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Page 10
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Vieques Celebrates Navy's Departure

By David Cline

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May 1, 2003 marked the beginning of a new era for the people of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. On that date all land under military control was officially transferred from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior, ending 62 years of bombing and shelling as the main military training site, the crown jewel of the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet.

I traveled to Vieques for the celebration with a six-person Veterans For Peace delegation. For more than three years, we have worked together with Puerto Rican veterans and community groups on this cause, and we wanted to share in the joy of this important victory.

The Celebration For Peace For Vieques began on the evening of Wednesday, April 30 and continued throughout the weekend. The main stage was located at the former main gate of Camp Garcia across the street from the Peace and Justice Camp, which has maintained a constant presence there since the death of security guard David Sanes in April 1999. His death by errant bombs reignited a mass civil disobedience movement that swept Vieques and all of Puerto Rico as well as many communities in the United States.

The stage was decorated with a huge banner showing a hand holding the Puerto Rican and Vieques municipal flags releasing a dove of peace. On the night of April 30 thousands gathered, waiting for midnight to celebrate the Navy's departure. Speakers talked about the struggle and the sacrifices made by so many (over 4000 were arrested and jailed in the civil disobedience campaign) and, as the clock approached midnight, the excitement grew.

At midnight, flares were shot into the air and the crowd surged toward the gate, once the dividing line that Viequenses couldn't cross. The gate came crashing down and people with wire cutters began taking down the fences. People waving Puerto Rican flags climbed on top of the guard post, a cinder block building that had once been the base for military police operations. Soon others pulled out sledgehammers and began demolishing the guard post, a symbol of the despised military occupation.

Members of Vieques Horsemen for Peace rode up through the once off-limits land, shooting flares and Roman candles skyward and shouting victory slogans. Several abandoned Navy vehicles were discovered, overturned and set afire. At this point, Puerto Rican police were ordered to "restore order" and although there were no violent confrontations or arrests, the police had to retreat several times as the overwhelming crowd threw water to cool them down.

The following day this incident was played up by the news media, with one Spanish-language paper running a cover photo of a burning vehicle and the headline "They Burned The Peace." Ms. Sila Calderon, the Commonwealth governor, denounced the events as the work of unnamed outside forces and demanded an investigation and arrests.

The truth is that the majority of people who tore down the gate and guardhouse and burned the vehicles were local residents celebrating their liberation. It is ironic that when Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, it was hailed as an act for freedom; when American tanks pulled down Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, it was billed as "liberation"; yet when Viequenses celebrated the end of over 60 years of continuous U.S. military bombing by tearing down symbols of that oppressive presence, it was called criminal vandalism.

Throughout the remainder of the weekend, celebrations took place at the liberated former base entrance. Vendors' stalls lined the road like a country fair with rallies and presentations taking place each day and concerts each evening featuring traditional, bomba, salsa, reggae, rock and rap music. One day there was a grand march from the town square in Isabel Segundo. On another, Ecumenical services were held to commemorate the victory of peace. On Sunday, veterans held a ceremony.

I was asked to go with those who had placed a large white cross on the bombing range after the death of David Sanes (in April 1999, in the first act of civil disobedience) to the bombing range — now silent but still contaminated and littered with unexploded bombs — and help put up another cross commemorating the victory.

A number of memorial services took place for those who had died from military toxins and others who lost their lives in this struggle. At a municipal cemetery, we prayed at the grave of David Sanes with his sister Myrta.

Another was for Angel Rodriguez Cristobal, a Vietnam veteran who had been arrested in earlier protests and was murdered at a federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida in 1979. I met his widow and daughter along with other family members and presented them with a Veterans for Peace for Vieques button in honor of him, and then participated in a service at Esperanza (Hope) beach where a bronze bust of Angel looks out over the water. People shared thoughts of him amid shouts of "Presente!" Flowers were strewn on the water in his memory.

The Navy's departure is just the first big step in a continuing struggle on Vieques. The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV) has long advocated a program of "4 Ds" — Demilitarization, Devolution (return of the land), Decontamination and Development (a sustainable economy for the benefit of the people).

Some of the former military land is now open in the form of a wildlife preserve and public beaches, but many people still have land claims against the Navy, and two-thirds of the island remain in the possession of the U.S. Department of the Interior, not the government or people of Puerto Rico.

The cleanup of the land and restoration of a safe environment will remain a major focus of concern and activism. A recent study by the Department of Health found a 27% greater cancer rate on Vieques as well as elevated levels of asthma, diabetes and hypertension compared with the rest of Puerto Rico.

The bombing ranges are still littered with unexploded ordnance and are heavily polluted from many years of the buildup of RDX (cyclonite) explosive residue from conventional bombs as well as quantities of napalm and depleted uranium that were also used there.

The Victory for Peace for Vieques is something to cherish, especially in these dark times of war and repression both at home and abroad. Vieques shows that a determined and united people using mass civil disobedience can overcome even the most powerful of forces. We must continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Vieques in the battles that lay ahead. VIVA VIEQUES LIBRE!

David Cline is the national president of Veterans For Peace and a coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He participated in the civil disobedience both on Vieques, PR and in Washington, DC. He is a disabled Vietnam veteran and lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

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