Protests against the U.S. military's destructive presence on this small Puerto Rican island have not stopped since April 19, when a U.S. Navy plane on practice maneuvers went "off course" and dropped a 500-pound bomb that killed civilian guard David Sanes.
Fishermen, students, political activists, and others have set up several civil disobedience camps in defiance of Navy officials, who are threatening to arrest the protesters and clear the way for resuming their bombing practice.
Gricel Surillo, 20, a humanities student at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in San Juan and member of the Federation of Pro-Independence University Students (FUPI), is one of the dozen people who remained in the camps during the hurricane threat. She has been in the Navy's restricted zone for the past three weeks and off and on for six months.
Underscoring why she was there, Surillo pointed to the ecological damage the Navy has wrought and how Washington has used Vieques to train for invasions of other countries including Yugoslavia and several Latin American nations. In August she had attended an international student conference in Cuba.
On October 23, after the hurricane dissipated, a delegation organized by the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors (APPU) visited the island. The delegation included Jorge Colón, president of the association, which represents teachers at the UPR; Student Council president Kevin Rivera; a trade unionist at the telephone company; an environmentalist; and this reporter.
The delegation first dropped off some equipment at the camp set up by several unions. "This camp is a joint project of the four union federations, the cooperative movement, and religious groups," said Federico Torres, president of the Puerto Rican Workers Federation (CPT). The four labor groups are the CPT, the General Workers Council (CGT), the Unity Federation, and the Federation of Labor, which is part of the U.S.-based AFL-CIO.
The next stop was the teachers camp, where some new tarps donated by members of the telephone workers union were installed. A short walk down the beach is a modest schoolhouse built by the National Hostos Congress (CNH), a leading pro-independence group. On duty as a volunteer doctor there was CNH leader Héctor Pesquera.
Nearby is a small chapel built by protesters. Some of the young people, such as Surillo, have their camp in the abandoned bunkers up the hill.
Another camp, staffed by fishermen and other Vieques residents, is at Cayo Yayí, a small island several hundred yards offshore. Unionists have built a pier there to make it easier for people to get on and off the boats.
On any given weekend, 50-100 people are at the five camps on the north side of Vieques. At a recent pig roast on Cayo Yayí, 400 people were on the beach and there were lines of boats.
On the south side there are two camps. One, organized by Vieques residents, was christened Mount David in honor of David Sanes. The other is organized by the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), whose president, Rubén Berríos, has been living here for months.
Since they were set up six months ago, thousands of people have visited the camps to express their solidarity with the fight against the U.S. Navy.
The live impact zone is one square mile of hell. Airplanes, tanks, and artillery are scattered across an open plain. The airplanes look like Swiss cheese with hundreds of bullet holes. This area also has the highest concentration of unexploded ordnance. The northern strip where camps are located was used for amphibious landings. Although not used intentionally for bombing practice, bombs that missed their targets are visible sticking out of the sand.
Two members of the visiting delegation, Colón and Rivera, set out on foot to the southern caps to discuss with protesters what can be done at the UPR to organize solidarity. The visitors were told they could help raise money for a system to improve communications between the camps.
The U.S. Navy and the majority in Puerto Rico who oppose the U.S. military there are on a collision course. Few political issues have united the people of this U.S. colony more than this struggle, especially among working people. This has compelled even the two ruling colonial parties to call for the immediate departure of the U.S. Navy from Vieques.
The Pentagon is stepping up its propaganda war, arguing that if the battle group that includes the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower isn't allowed to use the bombing range by December 1, it will be deployed to the Middle East with inadequate training and endanger the lives of U.S. soldiers. Some U.S. officials have called for the protesters to be arrested. Puerto Rican government officials say they refuse to take part in any such arrests, which would be a highly unpopular move.
Hundreds of people, including leaders of a range of political and social organizations have said they will try to travel to Vieques to replace those who are arrested.
Meanwhile, in Vieques, the vegetation is returning to the live impact area. In the absence of bombs and helped by heavy rains, the earth is green again. With the flowering plants, the butterflies are returning in large numbers.
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