Puerto Rico: The Real Bombers

Against the Current, No. 83, November/December 1999

César Ayala

PRACTICALLY EVERY ARICLE concerning the Puerto Rican political prisoners repeats one item of information: They were members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a pro-independence group blamed for 130 bombings in the United States that killed six people and wounded dozens of others from 1974 to 1983.

One item of information is missing from the majority of articles.  None of the prisoners were convicted for crimes that resulted in injury or death to anyone.  But never mind that small nuance: According to Representative Dan Burton of Indiana, “The only reason some of them didn’t commit murders or bombings is because they were arrested before they got a chance to.” [See note 1]

The prisoners, all of whom advocate Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States, were serving sentences of thirty-five to ninety years for charges of possession of weapons and explosives.  The extraordinarily long sentences were due to the fact that pegged to the actual charges were charges of sedition and conspiracy against the U.S. government, that is, political charges for advocating independence.

What the Clinton clemency does, in effect, is to offer them parole.  Most of the prisoners have served sentences longer than that of the average murderer in America.  Had they been treated as common criminals from the beginning, they would have been out of prison long ago.

This reality, more than sympathy for the pro-independence cause, has convinced the majority of Puerto Ricans that the prisoners should be freed.  Their freedom comes after years of broad-based community campaigns requesting their release, in the island and in the Puerto Rican communities in the United States.

But the issue has been clouded by struggles between mightier forces using the case for their own ends: President Clinton was accused of utilizing the presidential pardon to boost Ms. Clinton’s senatorial campaign among New York Puerto Ricans.  In the face of criticism, Ms. Clinton herself denounced the clemency and asked President Clinton to rescind it.[See note 2]

New York Democratic Congressman José Serrano immediately criticized Ms. Clinton for not consulting him, i.e. for breaking the expected protocol.  But Bronx Democratic leader Roberto Ramírez promptly explained why Puerto Rican political leaders would line up behind Ms. Clinton anyway in her Senate race against Mr. Giuliani, the mayor of New York:

“Hey.  On one hand you got a guy who’s beating you over your head with a bat, and one who’s stepped on your toe. Who you going to dance with?”  [See note 3]

An irate FBI director, for his part, used the issue of the Puerto Rican political prisoners to fire back against the Clinton administration’s Justice Department, which is investigating his agency for utilizing firebombs in Waco. Thus the FBI leaked to the press that it had forcefully opposed the clemency.

The Rule of Law?

Resolutions were passed in Congress, with Democratic support, against freeing the political prisoners.  Political commentators reflected on presidential pardons and the separation of legislative and executive powers, arguing that clemency is an executive prerogative.  And Clinton himself pontificated on the merits of American democracy: “No form of violence is ever justified as a means of political expression in a democratic society based on the rule of law.” [See note 4]

From the point of view of the prisoners, the issue is precisely the one described by Mr. Clinton—but as the pro-independence fighters see it, Puerto Rico is NOT a democratic society, not even by the narrow standards of political life in the United States.

The island is subject to the ultimate authority of a Congress which the residents are not enfranchised to elect.  Its men are subject to a military draft imposed by an executive branch the residents do not elect.

Puerto Ricans have served in every imperial war since World War I. This ultimate tax in human lives is imposed without the consent of the governed.

Individually, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and have been since 1917.  But the territory has no voting congressional representation, no vote in federal elections.  Island residents were “granted” U.S. citizenship by a decision of the U.S. Congress without their consent or consultation.

All of this, and much more, does not derive from a democratic society based on the rule of law. It originated in an act of colonial conquest during the Spanish American War of 1898.  This fundamentally undemocratic arrangement is what the political prisoners have been denouncing.  It’s called colonialism.

Sovereignty over Puerto Rico rests in the U.S. Congress.  Any plebiscite or consultation of the island’s population is merely a poll. The actual power to change the status rests with the U.S. Congress, which has never committed to respecting what the Puerto Rican people decide in a plebiscite, and has refused to concede that the Puerto Rican colonial problem is an international matter to be handled by the U.N. Decolonization Committee.

Yet somehow, in all the talk about bombs, the central issue of colonialism has been lost.

The Real U.S. Bombs

The burning issue in Puerto Rico at present is not FALN bombs but navy bombs.  The U.S. Navy owns two-thirds of the land in the island of Vieques, off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. It uses the western end of the island as an ammunition depot, and the eastern end as a target range for bombing from planes and ships.  It even rents out Vieques for allied forces to practice landing their bombs there.

Sandwiched between a bomb depot and an explosive place, the 9600 residents in Vieques have endured immense hardship for six decades.

During World War II, the United States Federal Government expropriated 26,000 of the 33,000 acres of land in the island of Vieques to construct military bases.  The facilities at Vieques, known as Camp García, are part of a larger complex known as Roosevelt Roads Naval Base, located in eastern Puerto Rico.

Roosevelt Roads is the largest U.S. base outside the continental United States.  It was built during World War II to house the entire British Navy in the event of a German invasion of the British Isles. [See note 5]

Vieques residents are struggling against the ecological and human devastation caused by the presence of the U.S. Navy. The use of the eastern end for live target practice from U.S. warships and from jet fighters has produced widespread devastation of ecosystems<197>destruction of mangroves essential for the reproduction of marine life and the consequent constriction of the fishing industry, pollution caused by the use of toxic chemicals.

