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THE HARTFORD COURANT
Battle For Battered Paradise Bombing Range; Feud Reignites
Puerto Rican Sovereignty Debate, Boosting Independence Campaign
by Edmund Mahony
March 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE HARTFORD COURANT. All Rights Reserved.
The sea grape behind newly renamed Playa Gilberto Concepcion
de Garcia is struggling back and, from offshore, it appears the
dry and dun-colored soil is slowly turning green. New grasses
are starting to hide thousands of bomblets and shells that litter
the military target range on this island's east end.
It was not so 10 months ago, when on April 19, a misdirected
bomb from a U.S. Navy jet on a training run killed David Sanes
Rodriguez, a young Viequense security guard manning a hilltop
observation post. His bunker was obliterated.
In no time, dozens of anti-Navy protesters and supporters of
Puerto Rican independence -- some from as far away as Europe and
the mainland -- converged on this tiny, sparsely populated island
8 miles east of the main Puerto Rican island. They offered themselves
up as human shields against the tons of explosives the U.S. Navy
has been dropping and firing during training maneuvers since World
War II. So far, they have been successful.
"It was much different 10 months ago," said Victor
Garcia Inocencia, a representative in Puerto Rico 's Legislative
Assembly and a member of the Puerto Rican Independence Party.
He was pounding his way across the Caribbean Sea -- and around
U.S. Navy sentinels -- toward the bombing range in a fishing skiff.
"We have a joke," he said. "Perhaps Neil Armstrong
never made it to the moon. Perhaps he was photographed on Vieques."
The green vegetation growing in the craters is not the only
change on the island in 10 months. There is new construction --
if only on the smallest scale -- something not seen on military
land here for more than a half century. That has troubling consequences
for any attempt to resume military training -- which the Navy
claims is essential to the safety of U.S. armed forces -- and
has the potential to become a flash point as the future of Vieques
becomes the subject of an ever-widening debate.
Protesters representing groups as diverse as teachers, organized
labor, clergy and independence advocates are digging in at a half
Where they once lived in tents tattered by the trade wind,
the protesters -- preaching civil disobedience -- have erected
sturdy wooden bunkhouses. Elsewhere, they have established wireless
communications and set up a wind-powered generator. Some built
a chapel and others have begun construction of a cinder-block
"We are here to stop the bombing of this island, however
long that may take," said Paulino Santiago, who represents
a consortium of labor unions. "If we are arrested, so be
it. There are thousands of union workers in Puerto Rico waiting
to replace us. They will arrive here by air or by sea or by whatever
means necessary. And they will just keep coming."
Since his death, the largely unknown and apolitical Sanes has
become the center of a so-far polite, if sometimes strained, showdown
over the future of an undeveloped, largely unpopulated, spectacularly
beautiful and fabulously valuable piece of real estate. Vieques
lies within sight of the pricey resorts on the main island of
Puerto Rico , as well as Culebra and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It is a 52-square-mile twin of any of the Virgin Islands, with
the same round hills and a shoreline scalloped by the same white
sand beaches and deepening blues of the tropical ocean. But unlike
anywhere else in the American Caribbean, the 9,300 remaining Viequenses
have been forced by the Navy into a small civilian zone in the
center of the island where, for years, they have heard and felt
the thump of the exercises and watched the dust settle, literally,
over their homes. The rest of Vieques -- about three quarters
of its area -- is completely undeveloped.
The Navy claims the west end of the island as an ammunition
depot and much more land in the east. Live-fire exercises have
been restricted to a range on the eastern- most portion.
Sanes's death united politically fractious Puerto Ricans like
no other event in recent years. Practice for war is a moral issue
for the religious. It is an environmental issue to labor unionists,
who claim residue from the bombing is poisoning the ground, killing
fish and raising the cancer rate. To the independentistas, Vieques
is an example of the evil of colonialism.
"At first, I had mixed feelings," said the Rev. Francisco
Velasquez, pastor of the Aurea Luciano Presbyterian Church in
the far western Puerto Rican town of Cabo Rojo. He and a half
dozen Presbyterians arrived the morning of Feb. 28 by boat at
a church encampment near the bombing range.
