News & Politics
May 15, 2000
Empty bullet casings litter the sun-baked beach and the narrow dirt trails that disappear into the underbrush. From the top of a nearby hill, you can spot the pockmarks of bomb craters and the fins of unexploded missiles and shells, some 4 feet high, poking out from the mangled landscape like deadly pickup sticks.This 20-mile-long island just off the east coast of Puerto Rico, a once-lush paradise, is now a denuded and contaminated indictment of American colonialism. Here on Vieques, an island most Americans have never heard of, a major political upheaval has erupted during the past few months, taking Washington by surprise and sparking unprecedented unity among Puerto Rico's 3.8 million inhabitants. The conflict is rapidly turning into a battleground over the meaning of democracy and human rights, one that has the Pentagon's top brass scurrying to ward off a major defeat.Manuela Santiago was born and reared on Vieques and has been mayor of its 9,300 inhabitants for the past 16 years. Despite her post, Santiago had never seen the easternmost part of the island, called Cayo Yayi, until Aug. 13, when she traveled there in a rickety fishing boat with an American delegation headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Roberto Gonzalez, the archbishop of San Juan. This section of Vieques has been off-limits to local residents since the '40s, when it came under control of the U.S. Navy, along with more than two-thirds of the rest of the island. During the following decades, the Navy has used the area as a live-ammunition practice range, which the Pentagon calls the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility. At the other end of the island, the Navy operates a huge munitions dump. The people of Vieques are squeezed in between the dump and the range.Practice at the range goes on for as many as 200 days out of every year. Combat planes bomb and strafe the island. Destroyers bombard it from sea. The U.S. government even lends Vieques out to the navies of NATO and Latin American countries so they too can fire their shells at it. Maneuvers have included, on occasion, practice with depleted uranium shells, napalm and cluster bombs. That several thousand Puerto Ricans, all of them U.S. citizens, live next to a bombing range on an island only twice the size of Manhattan has never seemed to bother the Pentagon, which claims Vieques is essential to national defense. "My father says that before the Navy came, the palm trees here were so thick you needed a flashlight in the middle of the afternoon to be able to walk in their shadows," says Carlos Ventura, the leader of a fishermen's group that is demanding the Navy leave, as he stands on the bare beach at Cayo Yayi. "Look around you, there isn't a palm tree in sight.""Do you know what it's like trying to teach with jet fighters and helicopters buzzing over us all the time, and bombs exploding in the distance?" asks Javier Torres, an industrial arts teacher at one of Vieques' public schools. Torres spoke as he and hundreds of pupils and teachers stood outside their school to cheer the Jackson delegation's visit to the island. It was Jackson's third trip to Vieques during the past 15 years.More than 70 percent of the island's inhabitants live in poverty, its fishing industry is in shambles, and its residents suffer from a cancer rate 27 percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico. Tourism is anemic - despite Vieques having some of the most spectacular coral reef in the Caribbean - because many of the island's pristine beaches and waters are contaminated by unexploded shells. As for jobs, the usual inducements the military offers to such communities, a recent task force formed by Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello revealed that only 30 people from Vieques are employed by the Navy.The longstanding problems caused by the Navy's presence have been exacerbated by some chilling mistakes committed by troops on maneuvers. Mayor Santiago remembers one particularly bad incident on the night of October 24, 1993. "We all heard these loud explosions," she says. "Every house in the town shook." Santiago immediately telephoned the commander at nearby Roosevelt Roads Naval Base. No one could tell her what happened. The next day she discovered that a pilot on a bombing run had missed his target by several miles and dropped five bombs just outside of town.Another time, in 1997, some National Guard troops mistakenly strafed a school bus and a police car with machine guns. No one was hurt in either accident, but the people of Vieques always knew a disaster was bound to happen. It finally did this year on April 19. That's when two Navy pilots on a bombing run missed their target and hit an observation post with a couple of 500-pound bombs. David Sanes Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican security guard, was killed and four others were wounded.Sanes' death was the final straw. A few days later, a group of fishermen led by several sons of Carlos Zenon - the fisherman who led protests against the Navy in the late '70s - moved their boats into the Navy zone and set up a protest camp on the hill where Sanes was killed. They rechristened it Mount David in honor of the dead man. They were followed by Ruben Berrios Martinez, long-time head of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, who led a group onto another part of the Navy land, Allende Beach, where they set up another protest camp. Then another group of fishermen headed by Ventura set up their camp at Cayo Yayi, followed by one of the Puerto Rican teachersâ unions, which established a fourth camp. Each of the groups have kept supporters living in the camps day and night since May. They are vowing to remain until the Navy leaves or they are arrested. So many protesters have moved into the area that the Pentagon has been forced to suspend all maneuvers.Unfortunately, the protests have been marred by factional conflicts. The Zenon fishermenâs group, which has always been the most militant of the Navyâs opponents, is at odds with Ventura's group, which was invited by Rossello to represent Viequesâ fishermen on his official task force.Virtually every political and religious leader in Puerto Rico, including Rossello, has turned against the Navy. A recent public opinion poll indicated that 70 percent of Puerto Rico's voters want an end to the bombing, and 37 percent have developed negative views of the Navy's overall presence in Puerto Rico. After Rossello's administration made a formal request to Clinton that the Navy leave, the President named a Pentagon task force to recommend what to do. That task force completed its work at the end of August and handed a report to Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who was scheduled to make his own recommendation to Clinton the week after Labor Day.With a final decision on Vieques near, both sides in the conflict began to pull out their big guns. Gen. Wesley Clark, commander of NATO and U.S. troops in Europe, warned on Aug. 23 that Navy and Marine Corps forces "may not be fully combat-ready"if the Pentagon doesn't resume bombing on Vieques. Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig chimed in, saying that the "loss of Vieques would degrade the readiness of our sailors and Marines for battle."A July 15 Navy report prepared for Danzig suggests just how important the Vieques range is considered by the military. "This unique facility,"the report states, "is the only location in the Atlantic where realistic multidimensional combat training can be conducted in a combined and coordinated manner. It is the only range which offers a live fire land target complex with day and night capability, an immediately adjacent large area of low traffic airspace, and deep water seaspace. Co-located are underwater and electronic warfare ranges, amphibious landing beaches and maneuver areas, a full service naval base and air station and interconnected range support facilities. It is the premier U.S. Naval training facility, reflecting more than 50 years of investment and development."But Puerto Rico has pulled out some heavy firepower of its own. Last month, Rossello hired former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell and Sam Nunn, one-time chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, to represent the island, and threatened a federal suit against the Navy if Clinton does not order an end to the bombing. In addition, Rossello claimed to have the support of Vice President Gore, though a Gore spokesman declined to say what the two men discussed during a recent phone conversation about Vieques. Carlos Romero Barcelo, the island's nonvoting representative in Congress, accuses the Navy of violating Clinton's 1994 executive order on environmental justice, which mandates all federal agencies to eliminate policies that produce a discriminatory impact on minority and poor communities. "This is an extraordinary example of environmental injustice [that] would never have happened in Martha's Vineyard,"Romero says.With each day that passes, the Pentagon realizes Vieques may be slipping from its grasp. Navy officials are so worried Clinton may side with Puerto Rico that Danzig organized an unusual briefing for Jackson when he visited Vieques. At 6 a.m. on Aug. 13, two Navy commanders went to Jackson's San Juan hotel room to plead their case. One of them was Rear Adm. Kevin Moran, commander of the Naval Region Southeast; the other was Captain James Stark, commander of the Roosevelt Roads base. The two spent half an hour explaining to the civil rights leader why the live-fire practice conditions on Vieques can't be replicated anywhere else in the world."You guys don't get it,"Jackson told them, shaking his head. "These people don't want you here."In the Philippines and in Panama, the people reached a point where they said the Navy must leave, Jackson told them. "Now they are saying it in Puerto Rico,"he said. "It is undemocratic of us not to listen. Colonialism is a sin anywhere."The officers continued to press their argument. They conceded the Navy had not been the best of neighbors. They even said they were amenable to a possible reduction in the number of days devoted to bombing, and to offering additional money to Vieques for local economic development.Dennis Rivera, head of 1199, the health care workers union, who organized much of Jackson's trip, stopped one of the officers in mid-sentence. "Where are you from?"Rivera asked.One officer said he had been raised on Long Island. "Well, how would you feel if you were living there now and the Navy was bombing the Hamptons?"The two Navy men smiled, as if conceding Rivera's point.Then Jackson startled them. "The Navy reminds me of a man who desperately wants a beautiful woman,"he said. "The woman keeps saying, 'No'â and you keep insisting you have to have her."At that point, realizing they had failed to move Jackson, the Navy men left, but not before one of them expressed his "immense admiration"for the reverend.As President Clinton mulls his decision, he finds himself in a bind. He is already facing a well-orchestrated backlash from law enforcement groups furious over his commutation of the sentences of 16 Puerto Rican nationalists who have been serving long federal sentences for seditious conspiracy. Meanwhile, Gore is avidly courting Latinos for his likely presidential race with George W. Bush next year, and Hillary Clinton is seeking Puerto Rican support in her possible showdown for the Senate with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.Against that backdrop, Latinos on the mainland see Vieques as a human rights issue. Among those joining Jackson on his Puerto Rico trip, for instance, was Rick Dovalina, the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a largely Mexican-American group. And Jackson has promised leaders in Puerto Rico that he will break the news blackout on Vieques and turn the island's plight into a major issue in the United States if Clinton does not pass a "moral test"and end the bombing.While many Puerto Rican leaders were buoyed by Jackson's trip, those on the left who continue to call for Puerto Rican independence perceived a troublesome two-sided message in some of his speeches. For instance, Jackson was warmly received by Rossello, who champions making Puerto Rico the fifty-first state. And the civil rights leader repeatedly talked of the "second-class citizenship"Puerto Ricans face under U.S. rule.The Puerto Rican left has seen its own goals and desires subsumed by well-meaning progressives from the mainland in the past. The reality is that even some of the most "progressive"American political leaders, especially in the labor movement and among African-Americans, have quietly longed for Puerto Rico's complete annexation. Those leaders believe that the two senators and seven representatives a Puerto Rican state would send to Congress could have far-reaching impact on the balance of power in Washington in favor of the Democratic Party. They think Puerto Rican progressives are making a strategic mistake by continuing to cling to a dream of independence that has never garnered even a large plurality on the island. Furthermore, they reason, Puerto Rican statehood would make the continued denial of statehood to the District of Columbia almost impossible. While Jackson did not publicly make such a call for statehood, the implications of his message were not lost on the Puerto Rican left, especially when he was accompanied by the leader of LULAC, an organization that supports Puerto Rican statehood.But for now, the main concern of everyone, the issue that has united Puerto Rico like never before, is getting the Navy out of Vieques. Should Clinton cave in to Navy pressure and deny Puerto Rico's near unanimous cry to end the bombing, he risks baring this remnant of U.S. colonialism for the entire world to see. REQUIRED TAG: This article originally appeared in In These Times.