There are educational and social problems, human rights issues.  U.S. fighter planes flying at 1300 miles an hour can easily miss a target by a few miles.  Vieques is eleven miles long.

Massive protests erupted after a bomb dropped by an F-18 fighter jet killed a civilian, David Sanes, on April 19, 1999, and wounded several others.  After the death of Sanes the government of Puerto Rico published a special report revealing the utilization of napalm and munitions made of depleted uranium by the U.S. Navy in Vieques. [See note 6]  This caused quite a stir in the island and is prompting renewed studies of cancer rates in Vieques, which are twenty-seven percent higher than in the main island of Puerto Rico. The only source of pollutants in Vieques is the U.S. Navy.[See note 7]

In the summer of 1999, a massive movement of protest developed, with the establishment of peace camps on navy target lands.  Local groups of fishermen, groups of ecologists from the main island, pro-independence activists from the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, and trade unionists from the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, have established separate camps in navy lands where normally the bombs would drop.

These bold initiatives were followed by a protest March of 50,000 people on July 4, 1999 outside the gates of Roosevelt Roads on the main island, demanding the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from the island of Vieques.  In a novel development in the long history of community activism, the massive protests of the summer of 1999 included representatives of all political parties and defenders of all status formulas—Commonwealth, Statehood, Independence.

The call for the navy to pull out of Vieques is practically universal in Puerto Rico. Recent polls indicate that seven out of ten Puerto Ricans want the navy to withdraw NOW. All sectors of civil society, including religious organizations and the hierarchy of the churches, are supporting what has become a truly national demand for the withdrawal of the navy.

The peace encampments are boldly defying threats of arrest and federal charges.  A movement is developing to build solidarity with the peace encampments, to collect bail for those arrested, and to protest against U.S. authorities in case of arrests.

The forces stacked against the people of Vieques are powerful.  NATO Commander Wesley Clark has already declared that live target practice in Vieques is essential for troop readiness in Europe.  A presidential panel made up of military men will issue recommendations, and the president will make a determination on the future of Vieques some time this fall.

The most probable outcome is a recommendation for the navy to continue to bomb Vieques for at least another five years.  The protesters have declared that previous promises by the U.S. Navy to that effect have not been fulfilled.  The Navy must pull out of Vieques now, and return the lands to the Viequenses according to the program of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, to pursue a program known as the four D’s: demilitarization, devolution, decontamination, development.

The minute the presidential recommendations become public, federal marshals will move to arrest the protesters in the peace encampments.  The protesters, on their part, have declared that they shall not be moved.

  1. Katharine Q. Seelye, “F.B.I. Director Was Opposed To Freeing Puerto Ricans,” New York Times, September 22, 1999.
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  2. Adam Nagourney, “First Lady Urges President to Withdraw Clemency Offer for Terrorist Group,” New York Times, September 5, 1999.
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  3. Elisabeth Bumiller, “Clemency, From Bronx Leader to First Lady,” New York Times, Sept 15, 1999.
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  4. Clinton to Rep. Henry Waxman, quoted in “Excerpts From 2 Letters on Commutations,” New York Times, September 22, 1999.
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  5. Humberto Garcia Muñiz, “U.S. Military Installations in Puerto Rico: Controlling the Caribbean, ” in Edgardo Melendez and Edwin Melendez, eds. Colonial Dilemma: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Puerto Rico, 55 (Boston: South End Press, 1993).
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  6. A summary of the community issues is presented in Robert Rabin, “Struggle for Human Rights on Vieques, Puerto Rico,” War Resisters League Newsletter (July, 1999).  The general outlines of the ecological devastation are presented in Jose Seguinot Barbosa, Geografia, ecología y derecho de Puerto Rico y el Caribe: serie de ensayos (San Juan: 1994) and in Robert Rabin, “Vieques: An Ecology under Siege.” (Vieques Historic Archives, published in Isla Nena, September, 1990).  The utilization of toxic chemicals and the levels of pollution caused by explosives are documented in Rafael Cruz Perez, “Contamination Produced by Explosives and Residuals of Explosives in Vieques, Puerto Rico, ” Dimension (Magazine of the Association of Engineers and Surveyors of Puerto Rico) 2(8) (January, 1988). Recently, the revelation of the use of depleted uranium in Vieques has created a scandal and a sharp response by the environmental movement.  See Government of Puerto Rico, Special Commission on Vieques.  Study of the Situation of the Island-Municipality with Regards to the U.S. Navy’s Activities, 1999.  For the incidence of cancer rates in Vieques, see Cruz Maria Nazario, Erick Suarez, and Cynthia Perez, Analisis Critico del Informe Incidencia de Cancer en Puerto Rico del Departamento de Salud de Puerto Rico, University of Puerto Rico School of Public Health (November, 1997).
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  7. Associated Press, “Radioactive Shells Fired in Puerto Rico: Officials Say Navy Didn’t Tell Them of Mistake,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1999: 26; Michelle Faul, “Navy Admits Firing Shells with Uranium on Island,” Houston Chronicle, June 3, 1999: 13 and, by the same writer, “Puerto Rico Officials Say US Didn’t Tell of Shelling Error,” Boston Globe, May 29, 1999: A3.
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César Ayala is active in the Vieques Support Campaign.  For information and updates contact the Campaign at 39 West 14 Street #206, NY NY 10011.  Contact: Frank Velgara (phone: 718-601-4751)

ATC 83, November-December 1999