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Vieques Man Sees Victory Vs. Navy

July 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Carmelo Felix Matta lives on his own mountaintop, a dusty patch of earth overlooking the island where he has made a life of battling the U.S. Navy.

He claimed this land from the Navy in 1976 and has stayed despite efforts to force him off, once chasing away sailors with a swarm of honeybees.

Islanders named the hill Monte Carmelo after its lord, and he became a sort of Puerto Rican Don Quixote -- someone who dared to dream against all odds. With the Navy now ordered to stop bombing exercises on Vieques in 2003, Felix says his battle finally is nearing an end.

``At last they are going to let us live in peace,'' Felix said. ``They aren't as powerful as they think they are.''

The fight waged for decades by a small number of activists exploded into widespread protests after off-target bombs killed a civilian security guard on the range in 1999. Well-known personalities have joined in, with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton currently in prison for breaking onto Navy land.

Felix's story begins in the 1940s, when the United States bought 25,000 acres -- about two-thirds of the Puerto Rican island -- to make way for a bombing range, forcing out poor families with little compensation.

Felix was only 4 when his family had to move to the central block of Vieques reserved for civilians. But the seeds of resentment were planted, and in 1965 he and his wife Maria Velazquez Rijos began squatting on Navy land. Eventually, they moved to the mountaintop and built a home with sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea.

The Navy repeatedly sent Felix letters ordering him to leave.

``They told us we were invaders. I understood that I wasn't an invader, that I was a rescuer, that the land had been seized by the Navy,'' Felix said.

A federal judge disagreed, and in 1989 ordered Felix removed. When U.S. marshals and sailors came, Felix armed himself with the beehives he used to gather honey.

As sailors in shorts carried the family's belongings to a truck, Felix opened the hives. The sailors took off and, in the confusion, a fire started in one of their vehicles.

``They say I started it, I say they started it,'' Felix said.

In any case, the flames spread to a truck holding the family's belongings, burning most everything they owned.

Then the Navy offered the couple $40,000 and a piece of land elsewhere, Velazquez said. They refused.

In 1992, the Navy gave the more than 300 acres known as Monte Carmelo to the U.S. territory's government. ``We didn't need it, so we turned it over,'' spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Katherine Goode said.

Felix's family has given away plots for $100 each, and about two dozen families live scattered across the hills. There are no power lines, no street lights, no paved roads. Some have laid their own water pipes. Others haul up buckets of water.

A windmill whooshes in the breeze atop Felix's three-story home, powering lights and a television set.

Some islanders have called him mad. ``I was always being called the daughter of the crazy man up the hill,'' said 30-year-old Abigail Felix Velazquez, one of Felix's six children.

But today, Puerto Rican officials are considering giving land titles to Monte Carmelo residents who don't own property elsewhere.

Felix's fortress-like concrete house, topped with battlements, has become a center of resistance for the new anti-Navy movement.

Signs along the rutted road proclaim Monte Carmelo the ``Land of the Brave.'' One is adorned with two bees and the warning: ``We won't leave no matter who comes.''

When fighter jets roar and flares glow at night over the firing range, university students dedicated to the cause camp in tents around Felix's house. Some sleep in his living room. Many call the graying 63-year-old in camouflage fatigues ``Papa.''

``It's a camp of war,'' said Felix, who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

Visiting protesters cover their faces with shirts and masks as they help others cut through Navy fences. They wear camouflage, combat boots and slogan-filled T-shirts.

But Felix, who has been a carpenter, bodyguard and Christian minister, says his struggle is peaceful and about human rights.

``We have defeated them for 35 years without combat planes, without tanks, without firearms,'' he said.

Next to his house, activists recently raised a giant Puerto Rican flag. Felix calls it ``a reminder to the powerful ones that they can't underestimate the smallest.''

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