Vieques protest may change Puerto Rican politics

Jay Moore research at
Fri May 12 09:26:08 MDT 2000

Vieques protest may change Puerto Rican politics
May 11, 2000

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - They may have lost the battle but the
protesters who shut down U.S. military bombing on the island of Vieques for
a year may have forever changed the unusual politics of Puerto Rico and its
colonial relationship with the United States, political analysts say.

Long tied to the notion that its future will be determined at the ballot
box, this Spanish-speaking U.S. Caribbean commonwealth of 3.8 million people
discovered the power of peaceful protest and its complex relationship with
the United States may never been the same.

"I think what Vieques has produced is a phenomenon by which the fig leaf has
fallen from the statue," political analyst Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua
said. "Puerto Ricans have discovered the nature of military colonialism and
that discovery has led to the exercise of a powerful nonviolent civil
disobedience movement."

The battle over U.S. Navy bombing at the Camp Garcia base on Vieques, a
33,000-acre (13,360-hectare) island of 9,300 people about seven miles (11
km) off the coast of Puerto Rico, has dominated politics for months and led
to a deep anger directed at the U.S. military and the island's own
pro-statehood government.
Dozens of protesters occupied the bombing range at Camp Garcia after a
wayward bomb killed civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez on April
19, 1999.

Sanes' death touched a raw nerve on Vieques, where residents have long
condemned the Navy's presence as a detriment to tourism, an environmental
disaster that they believe has killed off fish and coral reefs, and a health
risk to residents.

A week ago, U.S. agents peacefully rounded up more than 200 protesters and
on Monday the Navy, which says Vieques is critical to the battle readiness
of the Atlantic Fleet and therefore to national security, resumed bombing

Analysts say Vieques united disparate factions favoring statehood,
independence and continuing commonwealth status for the island. The
president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, Ruben Berrios, stayed at a
protest camp for a year.

"Last year when David Sanes was killed, we saw for the first time in decades
a united front in Puerto Rico...different groups joining forces when only
the independence movement had previously led the fight to get the Navy out,"
said Amilcar Antonio Barreto, a professor of Latino politics at Northeastern
University in Boston who has written extensively on Puerto Rico.

A former Spanish colony, Puerto Rico is proudly Spanish in language and
heritage despite its status as a U.S. commonwealth and its close ties to the
world's economic superpower.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but do not pay federal income taxes. They do
not vote for U.S. president but elect their own governor.

More than a century after the United States ousted Spain in the 1898
Spanish-American War, Puerto Ricans are still divided on their future. While
they appreciate the benefits of economic association with the United States
they often resent the colonial ties exemplified by the Navy's presence on

In a Dec. 1998 referendum, 46.5 percent of Puerto Ricans opted for statehood
but a narrow majority chose continued commonwealth status. Only 2.6 percent
voted for independence.

The enthusiastic reception given 11 Puerto Rican nationalists freed by
President Clinton last year after serving prison time for weapons, sedition
and conspiracy worried statehood supporters. The 11 belonged to the Armed
Forces of National Liberation guerrilla group which supports independence.

And while anger over Vieques bombing may do little to clarify that divide,
Garcia Passalacqua said it has ushered in a new era of politics defined by
civil disobedience and led by churches, not politicians.
"In Puerto Rico it was supposed to be a methodology of dealing with the U.S.
that was based on the ballot box," he said. "Today that's dead. Today I
think Puerto Rico knows that Mahatma Gandhi's methods are much more valid."

At the height of the bombing range protest, feelings ran high that it was
time for the military to give up its stranglehold on Vieques. The Navy owns
two-thirds of the island but residents have demanded it return the land to
the people.

Church leaders and all three political factions united under the popular
slogan: "Not One More Bomb."
But in January, Gov Pedro Rossello backtracked, agreeing to a deal with
Washington that allowed the Navy to resume training at Vieques with dummy
bombs in return for a referendum allowing the islands' people to determine
if they want the military to leave.

"At first we were so proud. This is one tough governor we had. He's taking
care of Vieques," said resident Ramades Cabral Trinidad, 47. "Then Clinton
asked him to bend over and pull down his pants. A little woman, our big
tough governor."

The Rossello pact was viewed by many Vieques residents and thousands of
others in Puerto Rico as a sellout by Rossello's pro-statehood New
Progressive Party government that could become a major factor in fall

"One has to understand that in 1993 and in 1998, 53 percent of the people
voted against statehood and against the government. That majority will
increase now...and will get as high as 60 percent," Garcia Passalacqua said.

"It's a new phenomenon, an unexpected phenomenon. It destroys the old
three-ring circus and it is centered on a rejection of the military colony."

Copyright 2000, Reuters News Service

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