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THE NEW YORK TIMES
A Tiny Island, but a Cause So Celebre
From New York To Hollywood, Vieques Has Issues For Everyone, From Robert Kennedy Jr. to Ricky Martin: Issues like bias, health and the big, bad military
BY RAYMOND HERNANDEZ
July 15, 2001
WASHINGTON, July 14 A small island off the coast of Puerto Rico has captured the national, if not global, stage and provoked a surprising degree of activism. Remember when most people couldn't even pronounce Vieques, much less point it out on a map?
The fate of this island's inhabitants the Navy, as most people know by now, practices dropping its bombs there has sucked in a hodgepodge of big names from the political, environmental and entertainment worlds, from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Mario M. Cuomo to the actor Benicio Del Toro and the singer Ricky Martin.
Protests are held almost daily, to the flashes of cameras. The movement even has its own pint-size version of the Chicago Seven: the so-called Vieques Four, four prominent New Yorkers who were carted off to jail for trespassing on Camp Garcia, the military's bombing range on the island.
The extraordinary thing is that the situation in Vieques is nothing new: the Navy has been conducting bombing runs there for the past half-century or so. More than that, the military conducts similar bombing exercises outside nearly 30 communities in the continental United States, almost all of them at a closer range to residents.
Even those who have taken up the cause of Vieques are astonished by all the attention this obscure little island is generating. "Three months ago, if you had told me that Vieques would get worldwide attention, I'd have said you were nuts," said Ken Sunshine, a media consultant and political operative for opponents of the bombing. "Who would have thought?"
The question, then, is why Vieques and why now?
Its liberal supporters lend Vieques an element of "radical chic," the social phenomenon that Tom Wolfe sneeringly identified more than a quarter-century ago: there's a privileged class taking up the cause of a more downtrodden one. But there's more to it than that.
Vieques, simply, is an activist's dream, offering something for everyone. It has the destruction of an ecological system, along with claims that the people are being exposed to toxic chemicals, which environmentalists are seizing upon. It has the specter of American colonialism that human rights advocates and Puerto Rican nationalists are pointing to. It has the suggestion of racism that civil rights activists and Hispanic leaders are up in arms over.
The cause has even been embraced by some more conservative politicians, like Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, a Republican.
To top it all off, the issue has an ideal boogeyman in the United States military, which has been relatively quiet about making its case for the bombing exercises.
Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history and the director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, says the military is making matters worse for itself by appearing to dismiss a seemingly reasonable request that it find somewhere else to drop its bombs.
"The intransigence of the U.S. military comes off as arrogance," he said. "They're flipping off an entire hemisphere in Monroe Doctrine fashion."
To further complicate matters for the military, its supporters have made some incendiary comments that have heightened suspicion and resentment on the other side.
"I come down to the idea where I don't see where Puerto Rico should get any favorite treatment over the rest of these people," Representative James V. Hansen, a Republican from Utah, said recently. "What have they done to get it? They sit down there on welfare and very few of them paying taxes, got a sweetheart deal. I just don't really see the equity in it, but maybe I don't understand it."
The comments of Mr. Hansen, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, may be the most extreme that have been uttered. But even President Bush, who tried to broker a compromise on the bombing issue, aroused deep hostility when he referred to Puerto Rico as the United States' "friend and neighbor." The island's residents and their supporters quickly pointed out that Puerto Ricans are, in fact, citizens of the United States.
The center of the Vieques movement is, of course, on the island itself. But some of the loudest protests are coming from New York City, with its large concentration of Puerto Rican residents and its long tradition of liberal activism.
New York produced the Vieques Four: Adolfo Carrión Jr., a City Councilman; Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx County Democratic chairman; José Rivera, a state assemblyman; and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Perhaps most important, there is a mayoral race under way in the city and a gubernatorial race looming statewide, prompting politicians of all stripes to court New York's sizable Puerto Rican population.
