Official police estimates put the action at 85,000, the largest action since 1993.
"I am one of those that never participates [in marches] but this is a just cause and I had to come today to be part of it," said Nathaniel Torres, a student. "Eventually they will have to go." For Torres and many others this was their first march.
U.S. president William Clinton and Puerto Rican governor Pedro Rosselló announced last month a plan to resume the coordinated naval-training exercises on and around Vieques that Washington says are crucial to its military preparedness. Roselló is the leader of the New Progressive Party.
The pact provides for a referendum by the people of Vieques as to whether or not to continue the bombing after five years, with promises for the U.S. government to allocate up to $90 million in improvements for residents.
Participants in the march had strong and clear answers for Washington and the Puerto Rican governor. Betty Quick, a retired teacher and commercial artist who joined the march, said, "Maybe Rosselló could have received a worse deal, but I do not see how. The Navy will control the referendum and the referendum only gives the people of Vieques a choice between bombing or more bombing. 'Get out now' is not a choice.
"Why do they need that anyway?" she asked. "So 'we' can conquer another 'enemy' like Panama, like Grenada, cause more deaths in the former Yugoslavia, or devastate Nicaragua. What do we need it for except to destroy third world countries."
Manuel de Hostos Febus, from Bayamón, wore a hat that indicated that he fought in the Korean War. He was joining a group of veterans from different wars who now oppose the U.S. Navy and its use of Puerto Rico's territories for bombing practice.
"It's a patriotic issue," he said. "We don't want any more bombs. They want to buy us with their money," he continued, "with food stamps and a housing plan. But we are not selling ourselves or our dignity."
A student from the national college at Bayamón explained that he had just spent two weeks in Vieques at camps set up by Puerto Ricans where the Navy bombs the island. "We want to send a clear message to the United States that we don't agree with this presidential order, and to send a message to the Navy that they should stop the bombing and leave," he said.
The city of San Juan was covered with posters reading: "Puerto Rico Vencerá: Fuera Marina [de] Vieques!" [Puerto Rico will win, U.S. Navy out of Vieques!] and "Marina=Muerte, Alto al Abuso! Fuera la Marina de Vieques!" [Navy=death, Stop the abuse! Navy out of Vieques!].
The march was called by religious figures, led by San Juan archbishop Roberto González. People were asked to bring no political emblems, only white flags to symbolize peace for Vieques. It was a silent march with no chants, but protest songs were playing loud. Many people carried Puerto Rican flags or wore the flag as head scarves, hats, pins and sashes. A majority of marchers wore white T-shirts with slogans such as: "Marchemos por Vieques" [We walk for Vieques], which was the official T-shirt, and "My nation is not for rent or for sale," or "Ni una bomba más!" [Not one more bomb!]. From afar the crowd looked like a sea of white.
There also were many priests, nuns, and monks in their full religious garb.
Hoping to use the issue of Vieques to win support in the November elections, the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PPD) backed the march, which was led off by San Juan mayor Sila Calderón and Archbishop González.
In those municipalities controlled by the PPD, municipal vehicles were used to transport marchers and provide water and medical services. The Puerto Rican Port Authority turned down requests to increase ferry service between Vieques and the main island so that more residents of Vieques could attend the march.
As the contingent from Vieques arrived to join the march, the crowd welcomed them as heroes. People yelled, "We are with you, you are not alone!"
The march went down the Las Americas expressway which had been blocked off by police then to Hiram Bithorn stadium.
Patty Thompson also contributed to this article.
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