Puerto Rico - war bounty - a "territory" ceded to the US after the Spanish were defeated in 1898. Vieques - a small island off the eastern point of Puerto Rico - for decades a target range for amphibious landings and joint maneuver bombings by the US armed forces.
After reading a three page article in the Jacksonville Times Union a few weeks ago that dealt primarily with the unique characteristics of Vieques that made it an ideal staging ground for war "games", and then reading also about the grassroots efforts by the Puerto Rican environmental movement to STOP the bombing of Vieques, I decided I wanted to take a look for myself.
An opportunity arose when Vitan, whom I had met at an FCPJ conference held in Cocoa Beach and also at the demonstration at the gates of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, sent an appeal to the FCPJ (Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice) for an international presence.
Bruce Gagnon and I flew to San Juan together with my work colleague Don Lockhard and his eleven year old son Matt, made our way to San Juan where we were picked up by a reception committee. Bruce introduced himself as the coordinator of the Global Network for the Demilitarization and Denuclearification of Space, and I became the de facto representative of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice. What an honor!
The issues of commonwealth (sic, read "colony" status) versus independence or statehood are issues that put most Puerto Ricans in a dilemma. We didn't meet anyone who was in favor of statehood. Notwithstanding a strong, underlying, emotional wish for independence, there is broad-based fear among Puerto Ricans that breaking away from the colonial rule would adversely affect their economic situation - hence the political concession. Most Puerto Ricans seem to have reluctantly accepted the Real Politik of US domination. But the issue of Vieques has, for the first time in Puerto Rican history, evoked a broad consensus: the bombing must stop, the island must be "liberated".
The use of Vieques as a bombing range has become a burning issue in Puerto Rico.
We were told repeatedly that it has become a symbol of the arrogance shown by US corporate and military complex. Since the accidental killing of a Puerto Rican in April - by a stray bomb, the struggle for the "liberation" of Vieques has become an expression of the Puerto Ricans' indignation for the intellectual, cultural and environmental degradation of the once pristine islands. Since then, several citizens' groups, with the help of local fishermen, have occupied the beaches around the bomb site in an ongoing demonstration of nonviolent civil disobedience.
The vast target range was surrounded by many small encampments.
Each camp was characterized by one or more structures and a group of tents. All the encampments flew large Puerto Rican flags.
The original makeshift lean-to's are being replaced by more permanent wooden framed structures consisting of a protected cooking area with storage for food stuffs and water, and a common area where people could gather, talk, eat and sleep.
At the camp where we slept, on Playa Yayí, the folks had just installed a solar panel connected to a set of deep-cycle batteries that provided about 300 watts of power for lighting the dwelling at night.
Rain water was collected from the zinc roof for bathing and washing dishes. A sophisticated port-a-potty latrine had been set up farther inland.
We were hosted by a group of working-class people, all with long time commitments to social justice. Several hundred yards down the beach were a group of teachers.
Across the bay was a group who represented labor unions. Up high on a hill were the university students.
Several boatloads of people who identified themselves as evangelicals had arrived the day before me and were setting up their camp. Senator Berrios, who led the successful struggle to remove the US Navy from the Island of Culebra in the 50's and 60's had a camp on the other side of the island, right under the watchful eye of the white and red checkered Navy observation post.
On the other side of that bay, and up on a hill referred to as Mount David, was another group. They had erected a large white crucifix attached to (but towering over) a US tank facing the observation station. Several hammocks hung from the cannon.
All the protestors were concerned about the environment, in particular, the ordnance litter. consisting of mine-fields, unexploded bombs and the presence of depleted uranium.
Their concern seemed to me more than justified.
Everywhere I looked there were bullet casings and unexploded bombs of all sizes and shapes.
We were told that the island had been subjected to round the clock bombing - that the entire island and even Culebra, some five miles away would tremble as a result of the exploding bombs. Senator Berrios pointed out to us that the incidence of cancers and leukemias were about 30% higher on Vieques than on the main island.
Connecting the encampments is the "Ho Chi Ming trail". People are warned to not stray from the beaten path to avoid tripping onto unexploded ordnance.
The second day there, we walked from one camp to another meeting and talking with the people in each camp. Being fluent in Spanish, it was very easy for me to engage in conversation and hear their stories. Between the camps we encountered a mock airstrip with two jet fighters riddled with bullet holes.
Tanks, an assortment of heavy trucks and containers laid out probably to simulate the layout of an enemy village; recoil field cannons and tanks were on either side of the path. Bombs and machine gun casings were everywhere.
At one camp a mass was being said. At another there was a delicious fish fry. Senator Berrios was receiving a delegation of citizens from Culebra who had come to express their solidarity. Up on Mount David I met several members of the New York City Council who were part of a 150 person delegation of legislators and judges who, like us, had come to Vieques to learn for themselves. From the height of Mount David we could see a moon-like landscape, pock-marked with bomb craters.
When we first visited the teachers' camp, they were putting 4x4 pressure treated posts in the sand. The following day, a plywood floor was in; pressure treated siding panels had been installed, and a bright zinc roof was being nailed to the rafters! The sense of community was inspiring.
I believe that with this type of spirit, the people will finally have to be taken into consideration. Public opinion has been successfully mobilized internationally as well. If federal marshals move in to clear the area, as they have threatened to do, the U.S. will face the prospect of massive protests throughout Puerto Rico. Yet if they don't, more structures will go up, and more and more people will come and settle. There's no doubt about that - it's too beautiful a place to not want to visit. Which brings me to the message I was repeatedly urged to relate to the people back in the US: you have an open invitation to participate in this nonviolent civil action!
Our Puerto Rican hosts emphasized the symbolic nature of Vieques and were quick to make the distinction between American people and the American military machine, and make the connections between Vieques and environmental concerns everywhere, to military- versus social- spending issues, to the ills of corporate greed, etc., etc..
So, bring your kids along too: it's the most exciting, most inexpensive and most inspiring holiday you could possibly have anywhere.