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Puerto Ricans Gain Ear of Washington But Seek Far More

by Francis X. Clines

December 5, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE NEW YORK TIMES CO. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES , P.R.-- Again and again across the decades, the United States marines have stormed ashore here on Yellow Beach in a full rain of firepower and won the vital mock battleground that has been made of the eastern third of this small, lush island.

But not now, and not ever again, according to the resolve of Senator Ruben Berrios Martinez, the Puerto Rican lawmaker and Independence Party leader who holds the political high ground with a mere pamphleteer's firepower.

In seven months of peaceful uprising set off by the death of a civilian in a wayward bombing run, the senator has led dozens of angry squatters in blocking beachfronts of the amphibious training ground for the United States Navy's Atlantic fleet.

The squatters have managed to turn ground zero in the Navy's practice wars into a looming bastion of nationalism in Puerto Rico 's long struggle for definition in the shadow of the United States.

''It will be a cumulative triumph,'' Mr. Berrios predicted today as he warily patrolled the pristine sands of Yellow Beach and rejected the latest compromise offer by the Clinton administration to gradually return the shell-pocked island to the full control of its 9,300 residents.

''But now we are on their radar screen and all this is a big triumph in the struggle for decolonialization,'' Mr. Berrios said, acknowledging that he was as much amazed as determined in having achieved the full and urgent attention of Washington.

This realization of the simmering political power of Puerto Ricans in finally being heeded at the highest levels after centuries of colonial subservience is being celebrated heartily across the main island of Puerto Rico, eight miles to the west, as much as here on this verdant sliver that the Navy has used as it pleased since World War II.

''Navy Out!'' signs dot the rich kaleidoscopic scene of San Juan as Gov. Pedro J. Rossello and other Puerto Rican political leaders across the spectrum echo the firmness of Mr. Berrios, the San Juan politician who first chose the path of civil disobedience. Now, he and his fellow squatters can grin in their storm-tattered tents at the fact that while he was quickly arrested and roundly condemned by the Puerto Rican Legislature when he took a similar protest course 28 years ago, his action this time was avidly blessed by the Legislature as a legitimate and necessary function of lawmaking.

In 1971, Mr. Berrios lasted only five days before being imprisoned for three months. ''And now, seven months on the beach is a small kind of victory,'' he said in an interview, citing an array of changed circumstances. These include the vast tide of Spanish Americans now inheriting political power across the United States, he noted, and a growing international realization that if Washington can creatively help Britain clean up its colonial baggage in Northern Ireland, why should it not see as well to the lingering grievances of Puerto Rico in its own sphere.

This point was brought home to many Puerto Ricans last month when the leading European heads of state voted as members of the Socialist International not only to support the Vieques cause but also to choose Senator Berrios as its president.

Surveying his wind-whipped camp at the foot of the Navy's Vieques observation post, the senator insisted that the simple scene of resistance had the power to revive the independence cause, a minuscule movement eclipsed in the four decades since Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States, a status that Puerto Rican voters have favored repeatedly in plebiscites.

''This is a metaphor, a prelude of what is going to happen in Puerto Rico as a whole soon,'' Mr. 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 its future.''

The resistance campsites have been growing along with the visits to Vieques by institutional leaders hurrying to catch up with an issue that polls show is engrossing a large part of the Puerto Rican population. It is one of the few issues on which Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions -- pro-commonwealth, pro-statehood and pro-independence -- seem to be united. This week the Roman Catholic hierarchy signaled its own show of force, issuing parish appeals for solidarity behind Vieques even as a Navy battle group led by the aircraft carrier Eisenhower retreated from the training grounds under orders from Washington.

Another Vieques squatter, Fernando Martin, a law professor at the University of Puerto Rico who is vice president of the Independence Party, exulted, ''The issue of this little island has taken more of President Clinton's time and, I dare say, anxiety than the whole Puerto Rican issue has received from all the presidents from McKinley up to now.''

President Clinton's latest proposal, to return Vieques to local control within five years, repair the 52-square-mile island with $40 million in aid and have the Navy fire only ''inert'' ammunition, not live salvos, was rejected by Puerto Rican political leaders as inadequate. Inert rounds would rain down with all the power of ''inert'' lead bullet heads, islanders warned.

''It is another trick,'' a fisherman muttered here in Esperanza village, amid the usual daily catch of rumors and speculation on the will of Washington. ''Clinton is lulling us so they can sneak in federal agents to arrest the squatters,'' the fisherman insisted at the dockside before setting out for the protest camps on the circuitous choppy water route around the Marines' land sentinels.

At critical turnings along the southeast coast, squatters waved at the passing boat from huts jerry-built from wooden Navy target boards and other detritus of the seven-month standoff. The news media of Puerto Rico, and lately the world, course through the whitecaps to feed a story that has seized the commonwealth.

''There is this overwhelming consensus throughout Puerto Rico that has never existed before,'' said Robert Rabin, the director of Vieques 's El Fortin museum, which is rich in the history of five centuries of foreigners' claims of empire in Puerto Rico. ''This is a historic moment for Puerto Rico,'' Mr. Rabin said of the civil disobedience galvanized by the once unthinkable notion of resisting the claims of the United States war machine. ''Hundreds of people across the spectrum -- fishermen, housewives, schoolteachers, political leaders -- are united by an issue for the first time.''

Various Pentagon officials have insisted that the Vieques war-games theater cannot be duplicated elsewhere and its loss would result in substandard training for American forces. But Mr. Berrios, 60, a scholar in international law who was educated at Harvard and Oxford Universities and Georgetown Law School, cites arguments to the contrary from authorities like Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the retiring New York Democrat who trained here as a young sailor and was first fascinated by the power politics of Washington and San Juan. Mr. Berrios even cites the marginal note of sympathy for Vieques from Mr. Clinton, disclosed by the White House in response to a letter from Mr. Berrios. ''This is wrong,'' Mr. Clinton jotted in describing the ''colonial commonwealth'' status of the island.

Here on Yellow Beach, with the guns safely silenced, Mr. Berrios clings to that jotting more than to the latest formal proposal in the administration's effort to solve this onetime backwater problem that now occupies radar screens far beyond the Navy's beachfront post.

''Are the planets in alignment?'' Mr. Berrios wondered with a big smile. He questioned whether Mr. Clinton would stand by his personal inclination in the face of Navy complaints and resistance. ''If they agree to leave with not one more bomb to fall, we win,'' Mr. Berrios said, snug in his protest camp. ''If they arrest us, they lose.''

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