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Vieques Symposium Takes Academic Approach, Angers Some

JULY 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved.

On July 2, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) convened a symposium at Columbia University, where a panel of experts discussed the military, economic, and historical factors behind the US Navy’s continued use of Vieques, an inhabited island off the coast of Puerto Rico, for training exercises. The event represented a new dimension to Vieques protests, one that perhaps marks a shift away from the nationalist rhetoric, mass demonstrations, and civil disobedience of the past three years.

PRLDEF President Juan Figueroa characterized the event as a "very historic occasion." In the drive to force the US Navy to evacuate and clean up Vieques, the evening marked, to his knowledge, the first time that expert testimony was used to "bring that message" to people in the mainland United States.

As such, the discussion hinged on policy issues intended to resonate, in the words of panelist Jésus Davila, as much with a "mother in Iowa" as with a Puerto Rican activist.

Another goal of the symposium was to regain the momentum and press attention enjoyed by Vieques protesters prior to September 11. Since that time, activists have hesitated to criticize the United States and the US military has reaped the benefits of wartime prestige and skyrocketing budgets.

The question of whether the Navy really needs Vieques in the war against al Qaeda became a central focus of the symposium. Retired Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC, argued that the type of amphibious invasion against a fortified shore that is practiced on Vieques has long been "a thing of the past."

According to Admiral Carroll, today’s guided missiles — with which an enemy can easily destroy a transport full of Marines — and the imperative to keep casualties to a minimum spell an end to the kind of beach landings that won the Second World War. He agreed that Vieques provided unequaled opportunities to train for that kind of attack but added, "So what? Who needs it? ... We have no intention of conducting amphibious assaults on defended areas."

Moreover, Admiral Carroll fought in the last amphibious invasion — at Inchon, Korea, in August of 1950 — and he succeeded in fulfilling his mission requirements without ever having the kind of integrated training that occurs on Vieques. He said he believes that splitting up the training among various bases in the US and Puerto Rico would give the Navy adequate preparation and in fact more room to practice with error-prone weapons like "smart" bombs.

As Admiral Carroll concluded his remarks, he received a warm ovation from a crowd of activists that was clearly inexperienced in praising military officers. "He’s got to be Puerto Rican," quipped Gerson Borrero, Editor in Chief of El Diario/La Prensa and moderator of the symposium.

Joining Admiral Carroll to discuss Vieques were Juan Giusti-Cordero, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Puerto Rico; and the aforementioned Jésus Davila, a journalist and author of the book Foxardo 1824.

Davila suggested that a little-known event in 1824, an unauthorized attack by a renegade Navy admiral against Fajardo, Puerto Rico, may have set the stage for the Navy’s future behavior regarding Vieques. The admiral, David Dixon Porter, wrote a spurious account of his incursion (Spain, of which Puerto Rico was a possession until 1898, was an ally to the US at the time) that inspired generations of students at the US Naval Academy to view Puerto Ricans as pirates and "enemies of the human race."

In Davila’s view, the Navy’s exercises in Vieques are based more on tradition, a tradition that reaches back to David Dixon Porter, than on any real need for training. "It is not real training," he said, but rather an "integral part of US naval tradition" that culminates in "some sort of live-fire commencement ceremony."

Professor Giusti contributed an analysis of the economics of Vieques, from the absence of any economic benefit to the Viequenses to the huge demands of the US military-industrial complex. He avoided discussing health issues, which are often cited by protesters, due to the lack of conclusive evidence. Instead, he focused on a forthcoming report by the Center for Naval Analysis that will make recommendations to the Department of Defense about alternatives to Vieques. The Center for Naval Analysis has in the past signaled that Vieques is not indispensable, as many in the Navy and in Congress insist, but the publication of this latest report has been delayed for four months; Professor Giusti voiced his hope that the delay has not been used to alter the report’s findings in the Navy’s favor.

Even though Governor Sila Calderón insists that President Bush has given her personal assurances that the Navy will leave Vieques by May, 2003, participants in the symposium were not optimistic that the Navy would depart by that date without the additional pressure of civil disobedience, lawsuits, and grassroots organizing.

Indeed, even if the Navy announces that it has found suitable alternatives to Vieques, the issue is not over. PRLDEF President Figueroa asserted that the controversy will not abate until the Navy "cleans up [the island] and makes restitution" to the people living there. Moreover, there is the chance that citizens living near other bombing ranges will also protest against Navy bombing exercises so close to their homes. Such protests have been predicted near several installations in North Carolina, noted Professor Giusti, adding North Carolina, with its 12 US Representatives and two US Senators, is in a much better position to stop the Navy than Puerto Rico is.

Not everyone in attendance was pleased with the panelists’ academic approach to solving the Vieques problem. One audience member condemned the proceedings as "a session on intellectualism" and shouted, "I am a Puerto Rican, that is my land, and I don’t want Yankees shooting there!" before storming out of the auditorium. Conspiracy theories also seemed popular. One woman suggested that the CIA had infiltrated the statehood party and orchestrated the recent battles over the American flag, and another saw the Vieques exercises as an attempt by Uncle Sam to cow Puerto Ricans into submission.

In the end, however, the "intellectuals" held their ground, in a sign that at least some in the Vieques movement may be shifting away from confrontation and rancor. Instead, they appeared to be striving to develop, in the words of Jésus Davila, "an argument that can be understood by Puerto Ricans, by Mexican Americans, by Cubans, by Polish, by Jewish, by Italians, by Irish, by everyone."

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