Vieques and U.S. “Democracy”

Against the Current, No. 92, May/June 2001

César Ayala

THE EXPLOSIVE RENEWAL of the struggle over Vieques took place just as this magazine went to press. For the last two years a massive movement of civilian protest has been calling on the U.S. Navy to get out of Vieques, a small island located a few miles east of Puerto Rico which is used as a bombing range despite the fact that there are over 10,000 civilians living within a few miles of the target area.

After April 19, 1999, when civilian David Sanes was killed by a bomb which went astray, Civil disobedience encampments with hundreds of protesters in the bombing area paralyzed Navy maneuvers for over a year.(1)

Last year a Clinton presidential directive mandated a referendum to be held in Vieques on the Navy’s use of the island. This decision was not completely favorable to the Navy: It did call for a civilian referendum to determine whether a U.S. base should stay or leave. That achievement is proof of the tremendous strength of the movement to oust the Navy from Vieques.

The Navy’s position on this issue is that it is a matter of U.S. national security that should be in the hands of Congress and the executive branch in consultation with the armed forces, but certainly not in the hands of the local population.

The degree to which the Clinton directive reflects the enormous pressure for a Navy ouster, therefore, should not be underestimated. It represents a partial victory for the movement against the U.S. Navy’s presence in Vieques.

However, Clinton’s mandated “solution” is one in which the U.S. military decides when to conduct a civilian referendum. According to Clinton’s directive, which was supported by the ex-governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rosselló of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, the timing of the referendum was to be decided by the United States Navy.

In any Latin American republic, this would be called military interference in the civilian political process. In colonial Puerto Rico, it is supposedly “democratic due process.”

The autonomist Popular Democratic Party (PPD) ran in the November 2000 elections on a campaign based on three issues: (1) U.S. Navy withdrawal from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques; (2) ending the government corruption which characterized the eight years of Rosselló’s governorship; (3) stopping the wave of privatization which accelerated under the Rosselló administration.

The issue of corruption has much to do with the piñata that developed out of the privatization over the last eight years of state owned enterprises, the largest of which was the Puerto Rico Telephone Company.(2)

The PPD supports the current colonial status of Puerto Rico, defined according to its own discourse as “autonomy.” It won the gubernatorial elections in Puerto Rico by 60,000 votes (3%), and in the island of Vieques PPD mayoral candidate Dámaso Serrano López received 64% of the vote, trouncing the NPP’s candidate, who received 31% of the vote.

Thus, opposition to the possibility of a Navy-held referendum and therefore to the Clinton presidential directive is now based on two broad ideas: (1) it represents military interference in a civilian political process and (2) the elections in Puerto Rico, showing a clear popular mandate both in Vieques and in the larger Island for a Navy pullout, voided the need for a Navy-held referendum.

Bribery and Lawsuits

The Navy-sponsored referendum was meant to be held after the distribution to the population of some 8,000 acres of land on the western part of the island.

By carrying out this partial agrarian reform, the Navy intended to gain enough popular support to win a local election and retain its target range in the eastern part of Vieques. That is why the timing of the referendum was something to be decided by the U.S. Navy, not by authorities in Puerto Rico.

There developed a series of legal complications, however, among them the fact that according to Puerto Rican law, the expiration of the “public purpose” for which the lands were expropriated during World War II (construction of military bases) signified a right of reversion of ownership to the original proprietors.

Some of the descendants of the large landowners who owned most of the lands in Vieques before the Navy took over were suing in court, blocking the distribution of land and the Navy’s ill-conceived agrarian reform.(3)

Ironically, the descendants of Puerto Rico’s big landowners, who have historically been beneficiaries of the colonial regime, were here blocking the larger interests of the Navy in pursuit of narrow gain — dressed of course in the rhetoric of “autonomy” and “local control.”

This issue obviously raises the problem of who will own what in Vieques when the Navy pulls out. Before the Navy’s expropriations during World War II, the land belonged to a chosen few and most families in Vieques were landless.(4)

Health Studies & Actions from Below

Puerto Rico’s new governor Sila Calderón was sworn in on January 2. On January 10 she announced the results of a study on heart disease carried out by local heart specialists Roberto Torres Aguiar, Carlos Rios and Guillermo Tirado, which shows that Viequenses may be suffering from “vibro-acoustic disease,” a thickening of the heart’s outer lining due to exposure to low frequency noise from ship to shore shelling.(5)

A study carried out by the Graduate School of Planning at the University of Puerto Rico and Servicios Científico Técnicos, a non-profit organization, concluded that the risk of developing cancer is three times higher in Vieques than in the main island of Puerto Rico, that of developing heart illnesses is 73% higher, and the probability of developing asthma is 18% higher.

This study sampled 1,043 people (11% of the population of Vieques). The disparity with a previously cited study from the Department of Health, which stated that cancer rates in Vieques are 26% higher than in Puerto Rico, is due to the fact that this last study measures the incidence of cancer, whereas the health Department Study measured mortality.(6)

In the meantime, mobilizations from below continue. The testimony before the federal court in San Juan of dozens of citizens arrested in the Vieques encampments attract the attention of the press daily.

Citizens who have parents, spouses, and children who died of cancer angrily explain to the courts that there is a “larger motive” which impels them into civil disobedience. The court processes are costly and time-consuming, as they require that the Navy send personnel to identify each of the accused.

It is estimated that the federal court in Puerto Rico is now two years behind schedule on account of the Vieques cases. Defendants can count on lawyers who work pro-bono to take up their cases. The court cases are accompanied by pickets and demonstration by supporters of the defendants outside the Federal Court in San Juan.

