The Battle for Vieques Is Far from Over (11/00)

Despite setbacks, the campaign to expel the US military from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques continues to expand and intensify. Until May 2000, for more than a year, protesters succeeded in bravely placing their bodies on the line between the island and Navy bombs at 13 encampments (TF, Nov. 1999). During this period, at least two major military exercises, slated to include bombing, shelling, amphibious landings, air assaults, ship-to-ship warfare, and anti-submarine operations had to be canceled.

The target ranges and ammunition depot on Vieques, known in military circles as Camp Garcia, are considered part of Roosevelt Roads, a much larger Navy base on Puerto Rico’s main island. This base, the largest outside the continental US, was built during World War II to accommodate the entire British Navy in the event that Germany took over the British Isles.

A July 4, 1999, demonstration, during which 50,000 people rallied outside the gates of Roosevelt Roads, likely stirred deep concern at the highest echelons of the Pentagon. While that protest sought to oust the military only from Vieques, the brasshats no doubt wondered: Will Roosevelt Roads become the next target if we surrender Vieques? The massive protest was also notable for the fact that several political factions Ñ Independista, Commonwealth, and pro-Statehood Ñ joined together to oppose military use of Vieques. 

Next came a huge February 2000 rally in San Juan, attended by at least 100,000 people. This apparently convinced the Pentagon that bold action was needed to regain control of the situation. Thus, on May 4, with White House approval, hundreds of federal marshals and FBI agents (but no military troops) swept onto Vieques, arresting and evicting over 200 protesters, among them several Puerto Rican Vietnam vets who had been encamped there for months. Protesting the eviction, 30 Puerto Rican vets gathered at the Veterans Memorial in San Juan to return their combat medals and other decorations. These were later forwarded to the White House. 

After forcibly re-taking Vieques, President Clinton attempted to defuse opposition by promising to withdraw the military completely by 2003 if an island-wide referendum voted for that outcome. As of late October, no date had been set for this plebiscite. 

Whatever the next moves, the struggle over Vieques remains essentially about the US military’s right to deploy forces anywhere in the world, at any time, and without limitation. In the Philippines, for example, the US was willing to overlook the cruelty and corruption of the Marcos dictatorship in exchange for the right to base ships and planes there.

Nevertheless, rather than viewing the military re-capture of Vieques as a defeat, many activists have been emboldened. On September 22, for instance, two thousand of them came from several East Coast cities to rally in front of the White House, bringing the conflict to the US Capitol. Despite strong sentiment within the Puerto Rican community, only one Puerto Rican member of Congress, Illinois Democrat Luis Guiterrez, bothered to attend. One other, New York Democrat Nydia Valezquez, sent a message of support. The rest were silent.

Breaking with the Military

One of the younger activists introduced at the Washington, DC, rally was Marine PFC David Rivera, 19, of Rochester, NY. Rivera had left the military three months earlier for three reasons: He’d been defrauded by his recruiter, had experienced racism within his unit, and was opposed to US military policy in Vieques.

David was literally born into Puerto Rico’s struggle for justice and peace. At the time, his family was living as part of the Villa Sin Miedo ("Village without Fear") community in Puerto Rico. This cooperative village was created by poor and homeless families who built housing for themselves on vacant land. When David was one year old, government police, using SWAT teams and bulldozers, attacked the community, burning and destroying all the homes. Some community members were later able to rebuild on another site. 

After moving with his family to Rochester, NY, David was frequently hounded by Marine recruiters who wanted him to enlist. Promised that he would receive computer and communications training, David eventually signed a four-year contract. After successfully completing 12 arduous weeks of boot camp at Parris Island, SC, David was informed that the Marines wouldn’t provide the promised training after all. Instead, he was put to work repairing parachutes and similar items. 

While assigned to Camp LeJeune, NC, Rivera was ordered to report to a navy ship ported in Italy. A female corporal explained that although another Marine was much more qualified, David was being sent because the unit wanted to get rid of its lone Puerto Rican. He was also warned that if he failed to perform competently aboard the ship, the officers would make his life miserable. 

