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I’ve just returned from Vieques, Puerto Rico where last week the inhabitants celebrated the end of sixty years of the U.S. Navy’s occupation of their small island. For those who are interested, here is a brief report on these incredible events. More pictures are available in my photo essay.

The view from Vieques back to the main island of Puerto Rico.

Vieques is about 50 square miles in size and is home to about 10,000 people. It lies just off the east side of the main island of Puerto Rico. In the nineteenth century it had a booming sugar cane economy, but this production went bust in the early part of the twentieth century when it was replaced by beat sugar from the northern part of the United States. In 1941 with World War II on the horizon, the U.S. Navy expropriated land on the island to use as a bombing range. Rich landholders were happy to sell out, but the poor inhabitants and sharecroppers were generally left with the short end of the deal as the Navy came to control most of the island.

In the late 1970s in a first round of large-scale protests against the Naval occupation, Vieques fishermen blocked military exercises. Dozens were arrested, one of these being Ángel Rodríguez Cristóbal who was killed in his prison cell on November 11, 1979 under conditions that have never been explained. On April 19, 1999, two off-target bombs destroyed an observation post killing David Sanes Rodríguez, a civilian employee, leading to a second round of intensive protests with thousands of people subsequently being arrested in civil disobedience actions.

People congregate in front of Camp García on the evening of April 30.

Under pressure from these nonviolent protests, the Navy agreed to leave Vieques on May 1, 2003. Thousands of people celebrated this victory in a series of events from May 1-4. Beginning on the evening of April 30, people congregated at the main gate of Camp García. The mood was jubilant. A sign counted down the hours until the Navy was to leave Vieques. There was singing and speeches from a stage set up right in front of the gate.

Just before midnight, Navy security left the gate that they had been guarding all evening. People broke through the gate and climbed on top of the Navy checkpoint waving the flags of Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party. While on the stage on one side of the fence the municipal government held an official celebration, people began to tear down the fence surrounding the base and hammering at the concrete checkpoint building with a sledge hammer as if it were the Berlin Wall. Someone broke into the Navy compound inside the base and drove several vehicles to the front gate where they were destroyed and burned.

Puerto Rican independence leader Rubén Berrios Martínez with a banner "Always with Vieques ".

The next morning (May 1), thousands of people marched 4 kilometers from the town of Isabel II to the gates of Camp García, now rebaptized Zona Libre Primero de May (May First Free Zone). There was a commemoration at the gate, and then people continued into the base which had previously been closed off to civilians. Most of Vieques’ best beaches are on this part of the island, and many people took advantage of the opportunity to visit them.

Similar events took place over the next several days–a car caravan through Vieques, concerts during the evenings, recognition for those who committed civil disobedience to gain victory for Vieques, a special mass of thanksgiving for the peace, and a commemoration of the martyrs of the struggle. Activists traveled to Bahia Salina del Sur where, in view of the Observation Post where David Sanes had been killed four years earlier, they erected a cross.

Several important observations come out of these events. There is a danger that now that the Navy has left Camp García that international activists will move on to other issues and ignore Vieques. Inhabitants of the island emphasized that this was an important step in the struggle, but not a final victory. Three years ago, the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques laid out four demands which they called the four Ds: demilitarization, decontamination, devolution, and development. None of these have been fully achieved, and the most important struggles lie ahead to achieve these goals.

An abandoned ammunition depot with Mount Pirata topped with military communication antenna in the background.

In terms of demilitarization, the Navy has stopped the bombing of the island but a military presence persists. Most notable is a Radar Over The Horizon (ROTHR) installation on the western part of the island, as well as a communications post on Mount Pirata, the island’s highest point. In addition, sixty years of bombing including the use of napalm and depleted uranium has left the island heavily polluted and it will take years and extensive resources to decontaminate it. Estimates range as high as $450 billion, which represents one year of the Pentagon’s budget. May 1 appears to represent victory for the third goal (devolution, or return of the land), but rather than returning the land to the people the Navy gave it to the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service to form what is now the Caribbean’s largest wildlife refuge. Many activists advocate returning the land to the sharecroppers from whom it was taken in the 1940s, or placing the land in a community trust. This relates to the last demand which emphasizes the need for cooperative and sustainable development on what is a very poor island in an impoverished colony of the United States.

There was a strong independentista presence at the Vieques celebrations, and they have championed this cause. Rubén Berrios Martínez, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, claimed that the history of Puerto Rico will be written as pre and post Vieques. No empire, he stated, not even the U.S., has given up privileges voluntarily. He used Vieques as a platform to call for a solution to political question of Puerto Rico. A slogan was “Today Vieques, Tomorrow Puerto Rico,” and there was a certain amount of sentiment that evicting the Navy from Vieques was an important step in the struggle to gain political independence for Puerto Rico.

A sign at the Justice and Peace Camp at the entrance to Camp García proclaims "Peace is more than ending the bombing; Decontamination and return (of land) now."

Finally, local activists repeatedly emphasized that this was a nonviolent struggle for the peace of Vieques. It is important to recognize, celebrate, and embrace the end of the Navy’s bombing as an example of the possibilities for nonviolent direct action. In contrast to this largely peaceful struggle, the press focused on the burning of vehicles in the early hours of May 1, and the Puerto Rican governor Sila Calderón proclaimed her intent to prosecute those guilty of these actions to the fullest extent possible. Most activists denounced the burning of the vehicles as an anomaly at odds with the movement’s nonviolent struggle. Others apologetically recognized the destruction as an emotional reaction to sixty years of occupation. At midnight, the military vehicles had become property of the Fish and Wildlife Service which led some to conclude that they were not legitimate targets, but yet they symbolically represent continued U.S. control and domination over the island. Many activists agreed that it was hypocritical to prosecute these relatively insignificant actions while doing nothing about the much more abusive actions of the U.S. Navy over the past six decades that resulted in the killing of several people and the deaths of many more from cancer and other diseases resulting from the bombing.

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