Vieques After A Year of Struggle

Against the Current, No. 87, July/August 2000

César Ayala

THIRTEEN PEACE ENCAMPMENTS prevented the U.S. Navy for thirteen months from using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for target practice, until they were forcibly cleared by FBI agents and federal marshals on May 4th, 2000.

In the meantime, two Atlantic Fleets had to suspend maneuvers and the U.S.S.  George Washington and the U.S.S. Eisenhower, two gigantic aircraft carriers headed for Vieques, had to turn around and go elsewhere.

The island of Vieques, off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, is inhabited by 9,600 residents.  Two-thirds is owned by the U.S. Navy, which uses the island’s eastern end for target practice.  According to recent revelations, napalm and depleted uranium have been used by the Navy in Vieques.  (See César Ayala, “The Real Bombers,” ATC 83.)

The movement to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques escalated after a civilian, David Sanes, was killed by a bomb fired from a Navy fighter plane that missed its target on April 19, 1999.

Shortly afterwards, protesters set up encampments on the target range to prevent the Navy from firing.  As the number of protesters permanently settled in the encampments increased, protests in Puerto Rico and in the United States also escalated, demanding the withdrawal of the U.S. Navy.

Thousands rallied to the Vieques cause in Puerto Rico and in the Puerto Rican communities in the United States.  On February 21, 2000, 80,000 people (official police figure) marched in San Juan to protest the U.S. Navy’s presence on the island of Vieques and to demand the permanent cessation of bombings on that island.[See note 1]

Federal marshals and the FBI finally descended on the peace encampments on May 4, 2000.  Approximately 224 protesters were removed from the peace encampments and sent to Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in eastern Puerto Rico, where they were subsequently released.  No charges were filed.

Complex Array of Protesters

The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CPRDV, after its initials in Spanish) has been a leading force in the organization of the protest movement.[See note 2] The CPRDV is committed to a program known as the four D’s: demilitarization, devolution, decontamination and development.

The forces opposing the Navy represent a broad spectrum of Puerto Rican society: The Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) set up its own encampment, and the president of the party stayed in Vieques in a tent for almost a year.

The complex array of protesters–from the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, students from the University of Puerto Rico, church groups with prominent support from the Catholic Bishop of Caguas in the island of Puerto Rico, women’s groups and environmental groups to Christian Peacemaker Teams from the United States and other pacifists and antimilitarists–have a number of overlapping reasons for opposing the Navy.

To the residents of Vieques, the Navy is a longstanding enemy who took their land in two successive waves of expropriations: in 1942-43 and in 1947.  The Navy now owns 26,000 of the 33,000 acres on the island.

To the environmentalists, Vieques is an extreme case of pollution and destruction of the natural habitat of several species, first and foremost of the human species.  Toxins produced by bomb explosions are carried by the trade winds to the civilian area. The use of depleted uranium, napalm and sixty years of military use has produced a cancer rate in Vieques that is twenty-seven percent higher than in the island of Puerto Rico, which already has high rates of pollution-related disease.

To the church groups, the target practices in Vieques are a violation of the right to live in peace, and of the right of children to grow up without fear of stray bombs overhead.

To the pro-independence movement–the PIP, Congreso Nacional Hostosiano and Frente Socialista, for example–Vieques is a symbol of national oppression and must be rescued from the Navy as part of the process of achieving full national self-determination.

Within this complex array of forces that converged in the movement to rid Vieques of the destructive presence of the U.S. Navy, each component part agrees with most, although not necessarily all, of the reasons the others have for opposing the Navy. There are differences of emphasis among the groups.

The Arrested

Among those arrested in Vieques was the president of the PIP, Rubén Berríos Martínez.  He is the honorary president of the Socialist International, of which his party is a member.

Others joined the protesters as it became evident that federal marshals would proceed to clear the area. Puerto Rican Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Puerto Rican Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), New York State Assemblyman Roberto Ramírez, and a number of religious figures from Puerto Rico were among those present in the camps the day of the arrests.

