The ship-to-shore and air-to-ground maneuvers, scheduled to last 23 days, began September 3. That same night, several protesters entered the Navy-occupied land on Vieques. The next morning, five supporters of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) were arrested there and detained at the U.S. military’s Camp García. The following day, three Vieques residents were held and interrogated by FBI agents. The protests have continued virtually daily, despite the arrests.
In New York, on the first day of the bombing of Vieques, dozens of people held a boisterous picket in Times Square, near the U.S. Navy recruiting center. "Vieques sí, Marina [Navy] no," they chanted.
Since World War II, when the U.S. government used Puerto Rico--its colony in the Caribbean--to establish a Navy bombing range on the small island of Vieques, to the east of the main island, fishermen and other Vieques residents have protested the infringement of the U.S. military on their land. Many in Puerto Rico have opposed Washington’s use of Vieques over the years as a training ground for invasions or assaults on other countries, from Grenada and Nicaragua to Yugoslavia and now Iraq. In addition, the repeated bombings, as well as the storage of hazardous materials, have had a devastating effect on the residents’ livelihoods and health.
The protests erupted anew in 1999, when a U.S. warplane dropped an "errant" bomb that killed a local resident, David Sanes. Since then, thousands have taken to the streets of Puerto Rico and several U.S. cities with large Puerto Rican populations to demand the Navy’s withdrawal. Numerous protesters have entered the Navy-occupied territory in acts of mass civil disobedience that have enjoyed wide popularity in Puerto Rico. Up to 1,500 protesters have been arrested for "trespassing" and other charges.
In face of these sustained demonstrations, then-president William Clinton signed an agreement with the colonial governor at the time, Pedro Rosselló, saying that the U.S. Navy would withdraw by May 2003 if Vieques residents voted for such action in a referendum. While U.S. authorities canceled the scheduled November 2001 referendum, a big majority voted for immediate withdrawal of the Navy in a nonbinding referendum organized in July by the Puerto Rican administration of Sila Calderón. Since George Bush took office his administration has verbally said it will abide by the Clinton-Roselló accord, but the continued military maneuvers have created skepticism among many opponents of the Navy’s presence.
The current maneuvers involve 10 surface ships, 2 attack submarines and 80 planes in the USS Harry S. Truman Battle Group. The round of exercises--the first since April and the third since September 11 of last year--was launched as the White House cranked up its preparations for an invasion of Iraq.
By the third day of their three-week duration, the exercises were getting into full swing, as a squadron of F-14 and F-18 jets dropped bombs on the 900-acre bombing range at the island’s eastern tip, and the destroyer USS Briscoe and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher fired five-inch shells and other munitions, along with flare tracers, in ship-to-shore training. The Navy claims more than two-thirds of the island’s 51 square miles.
Over the past year, U.S. courts have been handing down stiffer sentences and fines against opponents of the Naval exercises since Washington accelerated its preparations for war abroad and attacks on workers’ rights in the United States. Robert Rabin, a leader of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, was given a six-month sentence; he is due to be released in October, reported Ismael Guadalupe, another leader of the committee. Six-month sentences against anti-Navy protesters have increasingly become the norm, Guadalupe said in a telephone interview from Vieques.
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