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The Vieques Protest Movement Is Losing Steam

by Robert Becker

June 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Puerto Rico is poised for another cycle of Navy training on Vieques that provokes protests that lead to arrests and jailings that provoke more protests.

It’s becoming all too familiar. But there is also a palpable sense that the anti-Navy movement is losing steam, that many people are wearying of the disruptions that have failed to stop any of the Navy’s scheduled training on Vieques.

On Wednesday, May 30, Gov. Sila Calderón said the Navy had notified her government that it would hold 18 days of training on Vieques this month. In response, she announced she would hold a referendum of her own on the Navy’s future in Vieques in advance of the Nov. 6 date authorized under federal law.

The Navy, with an eye on a pending decision on a lawsuit filed by the commonwealth in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., said it would conduct no ship-to-shore shelling in the exercises, scheduled to begin June 13. Calderón said the Navy’s notification of the resumption of training “wounds and offends the sensibility of our people.” Bill Johnson, an aide to Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, called the Calderón referendum “a circus.”

Calderón and the protesters are losing their battle to stop the Navy training which, under federal law, may continue at least until May 1 of 2003. The protesters failed to stop two rounds of Navy maneuvers last year and failed again to stop the most recent training from April 27 to May 1. Federal authorities arrested 180 protesters during those exercises, including such luminaries as Rev. Al Sharpton, Robert Kennedy Jr., actor Edward James Olmos and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill. The U.S. District Court in San Juan cracked down, sentencing the protesters who trespassed onto the firing range to jail terms ranging from 40 days to four months.

The protests are also diminishing in size and intensity. One march in San Juan last year drew tens of thousands. In contrast, a Memorial Day rally this year outside the federal jail in Guaynabo attracted a much smaller crowd, from 5,000 to 7,000. The protesters, most of them independence supporters, showed crass insensitivity in staging their event on a federal holiday in honor of the nation’s war dead. Even Calderón stayed away, choosing instead to deliver patriotic remarks at the National Cemetery in Bayamón.

“God bless the Puerto Rican veterans, God bless the United States of America, and God bless the commonwealth of Puerto Rico,” Calderón shouted at the end of her speech. Some veterans in the crowd were overheard calling Calderón a hypocrite.

Calderón’s Memorial Day speech was an unscheduled one, as she bumped Secretary of State Ferdinand Mercado, the speaker listed in the official program. Calderón was doing damage control for her huge gaffe of May 26, when she said she welcomed Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s support, so long as it was not “ political.”

Castro held a rally in Havana that same day demanding the Navy leave Vieques. Sen. Fernando Martín, of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, was photographed embracing Castro at the rally. When the photo was splashed across the front page of the San Juan Star the next day, an embarrassed Calderón was forced to retract her acceptance of Castro’s support.

Calderón failed in her federal court bid to get a temporary restraining order against the Navy training, and many observers believe it unlikely that Judge Gladys Kessler will completely halt the Navy training in her ruling, which is expected in July. The Navy’s decision to hold off on ship-to-shore shelling until August, in a scheduled second round of training for the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group, was timed to await the judge’s decision in the lawsuit. The basis of the commonwealth’s suit, filed April 24, is that the gunnery practice violates a noise ordinance passed by the Puerto Rico legislature expressly to stop the Navy shelling.

Calderón has also gotten nowhere politically in her anti-Navy efforts. The Republican House majority is indifferent or outwardly hostile to her pleas, and the Senate, soon to pass to Democratic control, is unlikely to do anything seen harmful to the safety of U.S. service people. The White House has pointedly stayed aloof.

Why, then, is Calderón failing to stop the Navy? The Navy training is legal. It is also vitally necessary for the safety of American servicemen and women sent into harm’s way. Puerto Rico achieved a great victory with the Congressional legislation authorizing the November referendum. Calderón, unfortunately, doesn’t know how to accept victory.

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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