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Orlando Sentinel

U.S. Flag Doesn't Fly On Vieques

By Iván Román

September 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- The U.S. flag on her car was the first thing the protesters saw when businesswoman Charlotte Ballard pulled up -- a little troubled, with a tinge of indignation, a lot of emotions roiling inside her.

Just back from the massive mourning in New York City, she went to complain to the leaders of the Peace and Justice Camp, where those who want to get the U.S. Navy out hold a daily and nightly vigil.

Touched by the worldwide sorrow about the terrorist attacks to the twin towers and the Pentagon -- and still grieving for someone on one of the ill-fated planes -- she was stunned not to see U.S. flags everywhere and the struggle to get the Navy's bombing exercises to stop still going on.

Several of her fellow businessmen told her they didn't put up flags or say anything because they felt intimidated by the protesters.

"I arrived back in Vieques and instead of seeing an outpouring of sympathy, I see nothing," said Ballard, a South African-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Vieques for many years. "Let's go to the square one day and cry. My feeling is the people in Vieques are in a vacuum that they can't express themselves."

But intimidation alone does not explain the absence of American flags here, a stark contrast to many parts of the U.S. mainland, where flags and other patriotic items have been flying off store shelves.

It's that in the tropical war-game surroundings of Vieques, after the terrorist attacks, the complicated act of putting up an American flag became even more complex.

In this small island immersed in an intense struggle against the Navy that has seen 861 people arrested, the flag doesn't evoke warm patriotism. To them it symbolizes decades of bombing runs that have shaken their homes, a stagnant economy that has forced many relatives to migrate, friends and neighbors contaminated with heavy metals that critics try to link to military activity.

So President Bush's call to show solidarity with the American nation and its government fell on some deaf ears here.

"Most people here are convinced that this is not the way to achieve peace, getting involved in another war," said Hector Luis Melendez, 55, who served as a medic on the battlefields in Vietnam. "To show solidarity with the victims, I don't have to put up the flag."

In Puerto Rico, putting up the American flag also gets tangled -- and mangled -- in the perpetual web of political ideology. Activists who want statehood for Puerto Rico touched off a flag war across the island in June when they raised a U.S. flag in a place pro-independence islanders said was meant to provoke them.

Things got stirred up even more when conservatives in the pro-statehood party's right wing campaigned here in a local referendum in favor of the Navy staying and using live fire. Given the new world scene, statehood leaders may now back off from

their call for the Navy to leave by May 2003.

But a lot of statehooders in Vieques refuse to prove their loyalty to the United States in this way. And putting up the American flag now can not only be seen as endorsing the Navy's bombing runs, but also backing the United States' new war against terrorism.

"The flag we need to put up here is the flag of life and of peace," said Carlos Cruz, 42, a retired police officer. "Putting up the American flag now is like an act of war to support killing children and innocent people. If they raise white flags, then the immense majority of us would raise it."

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