BY RON RICHARDS
FAJARDO, Puerto Rico - Anger and demands for the U.S. military to leave the island of Vieques continue here nearly a month after resident David Sanes was killed during bombing practice by the U.S. Navy.
Vieques is a small island east of Puerto Rico with 9,500 residents. Two-thirds of the island is occupied by the U.S. Navy bombing range on the east end and ammunition storage on the west end, part of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Sanes, a civilian security guard, died April 19 when a carrier-based plane practicing for bombing Yugoslavia dropped its load off course and hit his work area.
On May 8, about 1,000 supporters of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) and others rallied on Vieques to demand that the Navy leave. They established a protest camp on Navy territory. The PIP camp is in addition to an earlier protest camp set up by Vieques residents.
"We're trying to make the Navy give us back that land," said Luis Esteban, a fisherman who has been helping the protest camp. "If they would stop bombing, everything would be much better."
"There are only two choices," said PIP President Rubén Berrios, "stop the bombing or arrest us."
The difficulty of transportation to and from Vieques limited the size of the protest. The 18-mile boat trip from the port of Fajardo takes an hour and a half. The western end of Vieques is only seven miles from Puerto Rico, but the U.S. Navy controls both ends and forces civilian boats to take a longer route. After arriving at the north side of Vieques, protesters traveled by van to Esperanza on the south coast, and were ferried to the camp by local fishermen. About 15 people will stay at the camp.
The Puerto Rican government operates the launch between Fajardo and Vieques. According to PIP transportation coordinator Rep. Victor García, the government refused to increase service or rent boats to the PIP after U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig wrote a letter to Gov. Pedro Roselló discouraging the protest.
The PIP bought 400 tickets on the regularly scheduled 9 a.m. run and party supporters were lined up at 6:30 a.m. Others flew in planes organized by PIP supporters. Included on the 9 a.m. sailing were long-time independentistas Rafael Cancel Miranda and Lolita Lebrón. Like all government buildings in Puerto Rico, the terminal in Fajardo flies the Puerto Rican and U.S. flags. As the PIP supporters waited to go to Vieques, someone lowered the U.S. flag and left it on the ground at the base of the flagpole. A security guard soon arrived to re-raise the flag and then stood guard to protect it. With fists in the air, the protesters sang the national anthem before they marched onto the launch.
The PIP has led a very visible campaign against the presence of the U.S. Navy in Vieques. It seems like every lamppost from the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras to the struck Sun Oil refinery in Yabucoa has a PIP poster that says "Navy out of Vieques." Highway 3, the main road between the Roos evelt Roads and San Juan, has a large mural with the same slogan.
All three political parties with ballot status have in some way objected to the activities of the Navy on Vieques. The pro-statehood Rosselló administration is opposed to the use of live ammunition and has talked of using public resources to take the Navy to court. At the same time, it has tried to discourage protests in the restricted area of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility.
A discussion has broken out over the possibility of using uninhabited islands for bombing practice instead of Vieques. One island mentioned is Desecheo, a wildlife reserve off the west coast of Puerto Rico.
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