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Protest Camps Grow On Vieques

Puerto Ricans risk arrest to end U.S. Navy bombing

by Paul Jeffrey

March 10, 2000

Serving the new parish on Vieques is much like working in any other parish for Fr. Juan Luis Negron. He gets up in the morning, sweeps out the parsonage, reads a bit, eats breakfast with some nuns, and then watches the neighborhood arrive for Mass. As the celebration finishes, the one big difference becomes evident - the closing hymn is drowned out by the noise of a U.S. Navy helicopter that hovers low overhead videotaping the scene.

That's church life today on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques , for almost six decades a playground for Navy and Marine pilots practicing the bombing runs they would carry out elsewhere in the world. Today, however, the bombing range is filled not with the sounds of war, but with the sounds of people singing and hammers pounding. A protest camp is becoming a small, bustling town, and the church is in the middle of it.

Shortly after a wayward bomb killed a civilian security guard last April, Puerto Ricans from all over the U.S. colony came to the bombing range and set up "resistance encampments," determined to use their physical presence to prevent the renewal of bombing. The Navy refrained from removing them from the off-limits zone, perhaps believing that with time that they would tire and go away. Yet the number of people risking arrest by trespassing on Navy territory has grown steadily.

'Option for peace'

By late February, 14 distinct civil disobedience camps had been set up, including a Protestant camp established in November, and a camp built in February sponsored by the Catholic diocese of Caguas, Puerto Rico .

"I came here as part of my commitment as a man of faith," said Negron, rector of the Catholic seminary in Caguas. "We in the diocese have made an option for peace in Vieques , and we have to act out that option in concrete forms. So we've come here to work for peace, and to defend life, both the life of the environment and of the human beings who are threatened here."

Negron said he wasn't worried about trespassing on the Navy bombing range. "When there is an unjust law that violates the laws of the reign of God, then we Christians can disobey that law," Negron said.

The Catholic camp includes several tents, including one sporting a sign reading "Parsonage." A two-room wooden structure contains the kitchen and storage area. The complex is staffed round the clock by volunteers chosen and trained by the Caguas diocese, whose bishop, Alvaro Corrada del Rio, has become a leading proponent of civil disobedience. The island of Vieques is part of the Caguas diocese.

According to Feliciano Rodriguez, a priest in Caguas who coordinates the Catholic presence, participants are given at least six hours of training in nonviolence and are fully briefed on relevant church teachings. "Civil disobedience for us means discipline and training, or else it becomes simple protest," Rodriguez said. "People know we're there to pray and work for peace."

To date the diocese has received requests to participate from over 300 people, but has accepted only a third of those. According to Sr. Lavinia Ortiz, of the Carmelites of Vedruna, who train lay people in biblical studies for the diocese of Caguas, anyone with a background in political parties is automatically disqualified from participating in the church camp. "We want people who are peaceful and not conflictive," she told NCR.

Ortiz, who took her turn at civil disobedience in mid-February, said the presence of so many protesters on the bombing range, especially from the church, had given the people of Vieques "a space to breathe. They feel understood and supported. As a result, they feel more interior peace in the middle of so much struggle. When you feel accompanied, although you have many problems, you experience new strength and peace."

Both Corrada del Rio and Archbishop Roberto GonzAlez of San Juan, Puerto Rico , have visited the restricted zone, lending their support to the protest.

Should arrests occur, both will try to make their way to the camps to join the ranks of those taken to jail. Protestant leaders will be doing the same. Puerto Rican Methodists have a plan to fly Bishop Juan Vera onto Vieques should the Navy block sea transit.

Such commitment by church leaders is helping to turn the tide against the Navy. Ismael Guadalupe, president of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques , claimed that the "participation of new sectors of the population, especially the churches, has allowed us to break down the wall of lies. Now the people are hearing what we've been saying for a long time, and realizing it's true, no matter how many times they called us communists or crazy people. Sooner or later the truth has to triumph, and today on Vieques the truth is winning."

According to Robert Rabin, director of a museum housed in an old Spanish fort on Vieques , "The participation of the churches in this struggle has been fundamental in making clear that this is not just a political issue, but rather a violation of human rights, an abuse of the people and environment of Vieques by the Navy."

Rabin said that islanders have for years "received important manifestations of solidarity from church organizations in Puerto Rico , the United States and elsewhere. We have a drawer full of resolutions from different ecumenical and religious organizations, dating from the '70s until now. But this is a very different moment. It's no longer just resolutions, but people from the churches coming to Vieques willing to work at ground level, to stay in the resistance camps."

The two church-sponsored camps on the bombing range "are right now the most important weapon that the people of Vieques have against the military plans to resume bombing. If it had not been for those two camps being set up, the Navy might have already come in and arrested the small number of other people," Rabin said. "Yet there are now Catholic priests and Methodist and Baptist ministers, men and women, out there on the bombing range. That has created a very difficult situation for the U.S. government and Navy. It's going to be very difficult for [U.S. Attorney General] Janet Reno to sign an order for the arrest of a bishop or archbishop."