Congressman José Serrano (D-NY), was apparently impelled into action by the more militant position of his two fellow Puerto Rican members of Congress.  He had himself arrested (with some difficulty) in front of the White House after the events in Vieques.

Protests After the Arrests

The press in the United States has had very scant reporting on the incidents surrounding the Vieques protests and subsequent arrests.  The wave of protests that followed the arrests in Puerto Rico was practically blocked out.

In the U.S. Puerto Rican communities, there were demonstrations on May 5th protesting the arrests in Vieques.  Thousands took to the streets in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Minnesota, California, Connecticut, Illinois and New Hampshire.[See note 3]

In New York City, which has a large Puerto Rican community, hundreds of protesters descended on Time Square in central Manhattan, where Nydia Velázquez and Assemblyman Ramírez, back from the Vieques arrests, among others, addressed the crowd.

A directive issued by President Clinton declares that there is an emergency in Vieques.  Federal prosecutors in San Juan are now authorized to file charges with penalties of up to ten years in jail and $250,000 in fines.

After the first round of removals from Vieques, the detained were pressured to sign a form accepting a number of conditions-not returning to federal lands in Vieques and acknowledging the warning about the possible federal penalties.  None of the 224 signed.

The lawyers in the crowd of those arrested-most prominently Rubén Berríos Martínez-asked to go before a magistrate or be released immediately.  The protesters were released without charges.  But federal authorities repeated their warnings of stiff penalties for reentry to the Navy target areas.

Second Wave of Resistance

On May 10th, Rubén Berríos Martínez reentered the target area, accompanied by the PIP’s ecological advisor, Jorge Fernández Porto.  They were arrested and brought before a magistrate in San Juan. Charges were filed and the two independentistas were released without bail. (On June 13th they were sentenced, respectively, to six and four hours in prison-a clear sign that the federal authorities are not willing to punish protesters who want the Navy out of Vieques.)

On Saturday, May 13th, fifty-five protesters evaded U.S. troops guarding the Navy area and entered the firing range again.  Among the leading activists in this action was Ismael Guadalupe, leader of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.

A veteran of the antimilitarist movement in Vieques, Guadalupe was sentenced in 1979 by a U.S. federal court to five months in a federal jail in Lewisburg, Pennslvania after an action to prevent Navy bombings.  (The twenty-one protesters sentenced in 1979 with Guadalupe were sent to different prisons.  Among the activists sentenced was Angel Rodríguez Cristóbal, who died in a federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida, under obscure circumstances.)

Of the fifty-five detained on Saturday, May 13th, twenty-five–who were identified by the authorities as part of the first group of 224 arrested–were sent to a federal prison in Guaynabo, and had a hearing in federal court.  They were released without bail. Outside the courtroom, a militant picket vociferously had been demanding their unconditional release.

That same day, U.S. District Judge Carmen Consuelo Vargas de Cerezo, ex-chief judge of the federal court in Puerto Rico, recused herself from the trial of PIP leader Rubén Berríos Martínez.  She declared in a dramatic written statement, which was couched in religious language, that “she will have nothing to do with the case. The judge indicated in her statement her strong support for the Vieques cause, and by implication her support for the highly publicized efforts of Berríos to prevent resumption of U.S. Navy bombing practice there.”[See note 4]

Given the overwhelming public support which the cause of Vieques enjoys in Puerto Rico and in the Puerto Rican communities in the United States, the group of fifty-five is trying to keep resistance alive in Vieques by challenging the court system.

A second streak of resistance is currently being pursued by ecologists and fishermen who are in hiding in Vieques in the target zones, with stocks of supplies, to challenge the Navy’s attempts to renew bombings.

Among those who have pursued this road of resistance are Casimar and Pedro Zenón, sons of longtime anti-militaristic activist Carlos Zenón, a leader of the Vieques fishermen.  In the same group is Puerto Rican environmental activist Tito de Jesús, popularly known in the island as “Tito Kayak.”

