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U-Wire (University Wire)

Puerto Rico Closer To Freedom

By Paul Coltrin, The Lantern (Ohio State U.)

May 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003
U-Wire (University Wire). All rights reserved. 

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Let's face it. For people who care about real freedom and justice in the world -- not the mockery imposed under an imperialist boot -- there has been little cause for celebration lately. This makes the recent withdrawal of the U.S. Navy from Vieques all the more gratifying.

Vieques is a tiny island just east of the main island of Puerto Rico. In the early 1940s, the U.S. Navy occupied about two-thirds of Vieques --26,000 acres in all -- to use for war exercises and ammunition storage, expelling small farmers and fishermen from their property in the process. In the decades that followed, this stolen land would serve as a training ground for U.S. military action in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Yugoslavia and Iraq.

All along, Puerto Ricans have protested the Navy's presence in Vieques for its devastating effects on the economy, environment and health -- not to mention their national dignity. The cancer rate among Vieques residents is 26 percent higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico. The severe harm caused by the bombing practices to the fishing industry -- the economic backbone for Vieques' 9,300 residents -- is also well-documented.

The Navy's occupation of Vieques has always been a humiliating symbol to Puerto Ricans of their colonial status. Historically, their fight to get the U.S. military out of Vieques has been closely tied to the struggle for Puerto Rican independence.

The most recent upsurge in this struggle was triggered in April 1999, when an "errant" 500-pound bomb killed David Sanes Rodr'guez, who worked as a civilian guard for the Navy. This incident tapped into Puerto Ricans' simmering resentment of the U.S. military presence. "Collateral damage?" "Collateral this," they said.

Massive protests in both the U.S. and Puerto Rico demanded that the Navy leave Vieques once and for all. At the bombing range itself, 1,600 people were arrested in civil disobedience actions for "trespassing" on Navy property.

Later that year, President Clinton attempted to mollify the protesters by releasing 11 of the 17 Puerto Rican independence fighters and political prisoners who had been locked up for 14 to 19 years. His ploy failed, though. In the face of sustained protests, it became clear that the colonial masters would not be able to balk or finesse their way out of this one. Clinton was ultimately forced to cede to a referendum in which a large majority of Vieques residents -- despite a concerted colonialist propaganda campaign -- voted to kick the Navy off their island.

Finally, President Bush agreed to pull the Navy out by May of this year. At midnight on April 30, a jubilant crowd poured through the gates of Camp Garc'a and celebrated the Navy's departure with spirited chants, a rally and fireworks.

While certainly significant, this victory is only partial yet. Most of the land occupied for over six decades by the U.S. Navy was not turned over to the people of Vieques, but to the U.S. Department of the Interior. This simply shows that Vieques will never truly belong to Puerto Ricans as long as Puerto Rico is a possession of the United States.

But that day will come. In the past few years, it has become stylish to succumb to the view that the U.S. imperial machine is omnipotent and invincible. The case of Vieques is inspiring proof to the contrary. Even as the top Navy brass clung to their mantra that Vieques was necessary for "military preparedness" and "national security," and the Clinton administration employed one stall tactic after another, the people did not falter.

The victory in Vieques is reminiscent of the titanic struggle against U.S. colonialism and militarism in the Philippines -- a nation annexed by the U.S. at the same time as Puerto Rico, along with Cuba and Guam, over a hundred years ago. The Filipino people, by their own sweat and blood, gained formal independence in 1946 and finally succeeded in shutting down the last U.S. military base there in 1992.

So too will the Puerto Rican people one day win their independence; it is only a question of when and how.

Meanwhile, I join with them in celebrating the demilitarization of Vieques. It is their unfailing determination that has made history over the wishes of the world's mightiest military power. The rest of us can take note and take heart.

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