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Vieques Anticipates A Long Haul
By Iván Román
August 6, 2001
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- People scurrying around this tropical island picketing, protesting and breaking onto federal property to get the U.S. Navy out of Vieques don't grimace only when they hear the booms from warships shooting 70-pound bombs to the target range.
They also sneer at the shots coming from Capitol Hill.
When the House Armed Services Committee voted last week to cancel the November referendum that members knew the Navy would lose, protesters took it as conservative Republicans drawing a line in the sand.
The committee suggested keeping the Navy in Vieques beyond May 2003, until it finds a place like Vieques in the Atlantic. For two years, officials have said no such place exists.
Further, the committee says the federal government should keep the eastern half of Vieques.
Protesters say the committee's decision -- and President Bush's dismissal of the 68 percent of Vieques voters who said they wanted bombing to stop immediately -- is making them think about long-term civil disobedience. "Now it's clearer than ever that what's at stake is the honor and dignity of Puerto Ricans," said Eduardo Villanueva, former president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, hours before he broke through the Navy's fence. "I think we're at a critical moment."
Activists say that now is the time to begin testing the ultimate success of the two-year civil-disobedience campaign that started three days after the fatal accident in April 1999 that sparked the current Vieques controversy. More than 60 people, including a priest and a nun, have entered Navy grounds during this latest round of training exercises.
High-profile arrests, such as those of the Rev. Al Sharpton and environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., surely drew a lot of stateside attention, and not always welcome attention. Some even saw last Sunday's local nonbinding vote as a referendum on protesters' tactics.
Some who voted for the Navy to stay and use live fire did so not because they wanted the bombing to continue, but because they were fed up with the protesters.
"You can talk things over at a table and not have to break fences and fight," said Olga Encarnacion, 54, a Vieques homemaker.
Protesters beg to differ and point to the Navy's long list of broken promises to Vieques' 9,400 residents. But they know that a new stage in the movement means some self-criticism is in order.
"We have to do more with less," said Ismael Guadalupe, a veteran in the anti-Navy struggle. "At one point we put in 150 people on Navy grounds in one day. We didn't have to do that. We can disrupt the bombing with a handful of well-placed people at a time. We shouldn't shoot all our bullets at once."
But they're also considering the opposite strategy: breaking onto military installations en masse to become a big headache.
Stiffer jail sentences for trespassers and threats of retaliation from Capitol Hill point to even more of a crackdown on protesters.
"They're sending a message that they're standing firm and that says: 'Get ready for the long haul,' " Guadalupe said. "So we're getting ready."
Just to protest, some have lost jobs, income and in the case of fishermen, the boats that are the key to their livelihood.
Activists hope anger over Washington's reaction to their vote, and support from their neighbors, will fuel more protests.
Hundreds of people in a march to Camp Garcia's main gates last week cheered as they passed the homes of the relatives of protesters now in jail for trespassing.
"The people won Sunday, and what it won the most was a boost in its self-esteem," said Miriam Soba, president of the Vieques Women's Alliance, days before she joined a group of protesters that broke through the fence to hide on Navy grounds. "At some point, Bush will have to respect the will of the people."