Vieques: Not One More Bomb, Not One More Bullet

by Larry Yates, Center for Health, Environment and Justice
(Originally published in Everyone's Backyard, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 2001))

Resistance from the Start

The struggle that has put the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques in today's headlines began sixty years ago. In the 1940s, the U.S. Navy acquired most of the island's land as a site for military practice, buying homes at low prices and bulldozing them. The Navy rapidly transformed the island into one of the world's busiest bombing ranges.
Vieques residents lost their land and their peace of mind and gained few on-island jobs or economic benefits. Into the 1960s, the Navy pressed to take more land, proposing that the entire island be evacuated, even its cemeteries.

Viequenses held their first demonstration against the Navy in 1943. In 1964, a militant movement of residents beat back an attempt by the Navy to claim the entire south coast of Vieques. In February of 1978, fishermen from Vieques sailed into waters forbidden to them by the Navy, forcing the Navy to cancel its military exercises there. Later that year, La Cruzada pro Rescate de Vieques - the Crusade to Rescue Vieques - was formed, joining the Fishermen's Association in their fight. In May of 1979, twenty-one people were arrested by the Navy as they prayed on a beach in a restricted area. Some of those arrested were sentenced to prison terms; one of these, Angel Rodríguez Cristóbal, died in his cell in Tallahassee, Florida, in circumstances that Viequenses still consider suspicious.

The Movement to Free and Develop Vieques

The organization that now leads the movement to end the Navy's abuse of Vieques and restore the island's health and prosperity was launched in the spring of 1993.   With the cold war over, military bases were being closed all over the U.S.  At the same time, local residents in Vieques were outraged by several incidents of Navy recklessness, including the dropping of live bombs near civilian areas. Meeting in an elementary school, one hundred and fifty Viequenses, many of them longtime veterans of the struggle, created the Comité Pro Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques – the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.  According to Robert Rabin, a founder of the group still active today, "We decided to get as many people related to the struggle as possible together to discuss the need to form a formal body."

The Comité's vision went beyond ending the bombing of Vieques. Its ultimate goal was the long-term development of the island as a healthy place to work and live. Rabin explains, "Its name included both 'Rescue'-getting the Navy out-and the 'Development'   which would come afterwards - in other words, a community vision of a future Vieques without the Navy."

After more than half a century of Navy abuse, just ending the bombing won't deal with Vieques' problems. The population of the island has dropped from 30,000 in 1940 to just over 9,000. The remaining residents of Vieques face poverty, high unemployment, and serious environmental health problems.  The toxic products of the bombings, including depleted uranium, have contaminated the drinking water, sea, air, and soil of Vieques. Unexploded bombs on the island are a serious threat.

Since 1995, Viequenses have worked with economists and other experts to develop a vision of a free and re-developed Vieques.  Two ideas are central:  1) a community land trust to ensure community control of land restored to Viequenses, and 2) community education to ensure that Viequenses have the skills and information to participate fully in their own future.  In Development of a Free Vieques, Rabin points out that another critical component is environmental decontamination, which should not only be paid for by the Navy but should also provide local residents with "training and technology transfer so we are not dependent forever on specialized knowledge related to making Vieques safe."

The Comité also understood from the beginning that the fight for Vieques should be international. They reached out to communities with similar issues in Korea, Okinawa, Hawaii, Ecuador, Guam, and elsewhere. Since 1996, Viequenses have participated in international meetings in the Philippines, Okinawa and Washington DC, have hosted delegations on the island from around the world, and have presented their grievances to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization. Activists around the world have turned to Vieques as a model, requesting, for example, training materials on civil disobedience used by Viequenses.

The movement to free Vieques has focused, of course, on applying pressure on the decision-makers at the Pentagon and the White House. The Comité's strategy has been to build support in a variety of sectors. The first step, in 1993, was to establish solid support from the municipal government of Vieques and from the Congress of Puerto Rico. Then Vieques began to make its case to the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House.

Along the way, the Comité has gained support from a number of mother religious bodies, including National Council of Churches, and more recently from labor unions and Operation PUSH and other civil rights groups. Antimilitarist groups like the Proyecto Caribeño de Justicia y Paz in Puerto Rico and the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the mainland U.S. have been longtime and reliable supporters. In addition, there have been groups in cities with large Puerto Rican populations like Chicago and New York City organizing in solidarity with Vieques since at least the 1970s, and these groups have continued to work with the Comité. Today they include National Boricua Human Rights Network in Chicago, Todo New York Con Vieques, and other groups from Los Angeles to Camden, New Jersey.

But none of these alliances, strategies, and visions would have any meaning without continuing resistance on the island itself.   "In the final resort," says Wanda Colon, Director of the Proyecto Caribeño de Justicia y Paz, "the action of the community, the people, are what matters - we are the ones who are going to win.

Solidarity and Civil Disobedience

With the formation of the Comité, the struggle on the island intensified. Soon afterwards, the U.S. government added insult to injury by proposing the deployment of a massive system known as the Relocatable-Over-The-Horizon-Radar, partly in Vieques and partly on the main island of Puerto Rico. In October of 1995, 60,000 people marched against this project in San Juan. On International Women's Day, March 8, 1998, hundreds of Viequenses blocked the entrance to a naval facility for several hours.