The church leaders' prominent role in the Vieques struggle became evident in the first weeks of the new millennium when they had a public showdown with Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossell6. The governor, who last year promised that "not one more bomb" would fall on Vieques , changed his mind at the beginning of the year and agreed to a Clinton administration proposal that would allow renewed bombing on Vieques this year. Under the plan, residents of the island would be offered a plebiscite next year in which they could choose between indefinite continued bombing or limiting further bombing to three years. Church leaders were upset by the absence of an option that would cancel all further bombing, and because the referendum wouldn't be held until months after the Navy was allowed to resume bombing.

When religious leaders announced a march for Puerto Ricans to publicly reject the Clinton-Rossel16 deal, the governor was furious and called on church members to disobey their bishops and stay at home.

"This is a situation where we need religious disobedience because church leaders have stepped out of their environment, they've exceeded their authority and are assuming roles in our democratic society that are designated through popular vote, " RosseIlo declared. "None of them have been elected by the people. Therefore, none of the faithful have to follow their orders in affairs like this which correspond to the entire society and not just to the church."

Undeterred by the public spat, the bishops went ahead with the march, and more than 100,000 people took to the streets of San Juan Feb. 21, walking in silence while waving white flags. Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo called it the biggest public demonstration in the country's history.

"The U.S. Navy has to abandon the island," said Corrada del Rio. "It was demonstrated today that the people of Vieques can count on tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who are not going to abandon them."

According to Vera, the Methodist bishop, the massive turnout "sends a clear message to President Clinton that political decisions are not written in stone and can thus be changed. We want him to reconsider his decision and not renew bombing on Vieques , whether with live munitions or inert bombs. We don't want one more bomb to fall on Vieques ."

Meeting the day after the march, church leaders wrote President Clinton, asking for a meeting to discuss Vieques "in a conciliatory manner."

Invitation to repentance

They also invited Gov. RosseIlo to public repentance for his position on Vieques . "He will know, in his wisdom and prudence, what he has to say," Vera said during a Feb. 23 news conference at Gonzalez's residence.

The turnout for the march, along with the steady growth of resistance camps on the bombing range, leaves the Navy with no apparent good options. It could lose the battle if it drags the protesters off, inevitably provoking a long, drawn out series of arrests as replacements flock to the island. And some campers, Puerto Rican Vietnam veterans, say they won't go as easily as the church-sponsored protesters.

The Navy could also lose the battle if it lets the protesters remain. Every day the Navy doesn't bomb, the island belies the Navy's claim that the facility is essential for combat readiness. In early February, the Navy announced it was moving exercises scheduled for March on Vieques to the Gulf of Mexico and Florida.

Many observers believe that if bombing doesn't resume soon, it may be delayed even more to avoid getting the issue tangled up in U.S. electoral politics. Some speculate that resumption of bombing could cost Hillary Clinton Puerto Rican votes in her New York race for the Senate.

While Puerto Ricans speculate about what the Navy will do, the
aggressive public witness of Corrada del Rio and Gonzalez has left some of their colleagues exasperated. Although the Puerto Rican Episcopal Conference issued a statement in early December declaring "immoral" the Navy's practices on Vieques and supporting civil disobedience as long as it was nonviolent and truly a last resort in the struggle against the Navy, the showdown with Rosse116 provoked murmurs of discontent from some other bishops.

The Permanent Commission of the Puerto Rican Episcopal Conference issued a Feb. 13 communiqué claiming "many faithful are confused when confronted by the diverse and at times contradictory declarations ... about the problem of Vieques ." Released by Bishop Ulises Casiano Vargas of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico , president of the bishops' conference, the declaration said church leaders getting involved in "temporal matters" should remember the statement about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's.

Corrada del Rio expressed dismay at Casiano's statement. "We lament that the entire Episcopal conference was not consulted ahead of time about this declaration, above all when it is known that in the Catholic church, the jurisdiction over an affair of a parish corresponds exclusively to the bishop of the place," Corrada stated.

The public role of Methodist Bishop Vera and other Protestant leaders has also provoked protest from some conservative evangelicals. Gustavo Filpi, president of the International Council of Independent Christian Churches, claimed that the role of the churches "is to pray, to cry out to God for this to be resolved in peace. That's the role of the church, not to walk around with little white flags nor dress up politicians in church robes."

Yet the widespread consensus around Vieques has brought even many conservatives into the movement to end the bombing. According to Angel Luis Gutierrez, a Baptist pastor, the church in Puerto Rico "has the responsibility of saving the U.S. Navy because it finds itself in sin. The church has to say to the Navy what our Lord said to the woman caught in adultery: 'Go away and sin no more."'

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