By Juan Gonzalez
on the morning of May 4, a small army of FBI agents and U.S. marshals
arrested 216 people on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in an attempt
to regain control of Camp Garcia, the Navy's bombing range there. Among
those arrested were two members of Congress, Nydia Velazquez of New York
and Luis Gutierrez of Chicago, as well as the Roman Catholic bishop of
Caguas and the mayor of Carolina, one of Puerto Rico's biggest cities.
Many of those arrested had been occupying the range since a Puerto Rican
security guard was killed last April by Navy bomber pilots who missed
their targets. During that time, local fishermen, religious leaders, independence
activists and environmentalists all had joined the peaceful occupation.
Their actions, as previously reported in this column, ignited an unprecedented
movement among all sectors of Puerto Rican society calling for an end
to nearly 60 years of Navy bombing on Vieques.
The Vieques raid was the second time in a two - week span that the Justice
Department found itself sending armed agents into action against Hispanic
Americans. Vieques was preceded, of course, by the Elián González raid
in Miami's Little Havana. In both assaults, the groups defying federal
authorities had massive support from their ethnic compatriots. In both
cases, they were preceded by stand - offs that stretched for months and
became enmeshed in the web of presidential politics. But the Elián saga,
with its soap opera plot, irresistible child star and that shocking photograph,
garnered far greater media attention than Vieques, even if the latter
crisis touched on far more weighty matters than some international family
If you listen to Congress and the Pentagon, the entire combat - readiness
of our nation hangs in the balance with Vieques. The Puerto Rican protesters,
the military brass say, were undermining American defense by preventing
use of the Navy's premier training range. The drum roll reached such a
crescendo that few Americans could hear the nearly unanimous plea of Puerto
Rico's 3.8 million people against the bombing of their inhabited Isla
Nena, as Vieques is known. That bombing - and the destruction of the island's
coral reefs and environment - was not only a violation of human rights,
Puerto Ricans insisted, but a sign of continued U.S. colonial arrogance
toward Puerto Rico.
Despite those pleas, the Pentagon and its supporters in Congress kept
pressing President Clinton to move against the protesters. In January,
Clinton made one of his infamous compromises with Puerto Rico's governor,
Pedro Rossello. The accord called for the Navy to temporarily resume training
on a sharply reduced schedule, using dummy bombs and ammunition.
In return, Rossello agreed to hold a referendum among the residents of
Vieques that would decide whether the Navy should leave permanently after
2003. In addition, the White House promised $40 million in infrastructure
aid to Vieques immediately and another $50 million if the referendum allowed
the Navy to stay.
The agreement allows the Navy to set the date of the referendum at any
point during an 18 - month period that begins this August 1. This is perhaps
the first time in history that the Navy has been charged with setting
the date for a civilian referendum. White House officials privately conceded
that the 18 - month window was designed specifically to give the Navy
time to mount a campaign to win (or buy) the backing of the Vieques population.
In Puerto Rico, the governor's about - face led to a massive public outcry,
especially by the island's church leaders, who organized a silent march
of nearly 100,000 people in support of the protesters several weeks ago,
and who continued to urge civil disobedience against the Navy.
The actual raid was classic White House image management. It was launched
soon after the death of New York City Cardinal John O'Connor, an event
the president's aides knew would knock all other news from the front pages
for several days in New York, which is home to the country's largest Puerto
Rican community, and where Hillary Clinton is seeking a U.S. Senate seat.
To limit the embarrassment of having to arrest congressmen and clerics,
federal agents were ordered to release all protesters without charges.
The press promptly and dutifully dropped Vieques from its radar screen.
But anyone familiar with Puerto Rico's history knows this battle is far
from over. At least a half dozen protesters were still hiding in the hills
and the underbrush of the Vieques range as I penned these words. They
include two sons of Carlos Zenon, the Vieques fisherman who sparked the
first protests against the Navy's presence nearly two decades ago. The
day before the federal raid, one of the Zenon brothers assured a colleague
of mine that he had stashed enough food and supplies in several hiding
places on the Vieques range to survive for several months. For the Navy
to resume massive bombing while any civilians are still on the range is
a very risky gamble.
At the same time, pro - independence leader Ruben Berrios Martinez and
hundreds of others are vowing to reoccupy the range and to disrupt future
Navy bombing attempts. No matter what Clinton and Rossello say, it's evident
that only an immediate referendum and a speeded up timetable for Navy
withdrawal will end the crisis. In Puerto Rico, the days of gunboat diplomacy,
even in its liberal guise, are over.
Juan Gonzalez is a contributing
editor of In These Times.
In These Times ©
Vol. 24, No. 14