Vieques Exposes The Colony

by John Marino

April 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINORigoberta Menchú, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, went to Vieques Thursday to add her voice to the growing chorus of those who have pleaded for "peace in Vieques" -- the euphemism for ending war games used by Navy opponents.

But she flew over early in the morning and made a quick exit -- apparently to avoid experiencing a Puerto Rican political fistfight.

That's because Navy supporters held a demonstration showing their support for the military force to continue their training in Vieques. And they did it at the front gate of Camp García, where Navy opponents first established protest camps in December 1999.

When Navy exercises resumed on April 1, an ugly scene occurred at the same spot, when a pro-statehood demonstrator favoring the permanence of the Navy showed up with an America flag.

Words -- and eventually blows -- were exchanged between the lone supporter of the Navy and a group of angry anti-Navy protesters.

Police had their work cut out for them during Menchú's visit in keeping tempers in check on both sides.

Even the well-publicized skirmishes between Navy security guards and protesters during this month's exercises have had a local flavor.

Absent from the national press reports about the tear-gassing of last Saturday's protest involving members of the National Puerto Rican Coalition was the fact that the Navy guards involved in the incident had Spanish surnames and were most probably Puerto Rican.

Before throwing the gas into the crowds - a clear overreaction - the guards were being taunted by the crowd of Vieques residents and university students screaming insults, including "vendepatria," or one who sells their country.

Much has been made over the tri-partisan support that the Vieques issue engendered in Puerto Ricans following the April 19, 1999 death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodríguez. Both Gov. Calderón and former Gov. Pedro Rosselló took pains to paint the Vieques issue as one involving human rights and health.

But increasingly, Vieques has become the scene of infighting among Puerto Ricans over political status, and in some ways, it is a fitting setting for the fiery debate.

The colonial aspect of Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States is most visible in Vieques, an island that for the past 60 years has been chopped down to a third of its size by Navy fences to the east and the west. Menchú herself, speaking in San Juan on Monday, said the Vieques issue could only be resolved through Puerto Ricans' political self-determination. "I hope the people will struggle for their free determination," she said.

It brought back memories of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's visit to Puerto Rico to stump for the Vieques cause. He sounded like a statehooder when he described the "disenfranchisement" of Puerto Ricans for the lack of their vote in Congress and for president and his references to their "second-class citizenship."

No doubt, the death of Sanes Rodríguez prompted wide support for the Navy to leave Vieques among Puerto Ricans of all political ideologies because they considered the Navy presence there as basically unfair.

But the passion with which Puerto Ricans have embraced the Vieques issue also owes to the fact that the island municipality is in many ways a metaphor for Puerto Rico as a whole.

Even the Vieques landscape, with a lush hilly interior ringed by coastal flatlands, is a mirror image of the main island of Puerto Rico.

And because it is free of the industrialization and commercialization that has swept over Puerto Rico during the past few decades, Vieques is a real image of the idealized past that many Puerto Ricans hold of their island.

There are no fast food restaurants on Vieques, and cattle still roam along its country roads.

Of course, it's the Navy that has kept Vieques that way. And one does not have to travel far on the island to realize that the Navy has always "acted like the landlord here," as one protester put it.

The western lands recently given up by the Navy are forever marked by the presence of the military force. Acres of vacant munitions bunkers hump through the tropical brush, where a sugar refinery and surrounding community once stood.

Many of those who have joined the protests remember their childhood homes leveled by Navy bulldozers, and the $50 an acre their parents were paid when their land was expropriated to build the Navy bombing range and munitions depot.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to last July's referendum, pro-Navy politicians, like Rep. Jorge De Castro Font, called on Vieques residents to "save Puerto Rico" by voting for the permanence of the Navy.

Inherent in that message was the implication that the benefits Puerto Rico received from the U.S. government stemmed from the right of the Navy to maintain its presence on Vieques.

One anti-Navy activist I interviewed at the time gave voice to the same sentiment when she said that Vieques residents have "sacrificed for years, not just for national defense but for the benefits awarded to Puerto Rico" through tax breaks and military contracts. And Navy supporters also bluntly stated that democracy in Puerto Rico depended on the military training in Vieques.

The commonwealth government also ignored the needs of Vieques for years, and the general public paid little attention to the plight of residents living in a town controlled by the Navy.

One reason for that may be that the reality of Vieques shatters the myth of the commonwealth as a bilateral pact with the United States and exposes the colonial underpinnings of the United States-Puerto Rico relationship. Guilt over ignoring Vieques also drove public support for a Navy exit following the death of Sanes Rodríguez.

Of course, the fighting between Puerto Ricans over Vieques is itself a classic colonial condition, one that the Navy and its allies will try to use to better chances to remain on the island.

There's also something colonial about Gov. Calderón's recently found composure over the Vieques issue, saying she trusts President Bush to keep his word to end training there by next year.

"He looked me in the eyes and promised" may be enough for her, but few others who are pushing for a Navy exit are as confident, given the lack of legal guarantees that the Navy will leave, a burgeoning war on terrorism and Puerto Rico's limited voice in national politics.

Fears (expressed by statehooders) and hopes (expressed by independentistas) that the dispute over the Navy's use of its Vieques training range will radically change Puerto Rico's relationship to the United States are overstated.

And the Vieques cause will continue to be supported by many Puerto Ricans from different political ideologies.

But increasingly, it seems, Puerto Ricans are finding in Vieques the reasons to wage their political battles on the homefront.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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