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The Americas 60.2 (2003) 281-283



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Military Power and Popular Protest: the U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico. By Katherine T. McCaffrey. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002. Pp. xvii, 218. Notes. References. Index. $60.00 cloth; $22.00 paper.

This is an excellent study of a social movement of direct producers fighting against mighty imperial forces in a colonial setting. McCaffrey asks a difficult question: how does a small community struggle against the immense power of the naval forces of the world's unchallenged military power? What are the chances of success for a semi-enfranchised, colonial population?

Before the U.S. Navy seized two thirds of the land to establish military facilities on Vieques during World War II, the island had been a plantation society characterized by extreme land concentration. Most workers owned no land, but as tenants they enjoyed broad usufruct rights including access to the mangroves and coastlines of the island. This access was used to cushion the cyclical unemployment crises of the sugar industry. This peasant culture is at the root of the culture of resistance of the Viequenses.

McCaffrey examines the transition from the plantation way-of-life to life in the resettlement tracts created by the Navy following the expropriation of lands. The [End Page 281] sugar economy was dismantled, alternative agricultural projects were thwarted, and military construction ceased after 1943. There was little work to be found and no subsistence to be derived from the land that remained. Given the lack of alternatives, many workers simply became fishermen.

The panorama after the expropriations is stark. The United States Navy relocated the rural workers to the center of the island, and barred them from access to most of the coastline and mangroves. The Navy also destroyed the coconut groves, thus further constricting economic opportunities. U.S. naval rights over airspace and sea routes retarded development and prevented the establishment of tourism facilities.

Coupled with its ethnographic research on the lives of Viequenses, Military Power and Popular Protest offers a detailed view of the political context of the 1970s. During the late 1960s, various movements emerged that formulated a nationalist opposition to such as issues as the exploitation of Puerto Rican subsoil by corporations, conscription into the U.S. armed forces, the Vietnam War, and the presence of the ROTC in the University of Puerto Rico. The struggle of the fishermen of Vieques in the late 1970s was clearly stimulated by these earlier movements, as well as by the U.S. civil rights movement. For example, the fishermen called their activities a "sail-in" in the tradition of the "sit-ins" of the civil rights movement.

McCaffrey's book seamlessly integrates local issues on Vieques, the Puerto Rican national dynamic, and the larger international dimension. Anthropological research allowed her to analyze the culture of work among the fishermen, while research on the political history of Vieques and of Puerto Rico served to integrate local level analysis with a political analysis of the movement against the U.S. Navy.

The fishermen of Vieques presented themselves as workingmen trying to feed their families, as opposed to Puerto Rican patriots fighting empire, or U.S. citizens demanding equal rights. That political decision was driven by their identity as local producers, by the desire for unity against the Navy, as well as by a realistic assessment of the opposing forces. McCaffrey's central argument is that in Vieques "most perceived the struggle not as one of national liberation, but rather as a struggle for a right to make a living and obtain a certain quality of life, uninterrupted by relentless bombing raids" (p. 101).

After the death of activist Angel Rodríguez Cristóbal under mysterious circumstances in a federal prison in Tallahassee, "a veil of terror and violence descended upon Vieques's struggle" (p. 90). The social movements waned, not to reconstitute themselves until the 1980s. In 1999 a second social movement, even greater than that of the late 1970s, erupted on Vieques, in Puerto Rico as a whole, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6247
Print ISSN
0003-1615
Pages
pp. 281-283
Launched on MUSE
2003-10-29
Open Access
No
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