The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques keeps the marches and demonstrations against the Navy alive and kicking. Just recently, Viequenses staged an action against the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Protesters greeted the “experts” from the agency with sixty crosses, one for each year the Navy has been in Vieques, and paralyzed the “community meeting” which was supposed to allow the agency to explain that there is no contamination of the waters surrounding Vieques.(7)

The Puerto Rican Diaspora’s Role

On January 15, President Clinton ordered federal health authorities to investigate Puerto Rican Government findings on vibro-acoustic disease.(8)

On March 1, worn down by months of protests and lobbying by Puerto Rican politicians, the Navy did an about face and suspended the scheduled bombing practice on Vieques. The Navy’s tarnished image after the Greenville submarine disaster may also be a factor in the decision to suspend the bombings.(9)

New York’s Republican Governor, George Pataki, was apparently “a force behind the scenes” lobbying the Bush administration to end the bombing of Vieques. New York electoral politics are a factor because Pataki faces re-election and is courting the Puerto Rican vote.

Dennis Rivera, president of New York’s 1199 health workers’ union, held a rally for Pataki at the union offices, an unprecedented event because Rivera is a Democrat, and the support of his union is “considered essential for the victory of any Democrat.” Rivera is apparently disappointed that Clinton himself did not suspend the bombings.

“The president was prepared to take the heat on the issue of Marc Rich,” according to Rivera, “but he was not prepared to take some heat from the Navy for pardoning the people of Vieques. That’s unforgivable.”(10)

The Vaccuum of Labor Politics

Rivera’s courting of the Republicans for the sake of Vieques, which after all is not a budget item in New York and therefore costs the politicians nothing, portrays in bold relief the weakness of labor in the current bipartisan system of the United States, and the absence of a labor party capable of carrying not just labor but all kinds of community and democratic grievances into the heart of the political system.

Given such an absence, it makes sense for labor leaders to activate competition between Republicans and Democrats instead of supporting the Democratic Party unconditionally. However, activating such competition is not a substitute for the real task of building a party capable of representing the interests of the working majority of America.

Because Puerto Rico is a colony, it does not decide critical issues such as immigration, currency, tariffs or the presence of military installations. In other words, the people of Puerto Rico are not in a position to decide their own fate on these critical matters.

Nor do they have any meaningful input into U.S. federal decisions. The island does not have voting congressional representatives, nor does it have senators, but it is under the authority of the U.S. Congress. It relies on the elected representatives from New York and Illinois (José Serrano D-NY, Nydia Velázquez D-NY, Luis Gutiérrez, D-IL) for lobbying and pressure on Washington.

Because the Vieques issue has resonance in the Puerto Rican community, politicians in the communities of the Diaspora take up the issue of Vieques and use it for electoral purposes. The Democratic and Republican parties can only be surrogate representatives of the cause of Puerto Rico or of labor; but it is through these surrogate conveyor belts in the Diaspora that the Puerto Rican will and grassroots mobilization for an end to the Navy presence in Vieques finds political expression in Washington.

Given the weakness of oppositional movements in the United States, this expression is played out in the field of ethnic-urban politics as opposed to the field of broad working-class opposition to injustice and inequality — once again, surrogate representation instead of real representation.

While the absence of a labor party in the United States is the context in which labor leaders rely on Democratic, and now on Republican politicians, to reach their ends, the absence of a massive decolonization movement in Puerto Rico explains why the Diaspora picks up the task of representing the islanders.

Struggles to Come

In the face of this dismal political situation, the struggle of the people of Vieques against the Navy assumes heroic proportions. As we went to press, the Navy had announced (on Good Friday!) the resumption of target operations on April 27, so New York Governor Pataki may have succeeded in getting only a recess in the Navy maneuvers. In preparation for that restart date brigades of peaceful protesters were already organizing to enter the target range.

The fact is that once the Navy leaves, the struggle against landowners and real estate developers will come to the fore. On the one side stands the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques and its allies, representing the grassroots of Vieques, and it’s four “Ds:” demilitarization, devolution, decontamination, development. On the other are the Puerto Rican landowners and businessmen, and the PPD, also claiming to represent the Puerto Rican nation. The battle of Vieques is barely beginning.


  1. See “Vieques After a year of Struggle,” Against the Current 86 (Volume XV Number 3, July/August 2000).
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  2. The Puerto Rican labor movement staged a militant yet unsuccessful general strike against the privatization of the phone company in July 1998. See Rafael Bernabe, “Puerto Rico’s La Huelga del Pueblo,” Against the Current 76 (Volume XIII Number 4, September/October 1998). The labor movement continues to struggle against the privatization of health services and education.
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  3. Interview with Edelmiro Salas García, Esq., in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who represents a branch of the Benítez family, Oct. 20, 2000. This family owned 15,000 acres of land of Vieques, the Easter Sugar Corporation another 11,000, in 1940, out of a total of 36,000 acres in the island if Vieques.

  4. See the author’s forthcoming article in Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, July 2001.
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  5. John Marino, “Puerto Rico Presents Case to End Vieques Bombing,” Washington Post, January 20, 2001.
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  6. Camile Roldan Soto, “Mayor el riesgo de cancer,” El Nuevo Día, March 14, 2001.
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  7. Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, Press Release, March 15, 2000.
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  8. “Puerto Rico’s Governor Asks U.S. to Delay Navy Exercises, Officials Want Investigation of Possible Health Effects,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, February 28, 2001.
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  9. Thomas M. DeFrank and Corky Siemaszko, “Ceasefire on Vieques: Navy Quits Bombing after Protest Barrage,” New York Daily News, March 2, 2001.
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  10. Juan González, “Vieques Bombs Silent Because Pataki Wasn’t,” New York Daily News, March 6, 2001.
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ATC 92, May-June 2001