Protests defy US military
BOMBINGS, marines landing on the beach, ship-to-shore shelling, and in the midst of it all groups of fishermen protesting in boats with banners that say "navy out!"
These are events taking place on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in the Caribbean. The local population is taking on the might of the US military.
Vieques, off the coast of the larger island of Puerto Rico to which it belongs, is the site of a massive US naval base.
The US resumed military exercises on the island this month. Last week alone 21,000 sailors and 2,000 marines took part.
But protesters defied teargas and rubber bullets to hack away at the four-mile fence that separates the navy base from the islanders. Fishermen sailed into the restricted zone, interrupting the exercises. "Our enemy is that fence," said 58 year old Miguel Angel Vazquez Ortiz. "Our aim is to tear the fence down, to cross it, and to show them that we won't let up until the bombing ends."
"Vieques has a long tradition of struggling against the powerful for its people's rights," says another protester. Puerto Rico, like much of Latin America, was ruled by Spanish conquerors for 400 years. It was then seized from Spain by the US in 1898.
In the 1940s the US government bought control of two thirds of the land. That was quite easy given that two big landowning families owned 71 percent of the island and the sugar producer Eastern Sugar Associates owned pretty much the rest.
Over 90 percent of the population were landless. They were herded into the central strip of the island while the military took over the rest. Vieques has been used by the US to prepare for every major conflict since the Second World War- including Vietnam, the Gulf, Kosovo, and the invasions of Grenada and Panama.
The US even rents the island to its military allies. NATO members pay an estimated $80 million a year to use it. Puerto Rico is also now the site of the headquarters of the US Southern Command, the potential US invasion force for enforcing US interests in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The health and environment of the islanders are being destroyed as a result.
- In 1992 US navy jets dropped 40,000 pounds of live explosives on Vieques, including live napalm.
- In November 1994 20,000 pounds of live explosives were dropped during preparations
for bombing Yugoslavia.
- In 1998 the navy admitted that 273 radioactive depleted uranium shells were fired on the island.
- In February 1999 the navy says 263 depleted uranium shells were "accidentally" fired on Vieques.
Perhaps all this explains Vieques's cancer epidemic. Cancer rates have increased by 300 percent in the last 20 years, leaving one in five of the population suffering.
Fishermen can't fish in vast areas during the naval exercises. And teachers say schoolchildren cannot concentrate on their work because of the noise of the bombs.
Protests erupted in 1999 when a civilian security guard was killed by an off-target bomb.
There was a mass upsurge of opposition throughout Puerto Rico demanding, "US navy out of Vieques!"
There were also protests by Puerto Ricans living in the US. And on Vieques itself protesters occupied the target practice range and stopped the navy's exercises.
Since then hundreds of protesters have been jailed. Activists travel from the US to take part in the protests.
Black leader Al Sharpton, lawyer Robert Kennedy Jnr and trade union leader Dennis Rivera have all recently served jail sentences for trespassing on the Vieques navy range.
John Sweeney, the president of the AFL/CIO (the American TUC), says, "This isn't just a struggle for people in Puerto Rico and in Vieques. It's a struggle for all working families in America."
George W Bush now says the navy training will end by 2003. Protesters say that's not soon enough.
The latest operations began only days after an unofficial referendum voted 70 percent for an end to the bombing. The struggle in Vieques has led to a questioning of the US presence in Puerto Rico as a whole.
Puerto Rico has commonwealth status. It is neither an independent country nor a state of the US. It elects a governor, but the US is still responsible for defence, financial affairs and foreign relations.
Now articles in magazines, editorials in newspapers, and many ordinary people are questioning that relationship. Some are beginning to recognise that the struggle in Vieques is part of the struggle against imperialism.