Vieques: 100 Years of Uncertainty

On June 14, the Bush administration announced it will discontinue all bombing practice on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by May 2003. The decision comes after two years of clashes between the United States Navy and a throng of protestors calling for an end to the island's use as a bombing range. April exercises instigated widespread resistance and over 200 protestors were arrested. Among them were the notorious Vieques Four -- New York City Councilman Adolfo Carrion, State Assemblyman Jose Rivera, Democrat Party Chairman Roberto Ramirez, and the Reverend Al Sharpton -- and various other high-profile celebrities including environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Edward James Olmos.

The decision to end the bombing comes at a time when the administration fears loosing popularity among Latino voters, realizing that Puerto Ricans everywhere are heavily vested in the outcome of this dispute. Protestors were already gearing up for another round of bombing, scheduled to begin on June 18. Both the Navy and the protestors were stepping up their tactics and arrests were piling up.

Vieques is a tiny island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico that has recently been at the center of a controversy brewing since 1898. The United States invaded Puerto Rico that year, ousting the Spanish colonists and claiming the island as its own. Since then, Puerto Rico has remained a territory of the United States, a relationship some call a beneficial partnership, others a repressive vestige of colonialism. Vieques, with its palm-lined beaches, wild horses and 9,600 inhabitants has become the unlikely setting for the most recent chapter in the tempestuous history of Puerto Rican identity politics.

The trouble in Vieques began in 1938 when the U.S. Navy forcefully appropriated 26,000 acres -- 75 percent of the island -- in order to establish a naval base. Since World War II, Vieques has served as a primary Navy training site where thousands of troops practice war maneuvers. The Navy has persistently claimed that no other location is suitable for training.

"The small Puerto Rican island of Vieques is vital to our common defense," Navy Undersecretary Robert B. Pirie, Jr. said in a May 24 speech. "There is simply no other place like Vieques."

The deep coastal waters and location far removed from commercial airline traffic enables troops to practice beach landings, air maneuvers, naval tactics and, of course, target practice. The U.S. Navy and NATO practice bombing and shelling approximately 200 days a year, provoking safety concerns among the island's inhabitants.

On April 19, 1999 a civilian security guard named David Sanes Rodríguez was killed, and four others were injured, when a Navy fighter plane missed its target and dropped two bombs onto a surveillance tower. The death of 35-year-old Rodríguez instigated anti-Navy protests throughout Puerto Rico and the mainland United States. Hundreds of protestors invaded the Navy base, erecting a 10-foot white cross on top of a tank and setting up an encampment in the area where Rodríguez had been killed.

While Sanes was the first direct fatality caused by Navy bombing, many Viequenses have long viewed the Navy's activities as dangerous as this was not the first occasion that bombers missed their targets. In 1993 a plane dropped five bombs just outside of town, rattling windows and fraying nerves. In 1997, some misguided troops accidentally machine-gunned a school bus and police car. The litany of near misses goes on, although no one was killed until 1999.

Continuous bombardment for the last 60 years also has taken a toll on the island's environment. The Navy dropped thousands of pounds of live explosives, including napalm, onto the Vieques' surface. Between 1998 and 1999 they fired over 500 depleted uranium shells. Even the ocean is contaminated by toxins from unexploded bombs, slowly reducing the area's spectacular coral reefs and myriad sea life.

Moreover, as early as the 1970s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that environmental contamination was affecting the health of Viequenses. The air, water and soil all have high levels of toxic materials and heavy metals. The consequence: one third of the island's population has some kind of serious illness. The Puerto Rican Health Department determined the island's cancer rates to be 27 percent higher than those of Puerto Rico as a whole and residents also suffer from unusually high rates of asthma, lupus, scleroderma and other rare diseases.

A recent study by the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found a rare heart condition among Vieques fishermen called vibroacoustic disease. The potentially fatal illness has been linked to continuous exposure to very loud noises such as bomb explosions and jet engines.

Viequenses also blame the Navy for the high poverty rate. Nearly three quarters of the population lives below the poverty line. The Navy claims to offer jobs for civilians but currently employs only thirty islanders. Most of the islanders work as fishermen, but the fishing industry is constantly frustrated by naval activity, which limits fishermen's territory and destroys nets.

Viequenses have long been concerned about the Navy's activities and protest is nothing new to the island. The first protest was in 1978 when a group of fishing boats, ordered to stay in the harbor for three days during NATO maneuvers, sailed out into the bombing range. Since then groups of islanders and the occasional outsider have entered into brief clashes with the Navy but it wasn't until Sanes' death that protestors' activities made news.

Immediately following the incident, citizens and politicians alike were united in calling for an immediate halt to the bombings in Vieques. However, as clashes between protestors and the military escalated over the last two years, drawing national attention and furrowing brows from the Pentagon to the White House, opinions on Vieques polarized. The standoff between Puerto Rican citizens and the U.S. government reignited the century-old debate over Puerto Rican citizenship.

Puerto Ricans do not possess the same status as other American citizens. Although the Jones Act of 1917 granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, their citizenship does not include the same rights afforded to mainland-born U.S. citizens. Because it is a protectorate, Puerto Rico is denied full participation in the U.S. political system. Puerto Ricans do not have the right to vote in the presidential run-offs, and their congressional delegate has no voting power.

