April 21, 2000
By Victor M. Rodriguez Dominguez
Over the last century the island of Vieques has represented U.S. colonial policy at its crudest. As part of the Puerto Rican archipelago, Vieques is an emblem of both the struggle for democracy in Puerto Rico and the contradictions of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations.
The death of Viequense David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian base employee killed by an errant bomb dropped by a Navy jet last year, has again brought Puerto Rico's colonial profile into sharp relief.
But Vieques has long been at the center of the perennially elusive aspirations of Puerto Ricans for true self-government.
During the late 1950s, the Navy, in a process they disingenuously referred to as "real estate negotiations," demanded that the entire population of Vieques be transferred to the "Big Island." This transfer would even have included Vieques' cemeteries.
Author Ronald Fernandez in "The Disenchanted Island" quotes a letter from then Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Muñoz Marin to President Kennedy on December 28, 1961. The governor wrote that he did not support expelling the residents of Vieques "....unless it is not merely desirable, but clearly critically and urgently necessary for the military defense of the Nation (sic)."
Such exchanges have fed into the mentality that Puerto Rico is of strategic military importance to the United States, whether Puerto Ricans want it that way or not.
Vieques has fought for decades to bring attention to its plight, but it was often ignored by Puerto Rican citizens on the main island. Most recently, Gov. Pedro Rossello signed an agreement with President Clinton that provides no immediate relief from Navy bombing exercises, which have terrorized Viequenses for decades.
In making the agreement, Rossello ignored the overwhelming opposition to the Navy's presence by diverse political forces in Puerto Rico. The Clinton-Rossello plan even defied the Puerto Rican government's own stated policy.
The agreement provides for the Viequenses to participate in a referendum on whether they want the Navy to continue the bombings, but the bombings would still continue for at least three years. Clinton has also promised more than $40 million in cash aid to Vieques, but only if the Viequenses vote to let the Navy stay.
Worse yet, the referendum does not allow voters the option of demanding an immediate and permanent end to the bombing. Plus, the Navy gets to decide when it will hold the referendum.
In the meantime, bombings are scheduled to continue with so called inert or "dummy" bombs on a reduced basis-90 days a year-for at least the next three years.
For many islanders, Vieques has become a symbol of what is wrong with U.S.-Puerto Rico relations. The fate of "La Isla Nena" (the Island Girl), as Vieques is known, and the grassroots movement supporting its residents will likely impact the 500-year-long struggle to achieve a greater degree of self-government. But the course might take some unexpected twists given that the participants represent a coalition of forces never before seen in the island's political history.
In February, the coalition organized what many regarded as the largest mass political demonstration in Puerto Rico's history. Estimates of the throng ranged from 85,000 to 150,000 and the march was widely covered by the U.S. and international press. Their cause has fanned the flames of nationalist fervor.
Initially, the pro-statehood forces were caught up in the fervor of the movement to kick the Navy out of Vieques. But now they find themselves puzzled and confused. Is the Vieques movement against the U.S.? If it is, will it affect their aspirations for statehood? Or will Puerto Rico be viewed as a bastion of anti-Americanism?
Flavio Cumpiano, a Washington D.C. spokesman for the Vieques movement, says "We cannot equate the struggle for Vieques with the pro-independence struggle or the struggle for increased self- government" -especially since this is an election year in Puerto Rico, which means everything there is politicized.
As such, the interests of the big island's politics threaten to overwhelm what is, at its core, an issue of justice and morality. Don't the Viequenses deserve to live in peace? The statehooders seem to have said, yes, but only if it does not challenge the Navy's right to continue bombing the island for at least a while longer.
Most of the major milestones in U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico have not come as a result of Puerto Rican volition. In 1917, for example, the U.S. imposed U.S. citizenship on Puerto Ricans over the objections of the Puerto Rican legislature. In 1952, the U.S. "allowed" Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution as a reaction to Cold War politics and to burnish the tarnish that having a colonial possession gives to the image of the "Land of the Free."
Given that historical legacy, the real significance of the Vieques movement is that for the first time Puerto Ricans are making their own history. This time, Puerto Ricans were calling the shots and the White House and Congress were listening-at least until Gov. Rossello broke ranks with the Puerto Rican people.
In the past 12 months, Puerto Ricans have flexed their political muscles, and they like how it feels. Never before has the Navy faced such stubborn resistance in the 102-year U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico.
Whether the Navy is forced to leave or not, nothing can erase the sense of empowerment the Vieques movement has created. And the event will have opened a new path to ending Puerto Rico's perennial colonial subjugation.
(Rodriguez is a sociology professor at Concordia University in Irvine, California. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Politico Magazine - The Source for Latino Politics and Culture, V3-22 4/12/00; e-mail Politico1@aol.com)