Within days of his inauguration, George W. Bush is almost certain
to face a new confrontation with the government and people of Puerto
Rico over the U.S. Navy's 60-year-old bombing practice range on
the island of Vieques. The Vieques dispute, which briefly attracted
major media attention in late 1999, promptly disappeared from most
radar screens in this country after President Clinton reached a
compromise agreement on January 31 with Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro
Rossello. But the controversy never went away for the 3.8 million
U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico who inhabit this nation's last major
colonial possession. And unless President Clinton acts before Bush
is inaugurated, the dispute may become the new president's first
foreign policy crisis.
Vieques is the most glaring example today of an imperial arrogance
that has been part of the Navy since American sailors first began
patrolling foreign waters in the early 19th century. It is also
the most recent example of a well-established but little examined
tradition in the Navy of top officers challenging civilian control.
At least that's the conclusion reached in the new book Foxardo
1824 by Jesus Davila, one of Puerto Rico's most respected journalists.
Davila's book examines an almost-forgotten 1824 scandal in which
one of the Navy's
earliest heroes, Commodore David Porter, led 200 sailors in an unauthorized
surprise attack on the Puerto Rican town of Fajardo. Porter's subsequent
court-martial for that incident created a national furor, with the
proceedings of his trial front-page news for months, and with Porter
orchestrating an extraordinary campaign to win public sympathy, including
publishing a book in his own defense. Prior to the court-martial,
he even leveled criticisms against President John Quincy Adams and
the secretary of the Navy. This prompted the Navy to add insubordination
to its list of charges against Porter, turning him into the most prominent
19th-century example of a naval officer defying civilian authority.
Ships landing at the Camp Garcia
Naval Base on Vieques.
JOSE JIMENEZ/PRIMERA HORA/AFP
But before delving further into the Porter's amazing story and
how it relates to the Vieques controversy, we first need to understand
what is happening right now with Vieques. The Clinton-Rossello agreement
ended all live bombing on Vieques and provided a three-year transition
period for the Navy to find another practice site. However, it permitted
the Navy to conduct a reduced number of training exercises with
inert bombs and dummy ammunition; and it called for a complete Navy
pullout by May 2003, only if the people of Vieques voted for that
withdrawal in a referendum. The agreement stipulated that the Navy
would decide the date of the referendum--which has been set for
November 6, 2001--and would provide $40 million in development assistance
to Vieques, presumably to win support for being allowed to stay.
It also called for 8,000 acres of Navy land to be turned over to
the government of Puerto Rico.
From the moment it was announced, the agreement faced widespread
criticism, both in Puerto Rico among those who wanted an immediate
Navy withdrawal, and in this country from the Navy's staunchest
supporters in Congress who opposed giving up the range. On the island,
several huge demonstrations were organized by a coalition of church
groups, and hundreds of people were arrested throughout the year
for civil disobedience on the range in attempts to disrupt maneuvers.
But it wasn't until Election Day that the full impact of the Clinton-Rossello
agreement became clear.
While throughout the United States, most people were fixed on the
presidential race and the Florida recount, few noticed that down
in Puerto Rico, opponents of the Vieques agreement had swept to
an amazing victory. Rossello's pro-statehood New Progressive Party,
which had backed the agreement, lost virtually everything--its majority
in both houses of the Puerto Rican legislature, the governor's mansion
and the post of resident commissioner, the island's nonvoting delegate
to the House of Representatives.
Popular Democratic Party leader Sila Calderon was narrowly elected
first woman governor, and the polls showed that her strong opposition
to the Vieques agreement was what provided her margin of victory.
Within days after the election, Calderon met with Carlos Pesquera,
head of the New Progressive Party, and Ruben Berrios, head of the
Puerto Rican Independence Party, and the three leaders sent a joint
letter to Clinton calling for an immediate withdrawal of the Navy
from Vieques. Calderon promised that her first official act as governor
would be to organize a referendum separate from the Navy's that would
include the immediate withdrawal of the Navy as an option. In effect,
she declared the Clinton-Rossello agreement dead.
The leaders of Puerto Rico's
three main partties, including newly elected
Gov. Sil Calderon (center), sent a letter to President Clinton
an immediate withdrawl of U.S. forces from Vieques.
JOSE JIMENEZ/PRIMERA HORA/AFP
Amazingly, Clinton admitted as much himself during an Election
Day interview with Amy Goodman, my co-host on the Pacifica Radio
network's news show Democracy Now! Asked by Goodman about
Vieques, Clinton said:
This training that is going on now is subsequent
to an agreement. Now the Republicans in Congress broke the agreement,
and instead of giving the Western part of the island to Puerto Rico,
gave it to the Interior Department to manage. If I can't find a
way to give that island, the western part of the island, back to
the people of Puerto Rico, and to honor the agreement that the government
of Puerto Rico itself made with the support of the local leaders,
including the mayor of Vieques, then the people of Puerto Rico I
think have a right to say the federal government broke its word,
and the training has to stop right now.
Clinton went further than just blaming congressional Republicans,
however. He made it clear that he backed a full Navy withdrawal:
I think the training should stop because the people
don't want it there. But we need a place to train, and we are in
the process of finding another place.
If the president, as commander-in-chief, supports the majority
view in Puerto Rico that the Navy must withdraw, then why is the
Navy scheduling a referendum on the question? The answer comes from
Clinton himself. New York labor leader Dennis Rivera, who has spearheaded
the pro-Vieques movement in the city's Puerto Rican community, has
met with the president several times over this issue. According
to Rivera, Clinton told him recently that the White House was threatened
with "several resignations" by Navy officials if he ordered an immediate
closing of the bombing range.
At least one White House official has confirmed the resignation
threats to me. Other Clinton aides have been saying privately for
months that no matter how the president may feel personally about
Vieques, the Navy brass wields far more influence with Capitol Hill
on the issue, especially since Congress must approve all transfers
of military bases. In the Senate, Virginia Republican John Warner,
head of the Armed Services Committee and a former secretary of the
Navy, has been among the strongest opponents of giving up the Vieques
range. In effect, the admirals and other Pentagon brass have quietly
and successfully defied the commander-in-chief on Vieques for more
than a year.
But this type of defiance is not new for the Navy, as Davila discovered
while researching Foxardo 1824. The book, which was published
in Spanish in June and is already in its third printing, is a product
of Puerto Rico's nonprofit Historical Journalism Project, a collaborative
effort of the Catholic Church and the Ateneo Puertorriqueno, the
island's oldest private academic and literary forum.
Davila spent nine months studying military archives in the United
States, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain and Venezuela, in an attempt
to piece together a historical picture of Navy operations in the
Caribbean, one that might explain why the admirals and generals
in the Pentagon keep insisting that Vieques is the only island in
the Atlantic suitable as a bombing and training site for American
In the process he came across the Foxardo Affair. When the incident
occurred, David Porter was already a naval hero having distinguished
himself in both the Barbary War and the War of 1812. His daring
voyage into the Pacific to attack British ships during the latter
conflict led Washington Irving to extol him as "our modern Sinbad."
By 1824, Porter had been promoted to Commodore of the Gulf of Mexico,
West Indies and the Coast of Africa, and the main job of his squadron
was to drive pirates from the Caribbean.
That November his squadron was stationed in St. Thomas when Porter
learned that one of his lieutenants had been arrested in the nearby
Puerto Rican town of Fajardo and deported by Spanish troops. Porter
promptly gathered several of his ships and landed 200 men at Fajardo's
port. There, he destroyed two gun batteries and threatened to raze
the entire town unless the local mayor produced those who had detained
his lieutenant and made the culprits apologize. When a contingent
of Spanish troops arrived, Porter's men retreated. The Spanish government,
which was then an ally of the United States, lodged a protest that
led to his court-martial. The attack on Fajardo ended up being called
the "Foxardo Incident" by Navy Brass who routinely misspelled Spanish
Porter published a lengthy defense of his actions in 1825, in which
he claimed that he attacked the town while pursuing pirates who
had stolen goods from merchants in St. Thomas. Puerto Rico was a
notorious haven for pirates, he insisted, one that Spain could not
control, and that gave the United States the right to punish the
island. The Commodore called on the public to choose between him
and the government. As for Puerto Rico, Porter wrote: "It is the
duty of all nations to unite with us, to treat the people of Porto
Rico [sic] as the enemies of the human race."