Although the U.S. Congress passed a law that made Puerto Rico a Commonwealth with its own Constitution in 1951, self-determination is not a right because Puerto Rico is a territory; the U.S. can interfere with its political system at anytime. A 1997 report from the General Accounting Office states: "Congress may unilaterally repeal the Puerto Rico Constitution or the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act and replace them with any rules or regulations of its choice. Despite passage of the Federal Relations Act and the Puerto Rico Constitution, Puerto Rican courts continue to derive their authority from the United States Congress."

This precarious situation has colored the island's politics for the last 100 years, as Puerto Ricans struggle to define a stable future either as the 51st state of the union, a permanent commonwealth or an independent nation. The ambiguity of Puerto Rico's legal status has fomented countless struggles and contradictions, both external and internal. While many Puerto Ricans do resent the limitations on the civil rights, they also appreciate the billions of dollars in federal aid that has enabled the island to become the most developed nation in the Caribbean. Various polls show Puerto Ricans evenly divided between commonwealth and state options, with a slowly growing minority favoring independence.

A choice of citizenship is also personal; it is one's identity. "Puerto Rico's heart is not American. It is Puerto Rican," said Rubén Berrios Martínez, president of the Puerto Rican Indepedence Party in a 1997 speech, "Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but they are not Americans."

Conversely, Puerto Rico's current governor, Sila María Calderón, a member of the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, said in a 1998 speech, "I have never felt like a second-class citizen. I consider myself a U.S. citizen. I appreciate and treasure my U.S. citizenship. I would never renounce or consider loosing that citizenship. I want my children and their children to always have it."

More and more, the individual notions of Puerto Rican citizenship define allegiances in the Vieques-Navy standoff. Those who define themselves as Puerto Rican first, tend to support the Viequenses, while Puerto Ricans who are striving to forge closer ties to the United States would rather avoid the issue because they perceive it as divisive.

The pro-independence movement was one of the first enter the fray. The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) set up its own camp on the bombing range within days of the first protests. They have remained highly active in the protests and their members continue to participate in the acts of civil disobedience.

PIP Central Committee Member Hans Perl-Matanzo told Alternet, "Vieques is the most vivid metaphor of the ugly consequences that result from the United States' century-old colonial rule over Puerto Rico." While he admits that not all involved in the Vieques struggle agree with this position, Perl-Matanzo asserts, "Vieques will prove to be the most important catalyst in the process of liberating Puerto Ricans from their present-day colonial psyche."

By contrast, pro-statist and pro-commonwealthers accuse protestors of concocting false charges against the Navy in order to instigate a confrontation, widening the rift between the two nations. Party members who have taken a pro-Vieques stance have been publicly criticized by their fellows.

Governor Sila María Calderón is one of those who has gone against the party line and called for an immediate end to the bombing of Vieques. She even attempted to suspend maneuvers by filing a restraining order in federal court. However, Gov. Calderón also has been trying not to ruffle too many feathers in Washington by repeatedly insisting that she has no separatist agenda. In a May 1 statement she said, "The health and well-being of the 9,000 residents of Vieques is extremely important, and to defend them doesn't at all mean to be anti-American, against Bush or against the national security. On the contrary, we are proud of our U.S. citizenship and we want to preserve it."

Gov. Calderón is in favor of a continued Navy presence in Vieques, as long as the bombing comes to a halt. However, even this milder stance has raised criticism from within her own party. Rep. Jorge DeCastro Font, also Popular Democratic Party, has officially asked Gov. Calderón to retreat from her hardline stance on bombings in Vieques because of the movement's association with "independentistas." Other politicians also have been pressured by their parties to back down on Vieques for political reasons: Norma Burgos, acting president of the pro-statist New Progressive Party (PNP), is being railroaded out of party leadership for her condemnation of the Navy bombings.

Even politicians in the United States who take a position on Vieques are careful to avoid the question of Puerto Rico's legal status. The majority of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. are proud of their citizenship and, even though they would like to see an end to the bombing, politicians would become unpopular if their objections to Navy presence were segwayed into talk of independence.

For example, New York mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer has been a vocal opponent of the Navy bombings. While his spokesperson John Del Cecato is quick to denounce the Navy, he also emphasizes this is not a Puerto Rican dispute, but an "issue of concern to all Americans of conscience."

"These bombing exercises are having a horribly debilitating effect on the 10,000 U.S. citizens living on the island," Del Cecato said in a June 7 interview.

An agreement signed between former President Clinton and former Puerto Rican Governor Rosello had scheduled a vote for November, 2001 in which Viequenses would be able to decide for themselves whether the Navy could stay beyond May 2003. Gov. Calderón was pushing hard to have the vote moved up to August. Although the Navy was offering $50 million in aid to the island for a 'yes' vote, officials predicted a resounding 'no.' The Bush administrations' preemptive decision may have been an attempt to avoid defeat at the polls.

However, for those who hoped that the confrontation on Vieques may force Washington to pay more attention to Puerto Rican demands, the announcement is a disappointment. New York Representative Jose Serrano called the decision "unacceptable." Another New York Representative Charles B. Rangel also expressed his disappointment and called the two-year delay a "very embarrassing thing" for Gov. Calderón, whose demands for an immediate end to the bombing.

Because Vieques has forced Puerto Ricans to take another look at their own identity and to confront the stinging reality of their unresolved legal status, mild concessions are not satisfactory. The standoff will continue, and more conflicts will arise until Puerto Ricans are given the right to vote on their future.

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