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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Puerto Ricans Gain Ear of Washington But Seek Far
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
''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
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
''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,