'Out with the Navy!
Vieques is ours!'
After vote, residents press fight against colonial occupation
BY RÓGER CALERO
|Young woman on Vieques signals victory in referendum. Sign reads, "Vote option 2 for the future of Vieques. Some 68 percent of voters supporters U.S. naval withdrawal now.
"Twenty years ago I didn't think this could happen. They oppressed us so much, and we fought them alone. This is truly a historic day," said Carlos Zenón, a leader of fisherman and resident of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Zenón was celebrating a victory in the struggle to get the U.S. Navy out of the island, registered July 29 when he and others who live there voted by a 68 percent majority for the U.S. Navy to leave immediately.
"Let the Navy pack their bags and go right now," Lydia Gerena Corsino told a New York Times reporter after the referendum. "If they let me on the base, I'll even help them pack. Out with the Navy, Vieques is ours." Washington has used a large portion of the island since World War II as a live-fire training ground and a base from which to threaten the Cuban revolution and struggles of working people in the Caribbean and Latin America. U.S. imperialism maintains colonial rule over Puerto Rico, a key component in its ability to impose the objectionable military force on the people of Vieques for so long.
On July 30 the mayor of Vieques marched with hundreds of other protesters to the gates of the U.S. Navy base to deliver an eviction notice. The day before crowds of people were out in the streets dancing and singing in celebration over the resounding victory, one that opponents of the U.S. Navy never doubted. "The results had been laid out for a long time, and now we only came to ratify them in the voting booths," said Judith Conde of the Vieques Women's Alliance in a phone interview with the Militant.
The referendum was organized by the government of Puerto Rican governor Sila Calderón, in response to the increasing pressure resulting from a series of mass mobilizations and sustained protests throughout Puerto Rico led by fishermen and other residents of Vieques. The protests erupted after the killing of a civilian in April 1999 by a 500-pound bomb dropped by a U.S. plane. It was the first time residents of the island had been allowed to vote on the issue.
More than two-thirds of those voting supported Option 2 on the referendum ballot, calling for the immediate closing of the Navy base and departure of military forces from the island. Washington has said it will hold a referendum in November, but the option of voting for the U.S. Navy to leave now is not included in the so-called plebiscite organized by the colonial power.
The voter turn out was very high, with 81 percent of the 5,893 registered voters on the island casting ballots. Despite the intense campaign by the Navy and pro-statehood organizations, the option that favored letting the military stay indefinitely gathered just 30 percent of the vote. The proposal that the Navy leave in 2003, proposed by President George Bush in June, only obtained 1.7 percent.
The White House responded to the results of the referendum by announcing that the Navy will continue training in Vieques until at least 2003 while it looks for other facilities. The next round of bombing is scheduled to start August 2. "The outcome of this referendum will have no impact on the Navy or our focus," said Lt. Cmdr. Kate Mueller, a Navy spokesperson in Washingtn.
Washington's response did not come as a surprise for many on the island, given its history of total disregard of the Puerto Rican people's right to self-determination. Protests and civil disobedience actions continue.
"It's an absolute lack of respect for the democracy they claim to defend," said Bob Rabin, a member of the Committee for the Rescue and the Development of Vieques. "This is not democracy for Puerto Ricans," he added in a phone interview. "We are conscious of the importance of continuing to struggle through civil disobedience and we are preparing for the day the bombing starts again." A caravan to the Navy base has been organized for August 2 to protest the resumption of the bombing and to give support to those involved in civil disobedience actions.
Miriam Sobá of the Vieques Women's Alliance told El Vocero she thought the most important outcome of the vote "was the self-esteem acquired by the people of Vieques, by knowing that they can win against the Navy, despite the failed attempts to buy minds and plant fear in people."
In the weeks leading up to the vote, pro-Navy groups carried out a red-baiting campaign, claiming that communists--including Cuban president Fidel Castro--were behind the Peace for Vieques movement. These forces put up posters depicting revolutionary leaders Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara, along with a leader of the anti-Navy groups, with the message: "Vote these three out of Vieques."
Another of the scare tactics used by supporters of the Navy was to play up the impact of the withdrawal of the Navy and the loss of federal subsidies to the island if the Navy was to leave. They also denied that the Navy is responsible for the destruction of the environment and the livelihood of farmers and fishermen in the area.
"We need that land back, and Vieques has to grow," responded Julio López, a 35-year-old plumber quoted in the Orlando Sentinel. "For better or for worse, we need to find out if we can do better for ourselves," he added.
Conde explained how the Navy has made some jobs available for the residents as a way to win public support. "Before there used to be a big fear to protest against the Navy, because they do provide some jobs," said Conde. "But washing and ironing uniforms is not a gift from the Navy to the women of Vieques. It is work," she concluded.
According to the New York Times the Navy has also begun making $100 payments to fishermen whose livelihood is disrupted by the military exercises and has announced subsidies for small businesses.
"The struggle in the last two years has allowed us to talk among ourselves about what we want for Vieques and to demonstrate that 'We can do it,'" said Conde. She said discussions on the economic situation in Vieques have led to setting up experimental hydroponic farms--because of the soil contamination from ammunition used in the bombings--as a way to create jobs and attract youth who have left to study and work on the main island.
Ron Richards in Puerto Rico contributed to this article.