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100,000 Cubans demand:
‘U.S. Navy out of Vieques!’
BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
|Waving Cuban and Puerto Rican flags, 100,000 people rallied in front of U.S. Interests Section in Havana May 26 backing Puerto Ricans’ call for a halt to U.S. Navy bombing on the island of Vieques and the release of all those jailed for protesting in Vieques. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, several thousand demonstrated May 28 with the same demands.
At least 100,000 Cubans rallied in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana May 26 to support the struggle in Puerto Rico to demand the U.S. Navy stop its bombing and war training on the island of Vieques. The demonstrators called on Washington to free the dozens of people who have been tried and jailed for entering the Navy’s firing zone in Vieques to protest bombing practices carried out by U.S. forces in late April.
The huge action was part of the weekly rallies and speakouts that for more than a year have been organized every Saturday in Havana, usually to protest and educate on Washington’s four-decade-long aggression against the Cuban Revolution. It was the first time one of these rallies focused on a struggle taking place in another country.
The demonstration coincided with a May 23–25 regional seminar held in Havana by the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization. The committee will be holding its annual hearings on the colonial status of Puerto Rico on June 21–22 at the UN headquarters in New York.
"It was a resounding act of solidarity by the Cuban people with our struggle," said Wilma Reverón, a pro-independence activist, in a phone interview from San Juan. Reverón had just returned from Havana, where she took part in the decolonization seminar as vice president of the Lawyers Guild of Puerto Rico.
A number of Cuban and Puerto Rican speakers addressed the rally, held at the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Tribune, a plaza located in front of the U.S. Interests Section. President Fidel Castro and other Cuban revolutionary leaders, including José Ramón Fernández, vice president of the Council of Ministers, led the rally.
"We are willing to die at their side," said Ernesto Fernández, vice president of the Federation of University Students (FEU) at Havana’s teacher-training institute. He explained that Cuban support to the Puerto Rican struggle goes back to the 19th century, when the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which under the leadership of José Martí fought for Cuba’s liberation, included in its statement of purpose the independence of Puerto Rico as well as Cuba.
Fernández noted that residents of Vieques today have a 27 percent higher rate of cancer-related diseases because of chemical and radioactive contamination of the island by the U.S. military.
Pre-university student Claudia Felipe pointed out that the U.S. military has used the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for war maneuvers since World War II. The most recent Navy maneuvers on Vieques were part of training U.S. troops for deployment in the Middle East.
Juan Mari Bras, a longtime leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, addressed the rally. He pointed to the massive rejection of the U.S. Navy’s occupation of Vieques among Puerto Ricans today, as well as the growth of pro-independence sentiment in that U.S. colony.
"Vieques is an example of our worth as Puerto Ricans, which the Yankees dismiss," said Juan Antonio Franco, a religious leader in Puerto Rico. "They view us as disposable, like someone throwing a paper plate into the trash."
Franco added, "From this platform I can see an immense sea of people. It inspires me this morning and makes me dream that some day, in some plaza in Puerto Rico, along a great boulevard, we will be able to celebrate the independence of the Puerto Rican people."
‘Grateful to Cuban people’
Fernando Martín, a leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP), stated, "The struggle for Vieques has become a decisive moment in the struggle for the future of freedom in Puerto Rico." Referring to the sustained protests against the U.S. Navy in Vieques, he added, "Today the clash of wills and interests between the Puerto Rican people and their rulers is becoming more pronounced than ever before."
Martín expressed his "sincerest gratitude to the Cuban people, to the revolution, to its commander [Fidel Castro] for this impressive and moving gesture of solidarity and support to our struggle."
The pro-independence fighter brought greetings on behalf of PIP president Rubén Berríos, who is among those in prison for protesting on Navy-occupied territory in Vieques. Berríos was recently sentenced to four months in jail by a U.S. court.
The seminar sponsored by the UN Decolonization Committee adopted a report on the colonial status of Puerto Rico. At Cuba’s initiative, the report included two paragraphs on Vieques as an example of this oppressed status. That section was adopted over the objections of the British government representative, who observed the meeting as one of the "administrative"--that is, colonial, powers.
Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, told those at the UN meeting that "saving the great Latin American nation will be possible if we fight for the independence of the Boricua [Puerto Rican] homeland."
He added that the independence struggle "has an even greater significance today, because it is part of the battle to prevent the United States from absorbing the continent" through its economic and political domination of Latin America.
The mass action in Cuba in support of the fight against the U.S. Navy in Vieques made some opponents of Puerto Rican national sovereignty sputter with outrage. The president of Puerto Rico’s colonial Senate, Antonio Fas Alzamora, denounced the Cuban mobilization, saying it furthered the cause of independence. He criticized the PIP for taking part in the Havana rally.
"The discussion of Puerto Rico’s political status concerns only the Puerto Ricans," the senator huffed, the San Juan daily El Nuevo Día reported May 27. Fas Alzamora is a leader of the ruling Popular Democratic Party (PPD), which favors the current "Commonwealth" form of colonial rule.
Jorge de Castro Font, a congressman from the right wing of the PPD, asked that Puerto Rican governor Sila Calderón, also of the PPD, stop supporting the Vieques cause because the movement to get the U.S. out of that island will strengthen those advocating independence for Puerto Rico.