Then, on April 19th, 1999, David Sanes Rodríguez, a civilian employee of the Navy, was killed by Navy bombs that missed their target.  U.S. Congressman José Serrano, who was born in Puerto Rico, called that day "a day that forever changed the relationship between the Navy and the island."   Emotion  - and resistance - overflowed in Vieques and in the communities - in Puerto Rico and elsewhere - that support Vieques's struggle.

In this moment of crisis, Puerto Rico's three sharply divided political parties, as well as its diverse churches, came together on common ground. The governor of Puerto Rico, though politically close to then President Clinton, yielded to pressure and authorized a commission to study the Vieques situation. That commission, according to Colon, was "representative of the civil society in Puerto Rico - not just the politicians, but churches, civic communities on Vieques, fishermen, different kinds of people.." The Special Commission's report was sharply critical of the Navy, finding that "the activities of the Navy in Vieques have had a damaging and unrelenting effect on the environment, ecology, unique archaeological sites, natural resources and surrounding waters" of Vieques, and that the Navy bore major responsibility for the fact that 73.3% of Viequenses live below the poverty level.

At this time, the Comité appointed Flavio Cumpiano, a politically active attorney from Puerto Rico, as its spokesperson in Washington, giving Vieques its own voice not only before Congress and at the White House but at national conventions, rallies, and marches in Washington, and in front of the global media.

The Comité, working closely with groups like Colon's Proyecto, had already gained considerable experience in nonviolent political action.
During the next year, activists established fourteen camps on the island, mostly in restricted areas, preventing further bombing.  In May 2000, after a year, the Navy moved in and arrested more than 200 of these resisters in the restricted areas and at the gate to the area.  As bombing resumed using nonexplosive ammunition, activists clandestinely entered or re-entered the bombing range, though this did not stop the Navy.   In June and again in August, women's delegations entered the bombing range and faced arrest, citing the risk to children from the environmental damage done to Vieques.   In October, as another round of maneuvers began, activists again penetrated and occupied the range while bombing took place. Rabin, arrested for entering the range, received an unusually high fine of $5000 and a demand from the judge that that he stop encouraging civil disobedience. "I'm a leader of a community organization struggling against the Navy bombing," Rabin told the judge. "I have a responsibility to support those in disobedience."  The judge dropped the demand.

Viequenses continued to raise environmental health issues. Viequenses sat in the office of Puerto Rico's Secretary of Health, demanding updated information about the high cancer rates in Vieques. In San Juan, a student from Vieques cited evidence of his own radiation sickness to lead the challenge to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission representative who was denying radioactivity on Vieques. In March of 2001, a group of officials from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) came to gather evidence about claims of environmental damage on Vieques. Not one single Viequense met with the ATSDR officials during the five hours they waited. Instead, a disciplined group of demonstrators, including cancer victims and relatives of cancer victims, entered the room and left sixty crosses, one for each year of Navy presence on the island. This action was planned in two large community meetings, involving youth, seniors, fishermen, veterans, students, parents and others.  The action reflected what Viequenses had learned about ATSDR's role from the Comité's environmental advisers, including one from another contaminated Puerto Rican community where the ATSDR had declared poisoned drinking water safe.

There have been more than a thousand arrests on Vieques, and the arrests continue.   "Men and women, old folk and young people, Puerto Ricans, Canadians and people from the United States have been arrested and many jailed," says Robert Rabin. "They have not succeeded in scaring the people of Vieques-Puerto Rico, not with arrests, not with the Federal Courts."  Well-known figures from other communities arrested on Vieques include the Reverend Al Sharpton, Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago, labor leader Dennis Rivera, environmental attorney Robert Kennedy Jr., and civil rights activist Jacqueline Jackson, wife of Reverend Jesse Jackson.   Publicity for Vieques' fight has also come from the support of celebrities like Ricky Martin, and from bold actions at a New York Yankees baseball game and at the Statue of Liberty.

2003 Is Not Soon Enough

This unrelenting action had consequences in the world of politics. In November of 2000, Puerto Rico elected a Governor more supportive of Vieques and more willing to confront the Navy, for example by filing suit to stop the bombing because of its health effects on the people of Vieques.  (Support for a clean and free Vieques throughout Puerto Rico reflects not only a sense of history and solidarity but an awareness that prevailing winds blow from the smaller island towards Puerto Rico, itself already a site of major industrial contamination.) Vieques itself elected a mayor who showed his commitment by himself entering the bombing range for a week in the spring of 2001.

Before he left office, President Clinton scheduled a referendum this fall offering Viequenses a choice between the Navy leaving in 2003 o resuming full training and receiving $90 million in economic assistance.  The continued protests on the island, however, have compelled President Bush to announce that the U.S. will not wait for the results of the referendum: the Navy will pull out in 2003.  In his June announcement, the president acknowledged that "there has been some harm done to people" in Vieques.

Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderon had already scheduled a referendum in Vieques offering residents the option that the U.S. has refused to give them: an immediate end to U.S. military training on the island. On July 29, that referendum drew more than eighty percent of the island's eligible voters-and nearly seventy percent voted that the Navy should get out now, sending an unmistakable message that 2003 is not soon enough. .

Bush's retreat from Clinton's position and the continued resolve of the Viequenses to press on reflects the effectiveness of the pro-Vieques movement, a movement consciously built, at great cost, over many decades and which is now on the verge of achieving its goals-a  free, healthy and prosperous Vieques controlled by its own residents.