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
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
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
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
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
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.