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The Times-Picayune

Puerto Rican Speaks Out Against Naval Bombings

Activist Takes Struggle To Local Residents

August 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Times-Picayune. All Rights Reserved.

Maria Reinat-Pumarejo's voice shook as she talked about what she says the United States has done to her native land.

In the back of a Jefferson Avenue church, hundreds of miles away from her native Puerto Rico , the 43-year-old activist struggled to explain to a group of about 30 New Orleans residents and fellow activists what it means to fight for independence and an end to the Navy's bombing exercises.

"Every day another round of bombs drop; every day a child gets out of bed to the sounds of bullets flying," Reinat-Pumarejo said. "We say, 'No more.' "

For the past two years, Reinat-Pumarejo and hundreds of others have protested the Navy's installation and military exercises on Vieques , a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico .

They say the Navy's practice bombing raids and combat exercises, performed on and off of the island for the past 60 years, have destroyed residents' lives and ruined the island.

The opposition to the Navy's presence increased after a Puerto Rican security guard was killed in April 1999 on the range by a bomb that veered off course. Reinat-Pumarejo and others since have engaged in acts of civil disobedience, sneaking onto the Navy's bombing range at night and holding vigils at the gates of the base. They often face arrests, tear gas and rubber bullets, she said.

The protests have drawn such well-known figures as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Reinat-Pumarejo said the struggle will continue until the bombing stops.

"We're looking for action," she said. "We don't want promises any more. We will fight every day until the U.S. is gone."

In July, residents of Vieques voted overwhelmingly for the Navy to stop the bombing immediately. The referendum, supported by 68 percent of the voters, is nonbinding, but the Puerto Rican government says it hopes it will influence Washington. President Bush has called for closing the range by May 2003, but Navy officials say it will be difficult to find a site as good as Vieques .

"That's ridiculous," Reinat-Pumarejo said. "You're going to tell me the single most powerful military organization in the world cannot find another place as good as Vieques . We want them off our land, our land cleaned, and returned to the people."

Reinat-Pumarejo has been traveling around the United States and other countries to call attention to the situation, hoping that people will "identify with the struggles of the people of Vieques and speak out against it."

"We should feel connected to the struggle," said Ron Chisom, director of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. "Their struggle is one for freedom, and that's something everyone can connect to."

Chisom's group, a New Orleans nonprofit organization whose mission is to support and promote racial equality, sponsored Reinat- Pumarejo's presentation, along with European Dissent and the Unitarian Church.

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