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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Stop Hurting Island People

BY Luis V. Gutierrez

June 26, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

At the age of 47, my only direct experience with the U.S. judicial system was limited to actions that I have taken in my official capacity as a member of Congress. That changed in late April when I was arrested in Vieques , Puerto Rico .

I had traveled to the island to take part in peaceful, non- violent protests of 60 years of U.S. naval bombing exercises on the island, which is home to nearly 10,000 people.

But because the Navy refused to leave, the people of Puerto Rico and other citizens like me from around the country have peacefully conveyed our displeasure with the current situation.

Just as the bombing itself is wrong, the way the Navy treated many of these peaceful protesters is also wrong. During my arrest, I was handcuffed and physically handled to the ground by armed Navy officers. I also witnessed several of my fellow protesters -- including women who were members of the Puerto Rican Senate -- treated with a level of indignity that I would not wish on any enemy of the United States, let alone a citizen of this country.

We were held overnight in a shed with no roof, which we were later told was a dog kennel. It smelled of urine and swarmed with bugs, lizards and other elements common to tropical climates.

Our group, including an 81-year-old man, remained handcuffed the entire night as we slept on a concrete floor. The facility was not fit for human habitation.

The treatment I received has justifiably captured media interest. But the point isn't that a U.S. congressman was arrested; it's about the common abuses that peaceful protesters suffer on Vieques .

I never sought special treatment by virtue of my office, nor did I receive it. People focus on the conditions of our confinement, but what I endured was common to many of those who were taken intocustody during that period.

And it doesn't compare to the horrors that the Navy inflicts on the people of Vieques . Consider the fishermen whose livelihoods have been taken away because of the occupied waters. Or the families who wonder if 60 years of bombings in their back yards have increased the threat of cancer and other health concerns.

And it doesn't compare to the grief David Sanes' family felt when two U.S. Navy jets accidentally dropped a stray bomb where he worked in April 1999.

But the Navy has not taken actions needed to rectify the harm it has caused the people of Vieques . Ending the bombings by 2003 as President Bush has suggested doesn't do enough. How many more people need to be killed before the Navy moves out? How much more damage does the ecology and the economy have to endure? How many more cases of cancer and other health problems do the people need to suffer through?

The people of Vieques should not be placed in jeopardy one additional day, hour or minute. Religious leaders and human-rights advocates join the island's people in protesting the Navy's practices and the abuses that follow from the arrests. The people of Puerto Rico , Latinos across the United States and our friends around the country want peace. We believe that the true mission of the U.S. military is to keep civilians safe and secure, not to put them at risk.

Despite what I witnessed, I remain hopeful that we can begin a process of reconciliation. As I spent that long night in the kennel looking up at the stars and feeling the rain fall on my face, I knew our efforts were not in vain. The people of Vieques deserve to reclaim their island and their lives.

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., can be reached at, or by writing to Progressive Media Project, 409 E. Main St., Madison, WI 53703, or to his office in Washington at 2438 Rayburn House Office Building, U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC 20515.

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