De Jesús is a veteran environmentalist and has carried out a number of dramatic protests against the shipment of plutonium across the Mona Passage in western Puerto Rico. He is credited with having started the first encampment in the target range after the death of David Sanes.

La Marina que se vaya!

Despite the massive federal presence guarding the fence to Camp García and the stiff federal penalties, protest activities continue.  On May 27, there was a vigil in front of the gates to Camp García.  The action was dedicated to the fifty-eight people recently arrested, the fifty-four on May 13th, Rubén Berríos Martínez and Jorge Fernández Porto of the PIP, and the Zenón Brothers Cacimar and Pedro.

Civil disobedience and protests have continued on the island and in the United States.  On June 7th, protesters chained themselves to the statue of the Bull in Bowling Green in the heart of Wall Street.  The statue is a symbol of corporate profitability to the corporate world.  To environmentalists it is a symbol of corporate ecological destruction.

New York City’s Puerto Rican Parade

In New York City, in the Lower East Side and in 116th Street in Spanish Harlem, the main theme of the festivals the day before the Puerto Rican parade was the struggle to rid Vieques of the U.S. Navy.

Ismael Guadalupe, Carlos Zenón, Nationalist Lolita Lebrón and others spoke to militant crowds in Manhattan’s Lower East Side the day before the Puerto Rican parade while PIP leader Rubén Berríos Martínez was present for the festivities in Spanish Harlem.

In New York, which has a Puerto Rican community of 950,000, the Puerto Rican day parade of June 11th became essentially one huge protest against the United States Navy occupation.  However, the significance of the June 10-11 events was marred by the actions of young men who carried out sexual assaults in East Harlem on Satuday and in Central Park after the Sunday march.

In its June 16th statement, the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights outlined three reasons why the men “are enemies of the Latino and Black communities”:

  1. “Anyone who forces themselves on women in any way is an oppressor.  Our communities can only rise with the active participation and leadership of women and the broad acceptance of values which emphasize respect for all members of the community, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.  We cannot tolerate any form of abuse or disrespect that intimidates, violates, or reduces the participation of women in our communities’ lives.
  2. “Anyone who adds to the fear and instability of the community is an enemy.  Just as we fight racist politicians, greedy slum landlords, uncaring educators and brutal cops whose actions terrorize and hurt our people-so too must we must denounce those among us who perpetuate these actions and frighten us into accepting second-class citizenship.
  3. “This year’s National Puerto Rican Parade and the celebrations leading up to it told the world that the Puerto Rican people are coming together for progress and are united in our demand that the U.S. Government stop the bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico. However, the actions of a few at the 116th St. Festival and after the Parade, undermined these positive messages and the honoring of Don Pedro Albizu Campos and Tito Puente-and gave ammunition to those who profit from keeping us down. Two million Puerto Ricans, young and old, celebrated our culture and our contributions at the parade; but now sex attacks by mobs of about 50 young men is the only story considered newsworthy.”[See note 5]

On June 22nd another sixty-three people were arrested inside the Navy’s training ground.  They were protesting the Navy’s announcement that practice bombing would resume.  On balance, year one of the struggle against the Navy has been a success.  The movement seems poised to continue successfully until the U.S. Navy finally pulls out of Vieques.

  1. Manuel Ernesto Rivera, “80,000 Protest Navy in Puerto Rico,” Associated Press (February 21, 2000).
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  2. Contacts: Robert Rabin, bieke<|>3.<|>Luis Torres de la Llosa, “Thousands Demonstrate against the use of Vieques by Pentagon,” Agence France Presse, May 5, 2000.
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  3. Luis Torres de la Llosa, “Thousands Demonstrate against the use of Vieques by Pentagon,” Agence France Presse, May 5, 2000.
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  4. “Judge Inhibits Self in Vieques Case,” San Juan, Puerto Rico, HWP News Service, May 14, 2000.
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  5. To contact the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights Justice Committee for the complete statement, call 212-353-7825 or e-mail: rperez@
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César Ayala, who is a member of the ATC advisory board, is active in the Vieques Support Campaign in New York City.

ATC 87, July-August 2000