Last week, we told the story of the popular nonviolent resistance of the early 1970s that ousted the US Navy from the Puerto Rican island Culebra. For decades, two-thirds of Culebra had been controlled by the US Navy which used the island for combat training and weapons testing, including a bombing range. Although the campaign was ultimately successful in forcing the US Navy out of Culebra, the US military simply moved their Culebra operations to the other Puerto Rican island they controlled: Vieques. But when an errant ordnance during a botched bombing run exploded and killed Viequense civilian worker David Sanes on April 19, 1999, a new campaign to remove the US Navy from Vieques was born.
[Read The Recolonization of Puerto Rico, Part 1 here: https://www.facebook.com/VoluntownPeaceTrust/posts/2012501098900215]
[Read The Recolonization of Puerto Rico, Part 2 here: https://www.facebook.com/VoluntownPeaceTrust/posts/2068347923315532]
Protests against the US Navy presence in Vieques had been going on for decades — in fact, the New England Community for Nonviolent Action (CNVA; founders of the original VPT) had helped to organize a demonstration on the very matter as early as October 1978 at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. They sought to end the decades-long occupation of their island by the US Navy which had harmed local fisheries and wildlife, disrupted civilian infrastructure and daily life, severely worsened the health of Vieques residents, and taken over three-quarters of the island. Additionally, the Viequenses demanded that the US clean up more than half a century’s worth of unexploded ordnance, industrial chemicals, and heavy metals including depleted uranium with which they had polluted the island and surrounding waters. In 1993, some of the local anti-Navy efforts from civic and community leaders in Vieques coalesced into the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (Comite por Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques, CPRDV). Soon, the coalition expanded to include Vieques fishers, women’s and youth organizations, religious leaders, and other groups on the small island.
On the night of Sane’s death, 200 residents of Vieques protested at the entrance of the US Navy’s Camp García. The number of protesters rose to 300 the next day, and the movement grew quickly from there. The Association of Fishermen in Vieques staged their own protest by laying wreaths and an eight-foot cross where Sanes was killed. Civil disobedience encampments appeared on the US Navy training grounds across Vieques, organized by various groups: a pan-denominational Christian coalition, the teacher’s federation, university students, political parties, and others. Trainers from the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the War Resisters League held civil disobedience and nonviolent action workshops in the encampments. And as the protests grew, people began to connect the US military’s exploitation of Vieques as training and bombing grounds with the country’s controversial involvement in the Kosovo War and the military-industrial complex as a whole. Soon, the protesters successfully pressured some Puerto Rican government officials to make an official request to President Clinton to immediately cease military operations in Vieques. But despite the popular movement and the sympathies of some officials, Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rosello refused to intervene on the protesters’ behalf.
Many activists publications, including The Nonviolent Activist, shared solidarity and support requests widely: “The people of Vieques are asking mainland U.S. activists for support, specifically for environmental, ecumenical, peace and trade union organizations and individuals to bring up the issue of Vieques at the workplace, in schools, at community and religious meetings and to join the demand for the demilitarization of Vieques, a paradise invaded.” As mentioned last week, Connecticut has the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans among the fifty states. So, it is no wonder that when the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (Comite pro Rescate y Desarrollo de Vieques, CPRDV) began to organize a resistance campaign after Sanes’ death, many Puerto Ricans and non-Puerto Ricans from Connecticut joined. In Hartford, one group held demonstrations outside of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Office in solidarity with the people of Vieques and CPRDV to pressure Governor Rosello to side with the Puerto Rican people against US colonial exploitation. In February 2000, a demonstration with 150,000 protesters was held in San Juan. A couple of weeks later, Puerto Rican activists and teen members of the Norwich Free Academy YouthPeace Club (which held weekend workshops at VPT) demonstrated outside of the Navy Base in Groton. On May 4, 2000, US marshals and about 1000 Marines attempted to break up the encampments on Vieques only to find hundreds of CPRDV allies from around the world descend upon the restricted zones just five days later. That summer, the YouthPeace Club traveled up to Hartford to join the local Puerto Rican group All Connecticut with Vieques and their allies in solidarity.
The US Navy and federal government attempted to negotiate with the CPRDV, offering $90 million in exchange for the continued use of part of the island as a live-munitions training zone. But CPRDV had unequivocally articulated their demand for the unilateral evacuation of the US Navy from Vieques within just a few months of Sanes’ death. Finally, in July 2001, over two years after the Sanes’ death, a nonbinding referendum was held on Vieques: 68% voted for the US Navy’s immediate removal, while 30% voted to accept the money in exchange for indefinite US Navy presence. Between the massive civil disobedience disruptions, the expenses related to property damage (mostly to barriers like fences), and now this very large and clear majority of Vieques residents and solidarity groups on the mainland maintaining their hard line after two years,(ADD) the US Navy and federal government had had enough. Reversing President Clinton’s decision to continue negotiations with the people of Vieques, President Bush declared that all military exercises in Vieques would cease by February, and that the US Navy would be evacuated from the island by May 2003.
The federal government followed the agreement, but also established wildlife preserves on much of the land formerly used by the US Navy as waste dumping grounds and other heavily polluted areas. Some have argued that the redesignation of those lands freed the federal government from taking responsibility for cleaning up the pollution it had dumped there for decades. The fact remains that on both Culebra and Vieques, the vast majority of unexploded bombs and toxic waste has not been removed, and a recent federal report states that cleanup efforts will not be completed until at least 2032. Still, despite the challenges that remain, within just over three decades, the people of Puerto Rico and their allies successfully ousted the US Navy from not one but two of the islands using civil disobedience and nonviolent action. The VPT community is proud to have participated in the efforts to decolonize Puerto Rico and to bring peace to the islands.
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Colón Cortés, Wanda. “How a People’s Movement Stopped the Bombing in Vieques.” Fellowship of Reconciliation. January 2007 [Accessed 5 October 2021]. https://www.proquest.com/openview/30aac6b5c1cbbdb811bd93bc212ef22b/1?cbl=2041863&pq-origsite=gscholar
“Puerto Ricans force United States Navy out of Vieques Island, 1999-2003.” Global Nonviolent Action Database. [Accessed 5 October 2021]. https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/puerto-ricans-force-united-states-navy-out-vieques-island-1999-2003
“Puerto Rico cleanup by U.S. military will take more than a decade.” NBC News. 26 March 2021 [Accessed 5 October 2021]. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/puerto-rico-cleanup-us-military-will-take-decade-rcna529
Rabin Seigel, Robert L. “The U.S. Navy Bombs Puerto Rico: Paradise Invaded.” Nonviolent Activist. July-August 1999.
Richards, Ron. “U.S. Naval Bombing `Accident' In Vieques, Puerto Rico, Kills Resident.” The Militant. 3 May 1999 [Accessed 5 October 2021]. https://www.themilitant.com/1999/6317/6317_4.html
“The Vieques Referendum.” The Hartford Courant. 2 August 2001 [Accessed 5 October 2021]. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2001-08-02-0108021821-story.html
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