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Bombed Out And Fed Up Protesters Believe Fallout From Exercises Would Not Be Tolerated In Continental U.S.

by Deborah Ramirez

April 29, 2000
Copyright © 2000 SUN-SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

Surreal is the only way to describe the scenery at the Navy's 60- year-old bombing range on this dot of an island.

It moves from white-sand beaches and swaying palm trees to shriveled lagoons and unexploded ordnance poking from ooze like sticks in the mud.

In a flash, you go from picture of paradise to postcard from hell.

Ruben Berrios adds to the landcape's bizarreness. He is the Oxford- educated president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and a former senator.

For more than a year, the 60-year-old Berrios has made the bombing range his home. He and others are leading a civil disobedience campaign against the Navy, sparked by the accidental bombing death of Vieques guard David Sanes Rodriguez.

On the first anniversary of the April 19 accident, Berrios talks about the Navy and the natives, Puerto Rican nationalism and U.S. food stamps, and his likely arrest by federal marshals. But first he reads out loud a few lines from Don Quixote de la Mancha.

"Freedom, Sancho, is the most precious gift that heaven has bestowed upon men," says Berrios, quoting Miguel de Cervantes, and hiding from the sun under a green canopy. "No treasures that the earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it."

Berrios has shades of Don Quixote as he battles the world's most powerful navy. But he and other protesters believe they are fighting for a just cause.

They also might soon be arrested. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who sent federal agents to snatch Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives' home, may now decide it is the protesters' turn.

The signals, however, are mixed. On Monday, unnamed federal government sources said the move to clear the bombing range of trespassers and allow the Navy to renew training could begin within days. On Tuesday, the Navy said the USS George Washington group will not train in Vieques in mid-May as planned, because of the protest.

Amid the uncertainty, one thing is clear. Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth of nearly 4 million people, has never seen anything like the Vieques furor.

The campaign to peacefully oust the Navy from the island, which is part of Puerto Rico and about eight miles off its eastern coast, has cut across political and social lines.

Priests say Mass at a makeshift seaside chapel where troops practiced amphibious landings a year ago. Holy water is sprinkled where bombs used to fall. San Juan's Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez gives sermons about civil disobedience. Bobby Kennedy Jr. is the latest celebrity to visit the protest camps. Even Puerto Rican pop singer Ricky Martin has called for the Navy to stop bombing Vieques .

Protesters are scattered among 14 camps that dot the beaches and sun-baked fields. Berrios is one of the oldest enclaves. But Catholic volunteers have their camp, as do Protestants, labor unions, fishermen and Socialists.

For the U.S. government, Vieques is a question of national security. It is the only place in the world where the Atlantic Fleet trains with live bombing, artillery shelling, amphibious assaults and ship-to-shore exercises, all at the same time. The Pentagon says this training is essential to troop readiness.

For Puerto Rico , this is a matter of civil rights and second- class citizenship. About 10,000 Vieques residents are restricted to the center of the 20-mile-long island. The Navy has owned two-thirds of Vieques since 1941. Its exercises stir up dust, noise and contamination that most islanders, who are U.S. citizens, believe would not be tolerated so close to a community in the continental United States.

Protesters such as Berrios are willing to be arrested as a matter of principle, but also as a matter of strategy. They reason that if the federal agents come, they win. If they don't come, they win. The longer the bombing range remains inactive, the harder it will be for military leaders to prove that Vieques is irreplaceable.

"The Navy loses both ways," says Berrios, who after a year may not mind trading his Robinson Crusoe existence for an air-conditioned prison cell and running water. He spent the first nine months in a tent and now lives in a shack.

The party Berrios represents has always been peaceful, and his followers seem more concerned about Puerto Rican radicals than federal marshals.

The hotheads on the bombing range, who talk about resisting arrest, fighting fire with fire or hiding in the brush, are the wild card. Violence could bring popular support for the peaceful campaign tumbling down.

This is the drama of the moment. But there's also the larger picture. Vieques embodies the debate over what it means to be Puerto Rican vs. what it means to be American.

Two political trends have marked the island in recent decades. Support for making Puerto Rico a state has grown. So has the affirmation of a Puerto Rican national identity. These sentiments are rooted in the past 102 years. There was a time before the 1952 constitution and home rule that residents could be arrested for carrying the Puerto Rican flag in their own homeland.

Puerto Rican statehood leaders, many of whom are Republicans, argue it is possible to have it both ways: a 51st state with a separate language, culture and self-definition. But for most Americans, this would be an anathema.

The reality is that Puerto Rico is dependent on the United States. Residents get about $5 billion a year in federal aid. This has helped push the island commonwealth's per capita income to $9,000, the highest it has ever been. But this is still about half the per capita income of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union.

Puerto Rico is clearly afraid of independence, but it may be too different to fit in as a state.

I don't have the answer. When the time comes, this is something each Puerto Rican must decide -- with the help of Congress, which needs to define the options.

In this sense, Vieques could be a dress rehearsal for a difficult decision ahead.

For now, the decision is about whether to continue passive resistance or participate in a referendum, proposed by President Clinton, that would allow the Navy to stay in Vieques for at least three more years.

The way I see it, Vieques is a fight between the mighty and the meek. It's time for the meek to inherit the earth.

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