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Vieques Cleanup Could Spur More Protests -- And Jailings

Iván Román

June 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

GUAYNABO, Puerto Rico -- The U.S. Navy officially left Vieques on May 1, but Ismael Guadalupe Jr. missed the party. He was in jail, the last of hundreds of activists still behind bars for their part in the anti-Navy struggle.

The graduate engineering student, with long hair and a beard that encircles his smiling face, emerged from federal jail Tuesday to a cheering crowd, many of whom also had spent time in the same cells.

Guadalupe's release after spending 140 days in jail for trespassing onto former Navy grounds in Vieques served as a fitting end -- for now -- to the long trail of civil disobedience that began in his home in 1979 when he was just 3 years old.

Back then, his father, drama teacher Ismael Guadalupe, now 58, was the first person arrested and jailed in the antibombing and anti-Navy campaign in Vieques.

"This is an important cycle we close today," said Guadalupe, 28, who must now focus on finishing his graduate thesis and preparing for a summer wedding.

"I hope we never have to come and cross these [jail] gates again," he said to the welcoming beat of Puerto Rican plena music.

Since a fatal accident in Vieques on April 19, 1999, hundreds of protesters had gone through the gates on their way to the cells where they would serve their sentences. The death that day of the security guard rekindled the controversy about the military exercises and the Navy's occupation of three-quarters of the 52-square-mile island off Puerto Rico's southeast coast.

Days after two wayward bombs killed the guard, protesters began squatting on what was the Navy's premier target range in the Atlantic. During the next months, their numbers, which included teachers, lawyers, priests, veterans and Vieques residents, swelled into the hundreds, increasing pressure on politicians in Washington and San Juan to solve the problem.

Much of Puerto Rico's political, civic and religious establishment objected to an agreement in January 2000 to allow target practice, using dummy bombs, for another three years. So protesters kept camping out and building shacks -- even a chapel -- on the target range until federal authorities evicted them in early May 2000.

Protesters started going back onto the Navy grounds almost immediately. Military police nabbed them, and federal judges began putting them in jail. For almost two years, a revolving door of trespassing cases clogged the federal court in San Juan with sentences ranging from no time or a few hours in custody to six months behind bars.

The final tally: 1,640 arrests in Puerto Rico and about 300 on the U.S. mainland, in cities from Los Angeles to New York. Some judges, mostly conservative and pro-statehood, handed down jail time immediately, while the more lenient ones began increasing sentences only as they became aggravated with protesters filling their calendars.

Some local senators and activists got anywhere from 30 days to six months behind bars. Prominent stateside figures who joined the protests also got jail time. They included environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 30 days; actor Edward James Olmos, 20 days; Jacqueline Jackson, wife of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 10 days; the Rev. Al Sharpton, 90 days; New York politicians Roberto Ramírez, José Rivera and Adolfo Carrión, 40 days each; and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., just a few hours.

Critics blasted the stiff sentences for offenses that were misdemeanors and accused judges of playing politics. Eight of the Vieques protesters have since showed up on the United States' list of suspected terrorists, and authorities still have not said why.

The eight will press for answers, just as residents will push for a thorough cleanup of land polluted by decades of bombing and weapons tests and for the return of more land. Most of the acreage is in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and destined to become a refuge.

"I wanted to leave my son a different Vieques, a Vieques without bombs, a Vieques that wasn't polluted, and I still haven't been able to do that," said the elder Guadalupe, who served his jail time in 1979 in Louisville, Ky.

After he was arrested for leading 55 people onto Navy grounds in 2000, Guadalupe served his sentence in some of the same cells his son has just vacated. And there may be more jailings if civil disobedience appears to be the only way to force the environmental cleanup.

"This isn't over," the elder Guadalupe said.

Those are trying words for Norma Torres, the wife and mother of the Guadalupe family, who respects her son's decision to join hundreds of others in making that kind of sacrifice.

"I'm very proud of him," Torres said. "I'm very happy because at least this stage of the struggle is over."

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