Vieques vs. The US Navy (9/99)

The controversy surrounding President Clinton’s clemency for FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) prisoners has created a smoke screen around the issue of US Navy presence on Vieques, Puerto Rico. In September, Rev.

Jesse Jackson questioned Clinton’s sudden decision to release the prisoners during an ecumenical prayer service in New York. Conveniently, the offer came on the same day Jackson and the Archbishop of San Juan, Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, were to leave for Vieques. But Clinton’s diversionary tactic may only temporarily stall a growing movement to remove the Navy from this small island off the coast of San Juan.

Since the death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez on Vieques this April, a veritable "Vieques Spring" has quickened the island’s march toward freedom. While Sanes was on guard duty at US Navy Camp Garcia, two 500-pound bombs dropped from an F-18 fighter missed their target and hit his watchtower, instantly killing him and wounding four others. The incident galvanized diverse groups throughout Puerto Rico in a quest to expel the Navy after almost 60 years of occupation.

The Navy’s presence on Vieques began on March 17, 1941, as the US mobilized for World War II. The initial objective was to evacuate everyone and take over the entire island. Instead, the Navy displaced 3000 people (then half the population), sending them to the US Virgin Islands, and expropriated 72 percent of the land – roughly 26,000 of the island’s 33,000 acres. Since then, the military has been responsible for its economic, ecological, environmental, and psychological destruction.

Deadly War Games

In 1983, the US promised an economic development program to bolster island businesses. That initiative never materialized, however, and today the municipal government reports 50 percent unemployment and 72 percent living below the poverty line. The Navy employs roughly 120 out of 9600 locals.

Puerto Rican environmentalist Neftal’ Garc’a has compiled evidence of the ecological degradation. In his report, "Historical and Natural Consequences of the United States Navy Presence in Vieques," Garc’a cites the destruction of beaches, coconut groves, coral reefs, lagoons, and mangroves. Fishermen complain that Navy ships enter fishing areas, one of the only viable sources of income, destroying buoys with their giant propellers. Many fish are killed because fishing nets can’t be retrieved for almost a year.

War games and weekly bombings have left the island’s eastern tip pock-marked with more craters per square mile than the moon. Soil samples have produced above normal levels of iron. Recently, the US Navy admitted to using Napalm on the island in 1992. A committee is investigating the damage this has caused.

On February 19, 1999, the Navy fired 267 armor-piercing shells tipped with depleted uranium near the civilian capital, Isabela Segunda, an action disclosed by the Navy in May. The total uranium content fired on the island is 90 pounds.

A particle of uranium one quarter the diameter of a human hair emits 800 times the amount of radiation a human body can tolerate for one year, notes environmentalist Jorge Fernandez Porto.

According to Tara Thorton of the Military Toxics Project, an NGO monitoring the military’s chemical operations, "They fired enough to poison every man, woman, and child on the island 420 times over." The Navy claims there’s no danger unless the depleted uranium is inhaled. Still, it’s no wonder the cancer rate on Vieques is 27 percent higher than in Puerto Rico as a whole.

Fighting Back

The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CPRDV) is at the forefront of the protests. After Sanes was killed, the CPRDV mobilized quickly and occupied the bombing range on the military base. Setting up camp on Mt. Matias, the site where Sanes died, they renamed it Mt. David and planted white crosses in his memory. A few days later, the president of Puerto Rico’s Independence Party (PIP), Rub�n Berrios Mart’nez, established another camp at a beach half a mile from Mt. David.

The Navy was ordered to halt bombings until further notice. Initially, military maneuvers were scheduled to resume June 21, but the strength of the opposition paralyzed the Navy’s operations.

In addition to the CPRDV and PIP, groups including students, labor unions, teachers, and fishermen set up other camps inside the military base. Once there, PIP member Jorge Fern‡ndez observed three leatherback turtles, an endangered species. He watched them lay eggs near a coastline that has been routinely bombed. There were also sightings of the endangered brown pelican, rarely seen on the island.

Groups camping on the base are surrounded by unspent cartridges and bombs that never detonated. Rusted tanks riddled with bullet holes, mangled airplanes, and scrap iron litter the landscape. Ammunition shells and half-buried, unexploded bombs have been spotted near the turtle nests.

Pro-commonwealth, statehood, and independence party members are united on removing the military. On May 16, more than 100 people gathered on "Blue Beach" (the military’s inventive name for one of many pristine beaches it occupies), renaming it Angel Rodr’guez Cristobal in honor of one of the 21 fishermen arrested in the 1978 uprising against the Navy. Rodr’guez Cristobal was jailed in Tallahassee, Florida, and later murdered.

