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The Battle of Vieques Claims Its Casualties

by Robert Becker

May 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

As the dust settled over the Camp García firing range, the U.S.S. Enterprise battle group steamed away from Vieques late Tuesday. A tumultuous week around the training of the battle group had ended. The commonwealth government-prompted protests against the U.S. Navy created media images beamed worldwide of a belligerent, even anti-American Puerto Rico.

From the wreckage: the century-long relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico seemed to have been grievously harmed.

Call it the Battle of Vieques.

The first salvo was the April 24 filing, by Gov. Sila M. Calderón, of a lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the Navy in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The unprecedented suit m sought a temporary restraining order against the Navy’s carrying out its scheduled Vieques bombing and shelling with inert ordinance from April 27 through May 2.

Two days later, Judge Gladys Kessler denied the motion for the TRO. She found there was no proof the pending training exercises would cause " irreparable harm" to the health of Vieques residents. She also ordered a full hearing on the issues to be scheduled within two weeks.

Calderón’s offensive also included a televised address on April 25, prior to the start of the protests. In it, Calderón sought to reassure Puerto Ricans of her good intentions. In a departure from the usual political symbolism of Popular Democratic Party politicians, Calderón had herself filmed with the U.S. flag displayed prominently behind her, with the Puerto Rico flag occupying a secondary, less visible position.

The calculated display of Old Glory had no effect. Over the next five days, Puerto Rico was convulsed by attacks on U.S. military personnel and property and on federal offices and buildings. The governor, trying to encourage civil disobedience while avoiding violence, had let the dogs out.

The stage was set by Calderón’s enthusiastic role in building the Vieques protests. The protesters rallied at the Capitol Building on the night before maneuvers were to start. Calderón sent government employees out to post signs on the major highways directing demonstrators to free parking on government property. The governor closed down restricted bus lanes to speed the protesters on their way out of the city, where they were accompanied by a police escort all the way to Fajardo on the eastern tip of the island, where government-owned ferries waited to take them to Vieques.

Ground zero was the gate and fence line at Camp García in Vieques, which protected the western flank of the Navy firing range. Some 400 protesters had gathered there before dawn on Friday, the first day of the Navy training. Over the next five days, the demonstrators, some of them wearing masks, attacked and tore down sections of the fence, hurled rocks and bottles at U.S. marshals and Navy security personnel, used and screamed at Navy personnel who arrived to repair the fences, and surged through the fence onto the firing range, causing lengthy delays in the training.

Security forces responded with pepper gas, rubber bullets and batons. Five were injured in the skirmishing, and some 180 demonstrators were arrested, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., actor Edward James Olmos, the Rev. Al Sharpton and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., who loudly complained afterwards that he was roughed up while being arrested and detained under uncomfortable conditions. Navy spokesmen said Gutiérrez had resisted arrest after trespassing on the range.

Of the 180 arrests, just two were made by the Puerto Rican police. Police Superintendent Pierre Vivoni was on site at a command post, from where he kept in touch with the governor’s office. When asked by reporters why police made no arrests of protesters destroying government property, Vivoni, who was about 50 yards from where the fence was breached, said he saw nothing.

On the main island of Puerto Rico, bombs were placed at the Social Security offices in Bayamón, a Navy recruiting office in Arecibo was vandalized and an Army recruiting officer was attacked and beaten by three hooded individuals in Aguadilla. Police defused the Bayamón bombs before they exploded.

At the University of Puerto Rico, a gang of student independence supporters attacked the ROTC building on campus, beating and sending to the hospital two young ROTC cadets and an instructor. Vandals broke windows at the National Guard office in Ponce and attempted to set it afire

During all the disturbances, Calderón was holed up at the Governor’s Mansion in Old San. She made only one public appearance during the turmoil, a brief Sunday afternoon news conference in which she appealed to protests to refrain from violence. Calderón’s lack of awareness of how the display of anti-Americanism was perceived stateside was brought out in an interview she gave the Spanish news agency Efe. The Vieques clashes, Calderón declared, were going to improve the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.

It was, in truth, a fiasco.

Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at:

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