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Sunday News- Lancaster, PA
Seeking Sea Change For Vieques
Area Residents Work With Puerto Rican Islanders Who Want To Stop Navy Training
By John Rutter
February 18, 2001
James Gibbel honeymooned in Puerto Rico 26 years ago.
But when the Lititz resident boarded a ferry boat in Fajardo and crossed the Strait of Vieques, he had resistance, not romance, on his mind.
Gibbel and Harold Penner of Akron recently returned from a 27- member Christian Peacemaker Team mission to the island of Vieques.
For 10 days starting Jan. 25, peacemakers from Canada and the United States worked with islanders opposing U.S. Navy training exercises that have turned large portions of Vieques into a bombing .range and ammunition dump.
The Navy has used the island since World War II. Military officials say they must continue training there to maintain a strong fighting force.
Opposition crystalized in 1999, when David Sanes Rodriguez, a security guard on the Navy base, was killed by an errant missile. The situation attracted international attention after Vieques fishermen sneaked onto a gunnery range and halted the firing.
Shelling is set to resume in March, Penner says. But he and Gibbel say many of Vieques's 9,400 residents want the Navy to clean up contaminated weapons testing sites and leave.
Peace advocates say years of bombing with tank-piercing depleted uranium shells have turned the island into a toxic minefield, sparked soaring cancer rates and gutted the economy.
"The people are living on a prison," Gibbel says. On Vieques, they say, "World War II has never come to an end."
In some of Penner's snapshots, the 21-mile-long "Little Girl Island" looks more like a paradise than a battlefield.
Lustrous beaches sprawl to the horizon. Trade winds whoosh across the clear tropical waters that separate Vieques from the Puerto Rican mainland by about eight miles.
"You always feel it," Gibbel says of the wind.
The military is also a dominant force.
The Navy arrived lightning fast in 1941, Penner says. Though some residents were displaced, "A lot of people felt they were being patriotic about it at the time."
Islanders expected the Navy to withdraw after the war, according to Gibbel and Penner; instead, residents found themselves sandwiched between busy bombing ranges to the east and west.
Through deals with the Navy, Gibbel says, "Private industry also uses (the island) to test their firearms."
The Navy, which according to a British Broadcasting Co. report is defending against a class action brought by cancer-stricken islanders, has denied links between weapons and health problems.
Peace advocates say aerial and ship-to-shore gunnery kicks up dangerous radioactive particles that drift downwind to population centers like Isabel Segunda.
A new preliminary study of Vieques fishermen and children showed a high instance of heart problems associated with exposure to loud noises such as jet engines and explosions.
Farmers can't raise fruits and vegetables on the island, Gibbel notes. "It's too contaminated."
Few people knew the islanders' side of the story until recently.
"The people haven't historically had a voice," said Penner, who adds that Puerto Rico's commonwealth status has helped keep the issue out of the mainstream.
But the picture is changing.
Sila Calderon, Puerto Rico's new governor, has pledged to stop Navy exercises on Vieques.
Under a referendum proposed for November, the Navy would either leave the island in 2003 or continue with live-fire training. The government would offer islanders millions in economic aid under the second option.
Meanwhile, Penner says, "More than 80 percent of the people of Vieques are against the Navy." Leading the opposition is a coalition that includes both Catholic and Protestant churches.
In March 2000, Christian Peacemaker Teams, a cooperative effort of Mennonite and Brethren churches and Friends meetings, sent its first delegation to Vieques.
The teams, which also work in Haiti, Chiapas, Mexico, and the Middle East, promote nonviolent faith-based alternatives to war and conflict.
Penner and Gibbel got a first-hand view of the process by joining local residents in a peaceful vigil outside the military camp. Among the protestors was island leader Robert Rabin, who lives in a house across the street from the base.
"One morning we found a whole lot of these in his driveway," says Penner, placing a roofing nail on the table in Gibbel's insurance company office.
Penner and Gibbel slept on the floor and shared beans, rice and spaghetti with their hosts. The soundtrack of their visit was crowing roosters and barking dogs -- and the loud music of the Puerto Rican riot police called in by the previous governor.
The peacemaker team also held a worship service, conducted a nonviolent training workshop and tried to submit a letter to Navy Rear Adm. Kevin Green.
The Navy detained seven team members after they entered the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Ceiba.
The military officials Gibbel and Penner met with were "defensive," Gibbel says. "They say they're only following orders."
Islanders will follow their hearts if bombing resumes, Gibbel and Penner predict.
Fishermen know every twist of the coastline and can get through the fences, Penner says.
"The local people will be out standing in the line of fire -- male, female, old, young, fishermen, shopkeepers, goverment employees."