As anti-Navy fervor on Vieques gained momentum, demonstrations sprouted up in Puerto Rico, New York, and Washington, DC. Pro-statehood Puerto Rican governor Pedro Rossell- wrote to Clinton, demanding the Navy’s unconditional removal. Elected officials and representatives from all parties in Puerto Rico also petitioned Washington.

Despite this outcry, it took the Navy until August, nearly four months after Sanes’ death, to formally acknowledge the accidental misfiring of the bombs. The names of the Marine Corps pilot and Navy ground officer involved were withheld. The pilot may face a court martial, and the ground officer received a letter of reprimand.

In June, Bill Clinton finally sent a delegation chosen by Secretary of Defense William Cohen, including former Rep. Lee Hamilton, to investigate whether the Navy should remain. The president’s slow response and appointment of military-friendly personnel were met with considerable criticism. Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, former Vice Chairman of the NY State Committee for the US Commission on Civil Rights, warned: "The United States has long labored with the international court to have Milosevic branded a war criminal for his attacks upon his own people. Do not be surprised if Puerto Ricans use the same arguments against Washington to bring a stop to the atrocities on the innocent people of Vieques."

The CPRDV’s four main goals were spelled out during a June 8 demonstration in front of the White House: demilitarization of the island, decontamination, sustainable development, and return of the land to the people.

Toward Self-Determination

Although the media has recently focused on the release of FALN prisoners, the hottest issue in Puerto Rico is really decolonization. Ten per cent of Puerto Rico’s total land mass is occupied by US military forces, the highest concentration in Latin America.

On July 6, a UN Special Committee, long boycotted by the US government, took testimony on decolonization from more than 20, mostly Puerto Rican, organizations. Two days earlier – symbolically, on July 4 – 50,000 people demonstrated at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Ceiba. At the hearing, Governor Rossello submitted a report detailing Navy atrocities on Vieques and called for its withdrawal. Afterwards, the committee overwhelmingly voted to support Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence.

A month later, President Clinton unexpectedly announced he would commute the sentences of 16 FALN members serving time in prison. Their families and lawyers had no advance warning. The conditions for their release included renouncing violence and complying with normal parole requirements. The eventual release of 11 prisoners sparked a flurry of media misinformation and created confusion both in Puerto Rico and across the US.

Nevertheless, rallies, demonstrations, and concerts in support of Vieques continued. On September 8, almost 200 church officials, fishermen, political leaders, the Alliance of Vieques Women, and representatives from the four resistance camps entrenched in the bombing area gathered in Vieques’ capital. The CPRDV called for continued civil disobedience to achieve their goals.

From September 10-13, a fact finding hearing was held in New York’s City Hall. The weekend culminated with a mass before a capacity crowd at St. Cecilia’s Church. Soon afterward, the council visited Vieques to inspect campsites and talk with civilians. Jesse Jackson and Archbishop Nieves also returned.

Under legislation introduced in September by Sen. Frank Murkowski, Navy-controlled land would be placed under Puerto Rican control, and the US government would be responsible for toxic clean up.

A Culture at Risk

In 1994, archeologists Yvonne Narganes and Luis Chanlatte Baik, who directs the Center for Archeology Investigation at the University of Puerto Rico, found the oldest human remains in the Caribbean on Vieques. Fortunately, the burial site for this 4000-year-old man was in the civilian sector. The question is how many more indigenous artifacts remain in the military controlled areas. When Baik tried to gain entry for exploration, the Navy intervened, bringing in its own people to excavate. Many locals fear the military is sabotaging their only links to the Taino, the race of indigenous people.

Regardless of Clinton’s ruling on the naval presence, the future of Vieques will remain uncertain. Its northern neighbor, Culebra, another small Puerto Rican island, rid itself of the US military almost 20 years ago. But today it’s home to expensive resorts and foreign millionaires’ homes. If tourism comes to Vieques, it will undoubtedly bring employment opportunities. But that could also jeopardize the future of the island’s culture.

In the meantime, however, the momentum of "Vieques Spring" continues to build, drawing worldwide attention to the need for peace on Isla Nena (the island’s native name). Beyond the struggle to remove the Navy lies an unknown future, and perhaps the fate of Puerto Rico.

Thomas Gordon is a freelance writer who focuses on Latin America. More information is available from the CPRDV at, and at websites including: