August 2, 1999
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization held hearings here July 6 on Puerto Rico’s colonial status and approved a resolution supporting that Latin American nation’s right to self-determination, including independence. The committee, which has always been boycotted by the U.S. government, has approved similar resolutions for most years since the early 1970s.
The UN committee heard testimony from almost two dozen representatives of organizations. The big majority were pro- independence groups. Their testimony hammered away at two issues in particular that highlight the consequences of U.S. colonial rule. One was the campaign to free 17 Puerto Rican political prisoners who are locked up in U.S. prisons because of their pro-independence activities. The other was the renewed fight to get the U.S. Navy out of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
The final resolution adopted by the UN committee, which as in most previous years was sponsored by the revolutionary government of Cuba, explicitly supports these two campaigns.
Calls for U.S. Navy to leave Vieques
“For almost 60 years our island [Vieques] has been used by the Navy for U.S. wars,” stated Ismael Guadalupe, a leader of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. “The presence of that military apparatus comes as a result of a political situation in which decision-making powers do not lie within our country, but in another country.”
The committee has been leading sustained protests in Vieques, including on restricted Navy territory, since April 19, when the U.S. Navy “accidentally” bombed and killed David Sanes in a military training exercise taking place during Washington’s assault on Yugoslavia. The protests have drawn fishermen, students, religious leaders, and others.
“In carrying out these actions in open defiance of the U.S. Navy,” said Guadalupe, “we have four principal demands: demilitarization of Vieques, the return of our land, decontamination, and the development of that land.” Vieques residents have long accused the Navy not only of occupying three-fourths of their land, but of polluting it and devastating the island’s economic development.
“On Feb. 6, 1978, a group of Vieques fishermen, armed only with their own little boats, slings, stones, and the willingness to risk their lives, met NATO warships at sea,” testified Zoé Lugo-Mendoza, 24, a member of the Vieques Support Campaign in New York City. “They succeeded many times and more than 30 war maneuvers had to be aborted [over the years]….
“It was after the recent death of a civilian by a U.S. bomb that the whole island of Puerto Rico has finally heard the message. Now all of Puerto Rico along with Vieques is demanding, `Stop the bombing of Puerto Rico. U.S. Navy out of Vieques.’ ”
“In 101 years of military occupation of Puerto Rico we have had the dubious reputation of serving the U.S. empire in several wars, conflicts carried out under the concept of `common defense,’ which in our view is nothing but a subterfuge,” said Olga Cintrón of the Great Eastern National Masonic Lodge of Puerto Rico, a pro-independence group.
The chair of the committee hearings, Cuban ambassador Rafael Dausá, opened the floor for discussion after each presentation, which a number of UN delegates took advantage of. After hearing several petitioners expose the U.S. Navy for its use of depleted uranium-coated bullets in Vieques and the high levels of cancer among Vieques residents, Iraqi representative Mowafak Mahmoud Ayoub asked a question and said, “I am speaking because the United States used the same type of weaponry in Iraq, particularly in the South. Cancer has risen in those areas.”
Free Puerto Rican political prisoners
A number of speakers pointed to the frame-up of Puerto Rican independence advocate José Solís and the U.S. government’s incarceration of 17 Puerto Rican independentista prisoners, some of whom are serving jail sentences of up to 98 or 105 years.
“Even as we testify,” said Marisol Corretjer, vice president of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, addressing the case of José Solís, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, “the United States is seeking the incarceration of yet another political prisoner, a distinguished university professor who dared teach students to question their colonial status. These violations of our human rights can stop only when we are a free and independent nation.” Wilma Reverón, co-chair of the Hostos National Congress, made a similar point.
Jorge Farinacci, a leader of the Socialist Front of Puerto Rico, told the UN delegates, “The U.S. government continues to be deaf to the universal call for the freedom of our political prisoners, who are the longest-held political prisoners in the western hemisphere.”
Rodolfo Benítez, Cuba’s delegate at the hearings, asked for more information on the frame-up of Solís. Farinacci took the opportunity to announce demonstrations planned at federal buildings across the United States and in Puerto Rico on July 7, when Solís was due to be sentenced, to demand his immediate release.
Martín Koppel, who spoke as a member of the Socialist Workers Party National Committee, focused on why the fight for Puerto Rico’s independence is in the interests of workers and farmers in the United States. “Colonial rule of Puerto Rico gives the U.S. government a freer hand to attack the democratic rights of those in the United States who struggle in defense of our livelihood,” he stated. “A successful struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico will deal a powerful blow to our common enemy. It will show that it is possible to stand up to the most brutal capitalist class in the world and break its domination.”
Other petitioners included Juan Mari Bra’s and Lolita Lebrón, longtime figures in the independence movement. Also speaking in favor of independence were Fernando Martín, vice president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party; Julio Muriente, president of the New Independence Movement of Puerto Rico (NMIP); Vanessa Ramos, general secretary of the American Association of Jurists; and Eunice Santana of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.
In an unusual appearance for the head of Puerto Rico’s colonial administration, pro-statehood governor Pedro Rosselló addressed the UN decolonization committee. He called for the U.S. Navy to leave Vieques and used Puerto Rico’s colonial status as an argument for why it should be become the 51st U.S. state. His administration had earlier appointed a commission that issued a 53-page report detailing the U.S. Navy’s atrocities, which ended with a call for the U.S. military to withdraw from Vieques.
Representatives of a few other pro-statehood organizations spoke. Nearly every speaker at the hearing denounced the U.S. military occupation of Vieques. Unlike previous years, no representative of organizations supporting the current “commonwealth” setup attended the hearings.
The UN resolution in support of Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination and independence was approved with 12 votes in favor, none opposed, and 6 abstentions.
While in town, several of the independence fighters from Puerto Rico spoke at public meetings that took place all over New York City. The evening after testifying at the United Nations, Fernando Martín, Ramos, Muriente, Reverón, Eduardo Villanueva Muñoz of the Lawyers Guild of Puerto Rico, and others spoke on a panel before an audience of 90 people at Hunter College.
Following a July 8 picket line in front of the United Nations, the Vieques Support Campaign in New York sponsored a forum that also featured a broad panel of speakers, which Corretjer, Farinacci, Guadalupe, Muriente, and Santana addressed.
The next day Guadalupe and Farinacci got a warm reception when they visited the picket line of striking Domino Sugar workers in Brooklyn, New York. Guadalupe spoke with strikers about his participation in the struggle in Vieques, while learning about the sugar workers’ fight against job cuts and for better wages.