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Time to give Vieques back to its people

Aside from providing some great material for Letterman and Leno monologues, it is difficult to imagine what the U.S. military establishment expects to gain from its pathetic show of force against the demonstrators on Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island.

The demonstrators, who for the last year have taken over the area of the island that the Navy has used in the past as a bombing-practice range, were peacefully removed by FBI agents. They have been demanding that the United States stop bombing the island, clean up toxic chemicals and unexploded ordnance, and leave.

Use of Vieques for target practice has long irritated residents. Protests seeking the removal of a U.S. Naval base flared in the 1970s, but after several leaders were jailed the movement quickly disintegrated. Then a year ago a Navy F-18 fighter dropped two 500-pound bombs almost a mile off target and killed island resident David Sanes. Four others were injured. The incident ignited long-smoldering anti-U.S. feelings among islanders, who launched a new wave of protests, this time bolstered by the active participation of a number of churches and labor unions (NCR, June 18, 1999).

The dispute over Vieques is tied in with the history of the U.S. conquest of Puerto Rico and that territory’s odd status as a commonwealth, which gives its citizens essentially the same control over internal affairs as have citizens of the United States. But Puerto Ricans do not vote in general elections and are represented in Congress by a single representative, who has no vote, except on committees.

The removal of the most recent protesters, including 15 Catholic priests and 11 women religious will not end the dispute. Even the presence of two battleships and 1,000 marines to secure the perimeter of the target range won’t keep protesters from pressing the case.

In the words of Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio, apostolic administrator of the diocese of Caguas, which includes Vieques, the demonstrators already have won. "This is a very great victory," he said. "For the first time, a massive number of people have taken peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience as the way to struggle against the Navy. That was never the case before. And the campaign will continue until the Navy leaves for good."

It isn’t that Puerto Ricans dismiss any obligation to assist in national security. But as Corrada del Rio said in an earlier sermon, "Vieques has borne more than its share."

The reason it has been asked to bear that heavy share is because it is viewed as not as significant as a full U.S. state. It is a land that can be violated at will.

Pedro A. Sanjuan, who served in the Defense Department under Gerald Ford and the Interior Department under Ronald Reagan, recalled in a recent New York Times Op-ed piece that officials of the Ford administration came to a different conclusion when confronted with Puerto Rican objections to the United States practicing bombing runs on the smaller island of Culebra. At the time, he wrote, Ford "signed an executive order that was read to cheering crowds on Culebra … ending its use as a Navy weapons range and acknowledging that ‘the United States owes a great deal to the people of Puerto Rico for their past sacrifices on behalf of our common national security.’"

The assumption at the time, he said, was that the Navy would also have to give up its place on Vieques, but Ford was not re-elected and the issue dragged on.

Sanjuan points out that alternatives to Vieques exist -- uninhabited Puerto Rican islands or, if the U.S. Navy would prefer, Martha’s Vineyard.

The United States should stop acting the role of a muscle-bound superpower fumbling around for ways to assure its superiority. Vieques should be returned, in peace and without further destruction, to its residents.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000