The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 68/No. 41           November 9, 2004  
SWP candidates: ‘Free locked-up Vieques protesters’
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—“We won a victory in forcing the U.S. Navy out of our island,” said Francisco Medina, a 68-year-old fisherman on the island of Vieques. “But you must tell people that our struggle continues to demand that the U.S. government carry out a thorough clean-up and turn over the land to our people.”

Medina was speaking to Nicole Sarmiento and Martín Koppel, Socialist Workers Party candidates for U.S. Senate in Florida and New York, respectively. The two visited Vieques October 16 to find out about the current stage of the struggle after massive and sustained protests forced Washington last year to end the use of the island as a bombing practice range and withdraw the Navy.

“Many people in Vieques have cancer,” Medina said. “They [the U.S. Navy] don’t have the dignity to clean up after what they left: toxic water and unexploded shells. They killed turtles, whales, destroyed land and water, and they don’t say anything about it.…We are still finding out about things they have done.”

“The struggle in Vieques is important because it shows it is possible to fight U.S. imperialism,” Koppel said in the exchange with Medina. “At a time when Washington wants the world to think they are invincible, that you can’t resist their demands, the successful campaign to force the Navy out of Vieques shows that is not true.”

Medina is a Korean War veteran. Taking part in that war opened up his eyes to how U.S. imperialism uses its military to try to defeat working people and oppressed nations standing up to the Yankee colossus, he said, noting that he returned from that war and spent the last 50 years fighting the U.S. military.

Medina described the attempts to drive fishermen out during the years of Naval exercises. “We would go to occupied territory to get bait, to get sardines,” he said. “They would bomb and kill the sardines so we wouldn’t go to that beach to get bait any more.”

Carlos Ventura, another fisherman, said they suffered a lot because “shock waves in the water from detonations hurt the coral and other species in the water.” Today the fishermen and others are demanding a real —not cosmetic—cleanup of the island by the U.S. government. They are also facing the encroachment of capitalist developers with plans to build hotels and other tourist facilities, driving up the price of land. Most of the land occupied by the U.S. Navy was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the fishermen noted. Local residents are demanding that it be turned over to the community.

Koppel and Sarmiento also met with Ismael Guadalupe and Bob Rabin, longtime leaders of the fight to get the Navy out of Vieques. They are members of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques. The socialists were shown sites used by protesters who camped out for months at a time on Navy-occupied territory.

Koppel and Sarmiento also visited a museum showing the history of Vieques, and the experiences of generations of islanders in fighting to regain control of their land. Guadalupe said his organization plans protests against the attempts by capitalist hotel corporations, like Wyndham, to declare beaches for “private” use only.

The socialist candidates then returned to San Juan to join a picket held in front of the U.S. federal prison there to demand freedom for six prisoners being held in connection with the Vieques struggle. On May 1, 2003, the day the U.S. Navy officially pulled out of Vieques, a public celebration was held.

In a symbolic act, some of those at the celebration took apart a small guard post. Washington then arrested 12 people, charging them with conspiracy and destruction of government property. Six of them remain imprisoned, three at the Guaynabo prison. The other three were sent to far-flung prisons in the United States, making it an even greater hardship for their families and legal representatives to see them. Two are scheduled to be released at the end of this year, two by mid-2005, and one by early 2006.

One of the prisoners, José Pérez González, who was sentenced on Sept. 11, 2003, received the maximum sentence of five years and a $10,000 fine to be paid to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Pérez González, who is from Mayagüez, has been transferred without explanation from prison to prison—from Florida to Alabama. He is now in a penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. While in Alabama, he was held in solitary confinement and was denied the right to make any calls or have access to written material.

Among those joining the pickets, chanting and waving at prisoners who could be seen watching from windows, was Rafael Cancel Miranda, the pro-independence leader who spent over two decades in U.S. prisons for his actions in opposition to the colonial domination of Puerto Rico.

“We stand in solidarity with those who have fought for the withdrawal of the Navy from Vieques,” Koppel told the pickets. “We will use our campaign to get the word out about these brothers who remain behind bars. We wanted to be here today to join in this activity as an elementary act of solidarity with those who have stood up against the imperialist government in Washington, which is an enemy we have in common.”

The socialist candidates later visited Cancel Miranda in Cabo Rojo, met with independence activists in Mayagüez, and also traveled to Aguadilla to speak with Luis Rosa, another leader of the independence movement who spent about 19 years in U.S. prisons. They both recounted the importance of the mass protest campaigns that led to their releases. Cancel Miranda, Rosa, and activists from Mayagüez urged ongoing activity in defense of the prisoners, citing the difference it makes not only for their eventual release, but also the importance of maintaining contact with those beyond the prison walls while they are incarcerated.

Upon their return to the United States, Koppel and Sarmiento began speaking at public forums and other campaign activities about their trip to Puerto Rico as part of explaining their support for independence for Puerto Rico from U.S. colonial rule.

Nicole Sarmiento contributed to this article.
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