May 9, 2001
by Juan Giusti-Cordero
The American Prospect Online
"If the U.S. prisoners downed in the spy plane in China had been treated half as badly
as we were, the United States would have declared war," says, Eduardo Bhatia, the
soft-spoken 2000 candidate for the mayoralty of San Juan, who was one of 185
persons arrested by Marine Corps MP's for civil disobedience last week in Vieques,
Puerto Rico. Over 1,100 have been arrested since civil disobedience there began in
the summer of 1999. Since the 1940s, the Navy and the Marine Corps have used the
island of Vieques, seven miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, for bombing and
amphibious maneuvers, and call Vieques the "crown jewel" of their training ranges.
Bhatia, a member of the governing Popular Democratic Party, participated in civil
disobedience as part of a largely successful effort to stop the Navy's scheduled
six-day maneuvers. The Navy and the Marine Corps own more than 2/3 of Vieques,
whose civilian population (9,300) lives sandwiched in between large Navy properties
on both sides of the island.
Others arrested included Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Reverend Al Sharpton,
Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos, Democratic U.S. Representative
Luis Gutiérrez from Illinois, and New York labor leader Dennis Rivera.
On April 27th, the first day of maneuvers, a score of protesters who had penetrated
the bulls' eye area of the firing range stopped the shelling for several hours. Use of
pepper spray, tear gas, and excessive force against demonstrators who attempted to
enter the buffer zone sparked a crowd of 100 who attempted to tear down part of the
fence separating civilian and military zones. Leaders of the Vieques movement --
which is committed to nonviolence -- averted a serious confrontation with heavily
armed MP's and U.S. marshals. But it was the bare-chested, hooded youth who were
bringing down fences that got the attention of news photos around the world.
The media also said little about the arrest process that was followed in Vieques.
Picture this: When arrested, the Vieques protesters were thrown on the ground face
down, then handcuffed with tight white plastic bands for up to 24 hours. Some were
then forced to kneel on sharp pebbles, including Representative Gutiérrez (who
refused and was promptly struck). Then they were detained inside a square of bare
cyclone fence (apparently a dog kennel), with no roof, under the sun and then
overnight, where they had to sleep on the ground and under a nighttime rain shower.
No news media has been allowed to photograph this cyclone fence "facility."
The next day, the detainees were transported on a slow barge to the Navy base on the
east coast of Puerto Rico -- a three-hour trip under a hot sun, with no water, on
choppy seas and where the arrested remained handcuffed with no life preservers in
sight. Since most were detained over the weekend, there was no magistrate available.
Many remained in detention for more than 24 hours pending a hearing, then were
required to post bails of up to $10,000, to be paid in full, for "repeat offenders."
Moreover, the arrested were not allowed to communicate with their attorneys or their
families for over 24 hours. For even longer, the Navy refused to issue a list of the
arrested or reveal where they were detained.
All this for an offense -- trespassing on Armed Forces property -- that is not even a
misdemeanor under federal law. The Navy's use of pepper spray and tear gas at the
fences seemed almost benign next to the systematic, deliberate abuse of process that
the Navy and the federal judiciary in Puerto Rico promoted after the arrests. And
while the trespassing charges are being handled as serious crimes by the military and
judiciary in Puerto Rico, "disobedients" who have stood trial already (over protests last
year) are not allowed trial by jury, and are not even allowed to plead "state of
necessity," a classic defense in civil disobedience cases.
And yet civil disobedience continues to grow around the Vieques issue. There are
compelling reasons. The Vieques firing range is only 8.7 miles from the civilian zone.
That's hardly safe enough for air-to-ground bombing from 12,000 feet up, at 500 mph,
when a three-second mistake can be mean a bomb drop on the civilian zone. And
ships shell eastern Vieques from a distance of 15 miles, meaning they can't even see
Vieques when they fire. Since 1983, the Navy and Marine Corps have dropped 2.9
million pounds of explosives on the east end of Vieques.
Moreover, Vieques is the only U.S. bombing range located on an inhabited island,
under the U.S. flag or otherwise. In the U.S., even ranges in uninhabited islands have
been closing down (due to their importance as wildlife habitats). And Vieques is a
"stand-alone" bombing range, i.e. one that is not located within a military base. The
Viequenses must live with all the disadvantages of a major bombing range, without the
economic benefits of a military base.
The Navy likes to claim that Vieques' situation is no worse than that of other
communities near bombing ranges stateside. For instance, the Navy claims that
Lawton, Oklahoma, is only 1 1/2 miles away from the Fort Sill weapons range.
However, that range lies within the vast expanse of the Fort Sill base, an area of 147
square miles. This is nearly three times the size of all Vieques. Moreover, Fort Sill
(population 15,000) is a major base, with a sizeable economic impact. And Fort Sill is
an artillery range, and thus raises less noise and safety issues. The other favorite Navy
comparison, with the mammoth Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, is similarly
Outrage about the Navy's use of Vieques has been growing. Even the pro-statehood
Puerto Rico Senator Norma Burgos protested and got arrested. Senator Burgos'
presence in the current round of civil disobedience in Vieques is especially significant.
Statehood advocates have long refused to oppose bombing in Vieques, and some even
actively support it as "patriotic duty." For the past couple of years, however, Burgos
has been in favor of immediate Navy withdrawal from the island. She chaired the
Vieques Special Commission whose 1999 report -- then adopted as public policy --
was to call for immediate cessation of Navy bombing on Vieques. In early 2000,
however, Governor Rosselló abandoned that position and accepted a referendum
process under the so-called "Clinton directives," subsequently enacted by Congress.
During the recent maneuvers, Burgos camped in the firing range for three days, as
one of a score of "human shields" against the maneuvers. Even among statehooders,
the Clinton directives are collapsing.
Under the Clinton directives, a referendum is to be held in Vieques in November 2001.
The referendum however, is profoundly anti-democratic: It has only two alternatives,
neither of which is immediate cessation of bombing and all maneuvers (In fact
Congress expressly forbade inclusion of that option). One alternative is for the Navy
to remain, and to practice with live fire as much as it wants to (live-fire maneuvers
have stopped since a 1999 accident involving a civilian death that sparked the current
controversy), and granting $90 million to Vieques for development and other projects.
Under the second alternative, the Navy would leave Vieques in May 2003, but with 90
days annually of inert bombing in the meantime, and would grant Vieques $40 million
in federal funds. While inert bombs carry little or no explosive charge, they can cause
deadly accidents and contaminate the air with heavy-metal dust clouds, chief suspects
in the Viequenses' high cancer rates. And allowing the Navy to continue shelling until
2003 leaves the door open for the Navy to request extensions of time further on, when
the protest has perhaps cooled off -- particularly if there is a renewal of military
conflict (a likely occurrence) somewhere in the world.
As the United States government calls for democracy to spread around the world, it
owes Viequenses a real say in their own fate. Last week, Viequenses and their allies
made their wishes clearer than ever. They want the Navy out -- immediately.
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