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Chapel Remains Flash Point For Competing Views On Vieques
Ivan Roman, San Juan Bureau
May 4, 2003
VIEQUES, Puerto Rico -- The small wooden chapel symbolized peace but often stirred passions that turned violent just across the street from the Capitol, supposedly a house of debate and reason.
Perched on the "Hill of the Winds" by the ocean, the Ecumenical Chapel was at the center of court battles. And it bore witness to rocks flying through the air, screaming lawmakers climbing on flagpoles, a livid crowd hurling insults of "Judas" at Monsignor Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, Puerto Rico's top Roman Catholic.
Now it's back home in Vieques, where it first emerged as a strong symbol in the fight to get the U.S. Navy to stop bombing and leave the lands it owned here since World War II -- and which the Navy officially gave up last week.
But it's not clear whether it can truly rest, not just yet.
The chapel, brought on a barge in one piece, was too wide to go through the center of town. So it did another leg to the pier at Mosquito Bay, which had a thriving community around it when the Navy arrived more than 60 years ago and which had been used mostly by the military ever since.
"Today is a special day for the Vieques people's struggle," said Noel Hernandez, a contractor who built the chapel on the controversial target range when hundreds of protesters camped out around it in 1999.
"It's even more special that we were able to bring it in precisely through where the Navy took out those of us who camped out in civil disobedience and were arrested," he said. "Today is a great day because the people's resistance has had results."
The chapel, blessed by bishops, reverends, pastors and priests of all denominations, arrived just in time for the four-day celebration marking the Navy's official exit. It emerged amid the bombs and discarded bullets on the sands of the target range at the heart of the bitter face-off between San Juan and Washington.
With bishops walking up to it, their cassocks dragging in the white sand, and sound bites from protesting politicians bouncing off its beams, the chapel was not just a symbol of the struggle. It was also the physical space where the island's unprecedented consensus across political, civic and religious lines found a home.
"Thank you, God, for this task that allowed us to meet, get to know one another, respect one another, and to unite as a people that are often so divided," said Methodist Bishop Juan Vera Mendez in the service in San Juan to bless its trip back to Vieques.
To some who recall the divisions, it was good riddance. The military took down the chapel once it "evicted" hundreds of protesters from the target range in May 2000. The Legislature then offered land on the hill across from the Capitol in San Juan.
But calm was broken when young pro-statehood activists, under cover of a July pre-dawn night in 2001, took down the Vieques flag in front of the chapel and put up the U.S. flag.
It touched off a firestorm in the island's running ideological flag war. By the time the 22-hour standoff was over, bottles had been thrown, a judge had ordered the angry crowd off the hill, and pro-statehood politicians had worked the crowd into a frenzy.
The incident blew the lid off the fear from the New Progressive Party's conservative wing that the Vieques struggle masks the pro-independence activists' anti-American agenda, which hurts their chances for statehood.
"What's happened here shows once again how dangerously politicized our people are," Gonzalez Nieves said then.
Not much has changed now that the Navy has left and the fight begins to have the military clean up the land and have Congress give it all back. Most of 24,000 acres -- three-quarters of the island -- taken in the late 1930s is now in the hands of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Another fracas between Vieques activists and anti-Fidel Castro activists broke out April 27 as engineers moved the chapel down the hill.
With the chapel now back in Vieques, its supporters will have to sleep with one eye open, so to speak -- at least until activists can get it back to its original spot on the target range, a move barred for now because the range is off-limits.
"Now we hear comments from the pro-Navy people that it should be burned," said Pablo Connelly, head of public works for Vieques and a fierce Navy opponent. "This just never ends, does it?"