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New York Post

Vieques Has Its Own Show of Force

Protesters on Puerto Rican Island Brace for Continuation of Navy Exercises

By Sue Anne Pressley

June 12, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Washington Post Company. All Rights Reserved.

The U.S. Navy handcuffs a demonstrator for trespassing into a restricted area in Camp Garcia on April 28 in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Around 15 people cut the fence and penetrated into the restricted area to protest controversial bombing exercises. (PHOTO: Ana Martinez - Reuters)

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- The protesters who say they will storm Camp Garcia when the military bombing exercises commence again soon are busy making shields.

Fashioned of plywood, with plastic windows, the shields say a lot about the escalation of the long-running controversy here with the U.S. Navy: Things are getting more confrontational -- and more camera-ready.

For 60 years, this picturesque island of 9,000 people -- and its surrounding turquoise waters -- has been used by the Navy to train the Atlantic Fleet in live shelling, amphibious assaults, submarine warfare and ship-to-ship combat.

There always have been residents disturbed by the dominating military presence. But in the past two years, since a civilian guard was accidentally killed during a bombing exercise, tensions have soared with each new training session. The protest groups have attracted more supporters, more worldwide headlines -- and lately, more well-known names from Hollywood and Washington willing to be arrested for the cause.

"The struggle of Vieques has been internationalized," said Emilio Garcia Cordero, 51, a lifelong resident of the island who helps maintain a Vietnam veterans "camp of passive resistance" near the entrance to Camp Garcia.

As both sides gear up for what likely will be a hostile showdown later this week, the fallout from the last training session and series of protests, staged in late April, is still reverberating in Washington. Last week, the largely Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus heard from a House member, several members of the Puerto Rican senate and actor Edward James Olmos about the conditions endured by protesters at the hands of Navy personnel.

Although the 180 people arrested were mostly charged with federal trespassing, a misdemeanor, they allege they were treated like armed criminals -- strip-searched and deprived of water in the heat for long periods. College students fell ill after being doused in pepper spray, they said, and protesters who refused to give their names were forced to kneel on rocky soil for hours.

"We understand if we engage in civil disobedience, we're going to be arrested, we're not going to be taken to a hotel for room service," Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in an interview last week.

"But conversely, we don't expect to be held in dog kennels with rain and lizards coming in, or . . . forced to kneel in the rocks for hours. We were peaceful. They said, 'Sit,' we sat," said Gutierrez, who related his experience at Vieques at the Washington hearing.

Protesters have long contended that naval operations contaminate the local environment, hurting the fishermen who make their living here and endangering the health of residents, who record a higher-than-average cancer rate. No other place in America, they say, has endured 60 years of bombing by its own government, and they vow not to leave until the Navy does.

Two-thirds of Vieques, one of the "daughter islands" of Puerto Rico, is owned by the Navy, and ironically, it is the military's presence that has helped preserve the island's natural beauty. Winding country roads are canopied in lush green, dotted with the bright orange flowers of the flamboyan trees, and goat herds and wild horses roam freely through the meadows.

Vieques has two small towns, Isabella Segunda and Esperanza, still friendly and rather rustic, and not yet discovered by any fast-food chains. In recent years, the slogan that has become the rallying cry of the protest movement has been painted on car windows, building walls and crosswalks throughout the towns: "Paz Para Vieques" (Peace for Vieques), as if the island were engaged in war.

Facing the prospect of another confrontation this week, both the Navy and the protesters appear equally determined to advance their positions -- come what may.

"We are getting ready for whatever happens," Ishmael Guadalupe, a leader of the eight-year-old Committee for the Rescue & Development of Vieques, said as he stood on the porch of the house protesters have rented directly across a narrow road from Camp Garcia's main entrance. "All our forces, all our energy, are going to obstructing the maneuvers."

The wooden shields, a gladiator-like symbol designed to play well in photographs, are one of the latest tactics, said Guadalupe, 56, a retired drama teacher. Guadalupe said he expects more hard-line reactions from the Navy. "That's their function. They're prepared for war, not peace."

Organizers are sure that pictures of the protesters, with their wooden shields facing Navy personnel in riot gear, will underscore the David versus Goliath aspects of the showdown that have garnered sympathy for the protesters around the world.

Navy officials say that the training that occurs at Vieques is vital to national security and the combat-readiness of American sailors and Marines. Since the death of civilian guard David Sanes Rodriguez in 1999, only inert bombs -- dummy bombs that do not contain explosives -- have been used in the exercises. Officials say they will do what the law requires to violators who try to stop the training sessions.

"The penalties are getting stiffer," said Lt. Corey Barker, a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Resources Southern Command. "Hopefully, that's going to deter more vandalism and illegal entry into Camp Garcia."

Asked about allegations of abuse during the last confrontation, Barker referred a reporter to a briefing last week at which Rear Adm. Stephen R. Pietropaoli, the Navy's chief of information, defended the Navy's actions.

"I don't think very many people who wind up in custody with law enforcement and security people have a particularly fond memory of that experience," Pietropaoli said about statements given at the Washington hearing. "But it is a necessary element of detaining individuals who have broken the law that you maintain some control. Therefore, they are searched, they are handcuffed, in this case with the flexible wire-wrap cuffs."

He denied that there were any strip searches or body-cavity searches, as some protesters have maintained.

In recent years, more than 1,500 protesters have been arrested on Vieques. The demonstrations have attracted the likes of activist Al Sharpton, who is one of about 50 people who have been sentenced since the last confrontation. Sharpton, serving 90 days in a Brooklyn detention center, is on a hunger strike to raise public awareness about Vieques.

Last month, Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Maria Calderon, angry about the upcoming training exercises, announced that she will give Vieques residents a chance to vote in July on whether the Navy should stop training there immediately -- a vote that may have limited meaning because the law allows the Navy to remain in Vieques two more years. The get-out-now option is not included in a November referendum on the Navy's future here that has been agreed to by the Navy.

The relationship between Vieques residents and their military neighbor was not always so uneasy. Older residents, such as Rosa Cruz, 68, remember a time when the Navy created a pipeline to bring water from the main island and provided jobs; her family washed and ironed clothes for Navy personnel. "They gave a lot to Vieques," she said. In recent years, however, as relationships have deteriorated, Navy personnel have kept more to themselves.

Too many other Vieques residents, however, recall only the jarring sensation of living in a periodic combat zone and brace themselves for another round of battle: House foundations have sometimes cracked, tables skitter across the floor. The sounds of warfare can be heard in most parts of the slender island.

"Sometimes people say, 'Why do you stay here? Why don't you leave?' " said Garcia Cordero, as he kept vigil at his protest camp. "But here we were born, here we were raised. This is our land."

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