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Puerto Rico Turns to Guerilla Tactics in the Battle of Vieques

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 hawk.

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 at:

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