At this point, David decided that the Marines’ broken promises and threats, coupled with his disagreement with US policy on Vieques, required that he leave the military. 

At the rally, he was joined by his uncle Roberto Resto, a Marine Vietnam veteran and Vieques activist; his mother Diana and sister Jerelis; Dave Cline, a Vietnam vet and Vieques organizer with Veterans Support Vieques; and myself, representing Citizen Soldier. Afterward, Rivera surrendered to Marine authorities at Quantico MCB in Virginia. 

The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques continues to play a lead role in organizing protests. A broad range of political groups and parties, from revolutionary socialist to pro-capitalist advocates of Puerto Rican statehood, work cooperatively under the CRDV umbrella. 

In October, two more large rallies, one in New York and another on Vieques, each attracted several thousand people. At the Vieques rally, brigades started in the southern city of Mayaguez, then traveled through other towns and cities gathering support as they went. Each brigade was named for a Viequense who has been martyred in the long struggle. 

On Oct. 1, a flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure crafts ferried hundreds of people from the mainland to Esperanza, on Vieques’ southern coast. There, they joined others from Vieques for a large rally near the base. 

An Environmental Whitewash 

During the latest wave of rallies, the scientifically impaired Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced the results of a recent study concerning radiation hazards on Vieques at a San Juan press conference. On October 4, Luis Reyes, regional director for the NRC, claimed that despite allegations of environmental damage, radiation levels on the island are below normal. "Vieques is a paradise," he proclaimed, "with low levels of radiation."

Reyes admitted that spots of higher radiation were found along the bombing range, in an area where a Navy jet "accidentally" fired 263 rounds of depleted-uranium (DU) tipped rounds in February 1999. Use of the DU rounds violated federal regulations, Reyes admitted. But the NRC decided not to fine the Navy since it promised to do a better job of accounting for ammunition in the future. 

Angry Vieques activists interrupted Reyes’ presentation and challenged his agency’s findings. They cited a cancer rate that is 27 percent higher for Vieques residents than for those who live on the mainland. 

Meanwhile, on another front, several Puerto Rican environmental groups joined a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) lawsuit filed on October 10 in a San Juan federal court. The suit alleged that 60 years of bombing had endangered Vieques’ sea creatures and land. It also charged that the Navy wrongfully pressured the Fish and Wildlife Service to override enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

The very next day, Judge Juan Perez Gimenez denied NRDC attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s request for a temporary injunction, stating that the suit failed to show that "irreparable harm" would result if the military resumed exercises. He also ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service could stop the military if it was being strong-armed. 

Five days later, US/NATO forces began two weeks of exercises on the island. Dubbed "Unified Spirit," the maneuvers involved 50 vessels, 31,000 US soldiers, and troops from France, Canada, Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

This Joint Task Force of Navy, Marine, and NATO military elements ended a two-year hiatus, and included the USS Harry Truman carrier battle group, the Nassau Amphibious Ready Group, and the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit.

On Oct. 17, a small boat with nine activists slipped past the Coast Guard and entered the bombing range. Though they were arrested the next day, they’re certain live bombs were being used. The use of live fire is barred by a Presidential directive issued earlier this year. 

The Big Picture

The struggle over Vieques is an important part of a much larger effort: challenging the hegemony of the US military globally. In the wake of the recent attack on the destroyer USS Cole, in which 17 sailors died, Congress should (but probably won’t) ask new questions about the wisdom and cost of the US strategy of "forward deployment." When it was struck, the USS Cole was just one of a hundred Navy ships assigned to foreign waters. 

If the Pentagon is ultimately forced to withdraw from Vieques, this will be a significant victory for all those struggling against US global military domination.

Tod Ensign is the director of Citizen Soldier, a GI and veterans’ rights and advocacy group based in New York. Thirty years ago, Citizen Soldier organized Vietnam combat vets to speak out about the war crimes policies they were forced to execute. Since then, it has pursued other issues for GI organizing, including the effects of Agent Orange.