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Clarion call: the Vieques Struggle Is Not Over

After 62 years, the struggle continues . . .

By Cheberto Rosa
Published on LatinoLA: April 6, 2009


Clarion call: the Vieques Struggle Is Not Over


(Note: On May 1, 2003, The United States navy suspended its military operations in the island of Vieques, part of the Puerto Rican archipelago, after 62 years. During the last 6 years, an intense campaign of civil disobedience interrupted naval operations and the bombing of the island by U.S. naval forces an its allies. As a consequence of the closing, the largest naval station outside of the continental United States, Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, was also closed in the small town of Ceiba in the eastern part of the island of Puerto Rico. Today, both Vieques and Ceiba struggle to secure the promises of decontamination of areas polluted by military toxic waste, and in the town of Ceiba, they struggle to reconstruct their tattered economy by demanding that the processes that are legally in place when military bases are dismantled are followed through. Powerful economic interests are trying to, again, crush and disempower the people of Ceiba. Mr. Cheberto Rosa is an activist in the Pro-development Alliance of Ceiba (APRODEC) the most important community based organization in the area.
---- Victor M. Rodriguez, California State University)

Clarion call: the Vieques Struggle Is Not Over by Cheberto Rosa

The Department of Defense acquired almost two thirds of the island of Vieques and turned it into a naval ammunition depot and live ordnance training range: a real battleground probably unrivaled by any of its kind. For more than 60 years, the US Navy used Vieques and its surrounding waters to stage simultaneous air, land and sea bombardment coordinating all three as probably has never been done before in the in the history of warfare training.

The thunderous live-fire training operations that disturbed the otherwise tranquil surroundings of this tiny island off Puerto Rico's eastern tip ignited a wave of protests and acts of civil disobedience that led to thousands of arrests after two 500-pound bombs dropped by an F-18 Marine Corps plane on April 19, 1999 killed David Sanes, a Puerto Rican civilian that was on duty as a security guard near an observation post that was identified as a target by the F-18 pilot.

Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on mainland Puerto Rico, a few miles across Vieques, was in charge of managing live-ordnance training ranges and operations. As the local population stepped up their
opposition to U.S. training activities it became clear that relinquishing all training operations in Vieques would eventually lead to the closure of Roosevelt Roads.

Since the military was unable to manage the dispute over the firing ranges, the U.S. congress authorized the Secretary of the Navy to close the Vieques range, and terminate all naval training operations at the Roosevelt Roads naval station that were related exclusively to use of the range.

The clarion call of the Vieques population and its Puerto Rican mainland and world-wide supporters was loud and clear and heard the globe over. The Bush Administration announced on June 14, 2001 that it had decided to end military training operations at the U.S. naval training range on the island of Vieques by May 2003. The closure of Roosevelt Roads followed suit.

Vieques wooed away military invaders that had turned their territory and surrounding waters into an international romper room for the U.S and its allies by numerous small acts of heroism, but the closure of Roosevelt Roads has led to another battle: land seized for the construction of Roosevelt Roads is now up for grabs, and the vacated premises in the old Navy bombing zone are echoing back thunderous blasts, coming from the open detonation of thousands of unexploded bombs, that scatter into the air debris from uranium projectiles that have sat for decades in wait for human victims.

Three parcels of land at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station -- totaling around 2,900 acres -- are planned to be sold at a public auction that is now in place. Aside from part of the waterfront that is scheduled to be transferred to the Ports Authority and a parcel of land occupied by the airfield that was already transferred to the Ports Authority, the rest of the conveyances is comprised of land of ecological value for conservation purposes that was granted as a result of reversionary rights, since it was either given away by the Government of Puerto Rico or sold to the Navy at the nominal price of ten cents an acre back in the 1940's . Most of the land suitable for economic development is either to be sold at public auction or was transferred to federal agencies that expressed interest for first priority in consideration for reuse.

The Base Realignment and Closure Act is the ruling authority on base closure matters in the U.S. It is also an instrument of the extraterritorial power that rules our land from a distant nation, whose troops seized our territory as war booty in 1898. We are not expecting mercy from the usurper of our lands. We are just demanding restitution of our lands. We are demanding that the intervening power at least show respect for their own laws: the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process dictates that local communities are entitled to take charge of the planning, reuse and development processes of vacated military installations. In our case our community was preempted from implementing its vision of that process by the central government and from pursuing restitution of land that was once the dwelling place of peaceful citizens that were forcibly dislodged from their houses with unheard brutality by the Department of Defense in 1940's to give way to Roosevelt Roads. Naval Station

The egalitarian society that was supposed to emerge after the end of World War II brought to our town a contingent of more than 7,000 marauding soldiers with a fondness for pinching women's behinds. The marauding horde was released into our community during the weekends in two waves -- as a damage control measure -- of up to 3,500.

