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The Arrests In Vieques: Dissent, Decency And Discipline

by Lance Oliver

May 12, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

After the scenes of burning tires, hysterical press conferences and political showboating in Miami after the seizure of Elián González, the resolution of the year-long demonstration on Navy land on Vieques was a display of restraint, responsibility and respect for dissent.

A week has now passed since the FBI and other federal agents removed more than a hundred protesters from the camps on the Navy firing range.

Subsequent demonstrations so far have been sporadic. They peaked the day the protesters were removed. They have been remarkably peaceful and disciplined, with very few exceptions.

The behavior of the demonstrators, both on Vieques and elsewhere, only strengthens the image of Puerto Ricans as a people who want peace. It can only have improved the chances of getting fair treatment from Congress.

At the same time, the comportment of the FBI officers who removed protesters from the Navy range showed a civilized level of respect for protest and divergent views. That can only serve as ammunition to counter the criticisms of those who tried to portray the Justice Department as heavy-handed in the Elián case.

The peaceful, even dignified resolution to the protest on Vieques was possible thanks to smarts on one side and trust on the other. Unlike Elián González’s relatives in Miami, who hinted at guns in the house and proved to be unreliable negotiators, the Vieques protesters emphasized their non-violent intentions over and over. They maintained a discipline at the camps that was enough to make Janet Reno’s Justice Department comfortable going in with a lightly armed and light-handed team of officers instead of mounting an intimidating display of force.

So in the public relations arena, both sides won. It now seems likely that the plan outlined by the Clinton administration will proceed. The Navy has already resumed bombing, but with inert ordnance, and eventually it will hold the required referendum among Vieques residents, who will demand the Navy leave in three years, as included in the plan.

Eventually Vieques will be demilitarized, barring a reversal by Clinton’s successor or some other surprising event.

That’s not to say the protests and dissent will now stop. The protesters removed from Vieques were freed without charge but were warned they will be charged if they return.

On Wednesday, Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos tested that order by returning to the restricted area and getting arrested. Although President Clinton signed an order making a return by the protesters a felony, carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, it remains to be seen whether that order will hold up in court and whether federal officials will use it to throw the book at Berríos or will continue to be lenient instead.

Surprisingly, the resumption of bombing did not induce more protests. Despite the frustration and disappointment stirred by the unrealistic expectations of the "Ni una más" (Not one more) campaigners, Puerto Ricans have seemed to realize that the Navy is again active on Vieques, against their wishes, but victories are on the horizon: specifically, the referendum and the eventual Navy withdrawal.

So will the peace last? Some have tried to sabotage it. The day the protesters were removed, the biggest demonstration took place in front of the entrance to Fort Buchanan just outside San Juan. While the organizers kept the protest peaceful and orderly, a group of students showed up and tried to spark a confrontation with police by trying to surge past barricades.?

Later, other students moved onto a nearby highway, stopping traffic and rocking cars back and forth.

This led to a brief clash between students and police, nearly all of whom are probably sympathetic with the Vieques cause, and accomplished nothing positive.

Similarly a few articles in the press tried to stir up trouble, quoting a few of the protesters removed from Vieques as complaining they were not given enough water on the boat ride from Vieques to Roosevelt Roads Naval Base and were not given legal counsel. Though since they were not charged with crimes, it’s hard to see why they needed legal counsel.

The flimsiness of the complaints and the manner in which the removal was carried out made the complaints fall flat, however.

In the framework of the high expectations that had been created, that the Navy would be forced to leave immediately without dropping another bomb, the events of the past week may seem to be a setback. But in reality, it was a victory for the ideal of non-violent protest, the cause of returning Vieques to civilian hands and the image of the entire Puerto Rican people.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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