But what has been most surprising is the degree of interest the rest of the nation has shown in this issue, from the president on down. No doubt part of the interest has been heightened by reports of protesters being roughed up and hauled off to jail.
Passions are running so high that the protesters are resorting to 1960's- style imagery. One of their Web sites features slogans like "We Shall Not Forget the Political Prisoners of Vieques" and "Urgent Call for Civil Disobedience." The site also includes photos of a Puerto Rican child hurling a rock at the military installation on Vieques.
The oratory is no less blistering. "We ask the court to recall that our nation was conceived in the civil disobedience that preceded the Revolutionary War," Mr. Cuomo told a judge this month in his role as a defense lawyer for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Dennis Rivera, the labor leader, both arrested during protests on the island.
Jacqueline Jackson, the wife of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, made a similar plea before she was sentenced to 10 days in jail for her role in a recent protest at Camp Garcia.
"When I fight for civil rights, social justice and world peace, I am acting out the American dream," Mrs. Jackson told a judge. "As both a mother and a political prisoner," she added, "I ask you to restore my rights as a citizen."
The political furor shows no signs of abating. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York traveled to Puerto Rico today to meet with two of the imprisoned protesters, Mr. Kennedy and Dennis Rivera.
Even Governor Pataki, a politician who is usually stiffly reserved, has gotten into the act. "No mas bombas," he recently protested during a speech in Spanish Harlem.
One of the more remarkable developments to come out of all this is the solidarity that seems to have arisen among Hispanics, who are a notably splintered group. Vieques has helped galvanize Hispanics of all sorts, not just Puerto Ricans.
United States Representative Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is of Cuban descent, attributes this to the condescension shown by the military and some of its supporters toward the protesters. It smacks of the colonialist attitude that the United States has long been accused of displaying toward Latin America, he said.
Mr. Menendez said the Navy's behavior "ignited a firestorm that is much bigger than the Puerto Rican community" and led many Hispanics to conclude, "that could be me next." The issue "is about respect," he added. "It is about dignity. It is about recognizing the contributions of Hispanics to this country."
As with all political causes, Vieques has its share of facts and distortions. One major claim being made by the protesters is that noise from the shelling is causing heart problems among Vieques residents. But a recent report prepared by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health cast serious doubt on that claim.
Another claim is that residents of Vieques have a higher incidence of cancer than normal. But a report compiled by the Navy using government data shows that the cancer rate on Vieques from 1973 to the mid- 1990's was about the same as the cancer rate for the rest of Puerto Rico during that period. Not only that, the incidence of cancer on Vieques was roughly half the average rate in the rest of the United States during that period.
One thing lost in the furor is the fact that the Navy actually has a case worth considering. It says the island is an irreplaceable training ground for several reasons. First, the air space above it is free from commercial airline traffic, meaning that Navy pilots can simulate bombing runs and dogfights at the altitude and speed that would be used in combat. Second, the waters immediately around the island are not used for commercial ships and are deep enough for Navy submarines and ships to navigate. Third, the island's topography is ideal for amphibious landings and parachute exercises.
Finally, the Navy points out, the military conducts bombing exercises much closer to other communities within the United States with little or no protest. For example, where the bombing range in Vieques is 9.5 miles from the nearest community, the Navy says, an Army artillery range in Lawton, Okla., is within 1.5 miles of nearby residents.
"One of our frustrations has been the distortion of facts," one senior Navy official said. "It has unnecessarily alarmed the people of Vieques."
It remains to be seen whether Vieques fades into the background the way other recent popular causes, like protecting the rain forest or saving the whales, have. But neither side seems willing to give in any time soon, even though the Bush administration has said it would stop the bombings by 2003. The opponents of the bombings have vowed to step up the protests until the Navy pulls out, while the Navy's supporters claim that suspension of the exercises would undermine military readiness. As long as that standoff persists, people are likely to be engaged.
"It has all the elements," said Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.