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Protesters ponder next step on Vieques

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Inside his tent on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques just before dawn May 4, Feliciano Rodriguez put on his vestments and walked to Mass at the nearby chapel in the middle of the bombing range where the U.S. Navy had for six decades practiced war. Before the celebration could begin, however, armed U.S. federal marshals and FBI agents swooped down on the Catholic encampment.

“It was a spiritual moment for all of us. There was a solemn mood. The agents blocked access to the bread and wine, so we just prayed and sang hymns. As people in other groups were led away, we sang to give them encouragement and courage,” said Rodriguez, a priest who has coordinated resistance activities on Vieques for the Catholic diocese of Caguas, which includes the 21-mile long island (NCR, March 10).

Thirteen other priests were arrested with Rodriguez, as well as five women religious and 22 lay Catholics. The government said 216 people in all were arrested during the early morning raid.

Demonstrators were released without charges.

The Navy did its part to encourage renewed resistance, waiting a scant four days before sending two A-4 Skyhawks to drop bombs on the island. The projectiles were inert “dummy” bombs, but protestors were nonetheless incensed. “This changes the panorama completely,” declared Puerto Rican Methodist Bishop Juan Vera Mendez, one of several Protestant leaders arrested May 4.

Church leaders, who have emerged as the leaders of the Vieques campaign, spent several days discussing their options.

Caguas Catholic Bishop Alvaro Corrada del Rio visited the island May 6 and 7 and listened to church members, fishers, and members of the Vieques Women’s Alliance. Corrada then sat with his diocesan team for two days of planning strategy. Corrada was to announce the diocese’s future plans during a May 12 news conference, but Dayani Centeno of the diocesan pastoral ministries team told NCR that more civil disobedience wasn’t planned immediately.

“We’re not discarding civil disobedience, but we’re more interested right now in a long-term vision of how to accompany the people of Vieques,” she said.

Discussing the Navy presence on Vieques will increasingly involve discussing the Clinton administration’s plan for the island. With the renewed bombing, Vieques will supposedly now receive $40 million in development assistance from the federal government. And at some point after August, according to the deal struck in January between Clinton and Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello, islanders will vote in a referendum on whether the Navy may resume using live ammunition. If voters say yes to live bombs, Vieques will receive an additional $50 million in aid. If voters defeat the proposal, the Navy must clean up the practice range, littered with rusting targets and unexploded bombs, and cease all training by May 1, 2003. They will not be able to vote for an immediate end to all bombing, a fact that angers many residents of the island and their supporters in the church.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000