May 19, 2000

Vieques Conflict Remains Unresolved

By James E. Garcia

It used to be known as "Crab Island." Some local residents even recall having to clasp theirs doors shut to keep crabs from crawling into their living rooms.

Most of the crabs are gone now from the tiny island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Local fishermen blame the crustaceans' dwindling numbers on the toxic, destructive effects of nearly 60 years of U.S. military bombing practice.

Environmentalists say Vieques' delicate coral reefs have been largely obliterated. Long stretches of its once pristine beaches now stand littered with tons of shrapnel, unexploded shells, discarded military hardware, and even the radioactive debris of bombs that the U.S. Defense Department now admits were tipped with depleted uranium. The uranium-tipped weapons were used in violation of Pentagon rules.

Carlos Zenon, a local fisherman and activist, says the job of supporting his family in the poor and remote community has been made far more difficult by the island's six-decade "military occupation."

Like most of the island's 9,600 residents, Zenon wants the bombing range shut down. And he vehemently opposed U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to order federal agents to expel more than 200 protesters from Camp Garcia on Vieques on May 4.

Some of the protesters had been camped there for nearly a year in a stubborn show of civil disobedience against the military's use of a 33,000-acre swath on the island. Opposition hardened after the death of David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian guard at the base, who was killed about a year ago when a fighter pilot accidentally dropped a bomb on him.

In a recent interview, Zenon repeated longstanding complaints by Vieques residents that the bombing has crippled the local fishing industry and stymied tourism and other economic development. Unemployment hovers at around 50 percent. Many also complain of health problems, including higher cancer rates, which they believe are linked to the island's environmental degradation. Sanes' death was simply the last straw.

Even though Reno has cleared the beaches and sent the protesters packing, the island's dispute with the Defense Department is far from resolved — and it's far from over.

Soon after the expulsion of the protesters from Camp Garcia, Zenon told me his sons, Cacimar and Pedro were hiding in secret camouflaged shelters somewhere inside the boundaries of the bombing range, in a show of protest. A federal magistrate later issued arrest warrants for the brothers—even as the Navy's destroyer USS Stump and Navy A-4 Skyhawks began shelling Vieques with non-exploding "dummy" bombs.

Immediately after Reno raided the beaches, a broad coalition of Puerto Rican church officials, activists and political leaders vowed to continue fighting until they kick the Navy out of Vieques. Dozens of protesters have been arrested since for trespassing on the bombing range. Federal authorities say the protesters could face stiff fines and up to ten years in prison.

Recently, the bombing range's opponents lost a key ally. Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello is being roundly criticized for backing a decision by President Clinton in January to permit the resumption of limited bombing exercises on Vieques.

According to the arrangement, no live ammunition will be used, at least not unless local residents vote in a referendum to allow that to happen. To help persuade them that it was a good idea to allow the bombing to resume, Clinton promised about $90 million in special economic assistance to the island.

The first $40 million installment could come this year or next, depending on Congressional approval. The remaining $50 million is contingent upon a "yes" vote to let the Navy stay. Seems like a fair bribe.

According to the White House plan, Vieques' voter referendum on the issue is supposed to take place sometime in the next two or three years. The bombing range's opponents shouldn't count on it. Clinton wants the issue to just go away. The Republican leadership in Congress, meanwhile, is already pressing for "live ammunition" bombing to resume immediately.

In the meantime, some have labeled Rossello a "traitor" for backing Clinton's proposal, as well as the forced removal of the protesters. It was Rossello who declared during a U.S. Senate hearing last fall that "not one more bomb" would fall on Vieques.

Rossello did betray the cause. It seems that when it served his desire to boost his national reputation, Rossello was with the Puerto Rican people, most of whom want the Navy out. But when he began to ponder his immediate political future—Rossello cannot seek reelection as governor—he buckled to political pressure from the White House. If Gore wins the White House, expect to see Rossello well rewarded for his about-face.

In the meantime, Zenon says he and his family plan to keep protesting.

"As a father, I'm concerned about what may happen to my sons," he said. "Yet there are so many Vieques families who have already suffered that we're willing to pay the price."

(Garcia is editor-in-chief of Politico magazine, a monthly magazine focusing on U.S. Latino politics. E-mail or visit


Puerto Rico Plebiscite Bill Filed

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-NY, has filed legislation that would allow Puerto Rico to determine its future political status. If approved, the bill would let Puerto Ricans decide if they want to remain a commonwealth or seek independence.

"Since Puerto Rico is not a state nor an independent nation, it can only be considered as a colony of the United States," Serrano said.

If approved, the bill would permit Puerto Ricans living in the United States mainland to vote in the plebiscite.

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