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The Hartford Courant

A Victory For Grass-Roots Activism On Vieques

By Juan Figueroa

May 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

The bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico, has ended. Attempts to stop the bombing began immediately after the United States expropriated two-thirds of the fully inhabited Puerto Rican island in the 1940s to use for target practice by the U.S. Navy and its allies.

The Navy's withdrawal this month was accomplished, in part, by the first successful effort to link an island injustice with stateside local grass-roots activism and the Puerto Rican/Latino leadership here. This successful link could serve as a model for handling future island issues. A good place to retest the model is with the cleanup of Vieques and securing reparations for its residents.

``Todo Puerto Rico Con Vieques'' was the broad-based island coalition that brought together estadistas, independentistas and estadolibristas seeking an end to the bombing -- a small miracle in itself given the unforgiving nature of partisan politics in Puerto Rico.

The coalition also brought together the diverse religious and civic sectors on the island. This effort was replicated in the states in places with high concentrations of Puerto Ricans. ``Todo'' coalitions were organized in Connecticut and other states. These coalitions were critical in providing effective grass-roots activism, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people who, in turn, were successful at educating the press, politicians and key allies in the states.

These coalitions complimented a very determined Sila Maria Calder0n, governor of Puerto Rico, and her efforts to persuade the White House and Congress to stop the bombing of Vieques. More important, however, these local U.S. efforts engaged key stateside Puerto Rican leaders and U.S. institutions.

The most significant individual to join this effort was Dennis Rivera, president of the very powerful health care workers union in New York, Local 1199. The issue was popular with his members (I rode on a packed 1199 bus to a D.C. demonstration) and with the many Puerto Rican voters that Rivera has registered to vote over the years.

Rivera was instrumental in mobilizing a range of influential stakeholders, including two U.S. presidents (Clinton and Bush) as well as scores of members of Congress. He used his considerable political capital with President Clinton (who set a framework for the Navy's departure) and was instrumental in recruiting New York Gov. George Pataki, who, in turn, proved a key influence with the Bush White House.

Rivera also recruited well-known environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the U.S.-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund to sue the Navy. He engaged civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson (whose wife, Jacqueline, was arrested in Vieques and served eight days of a 10- day prison sentence for ``trespassing'' in Vieques to protest the Navy bombings) and other key African American leaders.

Rivera and Kennedy themselves served 30 days in a federal penitentiary in Puerto Rico for peaceful acts of civil disobedience. They joined scores of doctors, lawyers, farmers, fishermen, teachers, politicians and religious leaders who were also arrested for peaceful acts of civil disobedience.

The cumulative effect of this joint U.S. and island activism and consequent press coverage elevated Vieques to cause celebre status in the United States and kept the pressure on the Navy. None of this was possible but for the courage of the people of Vieques and the many Puerto Ricans who, over the years, joined their cause.

The fishermen of Vieques, in particular, played a key role in this effort and in the events that followed the April 19, 1999, accidental killing of a civilian, Roberto Sanes Rodriquez, by an errant Navy bomb in Vieques. Those individuals sacrificed much at a time when the issue was not well-known outside Puerto Rico.

Now that the bombing has ended, it is time to repair the damage inflicted upon the people of Vieques and their environment. It is not only fair but consistent with reparations the U.S. military has made to victims of other military exercises such as nuclear testing. This will require a great deal of money and political will, and the Pentagon should assume full responsibility. (Parts of the island are heavily contaminated, and its residents are 27 percent more likely to have cancer.) The Kennedy/PRLDEF lawsuit could serve as the insurance policy for this to happen.

Juan A. Figueroa is president of the Anthem Foundation, a health care foundation based in New Haven. His column appears every month.

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