Vieques protesters evicted; U.S. agents remove demonstrators from bombing range off Puerto Rico
by Don Bohning
May 5, 2000
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- About 300 federal agents arrived with the dawn Thursday, evicting scores of protesters from a U.S. Navy bombing range and putting a peaceful end to a yearlong standoff over the controversial installation on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
The agents removed 64 protesters from the main gate of the bombing range and more than 150 demonstrating elsewhere, restoring control of a 14,000-acre training complex the Navy considers vital to U.S. national security.
The protesters had blocked its use since April 1999 when they set up several camps on the bombing range after a U.S. military pilot's errant bombs killed a civilian Puerto Rican security guard.
Thursday evening, hundreds of residents waving Puerto Rican flags gave a heroes' welcome to dozens of the detained who returned by boat to Isabel II, Vieques' biggest town.
``You can bet that we're going back,'' said protester Rega Miro, 26. ``Because of what we've done, every day the movement will grow stronger.''
Hundreds of people converged on the historic district of Old San Juan late Thursday for a protest rally.
Earlier, about 800 shouting demonstrators in San Juan blocked the gates to the U.S. Army's Fort Buchanan in a standoff with riot police on horseback that was tense but not violent. Elsewhere, about 30 people chanted ``Yankees go home'' at the Army's Fort Allen in the southern town of Juana Diaz and other protests erupted at the Navy's Roosevelt Roads base at the eastern end of the island and shut down the University of Puerto Rico's main campus.
Thursday morning's eviction operation on Vieques began shortly after 5 a.m. and proceeded smoothly and without violence.
Marshals and FBI agents, wearing helmets and bulletproof vests, gave the protesters the choice of leaving the bombing range voluntarily or being arrested.
``You must leave the property immediately!'' a marshal said through a blue megaphone. ``If you do not leave promptly, we will have to remove you.''
'STRUGGLE FOR PEACE'
Robert Rabin -- a native of Everett, Mass., who has become a local activist -- spoke briefly with the marshals, then addressed the group.
``This is a struggle for peace,'' he said. ``Let's do this in a peaceful manner.''
He then surrendered to the marshals amid cheers from fellow protesters.
With helicopters hovering overhead, the marshals removed the protesters gathered at the main gate and another 200 FBI agents went after others at camps inside. Some protesters were taken away in handcuffs, which officials said some had requested.
The federal agents were backed up by Puerto Rican anti-riot police.
Some who watched began to cry.
"Oh, how much longer will we have to fight? How much longer will this go on?'' wailed Margarita Santos, 40.
By midday, Ron LaBrec, spokesman for the Joint Information Center at Roosevelt Roads, said an estimated 215 people had been detained. The Coast Guard said 52 journalists were escorted out of the range.
The dozen protest sites inside the camp had been cleared by early afternoon, according to FBI agent Dave Miller.
As journalists and protesters were taken out of the base, the first contingent of about 1,000 Marines began arriving to patrol the base perimeter to keep new protesters from entering.
At the same time, work began on repair and strengthening of base fences while the Coast Guard established a three-mile-wide security zone in waters around Vieques, turning back at least nine boats by midday.
Among those detained were two members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent, Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y.
``They are trying to be extremely kind and generous and courteous but I think they understand that they are wrong,'' a handcuffed Gutierrez told reporters from the back of an open truck, referring to the agents.
Attorney General Janet Reno said in Washington that the protesters would not face charges unless they returned to the base or had assaulted federal officers.
The efficiency and peacefulness of the operation drew widespread praise.
Puerto Rico's Gov. Pedro Rossello called it a ``very positive day for Puerto Rico,'' congratulating both the federal agents and the demonstrators for the peaceful manner in which the affair was handled.
RESPECT FOR LAW
``Today we have shown that in Puerto Rico we can express our views and also respect law and order,'' Rossello said.
It was the second such quick strike in less than two weeks for Reno's Justice Department. The first came April 22, when U.S. marshals and FBI agents seized 6-year-old Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives and restored him to the custody of his father.
One of the Vieques protesters compared the island controversy to the battle in Miami.
Elian Gonzalez ``was just a custody battle,'' Anibal Corcino said. ``Here we're talking about a whole town that has suffered for 60 years.''
Reno, at a press conference in Washington, dismissed any similarities between the two operations, answering with a curt ``no'' when asked if any lessons learned from the Miami operation had influenced agents on Vieques, where careful on-the-scene negotiations helped avert any violence.
Puerto Rican commentator Juan Manuel Garcia Passalaqua credited the protesters with contributing to their peaceful removal.
``I think the people of Puerto Rico, as distinguished from the Miami Cubans, made it clear they have opted for the Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King model in dealing with the U.S. military by demonstrating peacefully, efficiently and successfully,'' Garcia Passalaqua said.
This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.
1940: U.S. Navy purchases two-thirds of the 20-by-4-mile island, moving 3,000 of its residents to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
1975: After years of protest, Navy ends exercises on nearby Culebra Island.
1983: Navy agrees to protect Vieques environment, economy.
1983: Vieques used to train for Grenada invasion.
1997: Two people are injured when residents clash with two NATO warships intruding into civilian areas.
April 19: Bombing accident kills civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez, 35. Four others are wounded. Exercises suspended.
May 8: Independence Party leader Ruben Berrios and supporters take over beach on bombing range, joining handful of protesters. More camps are erected.
May 28: Navy admits it mistakenly fired 267 uranium-tipped shells on Vieques in February.
June 10: President Clinton orders review of military operations on Vieques.
July 1: Multiparty Puerto Rico commission recommends Navy abandon Vieques.
July 19: Navy reverses earlier denials that it used napalm on Vieques in 1993.
Aug. 2: Navy report blames April 19 accident on pilot and ground control errors.
Oct. 18: Presidential panel recommends Navy resume live-fire training on Vieques, but leave in five years.
Dec. 3: Clinton decides Navy should resume exercises but without live bombs, and quit island in five years; Puerto Rican government rejects the plan.
Jan. 31: Puerto Rico accepts Clinton proposal to allow the Navy to resume limited training for at least three years, using nonexplosive dummy bombs; Vieques residents will decide whether they want Navy to leave in referendum.
Feb. 21: More than 80,000 people protest Vieques deal in San Juan.
April 1: Navy study finds no evidence of soil or groundwater contamination on Vieques.
May 1: Three Navy warships arrive in Vieques area, reportedly carrying Marines.
May 4: U.S. marshals, FBI agents and Marines reclaim Vieques base in dawn sweep.