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Puerto Rican island battles naval presence

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Vieques Island, Puerto Rico

Cristina Vázquez was born on this island 57 years ago yet had never seen the coral reefs and turquoise blue waters of Yayí Bay. Although the island is her home, the U.S. Navy had kept Vázquez away, using the entire eastern end of her island as a bombing range. Then she boarded a fishing boat in her village of Isabel Segunda and came to Yayí Bay to pray that the Navy will go away.

Some 300 worshipers broke the law May 30 by traveling to Yayí Bay to dedicate a chapel constructed just off the beach amidst bomb debris and unexploded ordnance. “It may be an act of civil disobedience to come here, but I wanted to know what it was like. I never dreamed it was so beautiful,” said Vázquez, a retired Methodist school teacher who read the scripture lesson in the ecumenical service.

“Tomorrow they may tear down this chapel, but our struggle for life will go on,” declared Fr. Hilario Sanchez, a Catholic priest who gave the homily. “We in the church are clear: The Navy must leave Vieques!”

The service was the latest shot fired across the bow of the U.S. Navy by the 9,300 residents of Vieques, a small island just east of the mainland of Puerto Rico. The Navy seized two-thirds of the island in 1941 and has used it for a variety of military maneuvers and bombing practice ever since. The United States also rents Vieques to military allies. About 85 percent of the carrier pilots now deployed in the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia trained here.

Revitalized movement

Residents claim the military activities disrupt fishing, prevent economic development and cause a cancer rate almost twice that of the rest of Puerto Rico.

In the 1970s, the fishers of Vieques mounted a campaign to drive off the Navy. After several leaders were jailed, the movement succumbed to partisan squabbles and quickly lost momentum. The conflict disappeared from the world’s news.

Until April 19, when a Navy F-18 fighter dropped two 500-pound bombs almost a mile off target and killed David Sanes, a Vieques resident who worked as a civilian security guard in the military zone. Four others were injured.

The Navy apologized, but the death of Sanes quickly revitalized the movement to free the 21-mile-by-4-mile island from military control. Within days, protesters had set up several campsites inside the bombing range, defying the Navy to arrest them. Navy officials at first promised prompt expulsion but backed off as the people of Vieques, spreading the news via the Internet, gained more and more adherents to their cause, including church leaders from across the ecumenical spectrum.

“In the past we suffered a lack of support from several sectors, including the churches,” Ismael Guadalupe, president of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, told NCR. “Today it’s different. Sectors such as the churches and the labor unions are not just present beside us as we struggle to defend Vieques, they are actively taking on our struggle as their own. They’re with us now, both throughout Puerto Rico and the rest of the world. And they’ll be with us if the Navy comes to remove us from our island.”

At Sanes’ funeral April 22, Catholic Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Río of Caguas, whose diocese includes Vieques, declared, “We all know that the national security of Puerto Rico and the United States requires our participation, but too much can be asked on the road to freedom. Vieques has borne more than its share.”

Roberto González Nieves, the new archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico, was recently named to a special government commission studying the situation on Vieques. He termed the Navy’s behavior on Vieques “immoral.”

González and Corrada del Río traveled together to the pockmarked island May 22 to sit in the Chapel of Perpetuo Socorro in the Monte Santo neighborhood and listen for three hours as local Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans recounted stories of Navy abuse. The two then joined a march of labor activists who demonstrated at the gate that leads into the military-controlled eastern end of the island.

“The presence of the Navy on Vieques is a sign of the anti-reign of God,” Corrada del Río told NCR. “The people of God are asking the Navy to cease military operations immediately and as soon as possible to leave the island, so that the people of Vieques can get their land back and enjoy the right to live in peace. Beyond the island of Vieques, from the position of the gospel, we ask that Puerto Rico be liberated from the state of militarization that has seized our country.”

The bishop said he wasn’t counseling civil disobedience at this time. “It’s an extreme measure,” he said. “But we will reconsider our position if the Navy resumes bombing on Vieques.”

Eunice Santana, a Disciples of Christ pastor, says it’s about time that mainline church leaders get on board the Vieques struggle. A former president of the World Council of Churches and now director of the Caribbean Institute for Ecumenical Action and Training, Santana barely escaped arrest while praying in the military zone of Vieques in 1979. Her husband, Wilfredo Vélez, wasn’t so lucky: He spent four months in a U.S. prison for trespassing.

Church ‘a key factor’

“Twenty years ago, anyone who spoke out was subjected to intense intimidation and harassment by military intelligence, by the government and even by the church,” she told NCR. “What’s happening today is very distinct. The archbishop and the bishop of Caguas have been very clear and forthright about Vieques.”

According to retired school teacher Alba Encarnacion, a prominent anti-Navy activist on Vieques, the church “has been a key factor” in the movement’s recent success. “If the church hadn’t given its full support to the struggle, the people would still be divided,” she said. “The priest told us yesterday that there were no longer any excuses for people not to get involved.”

Juan Vera, the United Methodist bishop of Puerto Rico, convinced Methodist bishops in the United States to pass a resolution in May calling for the Navy to “cease its military activities, repair whatever damages it has caused and transfer all the land that is currently occupied to the Puerto Rico government.” Methodist bishops in the United States will send an official delegation to Vieques June 25.

Lobbying in the United States by church leaders like González and Vera will doubtless step up political pressure on the Navy. Yet the U.S. military is between a rock and a hard place, as officials claim they have nowhere else they can conduct live fire exercises. According to the Southern Fleet’s commander, Rear Admiral Terry Entyre, what the Navy does on Vieques can’t be carried out in the United States “because populated areas are too near.”

Such comments bother even the most conservative Puerto Ricans. “They wouldn’t risk carrying out maneuvers with live ammunition on Martha’s Vineyard because Sen. [Edward] Kennedy would cry out to the heavens and the maneuvers would stop instantly,” declared former Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló, now the commonwealth’s official envoy to Washington.

Increasing military presence

Tensions on Vieques are heating up precisely when the U.S. military is increasing its presence in Puerto Rico. With the handing over of the Panama Canal Zone, the Miami-based Southern Command is moving some of its operations from Panama to Puerto Rico. The environmental impact statement for the Command’s Special Operations branch, according to several people who have read it, predicts increased maneuvers, bombings and environmental degradation on Vieques. The Navy is also building a giant over-the-horizon radar installation on Vieques, allegedly part of the U.S. war on drugs.

In the past, Puerto Rico has been a hospitable spot for the military. The commonwealth has 150,000 veterans, and having done military service is usually a source of pride. Military recruiters in Puerto Rico regularly outperform their U.S. colleagues. But the welcome mat may be yanked away.

In the middle of the current war of words over Vieques, the Navy admitted May 28 that a Marine jet fired 263 rounds of depleted uranium at the island Feb. 19. Earlier it had denied charges by islanders that such munitions had been used. A Navy public relations official in Puerto Rico, Robert Nelson, admitted that use of such weapons was illegal and termed the incident “an error.” He said a Nuclear Regulatory Commission team investigated the incident and was able to recover only 57 of the bullets.

Such incidents don’t win allies. “I no longer can trust the information they give me,” declared Secretary of State Norma Burgos, coordinator of Puerto Rico’s Special Commission on Vieques.

Many observers believe the Puerto Rican government will try to negotiate a compromise. “Certain powerful economic groups will be satisfied if the Navy promises to stop using live ammunition,” Corrada del Río said. “But the people of Vieques want the Navy to leave the island and won’t be satisfied until it’s gone. There’s a long struggle ahead for them, but in the end they will prevail. And the diocese of Caguas will accompany them until the Navy leaves Vieques once and for all.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999