May 15, 2000
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Several thousand people filled the streets in front of Fort Buchanan in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 4, to condemn the U.S. government and colonial authorities for the eviction of protesters from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The protesters have been opposing the use of the island for bombing practice by the U.S. Navy.
Students at the University of Puerto Rico shut down the campus in opposition to the evictions carried out in a predawn raid by hundreds of U.S. cops and marines.
At 5:15 a.m. that day, some 200 FBI agents and 100 U.S. marshals, backed up by 1,200 U.S. Marines, evicted some 160 protesters at a Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
At the entrance of the U.S. Navy’s Camp García, Puerto Rican antiriot police blocked off the highway as masked U.S. marshals rolled onto the site of a protest in vans with no headlights on. Protesters refused to leave, but submitted to arrests without tussle. Some 30 people were mounted onto trucks and taken inside the military facility.
Meanwhile, U.S. military helicopters swooped down on the bombing range in eastern Vieques. FBI agents handcuffed and removed close to 140 protesters from 12 camp sites in the area.
The protesters were shipped off to the U.S. naval base at Roosevelt Roads on the main island. While U.S. authorities chose not to charge them, they took down their names and warned them that they would be arrested on trespassing charges if they returned to Navy territory.
At the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard, aided by the marines, established a three-mile-wide “security” zone in the waters around the base on Vieques to block more protesters from arriving. They intercepted at least nine boats that morning. Protesters vowed to continue to penetrate the military-controlled territory.
Pentagon officials have said they intend to resume Navy bombing exercises on Vieques within two weeks. Washington is intent on sending a decisive message to opponents of the U.S. military presence.
Among those detained were dozens of Vieques residents; Lolita Lebrón, a longtime independence fighter and former political prisoner; Ismael Guadalupe Ortiz, and Robert Rabin, both leaders of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.
Also removed were some 40 religious figures and several U.S. politicians, including New York city councilman Jose Rivera, and U.S. Congresspeople Nydia Velázquez and Luis Gutiérrez, from New York and Illinois, respectively.
Washington sets stage for ‘reinvasion’
The Clinton administration’s decision to launch the police-military operation on Vieques took place after the April 22 assault by U.S. immigration cops and marshals on a private home in Miami — carried out in the name of returning Cuban boy Elián González to his father. Within days of the INS operation in Miami, three U.S. warships steamed to Vieques with the marines. For a few days they loomed offshore, while helicopters frequently buzzed over the camps and Humvees and other military vehicles made passes near the range, trying to unnerve protesters.
Agapito Belardo, a leader of the camp in front of Camp García, told the Militant in a phone interview that townspeople were awoken by protesters as the arrests were being made. A large part of the town’s population gathered at the main square to oppose the evictions. “People were outraged,” Belardo said.
In April 1999, a U.S. Navy plane “accidentally” dropped a 500-pound bombs that killed Vieques resident David Sanes. This touched off a groundswell of demonstrations and other actions demanding the Navy stop bombing Vieques and get out. With growing support, opponents of the U.S. Navy presence on the Puerto Rican island set up civil disobedience camps on the Navy bombing range.
In face of these protests, and to try to defuse them, U.S. president William Clinton won the agreement of Puerto Rican colonial governor Pedro Rosselló on a deal. According to this agreement, a referendum is to be held no later than 2002 where Vieques residents are given two choices: to keep the Navy on their land, or for the U.S. military to leave. In the meantime, the Navy would resume bombing practice, using “inert” shells instead of live ammunition and reducing bombing to “only” 90 days a year. Meanwhile, Clinton promised to provide $40 million in economic aid. There has been widespread public rejection of this deal in Puerto Rico, however.
“Judging from information I know, I don’t agree with the bombing or the U.S. occupation,” said Cynthia Paniagua, a 22-year-old Hunter College student in New York. “It’s not just the bombing. Other things are being affected like marine life,” she said, pointing out that fishing is a major part of the Vieques economy. As an advocate of Puerto Rican independence, Paniagua said, “I don’t want them there, period!”
Awilda Rodríguez, 23, another Puerto Rican activist in New York, stated, “What they have done in Vieques is similar to what they’ve done to all of Puerto Rico minus the bombs. This will open a lot of peoples’ eyes. It used to be said that only independentistas fight against the Navy in Vieques, but now after seeing what the U.S. is capable of, many more have come out,” said Rodríguez, who was raised in Puerto Rico. “Growing up, I heard many negative things about the U.S. government. Now I know they’re true.”
U.S., Puerto Rican fighters call protests
“Mass mobilizations in important U.S. cities are key to denounce the arrests and to increase pressure against Navy plans for Vieques,” read an e-mail letter send out internationally by the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques.
Demonstrations have been called in Vieques and cities around Puerto Rico.
In Minneapolis 50 people picketed in front of the Navy recruiting center. “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! U.S. Navy has got to go!” chanted pickets there. The protest was called by the Puerto Rican Coalition.
Protests have also been held in Boston and Tucson, Arizona, as well as other cities. Actions have been called in numerous U.S. cities, as well as in Toronto and in south Korea.