A collapse of cultural confidence has left our communities in a state of heartbrokenness as a result of disruption of our simple and almost bucolic way of life. A glimpse at the employment statistics hints at our forgone conclusion. After more than sixty years of our land being occupied for military purposes our town economy has not flourished. Unemployment rate among surrounding communities has continued its ever increasing trend. Our strenuous efforts to survive in a militarized surrounding have been unfruitful: alcohol abuse and illegal drug consumption have increased. Labor force participation rate is less than 40%, and more than 60% of the population has fallen below the threshold of poverty

The plight we are now in is a direct consequence of the presence of the Navy, which for more than six decades used our surrounding territory to train military personnel in the use of weapons of war. Their military operations polluted our lands. A statistically significant portion of our population has developed ailments, from hearing loss problems to contamination with heavy metals and cancer. The U.S. Navy, the largest landlord in our region, was also the largest employer, but it all happened at the expense of a sound economic growth, as its presence precluded our community from using its land for more productive use. Our town could have been a progressive maritime city, but was relegated to the role of a beachless coastal village in the 1940's after 45% of our land suitable for economic development was summarily seized by the Department of Defense for the construction of Roosevelt Roads Naval Station (RRNS).

Time has come for us to be heard. Our stand as regards to the land seized by the Department of Defense in the 1940's is that we are now more than ever in a moral position to revert 68 years of landlordism by becoming owners of our own place. As a consequence we are opposed to the sale in public auction of the land of the former Roosevelt Road Naval Station that we consider a Puerto Rican national patrimony

Most of the developable land at Roosevelt Roads was transferred by the Puerto Rican government to the Navy at no cost or at a token value. In fact, at least 1,200 acres was sold to the Navy at a nominal rate of ten cents per acre. Another portion of land was either communal land in the public domain, and still other portion of land was seized without due process The Department of Defense claimed possession of unregistered property at a time when ancestral rights were the norm and cadastral registry of land among the "campesinos" some of whom were descendants of early settlers that had land concessions -- was uncommon. Most of the land seized should have been subjected to reversionary rights. If no reversionary clause was put forth in the deeds, then our people have been shortchanged and this act of omission or commission is in need of remediation. In the absence of an appropriate mechanisms to claim ownership, we, a group of citizens under the aegis of Alianza pro Desarrollo de Ceiba (APRODEC) and in representation of the municipalities of Ceiba and Naguabo urge the U.S. and the international community to help us assert our rights to full ownership of our land. The fact that the Department of Defense is in possession of the land and easements of various sorts is not in dispute. In the realm of righteousness and respect we all cherish, physical possession of land by an extraterritorial entity whether obtained by sheer force, coercion, seizure, expropriation or necessity of war, as strange as this may sound is no excuse for the violation of humanitarian principles and human rights. We formally protest for the way the Department of Defense has handled the BRAC process and their decision to sell the land in public auction.

Although we do not rule out recourse to legal measures to gain restitution of our land we are not so naive as to not recognize that the legal concept of rights inscribed in an alien system of law imposed on our territory has as its main purpose the erosion of the empowerment of our people.

We are afraid that this issue may take on an international spin, just as the Vieques issue did, as we brace ourselves, with all the strength of our hearts, to assert our rights not only to lead the BRAC planning and reuse process for former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, usurped by the central Puerto Rican government as represented by El portal del Futuro -- the officialy recognized Local Redevelopment Authority -- but to reposes our land. As with all community struggles this may be viewed as a "politically oriented" issue by Portal del Futuro. On our part we view it as a natural reaction to Portal del Futuro's and the Department of Defense mishandling of the BRAC process. Portal de Futuro has downtrodded our dignity and has shown a superlative degree of irresponsiveness to community claims. Portal del Futuro has taken control of the planning process and has made a mockery of community rights and democratic principles. Our community feels bulldozed, regimented, stripped of their rights and on the verge of being cast off as no longer serviceable after being used as launching pad for military operations around the world.

We have already used to no avail -- the appropriate channels to convey our complaints. If our complaints take the US government by surprise, this might probably be the best evidence that " Portal del Futuro" haven't kept BRAC officials informed of the extent and abrasiveness of this controversy. Since this issue can further stain the reputation of the U.S. military around the world just as the Vieques case did, we urge the Department of Defense, president Obama's staff, the Interior Department and Congress persons to resolve this issue.. We would like to stake our claims on the land still under control by the Department of Defense and vent our grievances. We urge president Obama in an amicable but firm way to resolve these issues related to Portal del Futuro's and the Department of Defense mishandling of the BRAC process that could be easily resolved without embarking on a Davidian struggle that might put the United States, just as the Vieques issue did, under the scrutiny of the world for violation of human rights.

We urge the American public. and the international community to use their good offices in seeking help from Congress to reach a political solution to any regulatory hurdles that the Department of Defense, the Navy and BRAC officials might encounter in their quest to resolve the issues that we are now submitting to their consideration.

We appreciate the prompt intervention of the Department of Defense, but remind them that the clock has started ticking and our struggle continues even as we wait for their response. The Department of Defense is still in time to redress the wrongs done to our community. The best way to do it is to start with a fresh outlook on a clean slate by decertifying Portal del Futuro as the official Local Redevelopment Authority and granting that responsibility to a community land trust.

We must insist that we expect a halt to all initiatives that may lead to the sale in public auction of three parcels of land and restitution of our land to our communities not to the central government as a payment in kind for the harm done by crippling our economy for six decades of usurpation of our best lands.

We hope that the good offices of the people who helped shoo away the military from Vieques can help us in the vindication of our rights to be owners of our own place.

Cheberto Rosa
chebertos@yahoo.com
Alianza pro Desarrollo de Ceiba (APRODEC)

About Cheberto Rosa:
Cheberto Rosa is an activist in the Pro-development Alliance of Ceiba (APRODEC) the most important community based organization in eastern town of Ceiba, Puerto Rico.
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