October 8, 1999

Vieques protesters vow to resist eviction by U.S. Navy

By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

VIEQUES, Puerto Rico - A group of protesters camped out on U.S. Navy property on the island of Vieques worry they will be forcibly evicted in the coming days.

The conflict between the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Navy over Vieques has a long history. Since the takeover by the Navy in the 1940s and the exportation of its people the Puerto Ricans have been struggling to take back the island. In this picture as far back as the '60x the Puerto Rican people have been protesting against the U.S. occupation of Vieques.

"You are on an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction and in direct violation of a permanent injunction issued in 1979 which specifically prohibits anyone from unlawfully entering all federal lands located in the island of Vieques," read a document handed to the protesters by a Navy representative. Navy officials, however, told the Associated Press they won't act until President Clinton issues a formal ruling on the future of the controversial training base there.

Opposition to the Navy has grown since an F-18 jet killed a civilian security guard during bombing practice in April. The Navy also admitted this summer that it mistakenly fired 267 uranium-tipped rounds at the island in violation of federal law. Most rounds were not recovered.

For five months, demonstrators have occupied an area the Navy uses as a firing range in Vieques. They have become human shields to get the Navy to stop bombing the island. Since the protest began, the Navy's training maneuvers in Vieques have been suspended.

The island is between the Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and measures about 30 kilometers across. About 9,000 civilians live on the region of the island not occupied by the Navy.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossell has told the Navy it would be "imprudent" to arrest the protesters. "Our position is clear. There should be no intervention with the people camped out in Vieques," he said.

Rossell is among a growing group of Puerto Ricans who want the Navy out of Vieques. Rossello has threatened to take the Navy to court if it resumes its target practice on Vieques.

"This is a struggle for all the Puerto Rican people," said Puerto Rico Senator Ruben Berrios, head of the Puerto Rico Independence Party. He has been camped out on the Navy grounds since May. "If the (President Clinton) goes against the practically unanimous desire of our people to end the bombing of Vieques, we `independentistas' won't be alone in seeing the U.S. military as an occupation force," said Berrios, whose party supports Puerto Rico's independence from the United States. Puerto Rico is a U.S. Commonwealth.

Clinton recently sparked an uproar by granting clemency to 14 Puerto Rican nationalists linked to a series of bombing attacks on the U.S. mainland in the 1970s and 1980s.

U.S. Representatives Luis Gutiérrez, Nydia Velazquez and José Serrano met last week with White House Deputy Chief of Staff María Echaveste to discuss the Vieques situation. All three legislators, who want the Navy out of Vieques, expressed disappointment with the meeting's results.

"Unfortunately, we encountered an administration seeking to juggle two incompatible interests: the supposed need of the Navy to bomb Vieques, and the right of the people of Vieques to their land, life, peace and security," said Gutiérrez, after meeting with Echaveste. "I would like to call on all (Puerto Ricans) to prepare to use all legal and peaceful means, from civil disobedience to demonstrations, to defend Vieques."

Serrano said of the meeting: "We were almost not allowed to speak. But when we touched on the theme of Vieques we interrupted her and told her that there is no room for negotiation or mediation."

President Clinton told his national security advisor in July it was "wrong" for the U.S. Navy to continue bombing exercises on the island municipality of Vieques, according to a story published last week in the Baltimore Sun, but it is unclear whether that will affect his decision regarding the future of Vieques.

Church leaders in Puerto Rico also have rallied to the protesters cause. Several members of the clergy say they plan to join those camped out in Vieques.

"The good shepherd doesn't run when he sees a wolf coming. He stays with the flock," said Methodist Bishop Juan Vera.

Monsignor Roberto Gon-zález said, "Civil disobedience is permitted by the social doctrine of the church." González told reporters that Pope John Paul II is closely following the developments in Vieques.

In Congress, reaction to looming face-off in Vieques has been mixed.

U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno should have the protesters removed. But Congressman Rod Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat who supports the protesters, said, "We have a long tradition of civil disobedience, since the movement for the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement of the sixties. Non-violent civil disobedience has been effective in bringing about important changes."

(James E. Garcia contributed to this report.)

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