Victory in Vieques?

Or the Empire Strikes Back!

By Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: January 20, 2003

Victory in Vieques?

"The U.S. has repeatedly and pridefully declared its policy on political status to be that of self-determination. Yet here is a record of a decade of hanky panky . . . What is most damaging, is the FBI swashbuckling at the time of the plebiscite (is that self-determination?) and even at the time of the 1968 general election."

---Memo, Summarizing results of an analysis of FBI Documents Conducted on Behalf of President Jimmy Carter ( Fernandez, The Disenchanted Island, 1996)

Since 1941, ten thousand United States citizens have been waging a struggle for survival confronting the most powerful military institution on earth: The United States Navy. This effort has resulted in important and significant political events. Viequenses have been supported by the most massive alliance of religious, civic and political organizations in the island, and contributed to the defeat of the pro-statehood administration of former Gov. Pedro Rossello and the election of the first woman governor in the political history of the island in the 2000 elections.

Meanwhile, they have maintained a level of commitment in spite of the pro-military mood that permeated the culture following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Their fragile nonpartisan coalition is still able to muster significant support in these conservative times. In many ways, their efforts have served as catalysts for important changes in mainland and island politics. The nature of Latino politics in New York shifted as a result of the involvement of Republican Pataki in support of peace for Vieques. Breaking with tradition, thousands of Puerto Ricans for the first time voted for a republican in the 2002 November elections. But in many ways, and despite these victories, the history of this island and its people are a metaphor of the sordid history of U.S. colonial policies in Latin America, this history, is still unknown for most Americans.

Recently, on January 10, 2003, the Secretary of the Navy disclosed that it would transfer the naval training and target practice that for 60 years has taken place in Vieques to a number of sites in Florida and the Southeast. It is expected that by May 1, naval use of the island of Vieques will cease. However, early in January the navy began bombing the island again while thousands of protesters marched through the streets of San Juan in protest. Already, eight persons were arrested and placed in a federal detention facility while a number of others have entered the restricted zone placing their bodies as shields against more bombing. While on the surface this seems like a victory for the Viequenses, caution is what pervades the mood in Puerto Rico.

Most of the local leadership is happy that the bombings will likely cease, but the history of relations between the military and Puerto Rico makes foreboding quite a challenge. During the next 29 days of bombing the organizations that led the struggle against the navy have declared themselves in mourning. There are rumors that the navy will have another round of bombings in March or April which means more contaminants will be added to an already damaged environment.

In recent weeks Viequenses are focusing on what they call the 4-D?s: demilitarization, decontamination, devolution of the lands to Vieques and sustainable economic development for the island. A support committee of economists, agronomists, and other professionals developed a plan to aid Vieques development after the navy leaves the island. However, there are no assurances that the navy will return any land to the people of Vieques. The eastern part of the island where most of the bombing takes place is made up of two areas that could likely be transferred to the Department of the Interior. This would mean that the naval facilities would remain available if the navy decided to resume its training in Vieques.

This would be a humiliating outcome for the Viequenses and the more than 1,500 persons supporters who have suffered imprisonment for the cause of peace for Vieques. College students, to congressmen, movie stars, priests, nuns and ministers, all invested part of their freedom for the liberation of Vieques. But such an outcome would be in line with the context of the historical colonial treatment of Puerto Rico.

Most of the significant milestones in U.S. policy toward Puerto Rico were not the outcome of Puerto Rican volition, but of the vagaries of international dynamics which pivot on U.S. national interests. In 1917, The U.S. imposed U.S. citizenship on Puerto Ricans despite its rejection by the Puerto Rican legislature. The purpose was to establish that Puerto Rico would continue being a possession of the United States. On that occasion, Puerto Ricans also were not allowed to vote whether they accepted U.S. citizenship or not. From 1900 to 1940s, the United States imposed a program of "Americanization" which substituted Spanish as the medium of instruction in the public educational system. After decades of protests and strikes, eventually Spanish was re-instituted as the medium of instruction in the late 40s.

In response to nationalist agitation, the colonial government instituted Law 53, which was an instrument of repression and which violated the human and civil rights of Puerto Ricans. This law, a creole version of the anti-subversive Smith Law in the continental United States, led to the arrest and incarceration of thousands of supporters of independence for Puerto Rico from 1950 until the law was abrogated in 1957. Pro-independence speeches, and at times, even the unfurling of a Puerto Rican flag, became acts for which people were accused of subversion. The purpose of this flagrant violation of civil liberties was to defuse the pro-independence movement at a time when Puerto Rico was strategic for the United States policy to contain communism in Latin America.

Later in 1952, the U.S. "allowed" Puerto Ricans to draft their own constitution, again as a reaction to Cold War politics and to avoid the tarnish that having a colonial possession gave to the image of the U.S. in the world. In reality the change was just a change of a facade, Puerto Ricans still "belonged to" but were "not a part of" the United States. They still faced a colonial situation where Puerto Ricans could be drafted in the army but could not vote for the commander in chief.

In May of 2000, then FBI Director Louis Freeh delivered to New York Cong. Jose Serrano, a Puerto Rican, the first 8,000 pages of documents, part of 1.8 million documents that would detail the decades long spying and surveillance of political activists in the island and on the mainland. In the words of then FBI director Freeh, "Particularly in the 1960's, the FBI did operate a program that did tremendous destruction to many people, to the country, and certainly to the FBI." The release of these documents came from a request from Cong. Serrano after then FBI Director Louis Freeh acknowledged at a congressional hearing in March of that year that the agency had engaged in "egregious illegal action, maybe criminal action" in Puerto Rico for years, violating the civil rights of many there.

Still, many pro-independence activists, many of whom have been supporting the struggle in Vieques since the 1940s, wonder if the agency was involved in about 100 bombings and shootings of homes, businesses, newspapers, that took place during the 1960s and 70s. The year before, then pro-statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello apologized to Puerto Ricans after acknowledging the role of the intelligence division of the local police in engaging also in violations of the civil rights of political activists for decades. Many of the close to 150,000 files that the intelligence division of the Puerto Rican police itself had collected for decades on individuals and organizations, were returned to the victims. Less than a decade ago, a federal marshal, was accused of placing a bomb in the bar association after the organization issued a statement supporting the withdrawal of the navy from Vieques.

In sum, since the Spanish-American War, U.S. military institutions, have argued that Puerto Rico?s strategic situation is essential for the armed forces of the United States. In these days, where wars and rumors of war are pervasive in the media, when the mood of the country seems to be on hegemony and not on expanding democracy, the Viequenses hope for the better. But still, the Viequenses and the organizations that support them keep up their defenses? ready to fend for their right to peace.

About Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez:
(, Department of Chicano and Latino Studies, California State University, Long Beach. He can be reached at

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