- Vieques and the Politics of Democratic Resistance
Geographic happenstance is both a blessing and a curse. Vieques lies east of the main island of Puerto Rico and to the west of the Virgin Islands. Its residents have carried out their lives on a verdant Caribbean isle coveted by more than one empire for its strategic setting at the apex of the Greater and Lesser Antilles. Along with the nearby island of Culebra, Vieques is one of Puerto Rico’s two island municipalities. More than any singular municipality, Vieques has paid the dearest price for being a part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico—an American territory. Ever since the conclusion of the 1898 Spanish-American War, policy makers in Washington have been obsessed with expanding and then fortifying their military landholdings on this strategically valuable terrain. At the dawn of the Second World War, portions of Culebra, Vieques, and eastern Puerto Rico were transformed into the immense Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. [End Page 135]
Thanks to this military complex, Vieques’s serenity has been regularly disturbed not only by the recurrent sounds of aircraft buzzing overhead, but also by the reverberation of exploding ordnance. Nine thousand Viequenses (Vieques island residents) share their island home with a naval bombing range. The Roosevelt Roads naval complex was first justified in the cause of halting Nazi aggression. Subsequently it was rationalized as a key outpost in the Cold War and even a vital command center in the 1980s “War on Drugs.” From the beginning the Pentagon insisted that its Vieques operations safeguarded democracy, civil liberties, and human rights at home and abroad. Most Viequenses strenuously questioned that assertion. Military operations in their area stifled economic growth, shattered their once relaxing shores, and exposed residents to a host of toxic substances. Its inhabitants have not been able to unshackle their fate from the whims and designs of distant bureaucrats and military planners, who have shown relatively little concern for their physical and mental well being. Given its connection to the armed services and its importance to military strategists, it is perhaps appropriate that Vieques’s Official symbol is the Count Mirasol Fort, a small fortress on a hill overlooking the town. This nineteenth-century Spanish citadel reminds us that others coveted this island for military purposes and expended considerable resources to protect those interests. That historic legacy has yet to change.
Since the mid-1970s a grassroots Vieques peace campaign aimed at shutting down the Navy’s bombing range has persevered. But for the most part it failed to captivate the hearts and minds of other Puerto Ricans. Traditionally Puerto Ricans were conditioned to examine all political matters through the lens of the interminable status question—the debate over maintaining the status quo, becoming the next state in the American union, or seeking independence. In classic Cold War terms, pro-military forces in the United States and Puerto Rico depicted the Vieques protestors as part of a crimson conspiracy of socialists and separatists. For years, that label stuck while Vieques residents continued to suffer. Meanwhile the vast majority of Puerto Ricans, on the main island and on the U.S. mainland, turned a blind eye to the anguish of their Viequense brethren.
In more recent decades Vieques’s fort, an emblem of martial prowess, has been transformed into a new and vibrant symbol of determined and [End Page 136] democratic nonviolent resistance. Habitual complacency ended on April 19, 1999, when the death of a civilian by a wayward naval bomb triggered the start of a new phase in the drive to close the Navy’s bombing range. This stage brought together an unprecedented array of supporters from across party lines and the Puerto Rican diaspora. Vieques, momentarily the epicenter of political attention, became a cause unhinged from its connection to any particular status alternative. Policy makers and planners in Washington, both civilian and military, hoped that Puerto Ricans would learn to be obedient subjects and that they would drop their demands to demilitarize Vieques. The trajectory of the Vieques peace campaign demonstrated that, after more than a century of U.S. colonial rule, Puerto Ricans are finally learning...