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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Puerto Rico Turns to Guerilla Tactics in the Battle
by Lance Oliver
July 30, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - What does a crafty general do when the
other side has the money, the guns and holds the high ground?
Guerrilla warfare, of course.
There's no shooting involved, but hit-and-run guerrilla tactics
are exactly what Puerto Rico is using against the U.S. Navy to
try to get the military to abandon the island of Vieques, which
it has used for decades to practice maneuvers, invasions and bombing.
Unable to kick the Navy out by force, opponents are pestering
the Navy like a Puerto Rican pitirre whirling around a more powerful
A key moment in the determination of Vieques' future occurred
just days ago when the panel appointed by the Defense Department,
under orders from President Clinton, visited Puerto Rico and Vieques
to study the situation first hand. The panel is charged with deciding
if the Isla Nena, as the locals call it, really is indispensable
to national security, or if there is another place the Navy can
train that won't disrupt a civilian population.
The visit by the presidential panel spawned a sudden feeling of
cautious optimism in Puerto Rico. When the members of the panel
were named, nobody expressed confidence that they would be the
instrument to finally oust the Navy. Instead, responses ranged
from wait-and-see, from Gov. Pedro Rosselló, to out-and-out
charges from the leaders of the Puerto Rican Independence Party
(PIP) that the deck was stacked in the Navy's favor.
But when it came time for the panel to face Navy officials, the
members asked some pointed questions and hopes rose that the committee,
consisting of former Navy officers and former Congressman Lee
Hamilton, would not rubber stamp the Navy's wishes after all.
The panel may be where the ultimate power to resolve the situation
lies but back to the guerrilla warfare.
Puerto Ricans are chipping away at the Navy any way they can.
One tactic is the ongoing encampment on restricted Navy land on
Vieques, where PIP President Rubén Berríos, among
others, has been camped for months. Other public protests have
sprouted everywhere from the White House to a near-ugly incident
of impromptu pushing, shoving and name-calling at a dock in San
Juan when the Navy ship Yorktown recently came to port.
Average folks protest, and those with levers pull them. If you're
a notable Hispanic campaigner in the Democratic Party with an
election coming up in which the Hispanic vote will be crucial,
your letters tend to get answered, even by the White House. So
Rosselló wrote one.
Even the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources
got into the act, threatening to fine the Navy for drawing water
from the Río Blanco to supply the Roosevelt Roads base.
Threats of $50,000 daily fines and $8.9 million in retroactive
charges for years of usage were tossed about over water the DNER
hadn't mentioned for years until the Navy became persona non grata.
So the campaign goes on, in the press, on placards carried in
the streets, in sunburnt hardship squatter camps on Navy land
and in the cool halls of the White House, behind the scenes where
powerful people are calculating vote totals in next year's presidential
election and in the open on Vieques street corners where handmade
signs tell the Navy to go home.
The most unlikely aspect of the entire scenario is the unity.
Surprising as it is to anyone familiar with Puerto Rico politics,
it really is fair to call this a battle of Puerto Rico against
the Navy, because the dissenters are so few.
Rosselló's letter to Clinton, calling for the removal
of the Navy, showed how widespread the opposition to the Navy's
presence had become.
Pro-statehood politicians normally angling any way possible
to attract more military bases to Puerto Rico now don't dare suggest
Vieques should remain mostly in military hands. Of course the
Popular Democratic Party and PIP, with varying degrees of commitment,
were already against the Navy's control.
Opposition has always been present, of course, and hindsight
makes it easy to see it was ready to spread exponentially with
the right catalyst. But until a stray bomb killed civilian David
Sanes in April, most of the events of the last three months would
have seemed too far-fetched to predict with a straight face.
And keeping that in mind, who can predict who will win the
Battle of Vieques?
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly
for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email