"I am pro-American," he said. "But I came here
and saw the evidence of what the Navy has done. We have seen the
contamination of the palms, the water, the fish. Everyone here
has his own politics. But we read the Bible and that tells us
what is right. And what was happening here is not right."
Velasquez and his Presbyterians planned to stay for a week,
encamped on a crescent of sand just south of where the hills of
Culebra loom in the Atlantic. His group replaced the Methodists,
who were here the previous week, and is preparing for the Lutherans,
who are scheduled to arrive this week. The same thing is happening
at encampments by other groups -- teachers and fisherman and residents
of the town of Valle de Lajas. They arrive by boat with supplies
for a week and then are replaced by others.
Talk at the encampments invariably is of what will become of
Vieques . But the atmosphere is something like that of a youth-group
picnic, only for adults, as protesters arrive by small boat from
hot and crowded Puerto Rican cities for a week of camping on some
of the most beautiful and isolated beaches anywhere.
One man has been here for the duration. Ruben Berrios Martinez
now watches over La Playa Gilberto Concepcion de Garcia, formerly
the Navy's Yellow Beach, where for decades Marines staged mock
amphibious assaults on a cratered neck of land littered with the
carcasses of blasted jets and rusted tanks.
The protesters renamed Yellow Beach in recognition of the founder
of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, which Berrios, until recently,
represented as a senator in the Puerto Rican Assembly. He remains
the political leader of the independence movement, a tall, bearded,
white-haired icon of island politics.
For years, Berrios and his independentistas have languished
in the political wilderness, capturing a paltry 4 percent of the
popular vote in repeated plebiscites on Puerto Rico 's status.
The rest of the vote has split evenly between statehood and continuation
as a U.S. Commonwealth.
Now, the debate over the Navy's future in Vieques has put Berrios
in the political ascendancy, with politicians of all stripes elsewhere
in the Commonwealth scrambling to capitalize on the resonance
the issue has had across the island. By virtue of his eloquence
and long tenure in the independence movement, he controls the
issue. Supporters arrive at his camp by boat to sit in the shade
and listen to him speak.
"There is no doubt that the Puerto Rican people overwhelmingly
approve of our stance in this issue, which is: Not one more bomb
and the Navy has to leave Vieques ," Berrios said.
"It's a matter of how and when," he said. "How
and when the Navy leaves. I'm not sure about the how and the when,
but I know how it will turn out. The Navy will leave."
Nearly 30 years ago, freshly graduated from Yale University's
law school, Berrios tried the same tactics on the island of Culebra,
where the Navy then ran similar exercises. After five days of
civil disobedience, he was arrested and imprisoned for three months.
Circumstances have changed. In 1971, Berrios was condemned
by politicians who now applaud his tactics. The Cold War has since
ended and an increasingly influential bloc of Puerto Rican voters
along the U.S. East Coast makes it difficult for politicians to
ignore Puerto Rico 's wishes.
In the run-up to Puerto Rico 's Republican presidential primary
Feb. 27, local newspapers prominently reported the candidates'
positions on Vieques 's future.
Sila Calderon, the Popular Democratic Party's candidate for
Puerto Rico 's governor, surged in popularity after taking a hard
line against the Navy. Her opponent from the New Progressive Party,
Carlos Pesquera, is struggling to inherit the office from his
party's incumbent, Pedro Rosello.
Rosello was widely criticized in January when he dropped his
demand that the Navy leave Vieques immediately and signed a compromise
with President Clinton. Under the agreement, the Navy can practice
with inert ordnance for three years, and the Viequenses will vote
next year whether the Navy ultimately should stay or go. A recent
poll by Puerto Rico 's leading newspaper showed that 84 percent
of Viequenses want the Navy out.
The outgoing Rosello has taken such a political beating that
last week his mother-in-law was moved to defend him.
"You know absolutely nothing about politics," Irma
Nevares told a critic in a letter to the editor of the San Juan
Star. "I suggest you take a course at the University."