But Judge Advocate Richard S. Coxe, who prosecuted Porter, reached
a far different conclusion in his public report. According to Coxe,
the lieutenant whose arrest had touched off the incident had landed
in Puerto Rico in civilian clothes without proper identification
and had been properly expelled by Puerto Rican authorities. As for
Porter, Coxe concluded that his story was so full of contradictions
as to be unbelievable, and that the Commodore had no justification
or authority to launch his attack. Porter was convicted, but because
of his war record, he was slapped with only a six-month suspension.
The scandal proved enough, however, to end his Navy career. The
bitter Commodore resigned, moved to Mexico and enlisted in the Mexican
navy as commander of its fleet.
The disgraced Porter took his son, David Dixon Porter, with him
to Mexico. Years later, David Dixon Porter returned to the United
States and followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Navy,
becoming a hero during the Civil War along with his adopted brother,
David Farragut. The two brothers, in fact, were the first two admirals
of the U.S. Navy. After the Civil War, David Dixon Porter took command
of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He is considered the
man who turned the school into the elite institution is is today,
and is recognized as the founder of the Navy's historical tradition.
He went on to serve as undersecretary of the Navy and its chief
administrator. Meanwhile, Farragut was named chief of naval operations
and became the mentor of Alfred T. Mahan, the Navy's most influential
theoretician during the age of imperialism.
Neither brother, however, forgot how their father had been treated
by John Quincy Adams and the civilian politicians of his day. In
a biography written years later, David Dixon Porter insisted that
his father had fought for the national good but had been subjected
to political persecution. Mahan painted a similar view in a biography
he wrote of Farragut. To this day, the textbooks on Naval history
used at Annapolis portray David Porter in the Foxardo Affair as
the victim of civilian leaders who targeted the brave Commodore
for what was at best over-eagerness. Such revisionist history has
been taught to each new class of Annapolis students since the late
When a squadron of Navy ships bombarded the port of San Juan in
May 1898 during the Spanish-American War, the ship assigned to lead
the bombardment was none other than the U.S.S. Porter. After
U.S. troops occupied Puerto Rico during that war, Navy officials
immediately began lobbying to set up a base just south of the town
of Fajardo and west of the island of Vieques. The Navy did not get
its wish until World War II, when Roosevelt Roads Naval Base and
the Vieques training range were established. Ever since then, the
Navy has used military exercises at Vieques as the final graduation
ceremony for its officers as they head for the real world of combat.
So what does all this forgotten naval history have to do with
the present Vieques controversy? We often forget, as Jesus Davila
reminds us, that institutions are built by people, and the traditions
of those institutions are passed from one generation to the other
by the men and women who compile the stories and make the official
record. In the case of Puerto Rico and the island of Vieques, the
tradition reaches far back to the early days of the Navy itself.
In a strange way, one that most Americans barely understand, Puerto
Rico's modern history always has been entwined with that of the
But a civilian commander-in-chief, whether his name is Clinton
or Bush, must learn, like John Quincy Adams once did, to separate
fact from fiction, to separate the interests of a nation from the
obsessions of its admirals. On January 22, two days after Bush's
inauguration, the Navy has scheduled new maneuvers for its Vieques
In Puerto Rico, where people respond to a different tradition,
more protests are expected, only this time the newly elected island
government will be on the side of the protesters. President Bush
thus will face his first foreign test near the same Puerto Rican
town where Commodore Porter failed his in 1824.