intimidation and money to influence the outcome of any voting which were to occur. The activists continue to call for an immediate end to the military occupation.

Doña Luisa was among those arrested by the FBI, despite the cautions of her grandchildren "to be careful." Her determined resistance to the US military presence on her island "doesn’t mean that I don’t like North Americans," she emphasizes. Doña Luisa remains confident that if people in the US understood the reality facing her people they would join in the chorus calling for an end to the military domination of Vieques.

Andy Mager is a former PNL editor, long-time social activist and freelance journalist. He’s excited to track nonviolent resistance to militarism and injustice wherever it rears its transformative potential.

Sidebar

What You Can Do

Contact Jeffrey Farrow, (202) 456-2896 (phone), (202) 456-2889 (fax) and Maria Echaveste at the White House, (202) 456-6594 (phone), (202) 456-6702 (fax) and tell them you oppose President Clinton’s use of force in Vieques. Let your federal representatives in Congress know your opinion as well.

For further information, contact: Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (Comité Pro Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques), Apartado 1424, Vieques, PR 00765, (787) 741-0716, email: <bieke@coqui.net> or check the web at: www.viequeslibre.org.