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Puerto Ricans mobilize to demand 'U.S. Navy out!'
By Ron Richards
April 30 protest in Oakland, California, condemned U.S. Navy's bombing of Vieques.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico--The decision of the U.S. Navy to resume its military exercises and bombings on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques has touched off protests in Puerto Rico, in the United States, and as far away as Italy. Thousands of people rallied at the capitol here April 26 to condemn Washington's move and to back actions over the next days on the Vieques firing range organized to force the Navy to halt its operations.
At the time of the rally leading figures in the fight had already gone into the Navy restricted zone, covering about half of Vieques, with plans to reveal themselves once the bombardment began April 27.
Among the first to go onto the range was Mirta Sanes, sister of David Sanes, a civilian guard employed by the Navy who was killed in 1999 by a bomb dropped from a U.S. jet. Sanes's death set off a series of protests and galvanized Puerto Ricans around this issue. Local fishermen, who have been in the forefront of the movement, joined several groups on the range, as did Norma Burgos of the New Progressive Party; Rubén Berríos, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), and Dámaso Serrano, the mayor of Vieques.
The call for the Navy to end its bombing is receiving wide support from celebrities, officials of Puerto Rican political parties, and a number of Democratic and Republican party politicians in the United States. Since World War II, Washington has used the island as a joint forces training base for Navy fleets, including live-fire bombings, until recent protests forced the government to make some concessions. Some 9,000 people are resident on Vieques.
The April 26 rally, called by several religious groups, drew thousands of students and workers. The University of Puerto Rico closed at 3:30 p.m. to allow students and employees to attend the rally. Although there were no organized union contingents, the T-shirts of the water utility workers union were visible.
Protests the next morning in Vieques began with a student strike at the German Rikeihoff high school. "We all met last night," Carla Benjamin, 16, told a reporter from the San Juan Star, "and we decided to lock the gates. Nobody will get in. We need to stand up for ourselves." The strike was supported by teachers such as Victor Emerice, who said that it is time for the students to fight for what they believe in.
At least 150 people tried to enter the restricted zone around the firing range. Some tore down a cyclone fence that marks the entrance to the federal land. Puerto Rican police did not try to stop them, saying the fence was outside their jurisdiction.
By the next day 128 protesters had been arrested and many were still on the range, including Vieques mayor Serrano and PIP president Berríos. Fisherman Carlos Zenón told the press that when Vieques Commissioner Juan Fernández asked U.S. officials to stop the bombing, he was told the Navy would only agree to do so if he discloses the location of the protesters. "The Navy intends to seek the maximum penalty against the trespassers," Lt. Jeff Gordon said after the first arrests.
Following the first day of protests on the island, Martina Rodríguez and friends from the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan were up late talking politics. "We've never felt anything like this before," she told the New York Times. "This is the Vietnam of my generation. We want to stop the mayhem. We want to make a difference."
Farrique Pesquera, who supports independence for Puerto Rico, added that people in the country "have been brainwashed to think that they can't survive without America, that all our air comes from the north. Struggles like this one will change that."
Vieques resident Tito Padro, a waiter, said the "bombing overshadows all our other problems," such as poor roads, an inadequate sewage system, and an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent.
By Don Mackle
NEW YORK--Hundreds of people rallied at the Federal Building in lower Manhattan April 28 to protest the renewed bombing of Vieques by the United States Navy.
"I think it's time for the Navy to get out," said José Hance, 25, of the Bronx, one of a large number of young people participating in the lively picket line. "The Navy is having a bad effect on the health of the people and violating their social and human rights. They have been there for almost 60 years. How long are they going to go on violating our people?" he said.
At a rally held after the picket a number of Democratic Party elected officials who are Puerto Rican announced they would be going to Vieques a few days later to participate in the protests at the bombing sites in Vieques. In addition, there were speakers from the Vieques Support Campaign, ProLibertad, Casa de las Américas, and the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition.
"There are many similarities in our struggles," said Abbas Hamideh of the Right to Return Coalition. "Both our peoples are victims of relocation, both are victims colonialism, and both are victims of U.S.-made weapons."
By Barbara Bowman
and Deborah liatos
SAN FRANCISCO--"Vieques Sí! Marina No!" shouted more than 60 demonstrators on a lively picket line held at the Federal Building in Oakland, California, April 30. The protest had been called by the Bay Area-based solidarity group, Comité '98 por un Puerto Rico Libre, to protest the resumption of bombing practice by the U.S. Navy on Vieques. Other endorsers included the Vieques Solidarity Coalition, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Socialist Workers Party, and Juntos, a San Francisco Bay Area coalition opposed to military expansion.
Deborah Berman Santana, an assistant professor at Mills College, was in phone contact with demonstrators in front of Fort García, Vieques. The chants of the Oakland protest were picked up over the phone and then broadcast over a speaker to the demonstrators on Vieques.
Deborah Liatos of the Socialist Workers Party said, "The people of Vieques are not just fighting against the U.S. military bombing their land. They are also fighting against the U.S. military's use of their island to prepare war on workers and farmers around the world." Kendra Wilson, a housing rights activist who is fighting eviction from her apartment by an area landlord, spoke in solidarity with the people of Vieques, as did Meagan Jones, a student at Mills College. "This is not just a struggle for the little island of Vieques, but for all the people the U.S. government mistreats," Jones said.
At a meeting of 75 people April 27, Nilda Medina, a resident of Vieques and a member of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, said, "We will continue to protest until the Navy leaves Vieques."