Pesquera, Rosello's would-be successor, is having an equally
rough time. After up to 100,000 anti-Navy protesters marched in
San Juan on Feb. 21 -- some observers called it the largest such
rally ever in Puerto Rico -- Pesquera called for a "My Citizenship
Festival" as a counterpoint. He said he wanted to show mainland
Americans that Puerto Ricans are not ungrateful for citizenship
and its accompanying benefits. He might have added that 21 percent
of the revenue in his administration's recently proposed budget
would be handed over by the federal government.
Such political antics inspire sarcasm in Berrios, who a month
ago was selected by European heads of state as honorary president
of the Socialist International, in part because of his position
on Vieques .
Of Pesquera's pro-citizenship march, he said: "It is as
if in the middle of a march in Washington for civil rights by
Dr. Martin Luther King, someone would say, `Let's have a rally
for the American flag.' "
Not surprisingly, Berrios sees Vieques and the reaction to
the anti-Navy protest through the prism of independence. Vieques
is a vestige of colonialism imposed by a country that purports
to be the world champion of freedom and independence. The United
States, which Berrios says is working to end British colonialism
in Ireland, is entering the 21st century with a colony of it own.
He said a century of colonialism in Puerto Rico has produced
a sort of political pathology, a need by the colony to appease
the colonizer. It is in the Vieques compromise signed by Rosello,
"It's not rational. It is a question of his politics,
of his ideology," said Berrios, a student of international
law, who studied at Harvard, Oxford and Georgetown Law School
as well as Yale. "He thinks that to be good Americans we
have to show how good we are. People who live in colonies think
like that: `I have to behave well for them to consider me.' "
No one in the civil disobedience encampments is saying what
will become of Vieques if the Navy is ordered out, and that is
troubling for the colony of mainland retirees and winter residents
who decided the island's sleepy lifestyle made the Navy's presence
worth putting up with.
The mainlanders call the island government -- and to a degree,
the commonwealth government in San Juan -- inefficient. They question
of whether government locally can withstand an invasion by squatters
and financial pressure from plutocratic developers if the Navy
Vieques 's first luxury resort and housing development is under
construction on the civilian zone's north coast. The island government
just announced it is building a low income, public housing project
right across the street from the soon-to-be completed, $50 million
Martineau Bay Resort.
Not far away lies a deteriorating, half-finished, $10 million
sports and recreation complex begun by the municipal government.
The project was never completed; somehow the money ran out.
"I am not going to say what the A, B and C of the future
of Vieques should be," Berrios said. "Because I don't
want to establish criteria for what should happen. But we should
not allow the development that has happened on other islands.
There should be some economic development, but within restrictive,
Before any development could take place, years of environmental
study and cleanup would be needed.
The question with more immediacy on Vieques is the one about
what happens next. Will the protesters be hauled off the bombing
range and the training resumed? Or will the federal government
blink? The Navy recently canceled a training exercise scheduled
for early March and moved it elsewhere.
None of the police agencies in San Juan wants to be involved
in what would be widely unpopular arrests. The police of Puerto
Rico say they will not be involved. The FBI hopes the U.S. Marshal
Service gets the job, if it comes to that. And the marshals say
the question is being studied.
One law enforcement source in San Juan said last week that
plans to arrest and remove protesters would likely be shelved
if it appears the response would be the arrival of thousands more
At present, Berrios believes he has the high ground in the
public relations war. Nothing will happen during the electoral
campaigns unfolding across the mainland and Puerto Rico because
no candidate can risk antagonizing Puerto Rican voters, he said.
If the protesters remain encamped until after the presidential
election, he said, there will have been no training for more than
a year and a half, a de facto admission by the Navy and the Clinton
administration that maneuvers on Vieques may not be essential
to national security.
"If they don't bomb, we win," Berrios said. "If
they arrest us, they lose."
For Berrios, Vieques is only a steppingstone to Puerto Rican
"This is a metaphor, a prelude of what is going to happen
in Puerto Rico as a whole soon," Berrios said. "Because
the United States cannot live with a remnant of 19th-century empire
like Puerto Rico . It's not being true to its history nor to its